Monday, November 2, 2009

Late Show with Meb Keflezighi

On the day after the New York City Marathon, I always watch “Late Show with David Letterman” and wait for the moment when that year’s marathon champions jog onto the stage during Dave's monologue, jog down the steps, up the aisle and out of the theatre as the audience applauds.

Letterman always tells us who the runners are, but we never hear from them. Often, that is because the winners are Africans who are not fluent in English.

That’s not the case with this year’s men’s champion: Meb Keflezighi (Kef-LEHZ-gee).

He was born in the African nation of Eritrea, in a village without electricity. He’s also a U.S. citizen, a San Diego resident and a UCLA graduate with a compelling story.

He deserves more than the usual token jog on “Letterman.”

Meb’s parents moved his family of 11 children out of Eritrea when a war against Ethiopia would have forced a boy his age into the military.

The Keflezighis lived briefly in Italy, as a safe haven. But the family’s intention was always to come to the USA and live its version of the American Dream.

Meb became a U.S. citizen in 1998, and became a four-time NCAA champion in middle-distance running. He still holds the U.S. record at 10,000 meters (27 minutes, 13.98 seconds set in 2001).

Meb then turned to the marathon and became one of the world’s best, winning the Olympic silver medal in 2004 and, less than two months later, finishing second in the New York City Marathon.

But Meb’s career was thought to be over two years ago when, at age 32, he suffered a stress fracture in his hip during the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in New York. The pain was so intense he had to literally crawl to the bathroom.

The self-appointed experts in distance running wrote Meb off. He had never actually won a marathon.

Meb was too old, they said. Broken down. Washed up.

Ryan Hall, a fair-haired Californian and Meb’s close friend, was America’s great marathon hope, they said.

But Meb refused to quit.

He had already proven an American could compete well against the best marathon runners in the world. On Sunday, he proved an American could beat the best.

Pulling away from a strong field in the 24th mile, Meb won the race in a personal-best time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 15 seconds.

He’s the first African-American champion in the 40-year history of the race, and the first American to win in New York since Alberto Salazar in 1982.

And because the New York City Marathon and USA Men’s Marathon Championship were held concurrently, Meb won his first two marathon titles on the same day.

“You visualize it and visualize it and when reality hits, it’s pretty sweet,” said Meb, who defeated runner-up Robert K. Cheruiyot of Kenya, a four-time Boston Marathon champion, by 41 seconds.

Meb wore a USA jersey to which he pointed with pride as he had ran alone to the finish line. He pocketed $200,000--$130,000 for the New York City Marathon title, $40,000 for the USA Men’s Marathon crown and a $30,000 time bonus for finishing in under 2:10.

Meb, a married father of two, now has a “platform.” Now, he’s a “name.” Now, he deserves a speaking role on “Letterman.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, here is tonight’s Top 10 list delivered by your 2009 New York City Marathon champion, Meb Keflezighi!”

That would be worth staying up for.

Note: Hours after this posting came the announcement that Meb Keflezighi would read the Top 10 list on the November 2, 2009 "Late Show with David Letterman."

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