Sidelined by an injury, Meb Keflezighi left his spectator’s seat near the 2013 Boston Marathon finish line only a few minutes before two explosions killed three people.
But he was still close enough to hear the blasts, the sounds drawing his mind back to a childhood that more closely resembled a war zone than a marathon route.
It was that moment, he said, that sparked his victory in the 2014 race Monday, when he became the first American since 1983 to win the Boston Marathon, finishing in 2 hours, 8 minutes and 37 seconds.
Keflezighi spoke Friday of his will to win one year after feeling so close to the bombings in Boston. For himself. For the city. And for his country.
“In those 365 days, every day has been a reminder (of the bombings), when you meet people who have lost their legs or people who knew somebody, or you see ‘Boston Strong’ signs,” Keflezighi said during a visit Friday to Garmin International headquarters in Olathe, one of his sponsors. “It keeps you alive.”
Keflezighi ran with the names of the three bombing victims on the corners of his bib, along with the name of a police officer who was killed allegedly by the suspects three days later.
A symbol of his motivation.
Keflezighi intended to race in last year’s marathon, but he suffered a leg injury during his training that prevented him from running. So instead, he joined his brother, Hawi, at the finish line, where they took pictures of the competitors.
Keflezighi left the spectator grandstand to join a TV broadcast seeking his analysis of the marathon. Before he made it there, the blasts sounded.
As he headed home — angry and confused — Keflezighi told his brother his plans for the 2014 race.
“He said, ‘I’m going to come back, and I’m going to win it for this country,’
” Hawi Keflezighi recalled Friday. “He had that extra motivation to where he wanted it more than anybody. He didn’t necessarily want it for himself — because he’s been in the race previously — but he had the motivation to win it for the country, for the victims and for everyone.”
Meb Keflezighi, 38, was born in Eritrea, a small African country that was at war with Ethiopia during his 10 years there. He says he witnessed gunfire, land mines and bombs.
His family escaped the conflict and migrated to Italy, where they stayed for a year and a half before immigrating to San Diego.
Keflezighi spoke with pride Friday when asked about his American citizenship, which he earned 16 years ago.
“When I came here, it was huge for me,” said Keflezighi, who graduated from UCLA. “ Most of my memories are from here. I’m more American than I am Eritrean, so that’s why I made that decision.”
Keflezighi began distance running shortly after he arrived in the United States. It was a natural fit.
He blossomed into an All-American at UCLA and then won a 2004 Olympic silver medal in the Games in Athens. Five years later, he won the 2009 New York City Marathon, becoming the first American to win that race since 1982.
But on the tail end of his career, Keflezighi still felt something was missing. Until Monday.
“Meb wanted this for his career — that’s what was missing,” said Hawi Keflezighi, who also serves as his brother’s manager. “He’s always wanted to win Boston for his career, but this time it wasn’t about that. It was about something beyond that. The United States needed him.”
In the ensuing four days after his victory, Meb Keflezighi said strangers have stopped him in the street, congratulating and thanking him for his victory. He has appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” lined up for next week.
“It’s a dream to win the Boston Marathon — the most prestigious marathon in the world,” Keflezighi said. “To be able to do it after what happened last year and have the victims’ (names) on my bib number, wow. I was overjoyed and overwhelmed at the same time for how meaningful it is. It was just a wonderful opportunity.”