Meb Marathon Moment Mondays: 2009

Meb Marathon Moment Mondays: 2009

As the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon will mark Meb Keflezighi's 26th and final competitive marathon—his 11th in New York City—The Run On looks back at his previous runs through the five boroughs. This week, we're recapping his 2009 race, his first time back on the course since a 21st-place 2:22:02 in 2006.

After three consecutive runs through the five boroughs from 2004 to 2006, it would be another three years before Keflezighi was back on the starting line of the New York City Marathon—and he would return in an unforgettable way, boosting American long-distance running more than any runner in nearly three decades.

In the Interim

Keflezighi entered the 2007 London Marathon looking to prepare for a top-three finish at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, which would be held in New York City that November. A blister in training led to an imbalance in his running form, and he was forced to drop out of London after 16 miles.

That fall, he returned to New York City for the Trials. On the bus ride to the start, he sat next to Ryan Shay, a former training partner. In the race, Keflezighi picked up the pace before halfway, but calf tightness caught up to him over the final miles. He would finish eighth in 2:15:09. After the race, he would learn that Shay had gone into cardiac arrest while running, collapsed on the sixth mile, and passed away soon after.

In the days after the race, Keflezighi would also learn that he had developed a stress fracture in his pelvis. The injury was severe enough to keep him out of running for more than six months, and led him to question whether it would force him to retire. In recovery, he would spend hours cross training, with stretching, strength work, and often, aqua jogging around senior citizens taking water aerobics classes. In a shortened 2008 season, he competed in the 10,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials but finished 13th.

Given more time to recover and train through the fall and winter, he would return stronger than ever in 2009. He won national titles in the half-marathon, at seven miles, and in cross country over 12 kilometers. Upon his return to the marathon in April, he ran 2:09:21—a 32-second personal best—to finish ninth in the London, and in August, during his build-up for New York, he lowered his half-marathon best to 61 minutes flat.

Keflezighi competing in Central Park at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon.

His Competitors

A collection of past champions and international medalists awaited Keflezighi on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Defending champion Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil looked to add another title, having won in 2006 and 2008, and South African Hendrick Ramaala—who had sprinted away from Keflezighi in Central Park in 2004—also looked to regain the top podium position.

Kenya’s Robert Cheruiyot, with three previous wins in Boston and one in Chicago, was lining up alongside his training partner James Kwambai, who had run 2:04:27 in Rotterdam earlier that year. On top of that, Jaouad Gharib of Morocco, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion, was making his five-borough debut.

The race also served as the U.S. national championship, where Keflezighi would be competing against the likes of Ryan Hall, the first American to break one hour in the half-marathon and the third-place finisher in the 2009 Boston Marathon, as well as Abdi Abdirahman, the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials 10,000-meter champion.

The Race

Keflezighi's road to the 2009 New York City Marathon began that January, with a text he sent to race director Mary Wittenberg. The text read: "This is the year."

In training, he used every approach available to ensure he would be ready to roll come race day. He used massages and active stretching techniques to keep his muscles in tune, and took every measure to avoid getting sick with another race-week bug.

With his training designed to get him into optimal shape for November 1, his plan for the race was to dip into that fitness as little as he could. As he writes in his book Run to Overcome

I didn’t want to get tripped or bumped by being in the middle of a large pack . . . I wanted to “fall asleep” for as long as I could. I wanted to get to Central Park, at about the 24-mile mark, as relaxed and rested as possible—something that hadn’t happened in my four previous NYC marathons.

He had additional counsel from his wife, Yordanos, who told him to sit in the pack rather than try to control from the front: “You do too much of the work. Don’t do so much leading,” he recalls her saying.

Once the howitzer on Fort Wadsworth had fired, Keflezighi began to execute his race plan. He watched as move after move from his competitors—Bouramdane gaining a few yards near the halfway point, Ramaala with his almost trademark surges on First Avenue—would threaten, only to recede.

Settled in behind the leaders as the race passed through Long Island City.

Through each phase of the race, Keflezighi sat comfortably within a winnowing group of contenders. His experience with New York course was playing to his advantage, as he kept himself in contact without expending too much energy. "This is what I mean by the course making moves for you—the distance takes a toll; the race demands patience," he writes.

By the time the field reached the Bronx, the lead group had narrowed to four: Keflezighi, Bouramdane, Cheruiyot, and Kwambai. Back in Manhattan, Bouramdane and Kwambai began to slip back, leaving Cheruiyot as Keflezighi’s last challenger.

Approaching Central Park, Keflezighi was in the exact position he had hoped to find himself—at the front, tucked in comfortably with just over two miles to go. Soon after the turn at East 90th Street, he swung around Cheruiyot and surged ahead. As his lead grew, he thought, “Okay, Lord, I initiated the move. Now please get me to the finish line first.”

Continuing down East Drive, he passed the spot where Ryan Shay had collapsed two years earlier. Determined to honor his friend’s memory with a win, he pressed on.

Keeping in contact with Cheruiyot through the Bronx

Drafting on Cheruiyot down Fifth Avenue

Building his lead after making a move to the front in Central Park

With the finish line coming ever closer—and the distance back to Cheruiyot growing—he began to reflect on the moments and the people that had brought him to this point: the four previous runs in New York, having come so close to victory; the injuries he faced and the rehab work he underwent to get healthy again; the support from family members and friends, like Shay, whom he had lost.

All of the ups and the downs he experienced since his marathon debut in 2002 had built up to this moment, where he found himself in the lead of the New York City Marathon, on his own, with less than a mile to go.

The only man left with less than 385 yards to go

As he climbed the final hill on West Drive, toward Tavern on the Green, he pointed to the red USA across his singlet, waving to the crowd and beaming with pride.

On his fifth attempt at winning the New York City Marathon, Keflezighi broke the finish tape in 2:09:15, running a six-second personal best with a 67-second negative split over the second half. The victory made him the first American man to win the race since Alberto Salazar in 1982—five years before the Keflezighi family arrived in San Diego.

In 1982, Salazar led a pack of five Americans in the top 10, a number that had not been eclipsed in the years since. Even until Keflezighi placed ninth in his marathon debut in 2002, it had been eight years since any American man finished in the top 10 in New York City.

But Keflezighi's silver medal at the Athens 2004 Olympics had sparked a resurgence in U.S. distance running, and his influence was beginning to show. In becoming the first American man to win New York in 27 years, he also was also first in a group of six American men in the top 10—a total that tied 1979 for the highest number in event history since the race expanded to the five-borough course.

Keflezighi had emigrated from Eritrea to America in 1987, became a U.S. citizen in 1998, and had battled for the title in New York four times previously. After years of close calls and race-week setbacks, he finally had his moment to celebrate in 2009. With an American flag wrapped around his shoulders, he set off for his victory lap on the homestretch. 

“U.S.A. gave me all the opportunities, education, sports, lifestyle,” he said post-race. “When you dream, you dream. You don’t give up.”


Check back next week as we recap Meb's run at the 2010 New York City Marathon, when he returned to the five boroughs as the defending champion.

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