Russom was worried and with very good reason. He, his wife, and their ten children were barely eking out an existence in a war-torn part of the world. They were coping with the difficult living conditions…no electricity, no running water…but just surviving on a daily basis was becoming increasingly complex as the soldiers from the adjoining country continued to attack them. The enemy military were not only taking away their limited resources…the few cattle they tended, the firewood they chopped… they were also looking to kidnap and conscript young children for eventual military service against their very own families. His decision to leave his brood and walk 600 miles to a friendly country was not arrived at lightly. Seeing his children removing corpses from around their humble housing and, in particular, watching one of his sons having to clean up the debris of human flesh from a young friend who was playing with a bomb when it exploded, made the difficult decision the only one that made sense. If he could not get his loved ones out of the hell-hole where they were barely clinging to life, it was certain that they were all doomed.
Before he departed, he met with everyone and laid out the tactics that they would have to adhere to until he could send for them. What they would do, where they would go, how they would protect what they had which would enable them to eke out a meager existence. How bad was it? The children ran away from the first cars they saw. When they saw their first television set they marveled at how all those people could fit into a small box. Their clock was their Grandfather who could tell time by looking at the sun. When one of them heard that enemy troops were coming, the entire family scattered and hid in the nearby fields.
Russom eventually ended up in Italy and, with the help of distant relatives he was able to locate, he was successful in getting his immediate family to join him. If you want to see his circuitous route, trace the land distance from Asmara, Eritrea (neighboring their hostile enemy of Ethiopia) to Sudan and then , finally to Milan.The next step was an ocean voyage to the United States where the entire family finally ended up, after another cross country trek, in San Diego.
The youngster that was having the most difficult time in his new environment was just twelve years old when he arrived in California. He spoke no English and it was no surprise that he was miserable. He wore clothes that were unusual to his classmates at Roosevelt Middle School and he was the butt of many of their jokes. His dream, fueled by his perceived abilities to play soccer (the sport he and his brothers had learned to play in Italy), was to become a professional athlete like his hero, the Brazilian superstar Pele. However, it was his performance in the United States Mandatory Physical Fitness Test, which included a timed mile run, that changed everything.
His physical education teacher, astounded by the amazing time his young Eritrean immigrant student had turned in….5 minutes and 10 seconds…called a local high school coach who had guided one of his previous athletes to an Olympic appearance. The coach, Paul Greer, called the youngster’s father and it was agreed that the middle school runner would be given the chance to train seriously under his auspices. What comes next is the stuff that dreams are made of…but dreams, in this case, were made of very stern stuff: discipline and hard work.
Greer remembers that the youngster was “…well spoken, very humble.He was a very hard worker…in fact, he personified hard work. He was a great role model for his teammates.”
Russom’s actual dream for his children was that they would all receive the best educational opportunities. One of the running youngster’s sisters would go on to attend medical school at UCLA, another sister went to law school there, and five other siblings earned college degrees. What the youngster we’re following achieved, however, was even more remarkable.
His name was a mouthful of consonants and vowels but its meaning was concise and prophetic. Mebrahtom Keflezighi (the first name means’ let there be light’) was destined for international greatness. His surname was almost immediately shortened to ‘Meb’ and his times in the distances he began to run were shortened , too. Memorial Junior High and finally San Diego High School (from where he graduated in 1994) were the beneficiaries of his incredible gift and laser focused persistence. As a senior, he won the CIF California State Championships in both the 1600 meters and 3200 meters. He also placed second in the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships. His excellence, in both his sport and in the classroom, won him a full scholarship to UCLA. Bob Larsen was the track-and-field coach and UCLA, under his auspices, was one of the top college programs in the nation. Beginning with the series of NCAA titles that Meb won beginning as a freshman…5,000 meters and 10,000 meters, both indoor and outdoor…he capped his career when he graduated in 1998 as the runner in UCLA history who had won the most championships.
1998 was truly a landmark year for the young runner as he also became a United States citizen and became the first winner of the Carl Lewis Award, given to the country’s top male track and field athlete. Hard to believe, but the best…not without physical challenges…was yet to come.
Fast forward fifteen plus years. After a career including amazing achievements (2004 Olympic Silver Medalist in the marathon, and 2009 New York City Marathon winner) while also overcoming horrendous injuries ( a broken hip suffered while competing in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon trials where he still incredibly finished 8th and a ruptured quadriceps in the 2010 Boston Marathon where he somehow still finished 5th), it appeared as though Meb’s career as an international runner was winding down. In collaboration with noted sports writer Dick Patrick, his aptly titled biography, “Running To Overcome” was released to critical acclaim in late 2010. When his long time sponsor Nike did not renew their sponsorship in 2012, it appeared to be the end of this distance running icon’s long-and-winding competitive road.
Then the Boston Marathon tragedy of 2013 changed everything. As Patrick said “…the bombing probably resonated with Meb more than any other distance runner in the world. He was born in Eritrea when it was at war with Ethiopia and having to bury childhood friends who were the victims of bombings was an indelible image burned into his psyche. That’s why he was so emotional after the horrific events last year, because he saw this whole thing from his youth coming back. It was almost like you can’t escape violence and these senseless killings.”
Meb ran the 2014 Boston Marathon as a distinct underdog. Consider that he was 38 years old, an age at which most distance runners are retired. If he were able to prevail he would be the oldest winner since 1930. No American man had won the fabled road race since 1983.
His family watched as he inexplicably took a huge lead in the first half of one of the world’s premier running events and then saw it shrink down to a stomach-churning eight seconds approaching the last mile. Russom said “…my heart was beating and I was pleading oh, God, oh God, please help him, help him. I was praying and when he made it I was so excited.” His brother, AK, at home in Scripps Ranch, also watched while asking for divine intervention. “I was kneeling down, praying, sending him positive energy. God help him push that last mile because I know he deserves it. I know he wants it. Nobody works harder than he does.”
They knew that he was running for redemption for those who had lost their lives . He had handwritten the names of Martin Richard, Krystie Campbell, and Lingzi Lu on his bib (the three were killed in last year’s Boylston Street bombings ) , as well as the name of Sean Collier, the MIT campus police officer who was gunned down days later by the perpetrators. Meb told everyone after the race that “…I wanted to win it for Boston…win it for the people. The last three to four miles, the crowd pushed me through it. I’m so lucky to be the champion. It’s not about me, it’s Boston Strong.”
AK put the ‘capper’ on this incredible event, when he said ” He’s a humble guy. I’m sure he was thinking of the victims that lost their lives last year. It was absolutely a glorious fantastic day. From early on. I knew it was going to be special.”
If there ever was a year with a most appropriate name for its Boston Marathon champion, 2014 would definitely appear the clear-cut winner. Let There Be Light, indeed!