FALMOUTH -- Meb Keflezighi is the finest American men's distance runner, and he knows it's not enough.
He earned the silver medal in the marathon at the Athens Olympics in 2004, and he knows that's not enough. He is a three-time US 10,000-meter champion, a two-time US 12K cross-country champion, a four-time US 15K champion, a four-time NCAA champion, and he holds the American 10,000-meter record.
And he knows that even all that is not enough.
"I'm still hungry to win my first marathon," said Keflezighi, who will run in his first Falmouth Road Race today, joining 10,000 others in the 35th edition of the seaside 7-miler. "I feel like I can still run faster. God has blessed me with a lot of talent, and I work very hard. There's more to come."
Keflezighi will be challenged by a host of Kenyans, including Micah Kogo, ranked No. 1 in the world by Track & Field News at 10,000 meters on the road this year and on the track last year; Tom Nyariki, who was second last week at the Beach to Beacon 10K; and Nicholas Kamakya, winner of this month's Utica Boilermaker 15K.
Another 2004 Olympic silver medalist, Catherine Ndereba -- a three-time Falmouth winner and four-time Boston Marathon winner -- leads the women's field, which includes Beach to Beacon winner Luminita Talpos of Romania, Peachtree 10K and Bix 7 winner Ude Yimer of Ethiopia, and US Olympians Kate O'Neill, a Milton native, and Sara Slattery, a 10K gold medalist at the Pan Am Games.
Keflezighi is coming off a frustrating fourth-place finish at the Beach to Beacon last Saturday. Midway through the race, he surged ahead of the lead pack. But William Chebor also made a surge, taking over the lead, and though Chebor faded, Keflezighi knew he could not match the stretch speed of eventual winner Duncan Kibet.
Keflezighi finished in 27 minutes 58 seconds and went off alone for a stretch and cool-down, including a 15-minute soak in an ice bath. He said it stops inflammation and ultimately helps avoid injuries, but it also gave Keflezighi a little time to cool off.
"I came up here to show them what an American can do, and I thought I had it for a while," he said. "I run to win. At the Bix 7 [the week before], I was playing catch-up the whole time. At the Beach to Beacon, I didn't have the turnover [at the end]. I'm happy with my performance, but not satisfied. I mean, when was the last time an American ran a sub-28?"
Every time Keflezighi lines up for a race, he hears the same refrain: "Meb could be the first American to win this race in 20 years [or 25 years, or 30 years]." Even as he carries a country on his shoulders, he is virtually unknown. His family came to the United States in 1987 as political refugees from Eritrea, the East African nation warring with Ethiopia, and he became an American citizen in 1998. But because he runs in an era when African runners have dominated the sport, Keflezighi doesn't always get the recognition of, say, Alberto Salazar, an American who was born in Cuba and raised in Wayland.
Keflezighi, 32, grew up in San Diego, and began running in sixth grade, following in the footsteps of two older brothers. Soon enough, he was running around them. In seventh grade, Fridays were race days, at a different distance each week. Keflezighi ran them all, and when they got to the mile, Keflezighi whipped off a 5:20 time. "They called the high school coach and said, 'Hey, we've got an Olympian here,' " he said.
By the end of that first season, Keflezighi had improved his time in the mile by 10 seconds. With his brothers, he led San Diego High to the California championship and went on to UCLA, where, he said, "the only disappointment was that I became No. 1 right away."
He wanted more competition. Of course, he was also staying up until 4 a.m. studying.
"Our parents taught us education was the key to life," he said. "1997 was the first time I realized I could make a living at running, when I won the 5K-10K double in the NCAAs. It gave me the confidence I could do it."
Keflezighi thrives on hard work.
"It's what I do," he said. "I work hard. At any job I do. I used to help my dad clean up banks after hours in high school, and my parents said I was a hard worker."
Keflezighi left behind the bank-cleaning stint for full-time running. He met his wife, who is from Tampa, at the annual Eritrean Soccer Fest, and he raced to court her. He practically leapt off the podium in Athens to catch a plane for Tampa, carrying the bouquet of flowers to present to Yordanos on their first date. The two, now married, have a 17-month-old daughter, Sara.
It seems as if everything is in place.
But it's just not enough. Keflezighi, who has finished second and third in the New York Marathon, and was third in the 2006 Boston Marathon, needs to win. And he needs to win at the right time. The US Olympic Trials are in November, in New York, and that's the race that counts.
"[Falmouth] is a good sharpening event," Keflezighi said. "This should help me get faster for the marathon."
Today, Keflezighi will hear the familiar refrain again: He can become the first American to win Falmouth in 19 years, since Mark Curp triumphed in 1988.