Two nights before the 2014 Boston Marathon, I was walking from the Harvard Club with race director Dave McGillivray after meeting with the Martin Richard Foundation and many charity teams, including the MEB Foundation. Dave asked me, “What’s your goal for Monday?” I said, “To win. I’m going to go for it.”
Of course I always ran to win, in the sense of getting the best out of myself on race day. But this time was different — I meant it literally. Boston 2014 was a special focus long before I broke the tape on Boylston Street.
I had watched the 2013 Boston Marathon from a grandstand by the finish with my good friend from San Diego, Rob Hill. Injury had scuttled my plan to be there as a competitor. While I would have liked to be racing, watching thousands of runners finish amid the palpable positive energy was a great experience. I was taking photos and notes on the positive humanity and camaraderie the marathon embraces. It had been 30 years since an American man won Boston. As soon as Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia broke the tape in 2:10:22, I texted my friend and fellow US Olympian Ryan Hall, who also missed the race because of injury. “WE CAN DO THIS,” I wrote. Ryan texted back almost immediately, “We’ll get after it.” Already fired up for 2014, I left the stands.
Then came the bombings. One of the explosions happened right in front of where I’d been sitting. Like the rest of the running community and the world, I couldn’t process this senseless act. Marathons bring out the best of the human spirit: pushing yourself to accomplish more than you thought possible; working with others toward mutually meaningful goals; erasing barriers of race, age, gender, nationality, and creed. And they do so in a peaceful, joy-filled atmosphere. Why would someone turn the site of a celebration of all that’s good about humanity into a scene of death and destruction?
The tragedy of the bombings elevated the importance of my original goal. I would be racing not just for myself but to be part of the process of healing and redemption. I already sensed that the 2014 Boston Marathon could be one of running’s greatest days. I wanted to play an important role in it. In November 2013, when Jonny Gomes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia of the Boston Red Sox placed the World Series trophy on the Marathon finish line, I told a friend I wanted to inspire that same feeling of resilience and reclamation by winning on Patriots Day.
I did a lot of visualization of running Boston. In bed and at other calm, quiet times, I would imagine myself on various parts of the course, running hard with good form and cadence. I pictured myself coming down Boylston Street in the lead. At home in San Diego, I trained in Mission Bay Park. Returning home from the park entails running uphill, then a right turn, followed by a left turn. I ran this stretch visualizing myself making the right turn on Hereford Street, then the left turn on Boylston that defines the last half mile of the Boston course. The visualizations were so strong that I felt like I was on Boylston. I would cross myself twice at different times, to mark where the two bombs exploded. At rest and while running I prayed, “God, help me make that dream come true.”
The pre-race period was like before my win in New York in 2009, in that I had a special feeling and drive for the race. It was unlike before New York in that I didn’t show up on the line in phenomenal shape. I had started the year strong with a win at the Houston half marathon in 1:01:23, only 23 seconds off the personal record I set a month before winning New York. I was seeing good results from switching my training from a seven-day to a nine-day cycle. This change allowed me, at age 38, to get in more recovery after my long runs, tempo runs, and interval workouts. But despite the additional recovery, I was battling a hamstring strain by March.
At the NYC half marathon, five weeks before Boston, I ran conservatively, placing 10th in 1:02:53. I needed to protect the hamstring. Everything was pointing to April 21 in Boston. I didn’t run the day after the half marathon, and I took another day off on April 10 because my right quad felt weak and sore. The night before the marathon, I told my wife, Yordanos, “This is it, my last shot at a Boston Marathon title.” But I wasn’t desperate. I thought about the Eminem line: “One shot, or one opportunity / To seize everything you ever wanted.”
The only thing missing from my running resume was a Boston title. I felt I could do it by drawing on the spirit of the 36,000 other runners who would be out there taking back the streets of Boston. Before the race I wondered how best to honor the victims. Have a picture of the four fatalities under my bib and pull it out at the end of the race? Write their names on my bib? As an elite, this isn’t an easy decision, because the sponsors get very protective of their image and want to make sure it shows on the bib. I took a medium risk: Write their names on my bib with a Sharpie so that they’d be visible, but not as big as I would have liked.
On race morning, I chilled out in the church in Hopkinton where the pros are based before the race. Former New York City Marathon race director Mary Wittenberg took a photo of me from the second floor because she couldn’t believe how relaxed I looked. I was at peace. There are no guarantees in the marathon or life. I reminded myself that all I could do was control what I could. I knew the crowds would be amazing and that the day would be very emotional. I wanted to calm myself before the race and then draw on all that energy once the gun went off.
Coach Bob Larsen had always believed I could run 2:07 or 2:08 on the course. If he’d said that before my two other Bostons, in 2006 and 2010, I’d have believed it. But this time, I wasn’t so sure. He reminded me I’d run 2:09:56 in 2006 when I went out too fast and 2:09:26 in 2010 with a ruptured quad. I told Bob not to worry if he didn’t see me on TV early on. “If you’re going to see me, it will be in the last 5K,” I said. “Before that I won’t even be in the picture.”
I was raring to go and was at the front almost immediately. I wasn’t pushing the pace aggressively at that point, just making sure I gave myself my best shot at meeting my goals. The field certainly had the ability to run fast the whole way. The 2013 winner, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, was back. Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, second fastest in the world the previous year, was touted by many to be the favorite. (Later in 2014 he became the first to break 2:03 with his 2:02:57 world record in Berlin.) I started the race with the 15th best personal record in the field. But I’d shown time and again, especially on challenging courses without pacers, that I could run with anyone. Desisa, Kimetto, and the rest of the lead pack showed no interest in running fast at that point. Ryan Hall took a brief turn at the lead and then drifted back. At around mile 5, I realized the Kenyans and Ethiopians were trying to slow the pace. I was in the lead, and none of the big names was there with me.
Moving ahead at this point against a field of that caliber was an extremely risky move. I had a sudden inner vision that it was the right thing to do. I strongly believe there was a higher purpose at play that day, that the stars were all aligned for me. This was the moment I had prayed for. It was important to seize that opportunity. Josphat Boit, a former teammate from the Mammoth Track Club, left the pack and joined me. Josphat is a native of Kenya who ran at the University of Arkansas. It was amazing to have two naturalized US citizens leading the Boston Marathon on this day. No matter how the rest of the race turned out, we were doing our part to showcase the American dream.
Josphat soon gapped me a little bit. I told myself to let him have his space, that I didn’t need to be competitive in that way this early. It was more efficient to gradually work my way back to Josphat. I figured the chase pack would soon catch up to us, so there was no point in rushing to close the gap with Josphat. By mile 8, I was thinking differently. I’d broken away 3 miles earlier. The pack had had 15 minutes to catch up, and they didn’t. I said to Josphat, “What are they thinking?” I couldn’t believe it — my dream might be coming true.
In high school and college, I’d always been a front-runner. I became less of one when I moved up to the marathon. With energy conservation so important over 26.2 miles, there’s usually little to gain from being in the lead early on. Still, I was used to running long and hard by myself. Over the previous few years I’d done almost all of my training on my own. Mentally, I was prepared to go hard the rest of the way without being in a pack. Josphat bumped into me. I made a mental note that he was getting tired. As Josphat and I continued to pull away, and then Josphat began to fall off the pace, I told myself, There’s nothing you can do to take it back. I was now committed to running from the front, solo, the rest of the way.
And really, at the end of the day, what did I have to lose? My previous marathon had been the slowest of my career. My 39th birthday was two weeks away. I thought I might be running my final Boston race. I was going to give it my all. If I lost, I’d be able to sleep soundly that night, with no regrets.
If you’ve run Boston you’ve probably noticed the big sign at 13.1 miles letting you know you’ve reached the halfway point, roughly where the famous Wellesley College “Scream Tunnel” is. I didn’t see it in 2014, and I don’t remember it now. Usually I’m very focused on splits, including landmark ones like halfway. That’s good information to help guide your remaining miles and to see how your body is responding to your effort. This time, I was so in the zone that I ran right past the halfway marker.
Fifteen miles in, I was still running solo. The enormity of what was happening was starting to sink in. At my pace I had less than an hour to go. I thought, If they’re going to come, they’re going to have to earn it. The phrase “Boston Strong” was visible everywhere that weekend, including on posters along and written on the roads of the course. I told myself, Boston strong, Meb strong. I recognized the opportunity the day was providing. Once in a great while everything aligns, with our bodies operating at full capacity, and our minds in intimate, perfect sync with our actions. It’s so important to recognize when this is happening and to have the courage to act on it.
For me that day in Boston, that meant it was time to really start pushing. It was time to throw caution to the wind and go for it. If they catch me, they catch me, I thought. I ran the downhill 16th mile in 4:31. I was all by myself. I had never really run my own race in a marathon before. This time there was no initiating or reacting to the moves of others. I would dictate the pace. It’s all on me now, I thought. My strategy was straightforward — run as hard as I could for as long as I could and pray that it got me to the finish line first.
I took a long, long look back as I made the turn at the famed Newton Fire Station, a little bit past the 17-mile mark. The next turn on the course was in the final mile. So that turn at the fire station was my last chance to get a clear picture of what was happening behind me, unless I wanted to constantly turn around.
At that point I knew Josphat was behind me, but I had no idea who else was coming. As I made the right for the approach to the Newton hills, I swiveled my head as far as I could, and I saw . . . Nobody. Not the defending champ, not the one guy in the field with a 2:03 personal record, not any of the other 12 guys with faster PRs than me. I didn’t know how big my lead was, but I knew it wasn’t small. As someone who’s usually the hunter rather than the hunted, I knew that the ones doing the chasing on a point-to-point course have better information on where they stand than the person up front. And they have each other to work with. The best thing for me to do was to work the hills as hard as possible. If they couldn’t see me, they wouldn’t know how hard to go to catch me.
Checking my watch gave me confidence. If I had seen miles in the 5:20s, I would have thought, Oh no, I’ve hit the wall, they still have time to run me down. But I was still seeing miles around 5:00. The longer I could keep up that pace, the faster they’d have to push through the hills and over the last 5 miles to get me. I got another boost from realizing the 5:00 miles were still coming at a submaximal effort.
The crowds were going out of their minds seeing me alone in the lead. A lot of them probably had better information than I did on how far back the chase pack was. The usual chants of “USA! USA!” and “Go, Meb!” took on a much stronger meaning for all of us as the dream of an American winning Boston one year after the bombings came closer and closer to reality. I tried to keep calm but couldn’t help myself after cresting Heartbreak Hill. The energy was electric. I would spontaneously pump my fist or give a thumbs-up to a fan. I’d have to pull myself back to the task at hand. Concentrate! I told myself.
You can do that all you want once you get to the finish line. My resolve to be all business sometimes wavered. At mile 23, I did a fist bump and snuck a quick look back. I saw an orange shirt. I had no idea who it was. I thought maybe it was Gebre Gebremariam of Ethiopia, the 2010 New York winner known for his great finishing speed. Whoever it was, he hadn’t been visible the last time I’d looked. Translation: He was running faster than me, and we still had 5K to go.
All of the visualization I’d done in the months before the race had seeped into my subconscious. One night I had a dream of me and one other runner racing down Boylston Street to the finish. I never got to the part of the dream where one of us won. Now the same scenario might be playing out in real life.
The man behind me, who I later learned was Wilson Chebet of Kenya, kept closing. At mile 24, I entertained the thought of holding back to save energy for the last 600 meters on Boylston. Maybe I was thinking that because by now I was so tired, and my mind was trying to come up with ways to ease my suffering. The fighter in me took over. I told myself, No, don’t hold back now. Try to maintain or extend the gap. If you come from behind to catch another runner, especially late in the race, you have the mental edge. I drew on my experience to overcome the urge to relax a bit before a final push.
I had never been in such duress while leading a race. It’s often in the races you don’t win that you dig down the deepest. When I won New York in 2009, I still had more left in me. But that wasn’t the case this day in Boston. I was at my physical and mental limits. My old foot wound hurt each of the nearly 100 times per minute my left foot was on the ground. My body was tightening up all over, and the hamstring strain I’d finessed during my buildup was screaming. I was pushing so hard to maintain or extend the gap that I realized I was about to vomit. I couldn’t vomit to the side or otherwise let Chebet see what was happening; he was now close enough that he’d be able to pick up on how much I was hurting. That would spur him to push even harder and exploit my vulnerability. I tilted my head back and swallowed my vomit.
At one point Chebet got the gap down to 6 seconds. That’s about 40 yards at our marathon pace. I had to keep pressing. I told myself, Focus, focus, focus. Mechanics, mechanics, mechanics. Concentrating on maintaining good running form took my mind off how much I was hurting and helped me keep up my pace. Doing a quick body scan to see if you can run more efficiently is a great way to get through late-race tough patches.
I got a huge mental boost when I realized Chebet had stopped gaining on me. If he could catch me, he would, I thought. He wouldn’t want to wait around. He’d want to put me away. I was still hurting like I’d never hurt before, but I was now strengthened psychologically. I relied on the cheering crowds and the victims’ angels to give me strength.
Then came the right on Hereford and the left on Boylston that I’d visualized so many times over the previous year. I crossed myself at the first bombing site, in honor of all the victims, especially the four fatalities. I took a good look back as I ran past the 26-mile mark and saw that Chebet wasn’t closing. I pumped my right fist. I pumped my left fist. I nervously peeked back; Chebet still wasn’t closing. I pumped both fists, raised my sunglasses to my forehead, and crossed myself again just before the finish at the site of the second bombing. I poured myself into the finish tape. I had won the Boston Marathon! I raised my arms and gave thanks to God. My dream had become a reality.
My arms were still raised to the heavens when Yordanos ran out and almost knocked me over with her embrace. It turned out to be an apt metaphor for the aftermath of my win. I was overwhelmed, in the best possible way, by the response to my victory. I had hoped all along that my winning Boston in 2014 would resonate beyond hard-core running fans. Yes, I’d become the first American man since 1983 to take the title. And yes, I’d lowered my personal best by 31 seconds, to 2:08:37, two weeks before my 39th birthday. But what really mattered was that my win symbolized what we all did that day.
Everybody was looking to do something positive, not for themselves, but for the city of Boston, the people of Boston, and the running community. We all wanted to show that we’re resilient. We all wanted to celebrate the freedom we have to run 26.2 miles through the streets of one of the world’s great cities. We all wanted to own Boylston Street and change the previous year’s tragedy into something positive. We all ran to win that day. I just happened to get to the line first.
■ Born in Eritrea, Keflezighi moved to the United States in 1987 with his family to escape war with Ethiopia.
■ He became a US citizen in 1998, the same year he became a professional runner, and graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1999.
■ His 2014 victory at the Boston Marathon made him the first American man to win the race in 31 years.
■ Silver medal in the Olympic Marathon, 2004
■ Fourth place in the 2012 Olympic Marathon
■ 2009 ING New York City Marathon champion
■ 2012 Olympic Marathon trials champion
■ Oldest Olympic marathoner in US history (competed in 2016 at age 41)
■ He retired from professional running after completing the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon.
■ He founded the MEB Foundation, which funds programs that promote fitness and positive lifestyle choices for children.
Source: “26 Marathons: What I Learned About Faith, Identity, Running, and Life from My Marathon Career” by Meb Keflezighi with Scott Douglas
This story is adapted from “26 Marathons: What I Learned About Faith, Identity, Running, and Life from My Marathon Career,” Copyright © 2019 by Mebrahtom Keflezighi. To be published by Rodale Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.