HOW MEB WON THE BOSTON MARATHON
San Diego runner used brains as much as body for historic win
By Mark Zeigler 05:13p.m. May 8, 2014
Mebrahtom Keflezighi is graced with small, light calves that give him less distal weight, allowing him to swing his foot and leg through with more speed and efficiency. He also, his coach says, is a high responder to altitude, allowing him to quickly reap the aerobic benefits of living and training at 7,880 feet.
Keflezighi does not have unusually long legs proportionate to his body, like many of the top Kenyan and Ethiopian star runners, but his sturdy, compact build makes him a masterful downhill runner and gives him an advantage on hilly marathon courses like the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he won the silver medal.
And like Boston, where he made history last month.
But the Eritrea-born San Diego High alum didn’t become the first U.S. citizen to win the Boston Marathon in 31 years, didn’t sooth the emotional wounds of the finish-line bombings from a year earlier, didn’t run a personal best of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 37 seconds, didn’t beat a loaded field that included 14 runners with faster PBs with merely his physical gifts.
“Marathoning,” Keflezighi says, “is a mind game.”
This was a win for ages crafted through savvy as much as skill, guile as much as guts. Keflezighi prevailed in the sport’s most iconic event two weeks before his 39th birthday, and as he reflects on that surreal charge down Boylston Street and prepares to be honored by his hometown Saturday at Balboa Stadium with “Meb Keflezighi Day,” he realizes that he achieved the nexus of mind and matter so elusive for the long-distance runner – mature enough to flawlessly navigate the nuances of training and racing, and still fit enough to be fast enough.
Meb Keflezighi Day
What: A city day to honor 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi, sponsored by Skechers, ElliptiGo and CEP sportswear.
Where: Balboa Stadium at San Diego High, Keflezighi’s alma mater.
When: Saturday morning. Gates open at 9:30 a.m., followed by a “walk” with Keflezighi and fans around the track at 10:15, followed by presentations by Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Councilman David Alvarez. Admission is free.
“It was smart training and smart racing, by a guy who brought it all together to run the perfect race on the perfect day,” says Bob Larsen, his longtime coach from San Diego who has helped revolutionize American distance running through high altitude training. “It’s hard to script that. It was magic, it was just magic.”
Marathons are often won miles before the starting line, on lonely trails, over lonely hours, punctuated only by your breath and the soft crunch of earth beneath your shoes. It is a delicate dance of motivation and obsession, of exertion and exhaustion, of red-lining and not blowing the engine. Screw it up, and you wait six months, maybe a year, to try again.
“When you’re younger, you think: ‘Go the extra mile, go the extra mile,’” Keflezighi says. “You’re always motivated to run hard, to work hard, to push the body. But when you’re older, you’re better off taking a day off or running less miles. You might be aching a little bit and think it’s going to warm up and feel better. Then you start hobbling.
“I looked at my training log and what I did in the past, and I realized I’m not 20 any more. So I just listened to by body.”
Keflezighi traditionally has operated on a seven-day schedule, from Monday to Sunday, mixing the three elements of his marathon training across the week: long runs, tempo runs and interval workouts. This time, he bumped it to nine days – logging roughly the same amount of work and intensity but over two extra days.
Some days, he woke up, felt an ache or a pain, and just scrapped the workout altogether. Some days he reduced it slightly. Some days, if he was feeling strong, he ramped it up.
“The whole thing,” Larsen says, “was get to the starting line healthy.”
Which he did.
A hamstring issue from six weeks earlier was enough of a concern that Larsen worried the usual surges in a 26.2-mile race coupled with the pounding of Boston’s late hills could unhinge it. So the strategy was to keep an even, steady pace and hope for the best.
Five miles in, defending champion Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and two other favorites pulled ahead of Keflezighi and slammed on the brakes, hoping to the slow down the 4:48 miles the American was clicking off. Keflezighi looked at Desisa and noticed something.
“I just didn’t see him being as efficient as he should be,” Keflezighi says, “the way the muscles were landing on the ground, the way his mechanics were. That’s probably the most important decision I made. I saw that and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go for it.’ Nobody told me that. You have to use your intuition.”
Keflezighi shot past them at a water station and took the lead. Only Josphat Boit, a Kenyan-born runner who recently obtained U.S. citizenship and also trains in Mammoth Lakes, went with him. They ran together for the next 10 miles while the group filled with sub-2:07 marathoners inexplicably fell more than a minute behind.
The Americans in the chase pack, at the direction of Ryan Hall, refused to push the pace with a fellow American in the lead, the type race tactics that Kenyans and Ethiopians have famously employed. “If the African guys were going to try to catch him,” Hall later told Sports Illustrated, “we weren’t going to do the work to help them.”
The Africans may also have dismissed Keflezighi with 20-plus miles to reel in a 38-year-old with one major marathon victory (New York in 2009) and a previous best of 2:09:08.
Larsen: “There were five guys in that field who had run under 2:05. When you get that many great guys, sometimes they sort of eyeball each other and they don’t want to be the guy to pull everyone else along.”
Keflezighi: “I was like, ‘You guys are making a mistake.’”
As the famed hills approached at mile 17, Keflezighi had another decision to make. Stay with Boit, or try to drop him.
“A few miles earlier, he had clipped me,” Keflezighi says. “I could tell that’s a lack of concentration or fatigue. I knew what was coming with the hills. I just pushed mile 16, a 4:30, which is pretty fast. I separated myself. I wanted to conquer the hills by myself. I didn’t want anybody to be with me. You dictate your own pace. If someone is with you, you might push outside your comfort zone and it costs you down the road.”
The hills behind him, he got a cramp in his side at mile 22. At mile 23, he saw Kenya’s Wilson Chebet – with a marathon best of 2:05.27 – rapidly closing. At mile 24, he felt “like throwing up.”
Then he heard the crowd, felt the crowd. U-S-A, U-S-A.
A year earlier, the bombs that would kill three people and injure 264 exploded five minutes after Keflezighi had left the finish area. He wrote the first names of the three on his yellow entry bib, plus the MIT police officer who died in the manhunt for the bombers.
“I crossed myself and said, ‘God, give me the spirit of the victims, give me the energy of the crowd,’” he says. “I said, ‘This is your moment. Sprint as hard as you can.’”
For Larsen, the defining moment was the underpass in the final mile, where runners disappear beneath Massachusetts Avenue and emerge on the other side. Chebet had pulled to within six seconds, and logic suggest he might ascend from the underpass in Keflezighi’s shadow.
Keflezighi popped out. Chebet wasn’t with him. The lead had expanded.
“The great ones in every sport rise to the highest level when the lights shine brightest,” Larsen says. “You look back at their careers, and they do some impossible things. And Meb has never been on a bigger stage and had such a great reason to run the perfect race. The moment didn’t overwhelm him, it brought out the best in him.
“That’s what the best ones do.”
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