Even for an athlete as accomplished as Meb Keflezighi is at 40, with a 2004 Athens Olympic marathon silver medal to his credit in addition to wins at New York in 2009 and Boston in 2014, there are some firsts to experience and new ground to cover.
Keflezighi, who emigrated from Eritrea to the United States via Italy when he was a child, is the fastest qualifier for the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, which will be held Feb. 13 in and just south of downtown Los Angeles. The top three men’s and women’s finishers in a field that’s expected to top 400 will be nominated to the team for the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games.
Keflezighi graduated from UCLA in 1998, the same year he became a U.S. citizen, and lives in San Diego with his wife, Yordanos, and three daughters when he’s not training at altitude in Mammoth Lakes. It’s odd, then, that he has spent so much time here but never raced on the streets of Los Angeles. That novelty, coupled with the challenge of a course designed to be friendly to spectators while testing athletes with its turns, gives him powerful incentive to be at his peak when he tries to make his fourth Olympic team.
“It’s going to be in L.A., where I went to UCLA and I’ve got to run through the USC campus,” he said with a laugh that attested to the survival of his Bruins allegiance. “It’s my first time competing on the roads in L.A., which took awhile. It’s my first time competing in a marathon on the West Coast. I usually have to get used to the time change.
“Even though I’m 40 there’s a lot of new things happening.”
He’s approaching his 23rd marathon with his same old passion, eager to push his limits at an age most other runners are happy to finish the 26.2-mile race in one exhausted piece.
Keflezighi (pronounced Ka-FLEZ-ghee) would be one of those recreational runners if it were up to his middle daughter, Fiyori, who will be 8 in March. She shadows him when he’s home, does push-ups with him, and tells him he’s going to be away too long when he leaves for concentrated training sessions like he’s immersed in now.
He uses FaceTime between homework and dinnertimes to catch up with her and with Sara, who will be 10 in March, and Yohana, who will be 6 in a few days. The two oldest remember him competing at the 2012 London Olympics, where he finished fourth, “so they understand what I’m trying to do,” he said.
“It is part of the sacrifice that I have to make,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday, “but hopefully they know I’m getting ready for the trials and they know I have to be top three and hopefully we get a chance to go to Rio.”
He has accepted that his age means he can’t run as fast or for as long in training as he once did. If his new normal means relying on his experience and on intense solo training in snowy Mammoth Lakes — which he supplements with 45-minute drives to Bishop for interval runs at a lower altitude — he’s willing to do that in order to explore what he has left as a competitor.
“There are so many things I have accomplished, but it’s human nature to see if I can do it one more time or see if I could do it better,” he said. “I think my potential has maximized, but it shouldn’t be shut off. It should be a gradual decrease, a gradual slowdown, and that’s what keeps me going.”
He attributed his longevity to attention to detail, “doing the small things that make a big difference.” Shalane Flanagan, the top women’s marathon trials qualifier and also an aspiring four-time Olympian, sees that strength in Keflezighi and in 42-year-old Deena Kastor, the 2004 Athens Olympic women’s bronze medalist and fourth-fastest Olympic trials qualifier.
“Meb is a great example, as well as Deena, that if you take care of your body and you do the little things, and your passion and your drive are not dwindling and you feel like you’re having an impact in the sport, I think it allows athletes to thrive,” Flanagan said during a conference call with reporters.
“I think Meb and Deena are definitely leaders and role models for those who want to continue in the sport for a long time.”
Keflezighi recorded his qualifying time at the 2014 Boston marathon, a personal-best two hours, eight minutes and 37 seconds. Since then, his notable results include finishing fourth at New York in 2014 in 2:13:18, eighth at Boston in 2015 (2:12:42) and seventh at New York in 2015 (2:13:32). He also set a U.S. masters half-marathon record of 1:03:02 last September in San Diego.
He was hesitant to analyze the men’s trials field because the marathon is too unpredictable a race, as he well knows. His silver-medal performance at Athens made him a favorite to win the marathon trials before the 2008 Beijing Games, but a hip injury slowed him and kept him off the team. That he made the London team four years later epitomizes the drive that still fuels him.
“U.S. distance running has elevated another level, so the depth is there,” he said. “There’s about six, seven guys that have potential to make the team and three spots will be in demand, so I just hope to be able to use my experience….
“When the gun goes off you never discount anybody, whether they’re doing their first marathon or they’ve done a great job at others or they’ve been sixth, seventh or top-10s in major marathons. It all comes down to Feb. 13 and who’s ready on that day and can be competitive and show their A game.”