Meb Keflezighi on Being Black in America
When he retired after the 2017 NYC Marathon, there was arguably no professional runner in this country more adored than Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi. A part of this, surely, was that the charmed trajectory of Meb’s life seems to confirm an idea that is (was?) essential to our national self-image. A childhood immigrant from Eritrea, Meb became a U.S. citizen in 1998. He was a multiple all-American and NCAA national champion at UCLA. He qualified for four U.S. Olympic teams and won a silver medal in the marathon at the 2004 Games in Athens. He is one of only three American men to have won both the NYC and Boston Marathons. The latter victory came in 2014—the year after the bombings turned Boylston Street into a scene of mass carnage. It was the first time an American man had won the race in 31 years.
By his own admission, Meb—who is now 45 years old and a “running ambassador” for several companies as well as the co-owner of the Carlsbad 5000 road race—is also not one to rock the boat. At the press conference after the U.S. 2016 Olympic Trials, a reporter asked about an apparent mid-race scuffle between Meb, who finished second, and the winner, Galen Rupp. Meb said that there was a moment where Rupp should have given him more room—this was a road and not a track race, after all. For Meb, this was about as confrontational as it got.
However, over the past week and a half, as protests have erupted across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Meb has used his social media platforms to join the chorus of dissent. He spoke with Outside to share his thoughts on recent events, running, and being black in America
OUTSIDE: First things first, where have you spent the last couple of months and how have you and your family been coping?
KEFLEZIGHI: Family’s good. I’m in Tampa, Florida. I moved here about a year ago with my wife and daughters. We’re just kind of taking it day to day. When quarantine started here, it was kind of crazy, because stores were running out of things. You’d go to the store and you could only get two milks, even if you have three kids. I had some experience with that when I was in Eritrea, so it’s not new new for me, but it’s new for me in the United States where you always had an abundance of things. Here in Tampa, we got hurricane season coming up. There’s always something, I guess.
For a lot of runners, this sport provides a psychological coping mechanism during difficult times which, it’s safe to say, our country is currently going through on several levels. Have you been running during this time and, if so, do you feel like it’s helped you mentally?
Absolutely. For me, running was something that I was fortunate enough to make a living out of. To get paid to be fit and strong—it’s a dream come true. At the same time, I love running. I’m not competing anymore, but I love to go out for a run every day, if I can. I like to do it in the morning, because then I’ll have a happier day—a more productive day. It gives me a sense of accomplishment, but it’s also a form of stress relief. Before it was my livelihood, but it’s a therapy for me. Since the pandemic, I’ve seen more people running and walking in the neighborhood. I think it is a coping mechanism. There are no organized races, but people need to go outside.
Over the past week we have seen two major crises in this country converge. While the pandemic might pose a more immediate threat to American life, some have argued that systemic racism is a more serious, long-term affliction for this country and that the health risks of mass protests are worth getting the message across. What do you think about the protests?
First and foremost—my thoughts go out to George Floyd’s family. Because it’s not just one life, but the trickle effect that goes out from something like that, which is humongous. And what happened in Georgia, to Ahmaud Arbery—it’s just ridiculous. Enough is enough. Wrong is wrong. People have just not been heard and that’s what the protest is. Why is it happening now? I think the timing is interesting—fewer people are going to work which, in a sense, gives them more freedom to protest but also, you know, thank God for smartphones. This has been happening for a long, long time. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. To see those videos—not that we wanted to see them, or that we should have to see them to believe it—but it’s proof that it has happened and it’s woken up many people. If you want to ask me personal things that I’ve encountered in the past, I’d be more than happy to share them with you, but this is something that has happened to all African Americans, young and old, you know? By the same token, there are some good cops who do care and serve the community and the people, but there are also some that are taking the lives of innocent people for no reason.
Have you taken part in any of the protests?
Two days ago we joined the protest over on Kennedy Boulevard, my wife, myself, and my daughters. The protest is necessary. If we can make a change, it’s going to be gradual, but, yeah, it’s a marathon. It doesn’t happen overnight. Wish it did. Colin Kaepernick was ahead of the game.
You generally have not been too outspoken in response to smaller controversies in our sport. If I remember correctly, you were pretty low-key about, for instance, criticizing the Oregon Project in the wake of the doping allegations. Just judging by your social media profile and your public response to the national outcry in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, this time seems different. Is that a fair assessment?
You could say that. You asked me to speak about these things and I’m more than happy to give you my time and opinion. But I’m not the person to say, “Hey, listen to me!” So, yeah, I’m not that controversial. But, with this matter, I think that it’s important to say something. At the protests, people were saying that silence is not good. And silence is what has happened for a long time.
Would you mind sharing some of the things that have happened to you personally?
After a UCLA party in the late ‘90s, when I was a student, I was driving a 1973 Ford LTD and I got stopped by the police. And the first question I got asked is: “Do you have a gun?” Now, what makes him say that? I was a student. Or, I remember I got stopped by the police in Minneapolis, six years ago or so. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but it was two o’clock in the morning, and I was dropping somebody off at his house after an Eritrean wedding. I’m not going to lie, I was nervous. They asked me if I had been drinking. I said, “No, I’m a professional athlete and I don’t drink. I only had Coca Cola.” But he pulled me over and made me do the whole thing. Walk the line. Close your eyes. Balance. All that. And I’m looking at this thinking, Is this really necessary? I didn’t swerve. There’s no reason for me to get pulled over. I obeyed the rules, but if I had gotten aggravated or whatever, who knows how it would have ended? I was with my friend and I just told him, “Be cool. We don’t want to do something stupid.” But, obviously, I’m aware that I’m in Minnesota at two o’clock in the morning wearing traditional Eritrean clothes. The cop asked me for my driver’s license and I just told him that I had nothing to drink, except a soda. I tried to be truthful and honest, because I wanted to save his time and my time. And my life and his job.
As an African-American runner, did the Ahmaud Arbery story feel especially personal to you?
I mean, he was the same age as my brother and my family loves sports, so, of course. My wife, whenever I go for a run, she always says, “Safe travels,” or “Get home safe.” But when I run around Bayshore or around wealthy homes, especially in the summer if I’m running with no shirt, I have that thing sometimes. Especially after what happened with Arbery. You ask yourself, “Am I really safe?” Back when I was in Mammoth Lakes, training at altitude, I was fearful because I knew that there are deer hunters with guns. So when I run in the wilderness, on the trails where you don’t see anybody, absolutely I wore bright colors. Yellow. Red. Orange. And, yeah, sometimes, when you do see people, they give you a look. As a pro runner that’s why I liked to have people ride their bikes with me while I ran. They kept me company, for one, but also they have your back when sometimes people don’t drive safely or ask, “What the hell are you doing here?” or flip you off, or whatever. You have to be calm and control your emotions, because if you say something it could turn ugly real quick.
You lived in San Diego for many years, which, in several respects is the opposite of Mammoth Lakes. What was it like running there?
In San Diego there was a trail that I loved by a golf course. It was a seven-and-a-half mile loop and I would do three loops to get in a 21-mile run. But it’s very exclusive people. I didn’t go there by myself. I had to wait for a Caucasian to go with me, otherwise I knew I was going to get stopped by security, but I loved it. I would drive 25 miles sometimes just to go there for my long run.
You’re telling me that, even at a time when you were the best, most famous American marathoner, you wouldn’t go running there by yourself?
It was super exclusive. Wood chips. Horses. I loved it, personally, but I would never do that by myself. The beauty of being a distance runner is that, when you’re with your fellow runners, you’re a hero. But when you’re running, you’re just a random person. You’re not the famous football or basketball player. You’re just the skinny old distance runner. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I lived both lives. There’s subtle racism. I used to fly first class and always tried to wear a collared shirt or whatever to look presentable. But sometimes I liked to wear a beanie, because I get cold. And you go onto the flight and you’ll be putting up your carry-on bag above the seat and somebody will say, “Excuse me—that’s for first class.” And I’m like, “Well, okay. Let me show you my ticket.”
Do you think that there are ways in which we could better address racism in our sport?
I like to think our sport is very inclusive. And I’ve seen that, over the years, more African-American, more Indian, more Asian people participate. But it’s still a predominantly white sport—especially cross-country or distance running. We need to reach out to more African-Americans and people of color to participate in road racing events. Distance running, I’ve always said, is where nobody knows your religion, or what your educational background is—you just go out there and run 26.2 miles. But you do see what the majority of the people doing it look like. With the benefits of being a distance runner for mental health, if we can get more people doing it, it would be a winning situation for everybody. Of every race.