Jay Holder

The Time Meb Started Last

Jay Holder
The Time Meb Started Last

Throughout the last five decades, the greatest marathoners in the world have come to Atlanta in their prime and added the AJC Peachtree Road Race to the win columns of their resumes.

Frank Shorter broke the Peachtree tape in 1977, the summer after winning his second consecutive medal in the Olympic marathon.

Grete Waitz won the race four times in the midst of an unprecedented stretch of nine victories in the New York City Marathon.

Khalid Khannouchi defended his Peachtree title in 1999 just a few months before setting the marathon world record.

But when Meb Keflezighi ran in 2014, he finished 382nd.

Just three months earlier, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist had the starring role in one of the greatest sports moments of the decade, becoming the first American man to win the Boston Marathon in 31 years.

It was not, however, a bad day for Meb. Far from it. Honoring his personal motto of “run to win,” Meb was running Peachtree in 2014 to win a different kind of way – raising money for Atlanta Track Club’s Kilometer Kids program. And in the long, storied history of the world’s largest 10K, his performance that day will be one participants talk about for decades to come.

Kilometer Kids was started in 2007 by the Club as a free, game-oriented running program designed to get kids under 14 active. Starting with one location serving 38 children, Kilometer Kids has grown to more than 100 programs, reaching 8,000 kids.

Rich Kenah had come on board as executive director of Atlanta Track Club just a few months before Meb’s Boston win, and was looking for ways not only to build excitement around the Club’s marquee event but also to raise funds for Kilometer Kids. Kenah, at the finish line that day watching Meb’s triumphant run down Boylston Street just a year after the terrorist attacks, felt the electricity.

An idea was born: the Charity Chase for Kids. Invite Meb to run the Peachtree, not in quest of a victory but to start last. Participants and fans would support his charge to the front of the 60,000-person pack by donating to Kilometer Kids. Despite the abundance of appearance options popping up for the overnight sensation, Meb was in.

“To be a part of the Peachtree legacy was on my bucket list for many years,” said Keflezighi in a recent interview, reflecting on the race. “It was a challenge in itself, but it was to connect with the people.”

That, too, was part of the goal. “If you look at photos and look at video at what makes the AJC Peachtree Road Race special, it is all of those 60,000 people celebrating the Fourth of July,” Kenah told LetsRun when explaining the challenge in 2014. “The idea that we can celebrate the Fourth of July at the front of the race with the elites, in the middle of the pack with all the folks who come out here every year to run, and with Meb at the back of the pack, it ties it all together nice and neatly on Independence Day.”

Meb admits the thought of the most well-known American marathoner in the prime of his career being sent into a wall of bobbing, weaving people gave his coaches and family some pause. “Do you know what you are putting yourself into? It’s going to be so crowded,” he recalled them warning him. But Meb rarely misses any opportunity to connect with fellow runners of all speeds, and for him this was a chance to connect with tens of thousands of them.

The first wave of the Peachtree went off at 7:30 a.m. that year. The men Meb usually competed against – and often beat – were running down Peachtree at sub 5-minute pace. Meb was 21 start waves back. Waiting. One hour and 45 minutes later, surrounded by cameras and a v-shaped formation of runners assigned to clear traffic, Meb’s race would finally get underway.

When he began to pass the masses, the support crew sounded the alert. “Meb coming through! Meb on the left! Meb on the right!”

Meb running.JPG

“We had envisioned sort of a wedge-shaped formation, but with bodies packed elbow to elbow it was more like a snake sort of racing through,” said Blake Jorgensen, a member of Atlanta Track Club’s elite team who ran with Meb. “We had three guys out in front to break the path up and then three of us sort of trailing behind him.”

As the crowds got thicker, Meb found himself occasionally hopping a curb to get some space on the sidewalk. He had to give a gentle shove here and there to keep from falling, but he also gave high-fives and plenty of trademark thumbs-up.

“Imagine a bottle or stick thrown in the river,” he told the AJC after the race. “It’s not going to go straight. It’s going to go wherever the wave is, and that’s what it was like.” He offered words of encouragement to the runners and walkers he passed and sometimes a playful “Tag! You’re it!” as he slapped them on the back – all at a pace of 6 minutes and 17 seconds per mile, well below the 4:53 pace Meb ran to win Boston when he had the road to himself.

Spectators lining the street were waiting for the newly minted American hero to pass by, ready to scream “Go Meb!” and “USA! USA!” The crowd on 10th Street went wild as Meb made his way toward the finish line. Arm-in-arm with his support crew, Meb crossed the line in 38:58. He had passed 22,870 people – surpassed the goal of 22,500 – and his efforts had raised more than $30,000 for Kilometer Kids.

Five years and hundreds of races and appearances later, Meb fondly remembers one of his more- unorthodox runs and says fans still mention it when they meet him. “It was just awesome to enjoy the sport in a different way and for a cause that creates a better society like Kilometer Kids,” he said. “I was honored to be asked to do it. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

For those who want to follow in Meb’s footsteps by raising funds for Kilometer Kids in the 50th Running Peachtree on July 4 this year, bibs are still available. Visit peachtreeroadrace.org for more information