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2009 NYC Marathon Champ Meb Keflezighi Ponders Life After Running

Olympian Meb Keflezighi reflects on running the NYC Marathon 10 times and what life will look like after he retires from competitive running at the age of 41.

Originally published on on Nov. 2, 2016.

By now, Meb Keflezighi is familiar with every patch of asphalt on the New York City Marathon route.

He has run the race 10 times, finishing as high as first and as far back as 23rd. It’s a race he holds dear for his 2009 victory—coming at a time when some believed his career was over— and for the way the city has opened its arms to him, time and again. Fans have cheered his every stride through the five boroughs. He calls it “the marathon of the world” for its diverse field and crowds.

So, he’s excited to return to New York for Sunday’s race. This time, he’s even guaranteed a lead position.

For the first time since 2012, Keflezighi, 41, won’t be running. Instead, he’ll be one of the race’s grand marshals, along with his U.S. marathon teammates from this summer’s Olympics. He’ll be in the lead vehicle with a chance to see the race unfold without breaking a sweat.

“It’s going to be a whole different perspective,” he said.

These days, Keflezighi is taking some time to look at everything from a new angle. After competing in his fourth Olympics, he’s transitioning into a retirement that could take many shapes. It’s a transition that will take a while.

He plans to run two more marathons, both in 2017. That would give him 26 career marathon finishes.

“Twenty-six marathons for the distance,” he said, referring to the race’s 26.2-mile length. “And I’m also going to be 42 years old. In terms of running international, it’s 42 kilometers and 195 meters. So, 42 years old and 26 marathons in honor of the distance.”

He said nothing is official on which races he’ll run. He’s hopeful they will be Boston and New York. A finale in New York would be a fitting farewell. He made his marathon debut there in 2002.

“But we’re still working out the details,” he said.

Keflezighi will continue to train and run through next year and beyond, but he knows it’s time for his marathon career to end. After that, he’ll run half-marathons, 15Ks, 10Ks and other shorter distances, while putting most of his attention on his family, his Meb Foundation and business and charitable interests.

“I’ve been running 26 years,” he said. “I just don’t want to do competitive marathons where people, believe it or not, still expect me to win. Even though I’m 41, 42, they want me to win. But expectations, external and internal—even though I have the desire to do those things, go to Rio, get the gold—I wish it were that simple. Everything has to click. Sometimes, you just have to be thankful for the things you have earned.”

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‘No unturned stones’

What Keflezighi has earned has been remarkable.

He’s the only marathoner to have won an Olympic medal (silver in 2004) while also winning at Boston and New York. He was on the 2000, 2004, 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic teams. He won 23 national championships at various distances. And he won four NCAA titles at UCLA before turning pro in 1998.

“My career has been more special than I could have ever imagined,” he said. “I’m grateful for that.”

He said “there’s no unturned stones” in his marathon career. He has accomplished more than he dreamed. His only goal for his final two marathons will be to finish in the top 10. They won’t be ceremonial strolls.

“I don’t want to say, ‘Ahh, I just finished it,'” he said. “I want to finish strong and be as competitive as I can be.”

Keflezighi, who came to the United States with his family from war-torn Eritrea at the age of 12, discovered running as a middle schooler in San Diego. He then became a standout at San Diego High School and earned a scholarship to UCLA. He excelled at cross country and the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. He made his first Olympic team in the 10,000 and competed in the 2000 Sydney Summer Games. The following year, he set a U.S. 10K record (27:13.98).

It wasn’t until 2002 that he ran his first marathon, finishing New York in 2:12:35, good for ninth place.

At the time, he said he never wanted to do a marathon again—yet he actually had found his calling. Now he laughs when sharing his only regret: “What I now know, I wish I knew then.”

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What’s next?

Keflezighi’s whole focus earlier this year was on making the Rio de Janeiro Olympics and doing as well as possible. He qualified by finishing second in the U.S. trials in Los Angeles in February, running 2:12:20. At 40, he became the oldest American marathoner to qualify for the summer games.

He went into the Olympics feeling strong, but he got sick on race day and had to stop several times to throw up. He willed himself to continue. Then, as he approached the finish, he slipped on the wet pavement and fell face down across the line—where he promptly did three pushups to show he was fine, got up and celebrated his 33rd-place finish in 2:16:46.

Though disappointed, he’s proud of what he did in Brazil. One reason he wanted to go to a fourth Olympics was so his three daughters (ages 10, 8 and 6) would have a memory of their father in the Rio Games.

They were there at the finish with wife Yordanos, brother Hawi and longtime coach Bob Larsen.

“They remember it,” Keflezighi said. “That was the whole goal. My youngest daughter does remember. When she was asked what was the best part of the summer, she said, ‘When Daddy competed in Rio.'”

Time with his wife and daughters is at the top of Keflezighi’s wish list now, as he transitions into retirement. He said travel and training have taken too much time from them.

He hopes to blend family time with the work he does for the Meb Foundation, which is focused on helping children to be healthy and successful. Also on that list is doing public speaking and coaching. He’s interested in coaching every type of athlete, from collegiate standouts to men and women who simply want to complete in a half marathon.

Keflezighi said he doesn’t want to be known as just a fine runner but also as a “positive citizen and contributor to society.”

And Keflezighi’s post-marathon world will also be filled with appearances and work for his many sponsors. Last weekend, he was at a half marathon in Sonoma, California, mingling with runners for a company that makes jerky products. Included among his other sponsors are companies that make shoes, printers, nutrition bars, compression socks, sunglasses and tires.

Though he won’t be running in Sunday’s New York City Marathon, he’s still having a busy race week. On Tuesday, he received an award from famed distance runner Grete Waitz’s AKTIV Against Cancer organization for his philanthropic work, and he took part in a news conference with the grand marshals on Thursday.

Twenty-four marathons down, two to go. There’s still more work to do.

“It is my plan,” said Keflezighi, laughing, “but sometimes you wonder why you come up with these things.”

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