Most amateur athletes can only imagine what it’s like to compete against or alongside the best, but on Sunday morning in Washington, an elite runner will be among the approximately 15,000 competitors at the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run.
With no intention of winning.
Less than two months after qualifying for his fourth Olympic team at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles, Meb Keflezighi will run in the District on Sunday with the six-minute-per-mile pace group, giving them words of encouragement and inspiring them, perhaps, with his smooth, effortless-looking stride. As the runners around him seek to break the hour mark, the 2004 silver medalist in the marathon will be there every step of the way .
“I love doing those kind of things and interacting and hearing amazing stories,” Keflezighi said. “People enjoy running next to me, and I definitely sure enjoy doing that.”
Keflezighi will be making his 10-mile road race debut in the Ten Mile Run, which is in its 44th year and also includes a 5K run-walk and 1K kids’ run. The event had been on his bucket list for years, he said, but it often conflicted with other races on his schedule.
This time, with the Olympics in August and the trials behind him, Keflezighi saw an opportunity to come to District, where his extended family lives, and use the 10-mile race as a tempo run. The 40-year-old took three weeks off to recover after his second-place finish at the trials in mid-February and only recently began running 10 miles or more during workouts. Sunday, then, will provide another session on his way back to his usual distances, the interactions with other runners only sweetening the deal.
“I really enjoy it,” he said. “I really do.”
Keflezighi, widely known simply as “Meb,” has not always had the gregarious personality he does today. Born in Eritrea as one of 11 children, Keflezighi moved with his family to San Diego in 1987, when he was 12 .
Sporting a large Afro and struggling with the language barrier, Keflezighi for a time kept to himself. It wasn’t until physical-education class in middle school that the ice began to break and Keflezighi, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1998, discovered his passion for running.
“Throughout Meb’s life, he’s just kind of blossomed into being the public figure that he is,” said younger brother Hawi Keflezighi, who is also Meb’s agent. “And as he’s gotten more popular, starting from his middle school all the way to high school to college and after college, it’s kind of been a bridge for people to get to know him and for Meb to get to know other people.”
Phil Stewart, the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run race director since 1991, met Keflezighi briefly in 2007 at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials held in New York City. They kept in touch, Keflezighi eventually telling Stewart of his desire to run the race in D.C..
The Cherry Blossom event, part of the Professional Road Running Organization Championship Circuit, over the years has attracted a number of high-profile elite runners. Former winners include Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa (2011), a two-time Boston Marathon champion, and American Bill Rodgers, a four-time winner (1978-1981) who is best known for his four Boston Marathon victories. Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, 58, is expected to run the women’s race this year.
“The sport is much bigger than it was in the 1970s,” Stewart said. “In many ways, Meb has transcended from someone revered in running circles to even broader. The American public and most of the people know him as Meb; they may not even know his last name.”
Ben Beach remembers running next to Rodgers one year nearly a decade ago. Beach, a 66-year-old Bethesda resident who is the only person to have run all 43 editions of the 10-mile run, recalls the former Olympian sneaking by him over the Memorial Bridge.
It was a fleeting moment, but one that Beach still recalls fondly. Beach, who has also run 48 consecutive Boston Marathons, understands just how special running with a professional runner can be.
“It’s exciting to run with somebody who’s an Olympian and who’s outstanding,” he said. “I think it’s great that he’s doing that.”
Heading into the home stretch at this year’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on the winding roads of downtown Los Angeles, Keflezighi clutched onto a small American flag with one hand and repeatedly pumped his fist in the air with the other.
He pointed at spectators along the course and implored them to cheer even louder. They obliged.
This is the Keflezighi that fans have come to adore — the one with unbridled enthusiasm even when the stakes are highest. In addition to his silver medal in the marathon from the 2004 Athens Olympics, Keflezighi became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon since 1983 when he crossed the finish line in 2014, one year after the bombings — further cementing his status as an emotional and fan favorite.
At the Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in 2014, Keflezighi paced a group that included a woman who handed him her phone. Her husband was stationed in Afghanistan, and she wanted Keflezighi to leave him a voicemail. The woman began to cry as Keflezighi thanked her husband for his service. It is moments like these that Keflezighi says he treasures.
“Whether it’s hearing those stories or trying to give them feedback on their form or mechanics and things like that . . . I love it, personally,” he said.
“I enjoy winning. I enjoy going very fast, and I try to run to the podium or finish top 10 and things like that. But there’s also another natural high just running with people.”