Earlier this year, Meb Keflezighi, now 41, announced that he would run his last competitive Boston Marathon on April 17, and conclude his career at the 2017 New York City Marathon this fall. Meb called us from his training camp in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., to share more details on his retirement, his memories and his plans for the future.
Competitor: When did you decide that this would be your last year of competitive marathoning?
Meb: It has been in the works for a long time. Even when I was a Nike athlete [in the late 2000s], I told them, “Give me until 2012.”
I wanted to go on my own terms. I didn’t go to Beijing [Olympics in 2008]. So I said I’ll prove myself. I’ve got one more Olympics in me, and the potential to win New York or Boston.
Five years later, I’m thankful to Skechers for giving me a second life. To be able to do what I love: I love running. Even though, sometimes, you know marathons, you can fly when things are going well, and other times, when they are not going well, it is very long, lonely days.
I had signed up for New York City 2013 to be my last marathon. But because of the cancellation in 2012, and the horrific moment of the Boston Marathon in 2013, that kept me going.
I told my wife after I won Boston, “I want to try to make another Olympic team in 2016.” She thought I was nuts, I was crazy. “What are you talking about? That’s two more years!” I had to convince her to do that. She’s been looking for my retirement for a long, long time.
In honor of the distance, 26 miles [New York 2017 will be Meb’s 26th marathon], 42 kilometers [Meb’s age in November], I’m going to stop.
CM: Will you continue to run?
Meb: Running is in my blood, and I’d love to do it for as long as I can. My mindset was to compete as long as I can and as best as I can in high school, college, league championships, state championships, NCAA titles, USA titles—a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance, and being a competitor. Now, I’m looking forward to the other chapter of my life. I just want to enjoy running. For me it was business, strictly business.
CM: After your first marathon, New York City in 2002, you said, “This is my first and last marathon. I never want to do a marathon again.” When did you change your mind and decide this was going to be your event?
Meb: People always thought it was going to be my event, according to how efficient I was. I could get a steady pace going in high school. Before I knew how far a marathon was, they’d say, “You’re going to be a beautiful marathoner.” But I was a prideful miler. So I didn’t take them too seriously.
When I tried in New York, it was so much pain. I went for the win, I put everything in there. I got it down to four people, and I thought, at best I could win, worse I’d finish top four. I hit the wall hard. Rodgers Rop put four minutes on me in the last five miles. I was moving, but not very fast.
But I learned a lot from it. You don’t always learn when you do well, you learn from your mistakes.
I went to Eritrea, where I was born, two weeks later for the first time. I saw how people were living, trying to survive. I realized that my temporary discomfort was not as bad as day-to-day chores. That people don’t have a choice to run a marathon, but have to work and survive.
CM: You didn’t get to run the Boston Marathon until 2006 and have only run it four times. What is distinctive about Boston for you?
Meb: The public knowledge is more about Boston. If you are a distance runner, you are measured by the stature of the Boston Marathon, because it has been going on forever. Even when I was in college, or a 10K runner professionally, people would say, “Oh, have you done the Boston Marathon? You’ve got to do it one day.”
In 2006, I went for it. That was my fittest Boston I’ve ever been. But I made a tactical mistake. I went out too fast, 1:02:45. I thought it was going to be a great PR day, or it was going to be a long day. And it turned out to be a long day.
CM: That’s a classic Boston story, the course lures you into that.
Meb: Absolutely. Ron Tab, who guided me on the side in high school, told me, “Don’t go faster than 4:50 [per mile] the first half of the marathon.” I had my watch, and I’d hit the split whenever the mile markers were coming—but it felt so easy. Then I looked at the total time, and was like, “Oh man, it’s going to be a good day or bad day.” And it was a bad day.
CM: In 2014, you were about as far ahead as well. Did you have any concerns being so far out front?
Meb: By then, that was my 19th marathon, I had all the experience in the world, from coming from behind, or going from the front, or the middle, whatever way. I was not worried.
Boston Strong made it a special year for all of us, motivation wise. My goal was leading the 36,000 people entered to own Boylston Street. I wrote the victims’ names on my bib, and kept pushing and pushing, just kept grinding.
Looking back on the 24 marathons I’ve ever run, except for Chicago where I didn’t go for the win, Boston was the only one where I ran my own race the way I wanted to. The other races, you’ve got to respond to others, trying to cover someone else’s move. Boston 2014 I ran it the way I wanted to run.
To be able to have everybody on their feet, down the tunnel, and be the first American to pull the victory on this most important day. It was a great honor to be able to pull the victory for all of us.
CM: After all that emotion, going into this year, what are you thinking?
Meb: I’m excited to go there, whether I compete for the title, or top 3, or top 10. I’m excited regardless of what happens. I’ve just got to get to the finish line. It’s my 25th marathon, and then I get to do New York.
CM: Going into this race, does it ever intimidate you that there are five people who have run sub 2:05?
Meb: The guys I have beat in the past were 2:04, 2:05 guys. So why should I be scared now? They have to run that time that day. My PR is 2:08:37, but I have beat guys who have run 2:03. I’ve been very fortunate, hopefully I can rise to the occasion again.
All my Boston finishes have been top 10. If I can get that, I will be happy. If that happens, I’ll be able to say, “All my competitive marathons at Boston have been within the top 10.”
CM: Do you see yourself running non-competitive marathons?
Meb: Down the road, that’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to do a marathon a year, maybe Boston and New York. Run with the people—maybe pace a 3-hour, or maybe a 3:30, or 2:40 and 2:50 group—whatever it might be.
I would love to give back as I have the chance, whether it is coaching people, pacing people, or motivating people. I would love to do clinics and seminars on how to run a marathon—to evaluate and spend time with people. I love to meet fellow runners. I get equally excited meeting them as they get meeting me. I enjoy it.
CM: Is your family happy that you’re done with marathons, and finishing up your career?
Meb: Absolutely. My wife will be happy, for sure. It has been hard on her, with the kids. Who ever thought I’d be close to 42 years old, at training camps. I go away for three to four weeks every marathon.
My parents have been ready for me to retire a long time ago. My dad always thought I work so hard. It is a compliment when it comes from your parents that you work so hard, especially from somebody like my father, who walked 225 miles to save his life in the Sudan…
They are ready for me. The time is right. I want to live on my own terms. I want to do it the way I want to do it. I want to spend more time with my siblings, my wife and kids, parents—to work on my foundation and give more time to my fellow runners. I want to spend more time with the people who have supported me over the years.