“An athlete whose wisdom and lessons aren’t just for runners.”—The Washington Post
When Meb Keflezighi—the first person in history to win both the Boston and New York City marathons as well as an Olympic marathon medal—ran his final marathon in New York City on November 5, 2017, it marked the end of an extraordinary distance-running career.
Meb's last marathon was also his twenty-sixth, and each of those marathons has come with its own unique challenges, rewards, and outcomes. In 26 Marathons, Meb takes readers on those legendary races, along every hill, bend, and unexpected turn of events that made each marathon an exceptional learning experience, and a fascinating story.
26 Marathons offers the wisdom Meb has gleaned about life, family, identity, and faith in addition to tips about running, training, and nutrition. He shows runners of all levels how to apply the lessons he's learned to their own running and lives. Equal parts inspiration and practical advice, 26 Marathons provides an inside look at the life and success of one of the greatest runners living today.
Praise for 26 Marathons
“26 Marathons is a swift read, guaranteed to be popular with student athletes plus hard-core and recreational runners, who will undoubtedly agree that Meb is an American treasure and running ambassador who never fails to inspire.”—Booklist (starred review)
“26 Marathons gives great insight about the ups and downs in marathon running and how to cope with them. As Meb shows, dealing with these marathon experiences help us become better in our lives.”—Eliud Kipchoge, Marathon World Record Holder and 2016 Olympic Gold Medalist
“Meb’s 26 Marathons is like opening a treasure chest full of inspiring stories that give behind-the-scenes glimpse into the mental and physical joys and obstacles that elite-level racing can bring. His advice on training, overcoming injuries, and adversity is for everyone. It’s pure gold!”—Shalane Flanagan, 2017 TCS NYC Marathon Champion
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
2002 NEW YORK CITY MARATHON
NOVEMBER 3, 2002
Marathoners always need to be grounded in reality.
"I don’t want to do this ever again.”
That’s part of the entry from my running log for November 3, 2002, the day I ran my first marathon. The race was an inauspicious start to my marathon career. I knew that a lot of people say “Never again!” after marathons, but I was sincere. Running the last 10K at my easy run pace, despite great preparation and mental fortitude, was just utterly unsatisfying. I felt defeated by the distance.
Obviously, I didn’t end up in the one-and-done club. Still, at one point in each of my twenty-six marathons as a pro I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” (Yes, even when I won Boston.) I eventually learned that it’s always going to hurt, but most of the time you can come out of that absolute pit. When you’re conditioned properly and your body and mind are on the same page, it’s a beautiful thing. Eventually I learned that the marathon can be the most satisfying event in running. It can even be fun.
I didn’t have that experience the first time. When I hit the Wall after 20 miles, it was hard to override all of my negative thoughts. I like to say I got my PhD in marathoning that day. The theme of my dissertation: You need to base what you do on race day in reality, not fantasy.
A NEW CHALLENGE
I have always set ambitious goals. I thrive on accomplishing one difficult task and using it as a stepping-stone to another. That’s how I came to be on the starting line of the New York City Marathon in 2002. I had started with the usual high school distance events of 1600 and 3200 meters (just short of 1 and 2 miles), moved up to the 5K and 10K in college, and started running longer road races after I became a pro in 1998. The marathon was the next logical step.
I had always been told my future was as a marathoner, even when, as a high school runner, my self-image was that I was a miler. One of my high school advisors, Ron Tabb, was a former elite marathoner who placed second at the 1983 Boston Marathon. He could see that my efficient running form, willingness to put up with a lot in training and racing, mental toughness, and tactical smarts would suit me well over 26.2 miles. After I set the American record for 10,000 meters in 2001, I wanted to see what the marathon was about. Coach Larsen, who had worked with many top marathoners, was excited about my potential.
Logistically, 2002 was a good time to debut. It was in the middle of an Olympic cycle and there were no track and field world championships, which are held every two years, in the years before and after the Olympics. Running New York would give me experience at the distance against a top international field on a challenging course. Plus, it’s on everyone’s bucket list to visit the Big Apple. That experience would give Coach Larsen and me insight on whether the marathon might be a good event for me to target for the 2004 Olympics. I would be twenty-seven on race day in New York, around the age that the conventional wisdom of the time said that distance runners are at their prime. (I’m proud to be among those who eventually proved that marathoners can thrive long after their late twenties.)
The switch from 10K training to marathon training wasn’t a drastic change for me. I already did 20-mile runs on a regular basis, starting in college. I extended the distance of my long runs before New York, topping out with a 26- and a 27-miler so that I knew I could go the distance. Long runs of the marathon distance or farther became a regular part of my training for subsequent marathons when I was healthy and had the time to build up to them gradually. Doing runs that meant being on my feet for longer than I would be on race day helped me physically and psychologically. Overall, my training for New York was ideal, with a highest-mileage week of 125.
This was the first time I implemented practices that became standard throughout my marathon career. I monitored my weight. I tracked my heart rate on runs. I did a lot of self-care work and got a lot of professional physical treatment. All of these measures aimed to help me hold up to the stress of marathon training. When focusing on 10Ks, I had a few really hard days each week. Marathon training was more of a day-in-and-day-out grind, of steadily accumulating mileage and hard but not all-out workouts. I wanted to stay on top of my recovery so that I could absorb the training and not get injured.
Good recovery was especially important during my training in Mammoth Lakes, California, which sits at an altitude of just under 8,000 feet. It’s easier to get run down at high elevations than at sea level, because your body is under extra stress from the limited oxygen. That’s what makes altitude training effective—once you get accustomed physically and mentally to the more difficult conditions, racing at sea level is easier. For the rest of my career, I spent at least part of every year at Mammoth Lakes as a key part of my preparation.
I broke up the training with a fair amount of racing. I won national titles on the road and track and in cross-country that year. As late as September, just two months before New York, I placed fourth in the World Cup 5000-meter final in Madrid, Spain. On a personal level, having the range to compete over many distances and on many surfaces was important to me. Shorter races and the training needed to do well in them are compatible with marathon training, regardless of how fast you run. The different types of workouts make you a more complete runner; being efficient at 5K and 10K race pace makes marathon pace feel easier. But not too easy—after a 15-mile tempo run at marathon pace, I asked my teammate Deena Kastor, “How am I supposed to keep this five-minutes-per-mile pace for another eleven miles?”
CAN’T FIGHT THE FEELING
Despite my training and talking with experienced marathoners, I was surprised by how easy the early miles were. I was used to running 5Ks and 10Ks, where you’re breathing hard and concentrating on keeping up your pace almost from the start. Now I was focusing on the opposite—not running too fast. The excitement of the day and my pre-race taper made the first several miles feel like I was on a training run, not in the lead pack of the world’s largest marathon running faster than 5:00 per mile. It was hard not to feel a little like I was cheating as we passed halfway in 1:03:48. I knew there was a long way to go, but I felt like could hold this pace forever.
Coach Larsen and I had heard all about miles 17–19 on First Avenue in Manhattan. It’s often a key stretch of the race. You come off the Queensboro Bridge, with its rise and fall and crosswinds, to a wide road with a gentle downhill slope. First Avenue occurs at the point in many marathons where the first big moves of the race are made. The moves tend to be much more aggressive at that point in New York because it’s the fastest part of the course. I was under strict orders from Coach Larsen to keep my cool.
I was running near Mark Carroll of Ireland, who I knew from racing against in college, when the moves started. That year’s Boston Marathon champion, Rodgers Rop of Kenya, was up front pushing the pace. Mark held back. Me, well, I ignored my coach’s advice and got up with the leaders. Then I took the lead. I ran a 4:40 mile, then a 4:30 mile, more like 10K pace than marathon pace. I felt great!
One reason I went to the lead: the huge crowds that line First Avenue. I had never experienced their combination of loudness and energy before, even in the 83,000-person stadium at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. On First Avenue, the crowds are right there at your level, crammed close to the road, all shouting over each other for three straight miles. I could hear my name being called, I could hear “USA! USA!” I thought, “All right, this is kind of fun. This marathon thing is for me.”
My move winnowed the lead pack to Rop, me, and two others. I told myself I had a shot at winning and that, at worst, I’d finish fourth. A little before mile 20, I took off my beanie, gloves, and arm warmers and threw them to the side of the road. I tossed a cup of water on my head. It was finally time for the real racing to start.
TWENTY MILES IS HALFWAY
I ran my first marathon in the racing shoes I used for shorter road races. The lighter the better, I figured. And that was true for much of the race—but as we left the excitement of First Avenue and still had 10K to go, I started to realize otherwise. The lack of cushioning became a hindrance, not a help. I was now feeling the ground much more with every step. I felt like I was stomping into the road rather than getting a nice quick pop with each step, as I had been just a couple of miles earlier. After the race my father told me he’d thought I needed more-cushioned shoes to go 26.2 miles, but he didn’t want to tell me beforehand so as to not put negative thoughts in my head.
Unfortunately, I was quite capable of having negative thoughts all by myself. By mile 22 I lost contact with the lead pack. I realized I wasn’t going to win. I focused on holding on to fourth place. But I was slowing drastically. It felt like people were passing me right and left, even though “only” five did by the finish.
Mark Carroll caught up to me right after we entered Central Park, with a little more than 2 miles to go. He said, “Come on, Meb.” I said, “Mark, go ahead. I’m finished. I’m done.”
It was a surreal experience. I’d never struggled at the end of a race while being able to speak in complete sentences. To be not out of breath but unable to pick up the pace was just something completely foreign to me, with my background in shorter races on the track. My mind said “go” and my body said “oh no.” Later I likened it to having someone come to buy your car, only for the car to not start for the first time in months. Things were working fine just a little while ago; now nothing was happening.
The mental strain was also novel to me. In a 5K or 10K I had lots of experience of talking myself through tough situations, such as “Get through this lap and then you have only two more to go.” On the streets of New York I was able to do that for a mile or so. But that got me only to the 23-mile mark. I still had more than 5K, and all of the Central Park section, to go. The negative thoughts fed on each other and made my physical duress that much worse.
I wound up running the final 10K in a little under 37 minutes, or just under 6:00 per mile, close to my normal training pace. I finished in 2:12:35. That’s a solid debut if your only concern is time, but I’ve always been about competing for place. That part of the experience stung. Rop won in 2:08:17, and Mark was sixth in 2:10:54. In other words, Rop covered the last 10K more than four minutes faster than me, and Mark had put more than a minute and a half on me in just the last 2 miles. My time was also 35 seconds short of the Olympic “A” standard in the marathon. So if I did want to consider the event for the 2004 Games, I would need to run another one and finish under 2:12.
MISTAKES WERE MADE
Not that I had any interest in the 2004 Olympic Marathon, or any other marathon, after finishing. I was cold, stiff, exhausted, and mentally drained. My parents were present, and they felt sorry for me. My father tried to defrost me by massaging my legs. My mother simply said, “You don’t need to do marathons.” I couldn’t argue with that.
That evening I did my usual post-race analysis. My choice of shoes was one mistake. Getting rid of my gloves, hat, and arm warmers was another. It certainly didn’t help that I threw water on my head in 38-degree weather. That move and the lack of clothing really came back to bite me after I hit the Wall. Over the last 10K I was running about a minute per mile slower than earlier in the race, so I wasn’t producing as much heat. As I got colder I tightened up that much more.
My biggest mistake, however, was ignoring all the advice I’d received about holding back before mile 20 no matter how good I felt. It was unrealistic of me, in my first marathon, to be the aggressor on First Avenue and not think there would be negative consequences. Certainly, if you ignore reality in a 5K, you’ll pay for it. If you make the common mistake of running the first half mile much faster than you can sustain for 3.1 miles, you’ll pay back that time gain, and then some, in the last mile. But that final mile won’t be one of the most miserable experiences of your life, and you won’t be sore and exhausted, and possibly injured, in the following days.
In New York, I learned that expending your energy too early in the marathon has a far greater cost. I wrote in my log, “Be ready for a move at mile 24, not 16.” Now I tell people that if you can pick it up the last mile of a marathon you’ve done a good job of rationing your resources. Being able to do that means you won’t be dragging the several previous miles, you’ll finish passing people, and you’ll end on a high note that will whet your appetite for more.
I had the opposite experience that first time. Finishing New York was the hardest thing I’d ever done in running. I was prepared physically, and enjoyed that part of the process. I made a huge mental error that led to more suffering than seemed necessary. Overall, putting all that effort into a race that could go so wrong so quickly just didn’t seem worth it.
The next day I felt the same. (Mentally, that is; physically, I felt even worse.) I thought, “Why?! Why would I want to do that again? It’s not fun, it’s not satisfying, it’s not healthy.” Being a student of the sport, I knew that “never again” was a common pledge after a marathon and that it was often broken. Coach Larsen said, “I’ve heard that one before.” But I meant it.
As the days went by I remained disenchanted with the marathon. Then I took a trip that changed my perspective on the race, and as a result changed my life.
Table of Contents
Marathon #1 2002 New York City Marathon 5
Marathon #2 2003 Chicago Marathon 15
Marathon #3 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials 23
Marathon #4 2004 Olympic Marathon 33
Marathon #5 2004 New York City Marathon 43
Marathon #6 2005 New York City Marathon 51
Marathon #7 2006 Boston Marathon 59
Marathon #8 2006 New York City Marathon 67
Marathon #9 2007 London Marathon 75
Marathon #10 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials 83
Marathon #11 2009 London Marathon 91
Marathon #12 2000 New York City Marathon 99
Marathon #13 2010 Boston Marathon 111
Marathon #14 2010 New York City Marathon 119
Marathon #15 2011 New York City Marathon 127
Marathon #16 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials 137
Marathon #17 2012 Olympic Marathon 145
Marathon #18 2013 New York City Marathon 155
Marathon #19 2014 Boston Marathon 163
Marathon #20 2014 New York City Marathon 177
Marathon #21 2015 Boston Marathon 185
Marathon #22 2015 New York City Marathon 193
Marathon #23 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials 201
Marathon #24 2016 Olympic Marathon 209
Marathon #25 2017 Boston Marathon 215
Marathon #26 2017 New York City Marathon 221
Epilogue: The Run Never Ends 231
Appendix: Meb's Marathon Career at a Glance 235
Photograph Insert Credits 241