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His wife urged him to leave the country rather than be jailed or killed. In July 1981 Russom walked out of his village in tears and headed for the border with Sudan, nearly 100 miles and seven days away. Two years later he moved to Milan, Italy, with the aid of an Eritrean woman who had borne him a daughter, Ruth, before he married Awetash.
Russom worked as many as four jobs at once and sent money back to Eritrea. At home the Keflezighi boys dodged violence every day. "We saw body parts on the highway," says Meb. "But it was the only life we knew." In 1986 Russom brought his family to Milan and then--14 months later, sponsored by Ruth, who was 19 years old and living in the U.S.--to San Diego.
In California, Russom worked tirelessly. He did not let his children take jobs. "I told them, 'You will have a better life if you study,'" he says. The family grew to 11 kids. Today the six oldest have college degrees, and the seventh is a freshman at Stanford.
Meb, preternaturally quiet (even now), found expression in running. When he joined his brothers on the San Diego High cross-country and track teams, his passion and discipline set him apart. By his senior year he was state champion in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters. UCLA track and cross-country coach Bob Larsen offered him a scholarship. "I liked the way he moved," says Larsen, who still coaches Keflezighi, "and look at his family. These are tough people."
A U.S. citizen since 1998, Keflezighi runs with a lapel pin on his singlet, an American flag next to an Eritrean flag. The suggestion that his East African genes are the key to his success brings a high-pitched laugh from him. If so, he asks, "why did I lose to so many Americans in high school and college?"
In fact Keflezighi has benefited as much from doggedness as from pure talent. "A phenomenal runner, but with great drive," says Deena Kastor, who won bronze in the women's Olympic marathon in 2004. Meb plotted his course for Athens long in advance and, as he told Culpepper, believed he could win a medal.
Looking toward New York City this year, Keflezighi rushed to get fit after recovering from a right thigh-muscle injury he sustained in August. But he reaches racing shape quickly, and earlier this month he ripped off six one-mile repeats in times ranging from 4:50 on the first to 4:27 on the last, with just three minutes' rest, comparable to his best interval-training sessions.
In New York City he will face defending champion Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa, world marathon record holder Paul Tergat of Kenya and 14 other runners with personal bests faster than Keflezighi's 2:09:53. "I should be able to run much faster," Meb says, unintimidated. "Right now, everything is good. Everything is right."
And there is, of course, no place quite like New York to win a race, to wave a flag and to cast aside stubborn labels.
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