"It was a grind," said Meb Keflezighi, summarising his eighth-place finish in 1:02:17 at the New York City Half Marathon on Sunday, the race which served as his final blowout before he heads to Boston next month to try to reclaim his marathon title.
On Sunday, March 15, 2015, in contrast to his famous, from-the-front Boston win in 2014, Keflezighi huddled deep in the leading pack for much of Sunday's race, briefly showing his face at the front as the field reached the five-mile mark. However, he soon found the eventual pace of the leading quartet too hot to handle, and raced alongside fellow Americans Dathan Ritzenhein and Andrew Bumbalough thereafter, who both outran Keflezighi over the closing mile in Lower Manhattan.
Meb Keflezighi, photo by PhotoRun.net
"It was like: 'why can't I hang with them and be able to just go with them?'" asked Keflezighi afterwards, before swiftly answering his own question. "I've been putting a lot of miles in. I have already covered up to 27 miles in training. I came out of the race healthy, and I could have gone for a while at that pace."
If Keflezighi, now 39, is to defend his title in Boston next month, he will have to go at something close to that pace for the full 26.2-mile distance. The opposition, unsurprisingly, will be formidable. There's former world record holder Patrick Makau, 2:04-man Lelisa Desisa (the Boston champion in 2013) and two-time world marathon champion Abel Kirui.
Keflezighi knows a repeat win is a fairy tale that will take a massive leap of faith to truly believe in, but he plans to give himself the very best chance come April 20th. "I probably can't do a similar thing [to last year]," he says. "I decided to go early, made an intuitive decision to go for the win, and I just kept pushing. I had a great race."
Last year, Keflezighi held on to take an unforgettable win in 2:08:37, 11 seconds clear of Wilson Chebet, who is also returning to try go one better this year. The impact of his performance, coming as it did just a year after the bombings, was seismic.
Even now, Keflezighi can't find enough time in his day to get through all the letters that come through his door ever since that win in Boston. "There's numerous letters that tugged at my heart," he says. "You get letters from teachers, students. You hear different stories of cancer survivors, and not just the US, I get a lot from Germany. Between being a father, physical therapy and training, every 10 minutes of my day is almost calculated. Sometimes it's 11pm and that's the only time I can read them."
With less than five weeks to go ahead of this year's race, Keflezighi will now return to altitude to put the finishing touches on his preparations. So far, he's pleased with how things have gone, and how his 39-year-old body feels.
"I'm definitely in good stamina shape," he says. "I've been training consistently and healthy for a while. I know what I need to do; to go and get ready in the next month, and hopefully give it a good shot in Boston."
Looking beyond Boston, Keflezighi remains unsure of how long he'll prolong his career. After all, for a 39-year-old with an Olympic silver medal and titles in America's two most-prized marathons - New York and Boston - to his name, what's left? Olympic gold?
"No," says Keflezighi, immediately dismissing the suggestion that he can challenge for the win in Rio 2016. "Even if I made it, it's not going to make my career; my career has already been made. It's not all about winning. I'd just like to be competitive. It's not all about the medal; it's about what sports can do to help self-confidence, to be a writer, an artist, a musician, a teacher... whatever."
These days, Keflezighi speaks with the wisdom of a man who has come to realize - and who is now being forced to realize - that defeat doesn't equal failure, that there is success to be found in places other than the top step of the medal rostrum.
"I always want to win. That doesn't mean first place; it means getting the best out of yourself," he says. "Each day you come in to try to win, and you know that's not going to happen, so you try to fight for every spot you can."
One of the spots that will be prized by him is a berth on the US Olympic team in 2016, which will be decided in Los Angeles in February next year. Before then, Keflezighi sees himself being able to take in a fall marathon. "There is a longer pause [104 days] between the New York Marathon and the Olympic trials than in previous years," he says. "I'm in discussions about a fall marathon, but which one, I will see, I haven't decided yet."
And if he does make it to Rio, at which point he will be 41 years old, will that signal the end of the road in terms of his marathon career? Don't count on it.
"I'll do Boston this year, then a fall marathon, Olympic trials, hopefully the Olympics then probably one more," he says. "After that I'm done with the marathon; I'd still like to do half marathons, 10Ks, pacing people, and other goals, but my goals have been reached."
At this stage, he's done it all, or something very close to it, but for Meb, there are still many miles left to run.