The three-time Olympian will compete at this weekend’s U.S. Half Marathon Championships.
American marathoner Meb Keflezighi will be on the starting line at Sunday’s U.S. Half Marathon Championships in Houston, where well over a dozen athletes will be vying for a spot on the U.S. team that will compete at the world championships on March 29 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Houston has been good to the 38-year-old Keflezighi, who won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials there in January of 2012, breaking the tape in a personal best 2:09:08, making him the oldest man ever to win the race. Later that year, Keflezighi finished a memorable fourth in the marathon at the London Games, his second top-5 Olympic finish.
Keflezighi, who will line up amongst a loaded American field at this April’s Boston Marathon, last raced at the New York City Marathon in November, where he finished 23rd in 2:23:47. In that race, he stopped and walked at the 19.3-mile mark because “My body could not go anymore, not one more step.”
The cagey Keflezighi, who spent a majority of his professional career training in the high environs of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., moved back to his hometown of San Diego last June and along with former U.S. 5,000m record holder Bob Kennedy became co-owner of Movin’ Shoes, a local running specialty store.
We caught up with Keflezighi earlier this week before he headed to Houston and discussed this weekend’s race, his longevity as an athlete and his mastery of the sponsorship side of the sport, amongst other things.
The U.S. Half Marathon Championships are this weekend. It will be your first race since New York and looks to be a really competitive field. Where does this race fit into the overall scheme of 2014 and more immediately into your preparation for Boston a little over 13 weeks from now?
For one, it’s great to be healthy. I’m excited to go back to the half marathon but my last race was New York, the most memorable moment being crossing that finish line with Mike Cassidy, who I just met that morning. I’ve been overjoyed with pride about what has been said about that. I always try to give people high-fives or a thumbs-up, or if I finish a run in the evenings or when I’m cooling down I try to jog with people for 2 to 3 minutes just because…it’s nice. It’s nice to be able to encourage people and say “good job” or whatnot. But going into the half race now, this will be my fourth time, I believe. I had first place in ’09 and I think I was third in ’07 when Ryan broke the record. Last year I was second to Mo Trafeh. It’s a good race. It’s good to be going back to Houston where I won the Trials. I feel healthy and in decent shape and I’m looking forward to being competitive with the field that they have assembled. And you know, U.S. distance running has elevated to another level so it’s a strong field. I feel lucky to be healthy and we’ll see how the race unfolds.
You’ve got Boston coming up in April. It’s obviously going to be a race that has a lot of meaning for a lot of people, yourself included, given the events of last year. What does it mean to you to be competing in Boston this year?
April 15 of last year started out to be a glorious day but the image still goes back in my head of what happened and how people can think such evil things. I met a lady during the expo and it took her 22 years to qualify for Boston and, to this day, I don’t know if she made it to that finish line. Boston is the Olympics for the weekend warriors. They have to qualify, they have to earn it to be there, and to have that disruption to the dream that they’ve been working toward for a long time is heartbreaking. And to go back now, this year, knock on wood, I’ll be healthy, that’s first and foremost, every day I think about it. Every time I see a “Boston Strong” shirt when I’m training, or visualize what I want to do, it’s my hope and dream to be there healthy. It’s my hope and dream for me to pull it off for the USA. If I can’t do it, I hope Dathan can—he’s a contender now. Or one of the other Americans. I hope one of the females can pull it off. It would be beyond words if an American could pull it off, male or female. That’s what I visualize. For me, I hope to do it. I’m going to try my best to do that, but by the same token I’m going to do my best to be healthy and run well. If I run well and somebody else beats me, they deserve to win. I haven’t seen the international field but I know the defending champion is back. We all have motivation [for this race]. Everybody, not just the elites, but the weekend warriors, they want to support the Boston Marathon. The elites want to go to the Boston Marathon because all eyes will be on Boston this year, but they’re also going to say, “Hey, runners run united.” It’s unfortunate what happened (last year) but we are resilient, and we’ll go there and give it our best.
Let’s talk training for a minute. You spent most of your professional career training at altitude in Mammoth and you’ve been back living in San Diego, where you grew up, since last June. How has that transition been and what’s changed the most for you?
I love San Diego. I loved Mammoth when I was there; it was good to me and served its purpose. For me, when I was single that was home, but when we got married, it was a temporary home. I never skied. My wife never skied. She probably got cabin fever every winter and she sacrificed for my career by being there so we could get the best out of me. We love the community in Mammoth. They were very supportive of me and I love them back and I miss that small niche—going to the gym, or going to a coffee shop and saying, “Hey Meb!” and whatnot. But saying that, every day since the Olympic Games there has not been a day where somebody hasn’t said, “Hey Meb, good job, you made us proud,” not only in San Diego but wherever I’ve traveled, so it’s an honor to have that. And to be back in San Diego, the first place my feet landed when I came to the USA over 26 years ago, this is home for me. On the other side of that wall over there is Jefferson Elementary, where I went to sixth grade. I took a pic today coming here to meet you of the apartment at 2838 Arizona Street. Everywhere I go there are reminders of my fond childhood memories. And to be here and training, whether it’s the 3-mile runs or 4-mile runs I started out with, or Balboa Park where I ran the league championships, to do CIF, to do Foot Locker, or the Rock ’n’ Roll course, sometimes I do all of those runs in one day now. Sometimes it’s a flashback and I take a deep breath and remember how far I’ve come not just as a runner, but as a human being. Sometimes I say to myself, “You know what, I can cover all those runs that used to be an eternity for me in one run now.” In fact, yesterday I did 6th Avenue where the Rock ’n’ Roll starts, I did Balboa Park, by the dirt area where the league championship was — I can’t help but think back and remember all the people who have been there for me, whether competing against me or cheering me on, there’s some areas I run past where I think about the people who have watched me grow into the person that I am. I think of my dad coming down to the cross country league championships with orange juice and fruits or Adam Goucher at Footlocker or Ron Tabb showing me where to make a move at Foot Locker or coach Larson at one of my first collegiate cross country races. There have been so many memories. So all those are there and it gives me delight and fresh energy to say, “I did miss [San Diego], but I did all that, I sacrificed, to get the best out of myself and compete against the best of the world.” And to do that I needed to be in Mammoth, and Mammoth was a wonderful place for the time I was there. Now I’m delighted to be back in San Diego, and it’s a joy to have all my family around me here every day.
You’ve had a long career, with some great successes and some major injuries that have sidelined you, but for the most part you’ve been very consistent in your training and your racing. You’re still running strong at 38 and getting ready for one more possible run at the Olympic Games in 2016. Without giving away all your secrets, what have been some of the keys to your longevity as an athlete?
Life is full of challenges, just like a marathon is and just like a career is. For me, my longevity has been about doing the small things that make a big difference. They might be boring, they might be time-consuming now, but those things, the small things that not everyone does, help me be who I am. And I just surround myself with good people, knowledgeable people. I have a huge support system starting with my wife, who gave up her career so I could have the career that I have and would allow her to be with the kids. Because when she grew up and I grew up, at least one parent was always with us and obviously with as much travel as I do, she’s been there for them. And also, coach [Bob] Larson, working with him has been huge for a long time, even though now I do a lot of stuff on my own. But it’s just good people. There’s a lot of good people who are willing to help me, from physical therapists to Hawi, who makes my life easier when we travel, whether it’s showing up to appearances with me or keeping me from being bored in many ways. When I travel a lot it’s nice to have your brother there. We’ve been working together since 2005, almost 9 years, and it’s been a wonderful ride. But the longevity is being consistent in terms of running. When I get out of shape, I really get out of shape and I hate it. I always ask myself why I took so much time off, but I get back in shape quickly. And now, with 2016 approaching, I’ll play it year to year, but if I can still run personal bests and be competitive, there’s no reason I should stop. And it’s a personal challenge for me: Can I make my fourth Olympic team at 41? My wife and daughters and family were all in London, 50 deep, but the youngest one doesn’t remember what happened. She has no clue. The others do have an idea. That’s one of my inner drives: Can I make one more for her? Also, any time you get a chance to represent your country it’s an honor, and if I’m capable of doing that, have the fortune to do it again, I would like to be on the starting line.
My last question is business-related. A couple years ago you signed with Skechers after a long relationship with Nike. And since then you’ve been out on the road a lot, making appearances for your various sponsors, promoting your book and generally just connecting with fans whenever you can. How important is it for professional runners or aspiring professionals to do that if they want to make a living in the sport?
You know, Skechers has been great to work with. I mean, I presented to Nike that they should make Air Meb back in the days after the silver medal. That didn’t go anywhere, but the people at Skechers have the Meb Speed, they have a new shoe coming out this spring, the Meb Strada. They’ve been catering to me on how I want to do it. They’re a great marketing company, but they’re very unique in that they help me to be who I am. I’m a people’s person in many ways. And I’m making more money now than I had been with Nike. I went without a shoe sponsor for 8 months, till August 1. But I have 12 sponsors now who want to use my likeness and want me for who I am and what I stand for and they’ve all been wonderful to work with. And I don’t have to have one exclusive sponsor. Every one of my sponsors can use me to promote their product and Skechers is still getting their shoes in it. So marketability-wise, my dream has been answered because getting out of college I really wanted to have three to four sponsors but it went beyond my expectations to have all the sponsors that I have now. You can see on my website which ones they are. They’ve been all phenomenal to work with. Someone’s loss is somebody else’s gain. I’ve been fortunate to do what I do since ’98. Sixteen years as a professional for a distance runner is almost unheard of but I’m still here doing the best that I can. And I believe God has given me this talent — and there have been people who are more talented than me — but no one should out-work me. No one should out-smart me. If they have the talent I can’t do anything about it, but other small things I think I can do and help me be a better runner and a better human being and a better person and hopefully inspire others to get the best out of themselves.