Back in 2009 when “Run, Karla, Run!” debuted, one of my very first posts was about Meb Keflezighi’s historic win at the New York City Marathon—Keflezighi’s Win: An American Marathon Renaissance?
On April 21, he did it again by becoming the first American Boston Marathon winner in 30 years. Even more amazing? He won at the age of 38 and in personal record time of 2:08:37.
Keflezighi is without question the U.S.’s best distance runner on the roads today. With an Olympic marathon silver medal and New York City and Boston Marathon titles to his name, he enters an elite group of American runners known as “the greatest.” Even Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist and 1976 Olympic marathon silver medalist, said it during the Boston Marathon wrap-up show on Universal Sports: “If there is a club, welcome to it!”
But we mere mortals can learn a thing or two from Marathon Meb. Here’s what comes to mind.
1) The big 30 isn’t old. Neither, it seems, is 40.
So many people think the end is nigh once your age no longer begins with a “2.” I’m as guilty as the next runner, wringing my hands at what feels like the inevitable decline now that my age starts with a “3.”
So it’s refreshing and inspiring to see a runner like Meb, just two weeks from his 39th birthday, becoming the Boston Marathon winner, running not just the best time of his life, but the best time in a field of younger guys.
Lesson? You’re only as old as you think you are. Being young at heart pays and, yes, 40 is the new 30.
2) Being the fastest runner doesn’t always matter. But being the smartest does.
Meb Keflezighi is rarely the fastest man in the field. In the 2014 Boston Marathon, no fewer than 14 men had personal best times speedier than Meb, some fully 5 minutes quicker. If this were a race with pacers like London or Berlin—races that are essentially time trials not mano a mano competitions —a runner like Meb wouldn’t stand a chance.
But on championship style courses without pacers, like the Olympics, New York and Boston, being the fastest runner in the field isn’t what matters; being the smartest is the key.
Meb is a racer. He’s an expert tactician. He knows how to run his own race, read and work the field, follow his instincts and make the move he needs to win. It’s how he won New York, it’s how he finished fourth at the London Olympics, and it’s how he came out on top as the Boston Marathon winner.
Meb surged early in the race. The pack, underestimating Meb, let him go. Meb was running smart. Most of the pack wasn’t. Of the 14 men with faster PR’s than Meb, 12 were African runners who probably thought they’d catch him. Two were Americans, including Ryan Hall, who lead an effort to hold the pack back to give Meb more of a lead. Smart.
Lesson? Even runners who aren’t out to win can run their best by running “smart.” It may not win us the race, like Meb, but it could earn us a personal record.
3) Know what kind of runner you are.
This really follows the point above. Meb knew that he may not beat defending champ Lelisa Desisa, with a 2:04:45 PR to Meb’s 2:09:13, in a sprint to the finish. He knew he had to run way out front to win.
So he made a move early in the race, shortly before the 15K mark, pulling away from the field with one other runner. By 25K, he was running alone at the front. By 30K, he’d put 1:20 between himself and the main pack.
This strategy doesn’t pay off for most runners. Just watch the 2013 New York City Marathon women’s race when Buzunesh Deba tried a similar feat, only to fade to second in the last miles. We’ve seen it happen to Ryan Hall, Shalane Flanagan, Kim Smith and countless other marathoners. It’s why the pack let him go.
But Meb? Meb knows what kind of runner he is. He doesn’t make a move unless he knows he can sustain it. Yes, the pack slowly reeled him in, but never all the way. Wilson Chebet came within 8 seconds, but Meb—looking over his shoulder and crossing himself with his fingers—surged ahead, winning by 11 seconds. And he earned himself a new personal record in the process. He knew what kind of runner he was, ran his own race accordingly—not the race everyone else was running—and it paid off.
Lesson? Play to your strengths and run your own race, not someone else’s.
4) Believe in yourself, even when others don’t.
How many times has Meb been counted out in his career? Time and time again. After he broke his hip in November 2007 at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, some said his career was over. He proved them wrong.
He wasn’t a favorite at the New York City Marathon in 2009, but shocked the world with a win.
In 2011, Nike dropped his contract option and he ran unsponsored until he inked his current deal with Skechers, a non-traditional running shoe company.
He wasn’t a favorite at the 2012 Olympics, but finished in a strong fourth place, eight years after he won his Olympic silver medal.
He wasn’t a favorite in Boston this year either. The pack didn’t let Meb surge ahead because they couldn’t keep up with him; they let him go because they’d counted him out, assuming he’d fade. Even the commentators were skeptical of his abilities to win.
If Meb Keflezighi believed all the press about him, he’d never be the Boston Marathon winner or finish top five at any race. But when everyone else counts him out, Meb still believes. And he turns that belief into results.
A recent study found that mental toughness accounts for 14 percent of the variables that influence finish times such as fitness, weather, fuel and the like. Keflezighi taps into that 14 percent to beat faster runners. Lesson? We all can use mental toughness to believe in ourselves, even when no one else does.
5) Injury isn’t the end.
Talk about injury prone. Meb Keflezighi has had his share of downtime. He broke a hip in 2007, suffered tendonitis and a quad tear in 2010, injured a calf in 2013, the list goes on. He even ran the 2013 New York City Marathon with a banged up knee after taking a tumble during a training run.
But he’s bounced back stronger every time. How? By putting the same energy into rehabilitation that he puts into his running. He also incorporates more strength and flexibility training than he used to when he was younger.
Lesson learned? If you want to run for a long time, you’ve got to take care of your body. If we’re smart about how we approach recovery, injury won’t be the end for us either. Like Meb, you just might bounce back to run your best race ever.
Meb Keflezighi’s win at the 2014 Boston Marathon reminds me that age is just a number, running smart counts more than running fast, and knowing yourself, believing in yourself and taking care of yourself will serve you well as a runner. They’re lessons I’m going to take to heart.
Lead Photo: Ethan Bagley via a Creative Commons license on Flickr
Second Photo: ccho via a Creative Commons license on Flickr.
Third Photo: Julian Mason via a Creative Commons license on Wikimedia Commons
Fourth Photo: Randy Lemoine via a Creative Commons license on Flickr.