Meb Keflezighi Tells All: How Much He’s Willing to Hurt for a Win

Meb Keflezighi
Photo courtesy of TCS Marathon

“You know it’s going to hurt. So you have to ask yourself: Are you willing to hurt more than someone else?” That’s what elite long distance runner Meb Keflezighi has been telling himself leading up to the 2014 TCS New York City Marathon. Why is this year different for the 39-year-old competitor? The added pressure of being the first American man to win the Boston Marathon since 1983 has him hungry for another W. We caught up with Meb to hear his takes on age, weight training, and mental preparation in the days before the big race. 

Are you still feeling a lot of pressure to win the TCS NYC Marathon after your victory in Boston, or is it subsiding a bit as the race gets closer?

No, the pressure never goes away. I still like to compete so I’m happy to be here for the TCS New York Marathon and feel fortunate enough to have experienced TCS’s passion for running and community support first-hand through my partnership with them this year. Expectations are higher after Boston though, so I put a lot of pressure on myself. But what I wanted to accomplish in my career has been accomplished — winning at the Olympics, New York City and Boston — so I’m happy. There’s a pressure, but a different kind.

At 39 years old, you’re continuing to break records and set new PRs. Is age helping you?

“I’d say I never run without music unless my battery dies. But on race day you get enough energy from the crowds.”

It’s wisdom versus youth. For me, I was always a front-runner. I would go out hard and try to win. Now I have to be more intuitive — use tactics and strategies to my advantage. Wisdom makes up for age. And at the end of the day, it’s hard work. At Boston in 2010 I went out at world record pace, hit a wall and couldn’t recover. When I did my first debut in New York in 2002 I went for it, and was in leading position with four other guys. It was cold and I put water over my head and that 38-degree water shut my engine off. At the end of the day, you have to be healthy, strong, fit — and may the best man and woman win.

Has getting older affected recovery for you? Is it harder to bounce back than it used to be?

I get deep tissue massages two or three times a weeks for back recovery. I used to do ice baths but I stopped last September. I got tired of shivering for four to five hours after. I use Norma Tec compression boots and do some self-therapy.

When I get injured though, it does take longer to bounce back. Back in the day, I’d take one to three days off and bounce back, but not anymore.

Meb Keflezighi
Photo by Tim Kilduff

What specific changes did you make to your training regimen to win the Boston Marathon? 

I’ve been doing a lot of self-listening and body analyzing. I switched to a 9-day [training] cycle instead of a typical Monday to Sunday one. Sundays are long runs, then I eliminated the long run on Wednesday and do intervals instead. On Fridays, I do tempo and then wait two days to do a long run again. I need more recovery days to feel as strong as possible and not get injured. If I feel my stamina is not there, I’ll do long runs maybe twice a week. If I feel my tempo isn’t there, which has been the case, I’ll work on tempo.

I also do a lot of extra stretching, planks, plyometrics and core exercises. They’re small things but they kept me upright and mechanically sound when I needed it for Boston, which was a tough race, I had to break away early. I was supposed to draft until mile 24 and then make my move but that changed. I saw what the other guys were doing, and evaluated what I needed to do. You’ve got to listen to your intuition and make a decision.

“Training is 90 percent physical and 10 percent mental. Then race day it switches — it’s 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.”

I also had the victims from the bombing the year before in my mind and the motivation of the crowd. Training, motivation and emotion came together to help me be victorious.

You changed over from a Nike athlete to Skechers in 2011. Has that affected your training at all?

I was always a heel striker and Skechers shoes have allowed me to mid-foot strike. I feel like it’s a partnership more than a sponsorship, too. What people don’t realize is that we work hard every day — not just for one race. We train year-round and [that gives] me the experience I need to run races like Boston. I hope to peak two to three to four times a year. But I run every week.

Have you increased your cross-training in the past year? How important has it been to your running success?

As you get older, you have to stay healthy, and how do you do that? I changed what I did before Boston. Instead of a three-mile cool down after my first run and then going back for a long run that same day, I’ll do a four- or five-mile cool down, and then go for a ride on the ElliptiGO. I’ll go for an hour or two hour ride [on that] because there’s no impact on the body. It’s more endurance training with no risk of injury. The hardest part is getting on it! I did that leading up to the marathon, but then at the very end I’ve done more runs.

What about weight training? Will a stronger, heavier build mean a potentially slower time?

I do very minimalist weight training. I’ll do hamstring curls or work on my quads or hip flexion. I do core exercises at the gym or my house using the big medicine ball, too. I’ll do adductor work, crunches, hamstring curls, simple stuff. You can’t get too big though; you’ve got to carry it for a half-marathon or 26.2 miles

Biggest race day blooper?

When I became a Skechers athlete, I remember before one of my races the warm-up [outfit] I was wearing had no pockets. I always wear Breathe Right strips when I run, so the night before I put the strip in my shoe with my Vaseline and socks. I ended up getting rushed into the race… I was putting on Vaseline, thinking about food, but I wasn’t thinking about the Breathe Right. A few miles in, I felt something in my shoe. I touched my nose and realized the Breathe Right strip never came out of my shoe. It ended up cutting into my foot and becoming the biggest cut I’ve ever had. Then it got infected! The NYCM trial was 69 days away and it was infected for three weeks. I ended up only having 38 days of training because of it.

Meb Keflezighi
Photo by Tim Kilduff

Do you truly enjoy running without music? How easy is it to drop the beats and work off the high of the run, course and crowd?

When I race with people, I never wear music out of respect. But I love wearing my Walkman. I get a high from music and cadence and rhythm. I’d say I never run without music unless my battery dies. But on race day you get enough energy from the crowds. And you just know the music is just not available.

Regurgitation along the racecourse — has it happened to you? How did you react? 

At mile 24 in Boston I felt like I had to. Imagine if you puke, what that looks like to the people behind you. If I had puked, it would have made the other runners think I’d been defeated. So I held it in. In the NYC Marathon in 2011 I went out hard at a 2:06 pace and had to make a full stop on the side of the course. After that, [other runners] get away from you. 

What percent of a race is mental and what percent is physical for you? How do you mentally prepare?

Training is 90 percent physical and 10 percent mental. Then race day it switches — it’s 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. You have to visualize what you want to accomplish. I pray a lot and think about my family as a sense of motivation. I tell myself I can do it.

Track Meb this Sunday, November 2, as he runs the New York City Marathon starting at 9:00 a.m., EST, on ESPN2 and WatchESPN.

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