Out Of Africa Meb Keflezighi, formerly of Eritrea, heads into the U.S. nationals as America's best at 10,000 meters

June 23, 2002

Growing up in Eritrea, East Africa, Mebrahtom (Meb) Keflezighi
was always told that if he saw something he didn't recognize,
beware, it could be out to get him. Imagine, then, his reaction
as a 10-year-old, when a car came rumbling down the narrow road
leading to his village of Adi Beyani. "It was the first one I'd
ever seen," says Keflezighi (ka-FLEZ-gee), now 27 and the
U.S.-record holder in the 10,000 meters. "I assumed it wanted to
run me over, so I tried to run from it." As the vehicle pulled
alongside him, Meb tried running even faster. "My first race,"
he recalls, laughing. "I lost."

Keflezighi had reason to be leery of unfamiliar objects. During
Eritrea's 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia--a war it
won in 1993--enemy militia used to set mines, shaped like
fountain pens, along Eritrean supply routes. Meb heard one
explode when he was nine and later discovered a man's body parts
in the dirt. Two of his cousins each lost an arm in combat.

The Keflezighis were among the few families in the village whose
roof was made of metal, not sticks and leaves. They still lacked
electricity, however, and would tell time with a rudimentary
sundial. The family patriarch, Russom, ran a grocery store in
the Eritrean capital of Asmara, six miles from his village. A
former shepherd who attended his first day of school at 16, he
was an open supporter of Eritrean liberation forces and was
constantly threatened by police. In 1981, fearing that he could
be imprisoned or killed, Russom decided to flee, leaving behind
his family of six. As he walked the 600-plus miles to Sudan,
more than once he had to adjust his route at the sight of tiger
tracks and use his flashlight to scare off hyenas. When he ran
out of water, Russom filtered mud and swamp residue through his
clothes and drank the remaining liquid. A month after setting
out, he reached the Sudanese border at Hafir.

Meb didn't see his father again for five years, and by then
Russom had relocated to Italy. With the help of his ex-wife,
Letemichael, who had left Eritrea in 1973 and settled in Milan,
Russom purchased plane tickets so that his family, including his
wife, Awetash, could leave Africa. Upon arriving in Italy, Meb
got his first exposure to Western culture. "Tall people, blond
hair, more cars everywhere," he says. "The first time I saw TV,
I thought, Who are those little men in the box, and how did they
get in there?"

In 1987 the Keflezighis emigrated to San Diego to live with
Russom's half-sister. There, other students teased him about his
outdated clothes and reticence to speak. "They thought I was
mute," he says. Their opinion of him changed one day in seventh
grade when Meb entered a running contest. Any kid who ran a mile
in under 6:15 received a T-shirt with an emblazoned logo of
winged shoes. Meb ran a 5:20 and still has the shirt. "That was
the first time other kids showed me respect," he says.

Running gave Keflezighi newfound confidence. He ran a 4:22 mile
as a ninth-grader, placed second as a senior at the national
high school cross-country championships and graduated with a
3.95 GPA. Brown, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford called, but Meb
chose UCLA because he preferred its particular mix of athletics
and academics. In 1997 he won four NCAA titles as a Bruin
(cross-country, the indoor 5K and the outdoor 5K and 10K) and
graduated with a communications degree in 1999. In fact, six of
Russom and Awetash's 10 children are college age or older, and
of that group, five have graduated and the other is still in

In July 1998 Keflezighi became a U.S. citizen, missing out on a
chance to represent Eritrea, a land to which he has yet to
return, in its Olympic debut in 2000. Instead he won the 10,000
meters that summer at the U.S. trials and placed 12th at the
Sydney Games, despite suffering from the flu. In May 2001 he set
the U.S. mark for 10,000 meters at 27:13.98, breaking Mark
Nenow's 15-year-old record by nearly seven seconds. He will be
one of the favorites in the event at the U.S. nationals in Palo
Alto, Calif., this weekend.

Keflezighi has moved from San Diego, where he helped his parents
buy a four-bedroom house, to the 8,000-foot altitude of Mammoth
Lakes, Calif. He did so on the advice of Ethiopian distance
legend Haile Gebrselassie, the back-to-back Olympic champ at
10,000 meters, who shared the specifics of his training program
with Meb last year, despite the historic differences between
their native countries. "Running is a universal language," Meb
says. "It gives you hope."

COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL STEELE/GETTY IMAGES GOING THE DISTANCE In all his races, including the 2001 World Cross Country Championships (above), Keflezighi wears a U.S. and Eritrean flag pin.
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO [See caption above]

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)