Meb Keflezighi will attempt to defend his ING New York City Marathon title on November 7. Photo:
Meb Keflezighi will attempt to defend his ING New York City Marathon title on November 7. Photo:

The defending ING New York City Marathon champion is ready to take on the world record holder.

Interview by: Matt Fitzgerald

It’s an exciting time to be Meb Keflezighi. The Eritrean-born American running great will arrive at the starting line of the ING New York City Marathon on November 7 under the defending champion’s spotlight. He was recently inducted into the UCLA Sports Hall of Fame. His charitable foundation, the MEB Foundation, got a boost from his victory last year and is rolling along. And he has a new book, Run to Overcome.

Although he was not able to race much in 2010 due to injury, Keflezighi declares himself healthy now and ready to give his best in the five boroughs. He spoke to us by phone as he begins to put the finishing touches on his marathon fitness. How do you feel now compared to this time last year?

Meb Keflezighi: Ever year is different. Every field is different. You can always expect great competition [in the New York City Marathon]. That’s what it’s known for. Last year they assembled one of the deepest fields ever, and this year they’ve done the same thing again.

As far as my fitness, I feel pretty strong. Obviously I missed out on a lot of races this year, so that’s a difference. I’ve been cautious. You don’t want to jeopardize [the main goal]. Since I won New York last year my goal has been to come back and do it again. Coach [Bob] Larsen and I have worked very hard to be able to do that, hopefully.

You were able to get in one tune-up race at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon. Since you did that same race last year, it must have given you a good basis for comparison.

Last year San Jose was a good one. I ran a PR [1:01:00]. This year I ran about 45 seconds slower, but considering the situation—staying up late for the UCLA Hall of Fame induction, driving to LA, flying to San Jose—that put quite a bit on the body. And also sponsor obligations, which I’m always happy to do, but I’m not doing that in New York and they understand that.

Last year [San Jose] was four weeks before the race and after that it was time to start backing off. This year it was five weeks out, so I had a couple more weeks to keep the mileage up and run longer long runs. Even though I didn’t run that fast I feel I’m close to where I was [last year].

Are you 100 percent healthy?

Going into a marathon you’re never 100 percent healthy. I’m fairly healthy—there’s nothing stopping me—but there’s always aches and pains. Last year I had a little issue on the outside of the left foot going into [New York]. But once the gun goes off you forget about those little things. I’m as healthy as I can be going into a marathon. Hopefully it will be my day again, but I know everyone else feels that, so may the best man and the man who’s most prepared that day win.

You’re also a year older than you were last year. Are you at the point where you’ve started to feel telltale signs like slower recovery from harder sessions, or do you feel that age is still not yet a factor for you?

Thanks for asking! [laughs] No, but honestly I feel rejuvenated. I feel as young as ever. I ran faster this year than I did in 2001, when I was 26. You just have to take care of the body. I get numerous, numerous massages. I take ice baths. I have a great support cast, from therapists to my coach to my wife. We try to eat right and cook right at the appropriate times for my runs. The night before my run I carbo load, and then when I come back I have my routine, whether it’s a PowerBar, Protein Plus or Generation UCAN until I get home. That helps a lot. It’s not [a matter of just] running and seeing what you can do. Doing the small things makes a big difference.

Have you tried anything different in your training this year?

If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it! We would have liked to go to 150 miles a week, but because of the hamstring tightness I had before Falmouth I decided not to do that. We went up to 120, 121. Last year we had a couple of weeks at 130, 131. For me, the key is to be healthy and not try to push the envelope to the maximum. I’ve been recovering fine from it. My workouts have been good. As long as I can stay healthy the next two weeks I’ll be fine.

I imagine you don’t put too much of your attention on any single competitor going into a race, but does it add a little excitement to this race to have world record holder Haile Gebrselassie there?

Haile is a great competitor. Haile’s at a different level. He’s 37 (maybe a little older), but he’s still performing as he has in the past. Haile’s someone I’ve looked up to for a long, long time. He’s been great for the sport, and a great ambassador for the sport. I always learn something from him. There have been times when we’ve sat down for an hour and a half and chit-chatted about sports and about politics. I respect him a lot, and I think he respects me.

Come race day I don’t know if he’s going to run 2:03:59. That’s the difference. If he has that kind of world-record fitness, he will win the race. But there’ll be others who’ve run as little as 28 seconds slower than that. You can’t count out James Kwambai [2:04:27 PR], and there’s [Abderrahim] Goumri, who’s been around a long time. And there’s another guy, Abel Kirui, who’s run 2:05:05. So there’s plenty of competition. That’s why we compete. Nobody gets a trophy for being the favorite on paper. You have to go there and give your best and whoever has the best day, is most fit, will prevail.