It happens fast. One day it’s “Hey, kid!” Next thing you know it’s “Hey, buddy!” Then one unsuspecting day it’s “Excuse me, Sir. Can I get a picture?”
There aren’t many athletes in any sport who can say, “I couldn’t have done it any better. I left nothing on the table.” U.S. distance runner Meb Keflezighi is among the small cadre who can.
With his 2004 Olympic Marathon silver medal, wins at the 2009 New York City and 2014 Boston Marathons — and more American road, cross country and track titles than he has fingers and toes — Meb enters the over-40 master’s division in perfect harmony, neither pressing or stressing, yet still pushing ahead for more.
This Sunday Meb — Sir, in the above request — will compete in his hometown at the Rock `n` Roll Half Marathon in San Diego, part of the weekend long Suja Rock `n` Roll Marathon & Half-Marathon, the birthing event of the Rock `n` Roll series, which has now spread world-wide. It will mark Meb’s debut in the master’s division having turned 40 on the 5th of May.
Appropriately, Sunday’s half marathon doubles as the USATF National Masters Championship, the first national title designation RnR San Diego has garnered in its 18 year history.
“Mbarak Hussein holds the U.S. masters half marathon record at 1:03:23 from Philadelphia 2005,” I told Meb as we talked in the San Diego Convention Center where the RnR Expo is being staged, and today’s press conference was held.
“I know that,” he replied with a smile. “This isn’t a certified course, but anyone who runs that fast I count it.”
Meb has won the RnR Half twice before, 2011 (62:08) and 2012 (63:11). His PR at the distance, 61:00 (San Jose `09), ranks as the sixth best in U.S. history.
RnR will be his first race since finishing eighth at the Boston Marathon in April. Before that he ran two halves earlier in the year, taking 4th at the Aramco Houston Half in January (62:18) and shaving one second off that time two months later in New York in his Boston Marathon tune up.
“My mentality hasn’t changed,” Meb continued, as autograph seekers lined up in a courteous queque. “But I’m glad I’m 40. It’s no longer about ‘what can I accomplish?’ It’s doing my part to help and inspire others to achieve what they want to accomplish, to give back to the sport.
As we spoke former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy called. Tony and Meb both wrote books through Tyndale House Publishers, and in the process became friends. Meb looked down, but let the call go to voice mail.
“I’m a God believer. My career should’ve been over after the 2008 Olympic Trials (Marathon). I had to crawl to the bathroom the next day (Meb suffered a fractured hip in that race, requiring an 18-month rehab). That’s why (2009) New York was my Olympic gold medal. That one was for me. Boston (2014) and Athens (2004) were for the USA. But to come back and win Boston after all that had happened the year before made it the most meaningful victory of my career.”
It isn’t standard issue for the great open division runners to go on to be the tops when they turn masters. Either too much damage has been done through the years, or just as likely the mental muscle needed to push through the very hard workouts has atrophied.
“Most people don’t enjoy the training,” countered Meb. “But me, I believe in preparation. I’ve been doing 12 miles a day since UCLA days.”
Though he has cut back on his training, substituting Elliptigo cross training for his second run of the day, Meb is still out for blood on Sunday. Mammoth Lakes, California trained Shadrack Biwott (PR 61:25) and Josphat Boit (61:33), along with Flagstaff, Arizona’s Matt Llano (61:47) will serve as his primary competition.
“I want to see what I can do with the fitness I have,” said Meb. “Though I won’t go to the wall, it would be nice to win overall, too.”
Not that there is any pressure. The old man is playing with house money from this point forward.