Meb Marathon Moment Mondays: 2002
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. We're kicking off this weekly series with a look back at his marathon debut from 2002.
In his autobiography Run to Overcome: The Inspiring Story of an American Champion's Long-Distance Quest to Achieve a Big Dream, Keflezighi recalls the thoughts that led him to signing up for his first marathon:
"The year 2002 was what people in the sport call an 'off year.' There were no summer Olympics, which occur every four years, and no world championships, held the year before and the year after the Olympics. It was an ideal time to scale back training or experiment with new events. It was time to see if all of those early predictors like Ron Tabb and Mike Anderson were correct about my destiny with 26.2 miles."
Entering the race, Keflezighi was just over a year removed from setting the American 10,000-meter record on the track; he’d broken a 15-year-old record with his 27:13.98. He was also experienced in competing over hilly courses, having won the USA Cross Country Championships in 2001 and 2002.
His coach, Bob Larsen, advised him to run within himself and to not get caught up in the excitement of First Avenue. Like many first-timers, however, Keflezighi found himself feeling strong early on, passing through the halfway point in 1:03:50 with the lead pack. "I couldn't help myself," he wrote, adding, "I couldn't resist the urge to go with Rodgers Rop of Kenya and other leaders when they started pushing the pace around mile 16."
Feeling himself getting warmer later into the race, he cast aside his running beanie and grabbed a cup of water from an aid station to pour on his head—only to find that the water was much colder than expected—and the cold only added to the toll of the 20-plus miles behind him.
"By mile 21 I was fading, and fading fast," he writes. Of his final 10K, he recalls, "I went from vying for the lead of one of the biggest marathons in the world, to thinking I'd be no worse than fourth at mile 20, to finishing ninth."
Keflezighi crossed the finish in 2:12:35, ninth overall and the top American man in the field, but noticed the gap between himself and the 2:08:07 time of race winner Rodgers Rop: "He put about four minutes and change on me in the last five miles," adding, "I had just discovered what hitting the wall meant. I called it getting my PhD in the marathon."
Having learned these lessons the hard way, Keflezighi was convinced he was done with 26.2. "You've seen my first and last marathon," he said to Larsen post-race. "I don't ever want to do this again."
Longtime followers of the New York City Marathon will remember a similar reaction from another famous first-timer. After her debut win in 1978, Grete Waitz is said to have taken off her racing shoes, thrown them at her husband, and said, "I'll never do this stupid thing again."
Waitz would find herself completing the race ten more times after that, and so too, would Keflezighi soon make himself a persistent presence in the Big Apple every first Sunday in November.
Check back next week for a recap of Meb's second New York City Marathon, in 2004, when he returned to the five boroughs a more experienced—and decorated—marathoner.