On Wednesday, I spoke with Mebrahtom Keflezighi, perhaps the most successful American marathoner of all time. He won the New York City marathon in 2009 and the Boston Marathon in 2014. He won an Olympic silver medal and was internationally competitive until the age of 42, in a sport where people tend to peak much younger than that. On Monday, he will be the grand marshall of the Boston Marathon. Keflezighi possesses a wealth of running wisdom, much of which he shares in his book 26 Marathons. We spoke mainly about the science of running fast in difficult conditions and about how to keep a career going as one ages.
Nicholas Thompson: As someone who ran lots of difficult courses and many marathons, tell me the factors that mattered most to you in a course?
Mebrahtom Keflezighi: The first thing is that a marathon is going to hurt no matter what. People need to understand that. But you want to hurt as late as possible, and knowing the course helps. If you know the course is going to be hilly, then you need to do more hills training in your preparation. You should also visualize yourself doing hills. When you come to a hill, what do you need to do? You need to do short strides, more arm action, lean forward a little bit, and conquer it. If you do that for two months or three months, it becomes second nature.
NT: What about weather? How much would you focus on the weather forecast in the days before one of your races?
MK: I mean, the weather’s the weather. I was just talking to Geoffrey Kirui, who won the Boston Marathon two years ago, and he was asking me for some advice: the weather, this and that. And I was like, “You know, it’s going to rain on everybody!”
What do I need to do to run myself really well in nasty, wet conditions? I don’t want to be cold or get hypothermia. So I need to layer up. What material do I need? I need to wear a beanie, or I need to wear a cap, or I need to wear both. So I worry about that versus, “Oh man, it’s going to be bad weather.”
NT: But when you think about your splits, how much are you adjusting them for the weather? If your plan is to go out at 5 minutes per mile or 4:55, and then you know it’s a rainy day or a windy day or a hot day, do you and your coach say, “OK, let’s go out at 5:05”?
MK: At the elite level, you go with the group. If they go out on 4:50, you have no choice but to go at 4:50. If just one person goes at 4:50, you’re like, “You know what, I can catch them later.” But if six people go, you know they’re going to help each other. So three of them might come back and three of them might survive. So you have to make that conscious decision. You know the coach only can get you ready for the starting line.
MK: In preparation, and in my visualization, I thought it was going to come down to the last 500, 600 meters on Boylston Street. But when I made that conscious decision about the course, was when Joseph Boit and myself were running, we separated ourselves from mile 5 to 8 and we wondered, why are they letting us go? Personally, I’m thinking, “Hey, I won New York; I won a silver medal; you’re making a mistake.” And then I just said, you know what, I need to control my destiny here. I know the course, and I need to monitor my pace and conquer the hills one hill at a time by myself. I ran 4:31 that 16th mile to get away.
And it was risky and painful! And we had ten more miles to go. But you just carry what you’re doing it for: you know, you’re carrying the [bombing] victim’s name on your bib, you’re carrying the initials on your shoulder. Every step that I made, did I think about dropping out? Absolutely. But then I’m like, no I can’t do that. And then the crowd amazingly wakes you up and makes you realize how special this is and they’re chanting “USA! USA!” or “Go Meb! Go Meb!” doing the wave, and you get emotional, you want to give your energy. I mean you just get a spark of energy and you’re like, “I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.”
NT: That was one of the greatest races I ever watched. But back to more general strategy for a minute. On a windy day, how much are you thinking about drafting? On a sunny day, how much are…
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