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 school.
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."