The Olympic medalist and New York City champion talks diet, race prep, and pain. (Mostly pain.)
There is probably no active American distance runner quite as famous as Meb Keflezighi, who has enjoyed one of those careers made up of neat narrative arcs that function sort of like episodes in a miniseries. He won the silver at the 2004 Olympics, becoming the first American medalist in 28 years, only to break his hip while trying to qualify for the 2008 Games. Then, in 2009, he came back to win the New York City Marathon, and in 2014, the first year after the bombing, he won Boston. Both times, he was the first American in decades to break the tape. Last Sunday, he returned to the New York City Marathon, the site of his first win, for the 26th—a convenient number, eh?—and final race of his professional career, where he finished 11th and collapsed at the finish line, giving a thumbs up along the way.
Keflezighi, 42, has fifteen years of professional marathoning to his name, but the punishing nature of the sport is what can make his successes, as impressive as they are, seem sporadic: The marathon is so grueling that the tiniest hiccup on race day can cause months of careful, diligent preparation to suddenly become irrelevant. We caught up with him a few days before his New York City grand finale to talk training diet, race day prep, and pain. (A lot of pain).
GQ: Are you feeling more relieved or anxious to run your last marathon?
Meb Keflezighi: I don’t know about relieved. I’ll feel relieved after the race, maybe in the last mile. I feel so blessed to be getting ready for my 26th race. There are a lot of expectations, but I’m excited for it.
Even if you’re running at a competitive pace, a marathon lasts a long time. What do you try to think about during the actual run? Are you trying to zen out at all, or are you super aware of your competitors the whole time?
Well, you’re there for over two hours, so you think a lot. You think about your competitors, or about who’s leading the pack now versus who was doing well at the beginning. Especially at the beginning, though, you’re trying to just be as mellow and relaxed as possible, because a marathon is all about patience. You want to be comfortable and calm, but at some point, someone’s going to make a move, so your mind goes back and forth during the race. Like, I’ve got seven miles to go. How am I feeling? Or, Okay, I hope nobody makes their move right now, because I’m definitely struggling.
What do you eat the night before a race?
I’ve been having the same meal the night before since high school: spaghetti with meatballs. In places where that might not be available, though, it’s wheat pasta or rice and chicken. You load up before the race, and about five hours beforehand. You don’t want an upset stomach.
And what about after the race? Anything you go for?
After putting your body through the grind, you don’t feel like eating right away. I go for protein, but after a couple hours you need a real meal. I have steak if I can, or an omelette—something warm. Protein is important here because you just did a lot of damage to your body.
You're not counting calories anymore, are you? I'd guess that by now you have a sense of what feels right and what doesn't.
No, but I usually weigh myself in training every single day, because I know what weight works for me. When you’re 42 years old, you can’t do what you did when you were 25. You have to be careful and systematic. My wake-up call came about 20 years ago when I was at UCLA in a nutritional science class, and the professor asked us to make a list of everything that we ate, along with all the training and even walking we did, and then to compare the intake and output. And my intake was about 6,500 calories! For a small guy like me, that was a lot. I grew up poor in Eritrea, so I was making up for lost time.
The professor said, "You’re lucky you run and you’re lucky with your genetics, because otherwise you’d be obese." That kind of turned my life around. And I started seeing changes in race results that have continued ever since. I’m proud of it.
You’ve had a really long career for a distance runner. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in runners' diets during that time?
Back in the day, most people thought you needed to eat carbohydrates and then more carbohydrates. For me, though, as I got older, I had to eat a lot more protein in order to maintain my skills. I’ve been involved with a company called KRAVE Jerky for a long time, which has definitely helped me to stay lean. I’m not saying I avoid all carbohydrates, but today, for me, there is a lot of protein. too. You have to balance it.
One of the things that fascinates me about marathon running is the mechanics. If one thing is slightly wrong—a tickle in the leg or stomach—it immediately gets magnified over that distance. It seems really difficult to predict what will be a problem before it becomes a problem.
Sometimes, if you go down bad paths a little bit earlier in the race, you can bounce back. But if you keep digging a hole, it’s hard to get out of it. You hope that it comes later rather than sooner, because the last 10 kilometers are all about grit anyway.
But... it’s a marathon. You know it’s going to hurt! You just hope it’s going to hurt on mile 22 or 23. If you’re hurting on mile 8 or 13, then it suddenly becomes an ultramarathon. You’re there for a long time, and it’s not going be fun.
What are you looking forward to now that you don’t have to worry about being in competition shape anymore?
That’s a tricky question, because I know this week is the lightest I’ll ever be from this point on! I’ve worked hard, but as you get older, it becomes harder to lose weight. I hope to continue running half marathons or 10K races, or even a marathon for fun, but that’s been my life for the last 27 years. Now, I have a daughter who’s seven, and she's excited to have ice cream every day. For a week or two, that'll be just fine.
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