Eritrea’s soundtrack during its 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia included the jarring reports from muzzle flashes slicing through the inky night. In a place where the average person earns the equivalent of less than $50 per month, stifling mobility, the crackling became an eerie, unwelcome companion.
The country gained self-rule in 1993, though it hardly found lasting peace. Fierce border disputes between 1998 and 2000 alone claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000 or more, according to reports ranging from the BBC to Newsweek. Tensions simmer, still.
To Keflezighi, those aren’t numbers. They’re sounds.
“I remember hearing the guns,” he said.
Being a child in Adi Gombolo meant making 3-mile roundtrips to the nearest water source and tending to animals under the unrelenting mid-day sun. It meant growing up at alarming speed, in some alarming ways.
How does Keflezighi muster his unique drive 17 miles into a marathon, as others begin to melt? How, in 2009, did he summon the resolve to become the first American winner of the New York City Marathon in 27 years? What fueled him, in 2014, to become the oldest Boston Marathon
winner in more than eight decades?
As determined eyes scanned his boyhood horizon, Meb tugged at the curtain.
“A kid was grinding flour and he went to restroom,” said Keflezighi, referring to a nearby wall. “He was holding a land mine, playing with it like he thought it was a pen — and it exploded. I remember we had to go and help collect the body so he could have a proper burial.”
Meb was 8.
“You’d find small sticks,” he said, “so you could pick up the body parts.”
Understanding, flecked with emotion, emerges. Fuzzy reasons and motivations take shape.
This is the man who demanded to retake a class at UCLA after an uncharacteristic stumble on a math test led to a C-minus, earning an A as other athletes frolicked at the beach in the summer sun. This is the family that remained oak-steady in a war zone for five agonizing years without the father who sneaked hundreds of miles through soldiers and crocodile-choked rivers to reach temporary safety in Sudan.
There’s a bigger picture. The sense of purpose, bigger still.
In 2007, Meb suffered a stress fracture in his pelvis during the Olympic Trials in New York. A day that should have set the table for his “peak” Olympics — looking back, a potential fifth overall — suddenly forced him into agonizing conversations about whether to retire.
Meb was running 130 miles per week, testing the limits while unwisely denying his body the fuel it required. The 5-foot-5 man dropped to 120 pounds, then 119, becoming “too lean for too long.”
“I would drink 32 ounces of water right before dinner, just to fool my stomach that I was full,” he said. “Nothing was going to stop me, that mentality.”
The stress fracture became unbearable, forcing him to crawl to the bathroom on knees and elbows. Other times, he would inch along the wall to steady himself as he crossed a room.
“I remember my wife said, ‘Uh, no more running for you. I can’t see you in this pain,’ ” he said.
He ran again, of course — for another decade. He ran to the tape in New York, then in Boston — the kind of impossible comeback in dogged defiance of Father Time that becomes a Hollywood movie in mainstream sports like football or baseball or basketball.
“Why didn’t I give up?” said Keflezighi, 42. “Thinking back to my childhood, the tenacity of the people of Eritrea, I’ve been reminded of it while I’m here. They’re so hard-working. It’s crazy what they carry, how they transport things. Insane.
“I remember saying, ‘Let’s pray about it.’ If God’s will is done, I’m happy. I’ve got a silver medal, an American record, national titles. I’ve got no complaints. But I knew I had more inside of me.”
What Eritrea offered, and what it taught, felt too large not to share.
That’s why Keflezighi carved out a trip to Eritrea with his wife, Yordanos, to expose their three daughters to his earliest chapters during the ramp-up to his 26th and final competitive marathon. That’s why they filled nine of their 10 checked airline bags, for a seven-week trip to the northeast African nation, with second-hand clothes, shoes and deflated soccer balls to hand out to kids.
That’s why, despite a parade of speaking engagements and sponsorships ranging from shoe giant Skechers to beef jerky and therapeutic tape, the family chose to stay in an apartment complex plagued by water and electrical outages with the comfortable Asmara Palace Hotel just blocks away.
“He wasn’t about to live as a celebrity,” said Frank Sullivan, a former Supreme Court justice in Indiana who met Meb at a track and field reception in Indianapolis, became a friend and visited him on the trip to Eritrea.
“He was going to live as an ordinary resident.”
Sullivan attempted to dissect what makes Meb gem-stone rare in a world so often saddled with tales of spoiled, self-absorbed athletes. The man who authored 500 or so majority opinions during 19 years on the bench spit out words like integrity and selflessness and grace.
Then, he simply told a story.
“He and his family probably spent six hours this week, sitting on benches in front of the Eritrean immigration ministry, waiting to get their exit visas,” Sullivan recalled. “Don’t tell me that a phone call from his agent to the embassy couldn’t have gotten that done.
“He was not about to trade on his celebrity status to get something the average American visitor to Eritrea couldn’t. This humble man wasn’t about to say, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ ”
The athletic part of who Keflezighi is: No other person on Planet Earth has won Boston, New York and an Olympic medal — a 2004 silver in Athens. The most intriguing part, though, has nothing to do with altitude training or stretching regimens.
Bemnet Keflezighi, one of Meb’s 10 siblings, sat on that rock all those years ago as a mysterious infection attacked his calf and threatened his life in a part of the world with limited medical recourse.
Amid the happy chaos of the late-July family reunion, Bemnet peeled away to point out the Tigrinya translation of Mebrahtom.
“His name means ‘Let there be light,’ and he lives up to that,” Bemnet said. “He’s a light to his family, a light to his country, a light to his adopted country (U.S.). We’re proud of him. Most athletes get big-headed. Not him.