The favorite to win Sunday’s Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon shares some of his training secrets and his hopes for the future.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi, 34, of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., will compete in—and is favored to win—the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon Sunday. Born in Eritrea, Meb was schooled in San Diego and Los Angeles, became a naturalized US citizen in 1998, and won a silver medal for his adopted homeland in the 2004 Olympics. He has won 19 national championships on the track, on the roads, and in cross country, and holds the American record at 10,000 meters (27:13.98). Meb is part of the Mammoth Lakes Track Club, whose other members include Deena Kastor and Ryan Hall, and he is coached by Bob Larsen.
Competitor: What is your goal for the San Jose Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon?
Meb: First of all, to finish the race would be nice. In the inaugural race in 2006 I started pretty good and tried to go for the American record, which was 1:00:55 seconds at the time [it has since been lowered to 59:43 by Ryan Hall]. I was on pace at mile 11 but then my hamstring cramped up and I had to stop. It was not a good feeling not to finish the race. In the previous week I had put in 121 miles trying to get ready for New York.
I’m in the same situation now [Meb will compete in the New York City Marathon on November 1.] My training has been going good and my times indicate that I have good fitness. I’ve never run this many miles in my career. For the past three weeks I’ve been at about 130 miles a week. This week I’m taking an easy week and then I will try to hit a fast time in San Jose. After that I will take a couple of easy weeks and then try to peak for November.
Will you start off at a certain pace or just go by how your body feels and ignore the stopwatch?
I’m definitely concerned about the watch. Otherwise I would stay home and keep training hard. Part of racing is the competition, which makes you faster. And you want to utilize the training and be very productive. I’m hoping to start at 4:38 [for the first mile] and maintain that or go faster. I like to take it easy in the first two miles. I’m up at altitude in Mammoth Lakes and I will be racing at sea level. It will be nice just to settle in and let the body warm up and then crank out anywhere from 4:38 to 4:33 [per mile]. Is it going to happen? We’ll have to wait and see. I’d like to give it a try.
You mention that you are running the highest mileage of your career. What is the rationale for increasing your training volume now?
To run high mileage you have to be healthy, and I have been healthy. When you stay healthy you get to do a lot of things—your body can do some incredible stuff. My goal is [the Olympics in] 2012. I still believe that I can make the team and be a contender. There are stepping stones that will help me get there, and one of them is the San Jose Half this weekend. Then the New York City Marathon, and we’ll go from there. I haven’t done a lot of miles for a long time—really since 2002, when I started doing marathons. I believe I still have more PR’s in me in the marathon and half marathon.
There are a lot of marathon runners who routinely run 130 miles per week. Why did you wait so long to take your mileage to that level?
Part of training is to be smart. What other people do isn’t always going to work for you. My body wasn’t able to take it. Part of being smart also is to run on soft surfaces. Once or twice a week I run on asphalt, but all of my other running is on dirt. It’s all about knowing what your body can and cannot do. I’m 34 for and some of the workouts I’ve done recently have been the best workouts I’ve ever done, so that tells you something.
How did you determine the training methods that did and did not work for you? Was it mainly injuries that told you what you could not do?
Some of it was injuries. When you have aches and pains you can’t do the double days, so your mileage is minimized. So what I did in the past was a lot of biking and some swimming. You want to win, and you want to push, push, push, but at the same time you don’t want to overdo it. I’ve been in this sport a long time and I try to always make the wise move. Sometimes it’s better to take the afternoon off than to do a 30-minute run and pay for it for the next week. Thirty minutes might not make a big difference but a week of training will.
Have you learned things from some of your injuries that have helped you train better afterward?
It’s good to look back at your training logs and review them. After San Jose in 2006 I looked back at my training log to see what my body was able to do on 121 miles the week before. This year I’m definitely not doing that! Those training logs are there for a purpose. I make notes about what I learn form each race. Then I look back at those notes and try to apply them to my next training.
Over the course of your career, have you been able to identify some specific training practices that really seem to work especially well for you?
Oh, yeah. That’s why we’ve gone back to what I did in 2004. That was five years ago and we’ve modified it a little bit because of my age, but at the same time I’m running faster in my tempo runs now than I did then. We have a routine where Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday are my crucial days. I do long runs twice a week, a tempo run and intervals. That’s four days when I’m pushing the body to the limit and looking for small progress yet seeing what the big vision is. It’s a work of art, and some days it comes out right and other days it doesn’t.
Do you plan your training in detail far in advance?
I usually work backwards. Coach Larsen is a great mentor and has been helping me out quite a bit. Eventually I will probably go into coaching, so I kind of tell him what I want to do and he’ll help me fix it up. For this training [cycle] I wrote up a training plan of what I want to do and what it’s going to take to win New York and I gave it to him and he confirmed it. One of the decisions we had to make was whether to run the [US] 10-mile championship [to be held in Minneapolis-St. Paul on Sunday, October 4] or San Jose, and we decided on San Jose because of the distance and less travel. It works perfectly, so we decided to go that route.