Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Keflezighi was the first American in 31 years to win the Boston Marathon. He is the first American male to win in 31 years. This version has been corrected.
It’s a near guarantee that if the name “Meb” is mentioned, most people, runners or not, will recognize it. Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi emigrated from Eritrea when he was 12 and took up running in his early teens. In 2014, he won the Boston Marathon, the first American male in 31 years to do so. In addition to competition, he’s a best-selling author and leads a foundation dedicated to helping children discover the joys of fitness at a young age. And at age 40, he’s still striving to win every race.
Some of Keflezighi’s most important victories have come on the road in cities. He always trains hard, but he says he can tell whether he’ll do well in a city once he gets off the airplane. As it puts it, “you feel it in the air.”
I spoke with Keflezighi by phone from Mammoth Lakes, Calif., where he is training for the TCS New York City Marathon on Nov. 1., his 10th race in the Big Apple. Here is an edited excerpt of our conversation.
Plunkett: How’s your training going?
Keflezighi: Good. I’m kind of winding down. I’ve got one more hard week, and then after that, it’s just maintaining. I say in my book, “The hay is in the barn after three weeks left.” There’s a lot of things I could do to get fitter or stronger, but there’s a lot of things I could do to screw it up. I want to get to the starting line healthy, so I’m trying to take the most conservative way as much as I can.
What’s your goal for this year’s New York City Marathon?
My goal is always to go for the win. Goal number two is to finish top three, top five. And goal number three is, you know, finish as high as possible but come out healthy. And then I have a very quick turnaround to get ready for the Olympic trials [Feb. 13 in Los Angeles]. You want to go all out, but you don’t want to jeopardize your health or injure yourself.
You just turned 40 and are officially in the master’s category. Do you feel that your running game has changed?
Most definitely. When you’re aching here and there, sometimes it takes forever to recover. You used to take just a day off and bounce back. Nutritionally you need to be careful what you consume. You don’t have the metabolism you used to and need more recovery days in between. The whole point now is to stay healthy, then the performance will take care of itself. Because the base, the background of the running I’ve done for 25 years, should be able to carry me through.
Is there a particular city you like to run in?
Yeah, well, you can feel it. There’s some areas where you land at the airport and you get into the terminal, you feel it in the air, you feel “this is wonderful.” You can feel immediately how you’re going to do. For me, obviously, New York has been that way. Boston has been that way. Unfortunately, Eugene [Oregon, where Keflezighi historically has struggled] has not been that way.
It’s that feeling of you’re ready to go, and in other cities, it’s “uhhh.” When I go to Houston, I can feel the air. I’m okay with it, maybe it’s just comfort. Some other cities, it’s denser air, I just gotta survive! You have to compete, but you have to survive.
What makes for a good road course?
It can’t be all completely flat. The weather is a factor, but in terms of the course itself, you’ll have some undulating courses where you’ll have to change your mechanics — shorter stride or longer stride or downhill, you use gravity to your advantage. There needs to be turns where you can say, “Oh, okay, I can look back and see how much gap I have to break away from the group.”
An interactive course is always good, and it’s always special when you have an out-and-back course because you can see the other runners. They draw energy from you, and you draw energy from them. People can engage on how fast they can go and see you and say, “I ran the same route as Meb!” or whoever it is, and we help and support each other.
Do you have to adjust your training or even recovery based on different terrains of cities?
I always say a marathon is 26.2 no matter where you go, but you can’t just train flat and expect to do well on a hilly or a downhill course. You’ve got to stress those muscles to do those things. You don’t have to be at the course to do that, but I believe that you have to be cognizant that miles 17 and 18 are hilly, so try to find something like that.
Have you been able to run in a race here in D.C.?
I have relatives in D.C., so I come back quite a bit and have done a lot of practices,a lot of running by the monuments. The buildings there on the Mall, it’s an awesome feeling. Race-wise, the Capital Challenge [a three-mile race that features teams from Congress, the military and the media] I’ve done twice, and those are lots of fun.
How many miles have you run this year?
It’s anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 a year, but I can tell you I have run over 100,000 miles since 1993. You know the circumference of the world? It’s 24,905 — so 25,000. I have finally completed my four laps around the world.
Are you planning to retire after the Olympics or have you set a date yet?
No, I haven’t set a retirement date. Hopefully, Rio and one or two more New York City marathons and call it a goodbye. I’ve been saying is that I’ve done 21 marathons, and I want to stop at 26. I’ll be a part of the sport to do 10Ks and half-marathons. I enjoy those, and they are a way of life for me. It’s in my blood.
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