Not so long ago, Meb Keflezighi had visions of crossing the finish line of the 2013 ING New York City Marathon and calling it quits.
Why not? As the 2004 Olympic silver medalist and 2009 winner of the ING New York City Marathon—the first American to break the tape in 27 years—unnecessarily pointed out during a telephone conversation on Sunday night: “I’ve had a good career.”
Instead, the 38-year-old’s eighth ING New York City Marathon, on November 3, might serve as the launching pad to a fourth U.S. Olympic team, which could put him in an orbit that’s all his own. According to Running USA, the oldest man to make a U.S. Olympic marathon team, at 40 years and 104 days, was James Henigan, in 1932. Keflezighi will turn 41 on May 5, 2016, exactly three months before the Games in Rio de Janeiro begin.
Two other U.S. Olympic marathoners, Ryan Hall and Kara Goucher, were also among the top American competitors in the 2013 race announced today by New York Road Runners. Both will be running the ING New York City Marathon for the second time. Hall, 30, finished fourth in 2009 and Goucher, 35, ran the fastest marathon debut by an American woman when she last ran in 2008, finishing third.
The American contingent will be rounded out by Julie Culley, Amy Hastings, and Janet Bawcom, all of whom were 2012 Olympians on the track; Jason Hartmann, the top American finisher in the Boston Marathon the past two years, both times in fourth place; as well as Ryan Vail, Jeffrey Eggleston, Alisha Williams, Adriana Nelson, and Mattie Suver.
Keflezighi had planned to compete in New York last year before the race was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy. Then he set his sights this spring on the 117th Boston Marathon, only to be forced to withdraw weeks before the event with an injury despite being in what he called “phenomenal shape.” Having not run a marathon since finishing fourth last August 12 in the London Olympics, he said, opens the door the extending his career.
“Until when, I’m not sure yet,” he said. “Everywhere I go, people are saying Rio.”
Keflezighi's manager and brother, Merhawi, said that given the enforced year-long break from racing marathons, it wasn't unexpected to see the athlete reconsider his retirement this fall. But in an e-mail, Merhawi termed thoughts of a career into 2016 “more of a surprise.”
“I think a lot of the encouragement for Meb to consider [the 2016 Olympic Trials and Games] is coming from Meb’s fans, especially those over 35 years old,” wrote Merhawi, who also serves as his brother’s manager. “During our book signings and appearance tour after the Olympics, everyone was asking about 2016. Slowly Meb went from saying ‘No way’ to ‘We’ll see.’ So the happy medium is to focus on one year and one marathon at a time.
“If Meb’s still feeling like he can train hard, compete well, and run personal bests or close to them, then it would be hard to turn down an opportunity to make a fourth Olympic team.”
Even more motivating, said the athlete, is a trio at the other end of the age spectrum: his daughters Sara, 7; Fiyori, 5; and Yohana, 3. He would especially like to give Yohana the chance to join her sisters in remembering her father in Olympic action.
“They know what the Olympics are,” said Keflezighi. “Every time they see the flag, they call it ‘Daddy’s flag.’ If I go to Rio, it will be for them.”
In early June, he and his wife, Yordanos, moved their family from Mammoth Lakes, CA, to San Diego, partly in preparation for Keflezighi’s post-running career. Earlier this month, it was announced that he and two-time Olympian Bob Kennedy had become co-owners of Movin’ Shoes, a three-store chain of running stores there. But even as he looks toward the future there, Keflezighi sees the past: the city is where he not only began his pro career, but won state track titles for San Diego High School and finished second in the national high school Foot Locker Cross Country Championships.
“I run by my high school at least once a week,” said the native of Eritrea, who came to this country as a refugee in 1987. “The only thing that’s changed is what used to be dirt is grass. [But] I think about how far I’ve come, and what I’ve overcome in life.”
On Saturday, Keflezighi finished third in the Quad City Times Bix 7, a seven-mile race in Iowa. This Saturday, he will run the TD Beach to Beacon 10K, founded by Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, in her hometown of Cape Elizabeth, ME. After that, he plans to run a still-to-be-announced half-marathon before his date with the finish line in Central Park.
Instead of a finale, Keflezighi hopes the 2013 ING New York City Marathon will give him the chance to help lead a new beginning, and not only for himself.
“November 3rd I want to win it, I really do,” he told the media this spring. “Especially after what happened last year with Hurricane Sandy, and then [the bombing] at Boston, I want to win it for the people of the United States.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg