The American recalls his dramatic result a year after the 2012 Olympics.
(c) 2013 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
It has been 365 days since American Meb Keflezighi ran down The Mall in London with an American flag raised high above his head. Three hundred and sixty-five days since the father of three defied the nay-naysayers, those who said he was too old to do well in his second Olympic Marathon, eight years after earning a silver medal in Athens. It has been 365 days since Keflezighi — then 37 — placed fourth in the marathon at the 2012 London Olympics.
“Looking back,” Keflezighi paused for a brief moment of self-reflection, “people are still talking about it. How I came back from 20th place to fourth place and how it inspired people to be the only American finisher. Hopefully I made them proud. I haven’t gone anywhere in the last year where someone hasn’t talked about it.”
On the eve of this month’s TD Beach to Beacon 10K in Maine — where he finished fifth as the top American — Keflezighi sat down with Race Results Weekly to talk about the 2012 Olympic Marathon. Asked his thoughts about the race one year later, he opened up with a mix of emotions.
Keflezighi remembers Aug. 12, 2012, in vivid, distinct detail, both the good and the bad. From the time he toed the start line with teammates Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman, to the crossing of the finish 2:11:06 later, Keflezighi can recount nearly every mile.
Knew It Would Be Tough Race
Entering the race, Keflezighi knew it would be one of the toughest of his career. Training hadn’t gone problem-free for the UCLA alum, and “glute” injuries had bugged him sporadically in the months leading up to the race. With only four weeks of training at over 100 miles, and his longest tempo run having been 12 miles, Keflezighi’s expectations were modest.
Things didn’t improve when he approached the starting line. In the minutes before the starter’s gun fired, a select number of athletes were announced and honored in front of the crowd. Among them were Hall, world champion Abel Kirui, Great Britain’s Scott Overall and Brazil’s Marilson Gomes dos Santos. Keflezighi, the only man in the field of 105 with an Olympic medal, was not amongst them.
“To not acknowledge somebody who’s the only one standing there — yes the other guys have run faster — but I’m the only one from 2004, eight years later,” said Keflezighi with a shake of his head. “Credit is due where credit is due. And to not get recognized I was a little bitter, but I got in the front and let them know who I was.”
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The snub wasn’t the last of Keflezighi’s problems on race day. Hydration issues and mistaken fluid bottles would hamper him through halfway. Twelve months later, the early miscues help Keflezighi put his fourth-place finish in perspective.
“I have to look back and kind of gain even more appreciation for it, but it wasn’t a good day for me, personally. I had five weeks of training, I was struggling, and even though I thought I could finish in the medal stand — third place bronze or fourth place going in — I thought I’d be playing catch up,” he said. “It worked out that way because I was struggling with my fluids, had the wrong drink and all that stuff.”
Wall Came Early
For most marathoners, hitting “the wall” is inevitable. Elite distance runners work day in and day out, trying to perfect a strategy that gets them around the roadblock that can ruin a race in an instant. Bill Rodgers, winner of the Boston Marathon and ING New York City Marathon four times apiece, is noted as proclaiming that the marathon can humble you, thanks to the darn wall.
At the Olympic Marathon in 2012, the wall came early for Keflezighi.
“At one point I wanted to stop. At 13 miles, I wanted to drop out I was struggling so bad,” he revealed, his voice slowed to emphasize just how bad the middle miles were. “I had New York [City Marathon] lined up and I had my silver medal already [from the 2004 Olympics]. But it wasn’t about me why I was racing, it was all about the USA jersey, my family, and friends who support me over the years.”
Sitting in 17th position with half the race remaining, the Eritrean-born Keflezighi altered his mentality, focusing on positives rather than the negatives that hampered him leading up to and during the early stages of the race.
“I just changed my mental focus and said I need to get to that finish no matter what, no matter how many people come from behind and pass me, if I finish 40th or if I beat a couple people,” he said. In the third group at that point, Keflezighi chose the second chase pack as a focal point.
“Once I was there in the second group, I said if I could beat five of those or one of them I’d be satisfied. But I just changed my mental thinking every mile. Every new thing was positive and more positive,” said Keflezighi.
Late Surge For The Podium
With five kilometers remaining, Meb Keflezighi found out his position for the first time. Coach Bob Larsen held up six fingers. Those six fingers would figuratively push Keflezighi all the way through the final 3.1 miles.
“Bob gave me the fingers, and after that I got another energy and wanted to get fourth place eventually,” said Keflezighi, his famous smile shining under a PowerBar cap. Keflezighi gunned for fourth in case, for any reason, something happened to one of the front-runners: Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich and Kenyans Kirui and Wilson Kipsang.
“I wanted to be the person to move up on the medal stand,” he said.
After making up two spots in the last two kilometers, Keflezighi took the final turn onto The Mall and grabbed an American flag. The ageless wonder had mustered a top-four finish despite all his setbacks and troubles. His final time of 2:11:06 was very good considering the rhythm-breaking and turn filled nature of the London course.
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“I feel like those guys are legit and did very well,” he said, paying homage to medalists Kiprotich, Kirui, and Kipsang. “If I was 100 percent perfect [in] training, nothing going wrong, I think I could have been on the podium. But I wasn’t. And I give credit to those guys for great races that day because we athletes train real hard and do the best that we can. Everything has to come together for you, and for me I was struggling and finished fourth in the world. I’ll take it any time.”
Looking back a year later, Keflezighi’s remembers the feeling of success after overcoming the wall at halfway, going on to place fourth — the highest placing of any American marathoner, male or female, at the 2012 Olympics.
“It was tough but I persevered. Usually when you hit a wall, you falter back in the marathon and never recover and gain. Very few people can do it and I’m honored to do it and represent our country because I know I can, and I finished fourth,” he said.
That mental drive may just carry Keflezighi on to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Is Rio Possible?
“I’m very proud of myself to finish fourth. Fourth place at my last Olympics, I’ll take it anytime,” Keflezighi told reporters moments after finishing the 2012 London Olympic Marathon. His statement may no longer be true.
Each and every day for the last 365 days, the question “Are you going to run in Rio?” has come up in one way, shape or form, referring to the 2016 Olympics to be held in Brazil’s second largest city. Keflezighi isn’t sick and tired of the question, as some athletes may be. Instead, the incessant inquiry has opened his mind up to thoughts of trying to make the 2016 Olympic Marathon team.
“To go to the next Olympics is a thought now,” he said with another smile. “Ever since finishing fourth at the Olympic Games and having people talk about it every day, people are like, ‘What’s next? Rio, Rio!’ It’s tough. Beijing was not the way I wanted to go out [having not qualified for Team USA], but London is the way I want to go out. Now to rethink and evaluate, can I make the team or not at 41 is the question.”
If he does make the team at 41, he would be the oldest American ever to run in an Olympic Marathon, according to Running USA, a running industry trade group.
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“I’m running well especially in the shorter races and I think that should duplicate in the marathon. But it’s an idea I have and I’m contemplating it,” he said.
The main influence on Keflezighi’s decision will be his family. His wife, Yordanos, and daughters Sara, Fiyori, and Yohana are the ones who will help him decide whether Rio is in the cards.
“My wife thinks I should probably, you know …” he said, not completing the sentence. “She sees how hard I work and how committed I am and she probably thinks why shouldn’t you retire at the end of the year. But we’ll see. We’re still playing it year to year.
“My own personal motivation would be my daughters. The youngest one [Yohana] is three and doesn’t remember London. If anything, that would be something she has inside of her that she’ll see me participate in the Olympics and see what happens.”
New York Is Next
In order to keep the 2016 Olympic possibility alive, Keflezighi will continue to run marathons. His next 26.2-mile race is the ING New York City Marathon on November 3. Due to the 2012 cancellation of the race, and having to withdraw from the 2013 Boston Marathon due to injury, the New York race will be Keflezighi’s first marathon since the Olympics.
“With what happened in New York last year, the cancellation [due to Hurricane Sandy], and what happened in Boston [with a pair of bombs exploding at the finish line], any race is special. But competing in New York and to run the marathon, it’s going to be extra special and I’ll be more motivated than ever to put forth for USA,” he said.
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With his upcoming race in the Big Apple, Keflezighi seeks to continue his main priority: inspiring a generation and running community, something he did last August at the 2012 Olympic Marathon.
“I feel like I represent the sport of running very well, with dignity, integrity, and responsibly,” he said. “Hopefully people see me as a spokesman for that and I want to leave the sport better than it was before. If I motivate one person or ten people to do the best they can, that’s all I can ask for.”