Training Talk: Meb Keflezighi Talks PRs and Another NYC Win
Weeks after finishing fourth in the London Olympic Marathon, Meb Keflezighi was in familiar territory, doing an easy recovery run in Central Park. As the world-class runner effortlessly breezed by other runners, few realized they were being passed by one of the most accomplished American distance runners of all time in a park he has made his playground over the past decade.
Keflezighi lives and trains in Mammoth Lakes, California but New York City is his running home. He ran his first ING New York City Marathon in 2002 finishing as the top American in 9th place with a time of 2:12:35. Seven years later, Keflezighi lowered his time by more than three minutes and was again the first American, but this time he was the first American to win the race since Alberto Salazar in 1982.
At 37, Keflezighi believes his fastest marathons are still ahead of him. “I really believe I can win New York again,” he said after an elaborate stretching and drill session on the Central Park Bridle Path. “Last year was definitely the year probably I said ‘no I cannot win’ because Geoffrey Mutai ran phenomenal, but I still believe I can run 2:07, 2:08 on this course.”
Mutai set the course record in last year’s race and went on to win the World Marathon Majors – a series of marathons that also includes Berlin, Boston, Chicago and London. He is not currently entered in this year’s race. Still, Keflezighi will have stiff competition. Kenyans Moses Mosop and Wilson Kipsang both have 2:03 marathons to their names. Fellow American Olympic Marathon runner Abdi Abdirahman is also in the field.
But betting against Keflezighi is never a smart bet. Before the Olympic trials in 2011, Nike ended their partnership with the runner. He signed with industry newcomer Sketchers. Still, many saw the aging marathoner as a long shot to make the Olympic team. Keflezighi won the race and set a new personal best. In London, all of the focus was on teammate Ryan Hall. Despite finishing second to Keflezighi at the trials, most considered Hall, who holds the fastest marathon time ever run by an American, America’s best shot at a medal. On the starting line, the field announcer did not even mention Keflezighi’s name. Keflezighi said this was surprising since he was the only medalist in the field (Keflezighi won the silver in the 2004 Athens Games.) “I could see my wife in the stands and she was upset, and I was upset…I wanted to make sure I let them know I’m a factor and got to the front,” he said. Hall dropped out of the race. Keflezighi picked off five runners in the last seven miles of the race to miss the podium by just one place.
It was an impressive finish especially considering that was also about the time Keflezighi started thinking seriously about dropping out of the race all together. He says the cobblestones on the London racecourse were causing his feet to hurt and blister. “About 17 or 18 miles I just said ‘You know what? I have New York coming up. I already have an Olympic Silver medal. Why am I doing this? I need to stop’,” Keflezighi recalled. Keflezighi was unaware that teammates Hall and Abdirahman had already called it quits, but said a promise he made during a pre-race press conference to represent America the best he could kept him in the race. With five kilometers to go, Keflezighi passed by long-time coach Bob Larsen. “I heard Coach Larsen say ‘sixth place’…and I got more energy and I just kept pushing and pushing,” Keflezighi said. ”You go through the good phase, and the bad phase. If you prevail in the bad phase you will succeed.”
After London, Keflezighi took his standard two weeks off. His run in the park in late August was one of his first since the race. “Meb!,” an excited fan yelled as he met with a WABC camera crew outside of Tavern on the Green. Keflezighi says even hardcore fans have trouble with his last name. (It’s pronounced Kef-lez-ghee) “It’s an honor to be recognized and sometimes they say Meb, or ‘you’re the marathon guy’ so that’s why I have marathon Meb.”
To hear Keflezighi talk about his love for New York, it’s hard to imagine he won’t run well on November 4th. He stays in the same hotel every time he comes here. He only runs in Central Park. Jay-Z’s “New York” is on his running playlist. He has dinner with his doctor, an orthopedist who’s Upper East Side office has Keflezighi’s picture hanging in the waiting room.
“I love the big apple. I love it here,” Keflezighi beams. “The reason I keep coming back to New York is because the New York Road Runners have done a fabulous job supporting me, U.S distance running and many other training groups around the country. So if I’m going to be anywhere running 26 miles, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but New York.”
Beyond the New York City Marathon, Keflezighi is vague about his future plans. He says he wans to focus on his wife and three young daughters, but he won’t rule out trying to run in Rio in 2016. He still believes he can set a personal best in the marathon and the half-marathon. “My job is to do the best that I can for as long as possible,” he said. “I feel like 99% of my career has been fulfilled. I got out what I wanted to get out of it. But my God-given talent tells me there’s still more in the tank.”