In 2014—one year after the bombings—Meb Keflezighi, now 41, became the first American to win the Boston Marathon in 31 years. Born in Eritrea, he came to the United States via Italy and was raised in San Diego. A standout runner in high school, he attended UCLA on a scholarship and embarked on a career that has made him one of the most decorated track and field athletes in American history. He is the only person to have won the New York City Marathon, the Boston Marathon and an Olympic medal. He will compete in this year’s Boston Marathon but has announced that he will retire from running after this fall’s New York City Marathon, which will fittingly be his 26th. He lives with his wife and children in Southern California.
Jonathan Soroff: So what is actually healthy about running 26.2 miles?
Meb Keflezighi: The finish line. [Laughs.] At the end of the race, you say, “What did I do to my body?” But there’s a euphoric feeling.
Of course, you know the story of the first marathon? Yes. Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to tell them that they’d beaten the Persians. Then he fell over dead. [Laughs.]
What do you think when you see those 26.2 stickers on people’s cars? I think of them, personally, as family. I’ve seen all different distances, but when you see the 26.2, it’s a family of runners who try to conquer their limits in the name of the marathon.
What does winning mean to you? Winning means getting the best out of yourself that you can. That doesn’t always mean coming in first place. Sometimes, you can run a personal best and you still finish sixth or seventh. But that’s still winning to me, as long as you get the best out of yourself.
Best part of being in the Olympics? Participating. Wearing that USA jersey four times. Representing my country and getting together with the rest of the world to celebrate peace and harmony and enjoy each other’s company.
Worst part? For me, not being able to experience everything. You’re so focused on winning and achieving in the name of your country that you don’t get to see a lot of the other amazing athletes in different sports.
Where do you keep all the medals? My Olympic, Boston and New York medals are all in the safe.
What’s unique about the Boston Marathon? It’s the longevity and the prestige, as well as the people. Any new marathon tries to emulate what Boston is. It’s the gold standard.
What goes through your mind at the starting line? You’re a little amped up. You’ve got 26.2 miles ahead of you, and somebody’s going to get crowned the winner. Sometimes you think, “Why not me? I’m going to get there and do the best that I can.” Sometimes you have doubts. Otherwise, it’s a question of being patient and calming your body and mind down. That’s hard to do, because there are so many people and everybody is so excited. You know it’s a journey and a process.
What goes through your mind mid-race? You’re thinking, “Am I in the hunt?” You’re evaluating your energy, who’s around you, how they’re doing. There’s a lot of assessment going on. That’s at about 13, 14 miles. At around 18 or 19, you’re going to make a move if you’re going to. That’s when the fit people are separated from the fittest.
What goes through your mind as you cross the finish line? Well, I always say that if I’m not winning, I’d better look good getting second or third place. [Laughs.] When you hit Boston, you look for that magical Citgo sign, and you’ve been waiting for it. That means one more mile to go, and you start saying “Tough it out.” You’re fighting for your spot, or just to get to the finish line.
Prettiest part of the course? I’d say there are two. When you go through Wellesley College, you have a lot of women cheering you on. Then obviously the magical moment is the left turn on Boylston, when you say, “I’m home!” You know you’re 600 meters away.
Does Heartbreak Hill get a bad rap? Heartbreak Hill breaks a lot of hearts, for sure. I remember the first time I did Boston, I kinda hit the wall. But the crowd is amazing, and that’s what gets you through it. They’re cheering you on. It comes at the right time, too. It’s when your body’s fatigued, but you’ve still got five-plus miles left. You’re beat up.
Is there ever a song that gets stuck in your head while you’re running? “Living in America,” or the theme to Rocky. Those kinda play in your head if somebody’s blasting them on speakers. I love music. And you can use that as a boost of energy.
Why are East Africans so dominant in marathoning? I think it’s partly genetics. Then there’s the fact that they are born and train at [high] altitudes. They walk or jog to school. And then, at the end of the day, everybody wants to be like Tom Brady or David Ortiz or LeBron James, and in East Africa, that’s the sport they know: running. They see the Olympic champion or world champion driving a nice car or having a nice house. I mean, there’s also cycling and soccer, but the one that’s easiest to control and participate in is running.
What would you be doing if your family had stayed in Eritrea? Well, hopefully, I would have a lot of cattle, and I would be a farmer. And hopefully I’d be working to help the community. My family has done a lot of fundraising to bring electricity to my dad’s village. Or running water. But overall, I’d be quite a bit older and a lot skinnier. A livelihood in Eritrea is a lot more demanding.
Is it strange for you to go back? No. I always say that I’m no different than anyone else. But my siblings and I were just lucky to be able to make something of ourselves as immigrants.
Are you superstitious on race days? I used to be much more when I was in high school. But I like to have spaghetti with meatballs the night before. But if I’m in Japan or a place where I can’t find them, I’m not going to sweat it. I used to wear the same socks when I competed. I also am very particular about putting my bib number on the night before. I put my jersey over a pillow, and I pin it just right. [Laughs.] It has to look good! That’s probably why I didn’t do so well in Rio. They didn’t give us our bib numbers until 15 minutes before the race!
Do you get to eat whatever you want? Absolutely not. [Laughs.] I wish it was like that, and it was when I was 25 or 26, but everything’s changed since 30. I have to watch what I eat closely. I’ll eat half of the serving in a restaurant when I’m seriously training. My body’s too efficient.
Do you get pedicures regularly? No, but I do get massages two or three times a week, and they can never believe I’m a distance runner. My feet are as pretty as they get.
Is there a sponsorship you wanted but don’t have? Yes. A car deal. When I graduated from UCLA, I said, “I want five things in terms of sponsors: a sports drink, a nutrition bar, sunglasses, a shoe and a car.” I got everything except the car. I did win one once, though.
Who do you think of most when you’re running? Oh, it changes, Jonathan. Sometimes I’m thinking about myself, my breathing, my mental checklist. Sometimes I think about the other people competing. And then, of course, I think about my kids and my wife and my parents. When I was struggling in New York, I thought about my dad having to walk 30 miles a day to get to Sudan without any aid. I have tons of support when I run. That puts it in perspective. So does the marathon bombing. I think, “A lot of people never made it to the finish line that day. I’m going to finish for them.”
Do you believe in the runner’s high? I do. I believe in the runner’s high and the athlete’s zone. I’ve been there before. I don’t remember going through the halfway point in 2014 at all. I was in the zone.
Farthest you’ve ever run? Twenty-eight miles, at altitude, in Mammoth Lakes, California. I’ve done that a few times.
Do you ever run on a treadmill? That’s a great question. I do, and I have, if the weather conditions are really bad. But if I have a choice, I run outside.
What advice would you give someone training for the marathon? The Boston Marathon is the world’s most prestigious race. Wearing that jacket is going to make you so proud. In training for it, I’d say do the hills, as much as you can, and be patient the first half. People get overexcited and carried away. Run your own race.