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Earlier this month, Meb Keflezighi was scheduled to compete in the Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon. The race in his hometown is put on by one of his sponsors, and would be a good opportunity to get in a hard effort two-and-a-half months before the Olympic Marathon. His fellow Olympic marathoners Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg were going to use the race for just that purpose.
But Keflezighi had just returned from his native Eritrea and was feeling not only jet lag but the cumulative fatigue from a 10-day trip in which he had only a few hours of unscheduled private time. He had to decide: Would racing the half ultimately help or hurt his marathon on August 21 in Rio de Janeiro?
“The old me would have said, ‘No question, get out there and race and get it done,’” Keflezighi said. “But now I keep the big picture in view. It’s important for me to purposefully undertrain.” So Keflezighi let the race organizers know he wouldn’t be competing in San Diego; instead, he paced the 1:30 group in the half marathon. “These are the calculated decisions I now make,” he said.
“Better safe than sorry” is Keflezighi’s guiding principle as prepares for his fourth and final Olympics at age 41. A long-standing foot problem—the bottom of his left foot was severely blistered in 2007 and is easily aggravated—slowed his recovery from finishing second in February at the Olympic Marathon Trials. By April he was back to solid training, usually 12 miles in the morning, sometimes with pace work, and some second runs or cross-training in the afternoon.
But he didn’t feel an urgency to make up for lost time and pour on the mileage. For starters, the spring racing season meant Keflezighi, whose website lists 11 sponsors, would be busy being “Meb the Celebrity Runner,” not “Meb the Olympian,” preparing in monastic isolation. At this year’s Boston Marathon, the 2014 champion was seemingly everywhere—at the expo, a sponsor’s private luncheon, throwing out the first pitch with Cragg, Flanagan and Desiree Linden at a Red Sox game, posing for photos with runners at the finish line the day before the race and, of course, running along the Charles River before each day of promotional appearances.
More important, Keflezighi didn’t want to do too much, too soon, and jeopardize his chances of reaching the Rio starting line healthy.
“For me, making the team was the hardest part,” he said. “That was a lot more pressure. If I didn’t make the team, well, that’s that, no Olympics. Now that I know I’m going, I’m treating it like just another race. I know from my experience that I can do well if I stay healthy and focus when I need to.”
Still, while Keflezighi wouldn’t have been at peak mileage in May if he’d been home, he admits the timing of the late-May trip to Eritrea wasn’t ideal.
“Usually I go after a marathon, when I’m not training,” said Keflezighi, whose most recent trip to the East African country was in 2007. “But I could not resist the invitation to celebrate the 25th anniversary of independence.”
So on May 18, after starting the day with a promotional appearance at the Capital Challenge race in Washington, D.C., Keflezighi flew to the Eritrean capital, Asmara. His parents and two of his brothers, including his manager, Hawi, also made the trip. Keflezighi spent the next several days mostly in the capital region, but he also visited the villages his parents grew up in.
“It was nonstop go, go, go, from one meeting to another,” Keflezighi said. “There were so many appointments—with the president, other politicians, the national sports federation, family.” At the anniversary celebration, Keflezighi was slated to sit in the diplomatic section, but wound up spending the time with the country’s top runners, including world half marathon record holder Zersenay Tadese and 2015 world marathon champion Ghirmay Ghebreslassie.
He didn’t, however, run with them. “I had so many appointments, I had to do all my runs by myself,” Keflezighi said. “I got in a good run most days, but I did miss a couple days because of jet lag. I could have run those days, but I thought, ‘Today, that’s just going to make me more fatigued. Don’t lose the big picture.’ ”
With the Olympic marathon just more than two months away, focus time is here. On June 12, Keflezighi won the Bellin Run 10K in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 30:07. It’s his only planned pre-Olympics race and, perhaps more tellingly, what he called “my last promotional appearance before Rio.” He’s been increasing his long runs and tempo workouts, the latter at marathon race pace and done almost weekly at distances up to 15 miles.
Keflezighi will play the unfamiliar role of spectator at next month’s U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
“I just love running,” he said, “and I want to be there to watch my other teammates make the team.” His family will be there with him; Keflezighi has a pedagogical motivation. “I want to educate my girls,” he said. “The two younger ones think it’s the top three people from each state who make the team. I want them to realize it’s top three from the entire country.”
From Eugene he’ll go to his former home of Mammoth Lakes, California, for a month of altitude training. At this point, he doesn’t plan to arrive in Rio until a few days before his race. It’s the same formula he’s used in recent years, including before his Boston win and Trials runner-up performance. A meticulous planner who thrives on routine, Keflezighi sees no reason to change things just because he’s preparing for his last Olympic race.
“I think it’s easy to make the mistake, ‘I have to do extra because it’s the biggest race of my life,’ ” he said. “Yes, it is the biggest race of your life. But you can’t lose your head. It’s the same race, the same distance. When you go all or nothing, you’re likely to go overboard. I’d rather go at 90-95 percent and be fit and healthy than 101 percent and burned.”
In the video below you can see Meb meet with the Eritrean sport minister and runners.