Meb Marathon Moment Mondays: 2011

Meb Marathon Moment Mondays: 2011

As the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon will mark Meb Keflezighi's 26th and final competitive marathon—his 11th in New York City—The Run On looks back at his previous runs through the five boroughs. This week, we're recapping his 2011 race, where he competed against what would turn out to be the fastest field in event history.

After taking the spring season off from marathon racing, Keflezighi took on his only 26.2-miler of 2011 in the five boroughs, making his seventh appearance in the race.

In the Interim

After reaching a high point in his career with his 2009 New York City Marathon victory, Keflezighi began 2011 at a relative low: His shoe sponsorship contract was not renewed in January, and he was not signed to compete in either World Marathon Majors race that spring. In March, he competed in the NYC Half, placing 15th in 1:02:52.

Although he had turned 36 that May, he looked to New York as a place where he would prove wrong those who counted him out, or who saw his career as having reached its peak.

As he had done for the past two years, his tune-up for New York City included a half-marathon win in San Jose. This time out, he finished in 1:02:17, slower than his previous runs there but an improvement upon his time from New York in the spring.

He arrived in New York City just three days before the race, aiming to take in the maximum benefit of training at altitude in Mammoth Lakes, CA. His fitness for New York, and especially his recovery after the race, would be vital, as he also looked to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston just 69 days later on February 14.

His Competitors

Gebre Gebremariam, Keflezighi’s successor as New York City Marathon champion, was back to defend his title. Fellow Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede, the marathon bronze medalist from the Beijing 2008 Olympics and the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, joined his countryman as he set out for his own five-borough debut.

Kenya brought a strong one-two punch, led by Geoffrey Mutai, who had run 2:03:02 to win the Boston Marathon that April. His time was the fastest ever run to date, but was determined to be ineligible for the world record due to the point-to-point and net downhill layout of the Boston course; nonetheless, it broke the standing event record by two minutes and 50 seconds.

Alongside him was Emmanuel Mutai (no relation), the runner-up from the 2009 IAAF World Championships, as well as from the 2010 London and New York City marathons. In April 2011, he finally climbed to the top of the podium in London, winning by 65 seconds with a 2:04:40 performance.

Among the American field, the experienced Keflezighi faced a challenge from two runners making their debuts: Bobby Curtis, the 2008 NCAA 5000-meter champion at Villanova University, and Ed Moran, a Staten Island-born New Jersey native who was a four-time NCAA All-American at the College of William and Mary.

The Race

In his pre-race press conference, Keflezighi gave his thoughts on his field of competitors, and his comments would prove to be a remarkably accurate foreshadowing of what would happen on race day.

When asked about the possibility that the Kenyans in the race would work together to push the pace, making the race more like a time trial, he responded, “My training is going well, and if they run 2:05, then I can't do anything about it. But hopefully they'll drag me to get a PR. I think I'll just run to be competitive.”

On Sunday, he backed his words up with his running.

Through Brooklyn, he held close to the leaders, as he had done so many times before—not making any dramatic moves, and not expending too much energy to cover surges.

The pack moved from Brooklyn into Queens over the Pulaski Bridge, hitting the halfway point in 1:03:17. At this point for Keflezighi, the gloves were off—as were his arm sleeves and his hat. As the morning rolled on, the temperature rose from the high 40s to the low 50s with light winds, offering close to ideal conditions for a long-distance race.

Crossing from Queens into Manhattan on the Queensboro Bridge

Off the Queensboro Bridge and up First Avenue, the pace began to quicken, as the lead group split 14:40 (4:43 per mile pace) between 25 and 30 kilometers. Keflezighi hung on as they crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge, but fell back as the leaders continued to speed up through the Bronx.

Farther north on First Avenue

On the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx

Fighting to hang on to the lead pack on mile 21

By 35K, Geoffrey Mutai put himself 17 seconds clear of the field, having covered those five kilometers in 14:31 (4:40 pace), including a 4:31 split on mile 21. In contrast, Keflezighi was forced to stop briefly due to stomach issues after he reached 35K. He recounted after the race:

The bad patch was about [mile] 22 when I stopped going into Central Park. . . It was a 30K drink that I had, and it didn't settle down as it should, and the others were fine. Maybe because we picked up the pace, and it forced me to stop. You know, you've just got to stop, take care of business. But I'm always determined to do the best that I can. Even if I have to walk, I don't care, I'll do it.

Mutai would wind up the pace even more as the finish line neared, clicking off a 14:26 (4:38 pace) from 35K to 40K, and finishing in 2:05:06—two minutes and 37 seconds faster than Tesfaye Jifar’s event record from 2001. Both Emmanuel Mutai (2:06:18) and Tsegaye Kebede (2:07:14) would finish under the old record as well.

Geoffrey Mutai breaking the finish tape in 2:05:06, to set a new event record.

After dropping to a 5:30 mile in Central Park, Keflezighi would pick the pace back up again and finish in 2:09:13, a personal best.

A year earlier, he was sixth in 2:11:38. This time out, he was sixth again—and the top American—but finished more than two minutes faster than 2010. His 2:09:13 was also two seconds ahead of his previous personal best, which had won him the race in 2009.

Post-race, he commented on his approach to the race and how it unfolded:

It was a perfect day, and the results speak. The results were phenomenal. You have the best runners in the world here, and I went for it. I always run to win and to get the best out of myself. So to run a PR at 36 with new shoes . . . I couldn't be happier.

Despite speculation that his career was on its downswing, he was showing no signs of slowing down, even at age 36. After a short recovery break, his focus moved to the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon that February.

In 2004, he had proven he could run well in New York just 70 days after winning silver in the Athens Olympic Marathon. Eight years later, he would attempt a similar schedule, albeit in reverse order. With only 69 days to prepare after the New York City Marathon, he would compete in Houston to make his third Olympic team and represent the United States in London.

Check back next week as we recap Meb's run at the 2013 New York City Marathon, a race where he fought pre-race injuries and put his “Run to Win” mentality on display out on the course.

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