A Conversation with Meb Keflezighi Ahead of His Last Olympics
On his fourth Olympic team, the 41-year-old American marathoner is a medal contender once again
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How does Meb Keflezighi do it? In a sport where the cumulative effects of brutal training force many athletes to retire in their early 30s, the Eritrean-born marathon runner is, at 41, once again in contention for an Olympic medal.
This will be Meb’s fourth time representing the United States at the Olympics—his first being a 12th place finish in the 10,000 meters in Sydney 2000. And a lot has happened since then. In 2004, Meb won a silver medal in the men’s marathon at the Athens Olympics. He has won both the New York (’09) and Boston Marathons (‘14), and in the process established himself as one of the smartest tactical runners in the sport's history. Meb will need to muster every ounce of racing savvy when, on the final day of competition in Rio de Janeiro, he’ll take on world’s top talent in a bid for Olympic glory.
We spoke to Meb about his Olympic swan song and his plans for the future.
OUTSIDE: You were 29 years old when you first won a silver medal in the marathon in Athens. Now, you're 41. Speaking to your preparation for the Olympic marathon, what is the most significant difference between now and 2004?
KEFLEZIGHI: When I was 29 years old, I was at the peak of my career, but Athens was only my fourth marathon. So I was a rookie just getting to know the distance. Now, I have the experience, but my body is not able to go like it used to. When I was 29, I could do anything and get away with it. When I got injured or had little aches and pains, I could take a few days off and bounce back right away—I don’t have those days anymore. So now I take more recovery days in between and am more conscious of my nutrition. Also, my metabolism has slowed down.
Speaking of injury, you've been consistently good for so long. Do you have some sage advice for avoiding injuries, or increasing longevity?
People say, “Go the extra mile.” But that’s not always a good idea. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to go one mile less. [What's important is] staying healthy and being consistent. I still get my share of injuries, but, as I write in my book, Meb for Mortals, it’s about “prehab instead of rehab.” You’d rather do one less mile and be able to say, “I could have done more,” versus “I’m totally drained.” In physical therapy, people will ask me, “What hurts?” And I’ll say, “Nothing hurts. I just need to be tuned up. I’ve put my body through a lot of stress, a lot of mileage, and I want to get it taken care of before it becomes a problem.” You’d rather get to the starting line healthy than just be one percent over-trained.
How does the Olympic Marathon compare with major races like Boston or New York?
Personally, I approach it as just another race. It’s the pinnacle of the world stage, but I can’t take different steps to get there. I need to take the same steps that I took for the New York win or the Boston win, or finishing fourth in London. It’s a bigger stage, but, by the same token, other people might look at it that way and make mistakes [in their preparation]—that’s where the experience comes into play. It’s not going to be way different than any other championship style race like New York or Boston: you don’t have pacemakers and no one is going after a world record. It’s going to be the same style.
You try to be as ready as you can be, but on the day you don’t get any timeouts—that’s the beauty of the sport. You have to make a calculated decision about whether you should make a move depending on the situation that is happening in front of you. You have to react so quickly. You make decisions based on instinct and feel, but also in accordance with your training and preparation.
What is your goal for the race in Rio? Obviously you’d want to medal if it’s in the cards, but if Eliud Kipchoge, arguably the best in the world, goes out and runs 2:04, are you going to beat yourself up about it?
I always say run to win, but that means getting the best out of yourself depending on the situation. London was a huge accomplishment for me, to go from twenty-first to fourth place—I just ran out of ground. Rio is the same philosophy. I hope Kipchoge goes out at 2:04 pace because a lot of people would go with him, but I highly doubt that he’s going to do that, as he’s a very intelligent runner. Kipchoge is going to be tough to beat. At the same time, I just need to be in the position to be competitive and assess.
Remember, in 2004, Paul Tergat was the world record holder in 2:04:55 and my best time was 2:10:03. But, you know, that’s what racing is. [Tergat finished in tenth place at Athens 2004.] You never know what kind of shape your competition is in. You can’t get intimidated by other runners’ times going in because they’ve got to do it on the day. If Kipchoge runs 2:04, you’re absolutely right, there’s nothing I can do. But then it’s like, okay, go for the podium. If you can’t get on the podium, then finish top ten and go for a time that’s respectable. So there’s constant battles and thinking going on. Something gets out of the realm of possibility, you’ve got to make a new set of goals, otherwise you’d just throw the towel. I’ve always learned to be flexible and adapt. Whether it’s the Olympics or Boston or New York, you need to be able to change your way of thinking in the race. You always want to fight for every spot, no matter what.
What is the likelihood that this will be your last competitive marathon?
Well, I started in New York and would like to finish in New York, but nothing is final. But Rio will be my twenty-fourth marathon and I will do two more after that—maybe a spring marathon and a fall marathon next year. The marathon is twenty-six miles, so I’d like to have race twenty-six competitive marathons in my career. Also, in terms of kilometers, I’ll be forty-two next year, so it seems like an appropriate time to stop. [The marathon is forty-two kilometers.]
You know, I love to train even though sometimes it gets hard, but, at the same time, it will be good to enjoy time with my girls and my wife and be able to do more things with them. When I’m training, sometimes I feel very secluded. I’ve never had a vacation, really, or a three-day weekend. Unless it’s after a marathon, where I can’t walk. For twenty-six years it’s been go, go, go, go. It’s been fun, don’t get me wrong, but there’s always more you can do to better yourself. Because you want to be as good as you can be and there’s family and friends that are committing their time—you don’t want to disappoint them. So you give it one-hundred and ten percent. It will be nice to relax after next year. I’ll still run, hopefully, for the rest of my life, whether it’s seven miles or ten miles, or half-marathon pacing or marathon pacing, but I don’t want to be committed to getting the best out of myself every time. I want to have a little bit of fun!
Speaking of having fun, any idea what you’ll do after you’re done with competitive running?
I have ideas. I do a lot of commencement speeches. Coaching is an interest of mine, and I also want to do running camps in Mammoth Lakes and in San Diego. But I’d want to put one-hundred and ten percent into it and right now my focus is on Rio. Business-wise, it might be smart to get the camps going right now, but at the same time I’d want people to have a positive experience. I don’t want to show up for an hour and call it a “Meb Camp.” That’s not going to happen. I want to make sure I’m there so they can run with me, dine with me, and I can drive them around and show them the ultimate time. That’s what they’d pay for—to have that experience with me. Down the road, I’d want to do that. Definitely in San Diego, but also in Mammoth Lakes.
Mammoth Lakes has been your home base for training for a long time. What is it that keeps you coming back?
When I first came here in ’95 with UCLA, I thought this was an amazing place for distance runners. I broke the American record in the 10K after training here for three weeks and fell in love with the place. The air, the solitude, the creek, the elevation… It’s 8,000 feet where the town is, although I go down to Bishop to do my fast stuff. It’s a combination of things, but it’s has worked for me for a very long time.
Now that you’re near the end of your career, is some part of you more conscious of enjoying the moment and taking it all in?
Most definitely. Rio is all about the family. Not that I don’t want to be competitive, or give it my best shot, but I can let my hair down just a little bit because, you know, I finished fourth in the last one in London. I thought that was going to be my last Olympics, until I finished fourth that day. You finish fourth and there’s that spark of energy: maybe I can do this again! Now that I’m going to Rio, it is my last Olympics and my daughters and wife will be there. And, yeah, I’m just hoping to enjoy it as something my girls will be able to remember. My daughter is six-and-a-half now, she was two-and-a-half when I ran in London, so she doesn’t remember. Rio will be for her. And, obviously, every time you get a chance to represent in the United States jersey it’s an amazing feeling and you take it with dignity and honor.
I’m looking to just have fun and whatever happens in Rio doesn’t define my career. My career has been solidified as a medalist and New York and Boston champion. The last two-to-three years has been the icing on the cake, so it’s a wonderful position to be in.