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New York City Marathon Special To Meb Keflezighi

The 38-year-old acknowledges he's playing catchup heading into this year's race.

The 38-year-old acknowledges he’s playing catchup heading into this year’s race. 

It’s a rare runner, average or elite, whose buildup for a marathon goes perfectly as planned. And that’s been the case for Meb Keflezghi, as he approaches Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon, the race he won in 2009 to become the first American champion in 27 years. A partial tear of his soleus muscle, incurred in early September, forced him to adjust his training in the final runup to the race.

“I’m 38 years old,” said the 2004 Olympic silver medalist. “You have to make some concessions to age. When I was younger, two or three days off from an injury would be enough to recover. Now – whew,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m playing catch up. I haven’t really done a normal taper.”

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To aid his recovery, Keflezighi also eschewed his usual stint of altitude training in Mammoth. “This will be my first marathon where I’ve trained totally at sea level,” he said. “I was able to get more therapy, and do more cross training that way.”

While Keflezighi acknowledges he won’t be at 100 percent going into Sunday’s five-borough run, he knows many in the rest of the elite field won’t be, either. “Coach Larsen always said you don’t have to beat everyone, just one-third of them,” he said of the advice he received from the man who’s coached him since his collegiate days at UCLA. “One third of them will be overtrained or injured, another third will be out of shape and struggling. It’s the last third you have to worry about.”

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Which third Keflezighi finds himself on Sunday probably won’t be revealed until the race is underway. “I’ll be monitoring my body, and the competition, seeing how the race is developing,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t judge your performance based on your workouts before.”

He’s also learned that how you feel early in a race can have little bearing on your ultimate finish. “Early in London [last year’s Olympics, where he finished fourth] I was thinking of where I could drop out. But then I realized I wasn’t running for myself, I was running for my country, and I was going to finish, no matter how far back.

“As the race went on, I started to feel better, and began passing people, until with 5K to go Coach Larsen told me I was sixth, and I went all-out to catch the two guys ahead of me.”

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While Keflezighi holds little illusion of a similar come from behind strategy working Sunday, there was no way he was going to miss this year’s marathon if he was physically able to start. Following the 11th-hour cancellation of last year’s marathon in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Keflezighi addressed a meeting of the elite athletes, many of whom were understandably upset by the move. He spoke of how all athletes face setbacks in their careers, and that this was just one more to be overcome. “That was the most nervous I’ve been in my life,” he said. “My heart was pounding faster than in any race. But God was telling me I needed to speak, and after I did, many people came up and told me I was the right person saying what needed to be said.

“New York has always been special to me,” he continued. “From the first time I ran it in 2002, it was a goal to win. The New York Road Runners always treats the athletes amazingly, and as long as I can run well here, I’ll keep coming.”

While Keflezighi realizes he’s closer to the end of his competitive career than the beginning, that final chapter does not yet appear to be in sight. “As long as I can stay healthy, keep training and racing at a high level, and running is fun, I will keep doing it.”