Shelter Island will become a sea of runners this weekend, as the 36th Annual Shelter Island Race comes to town. The event attracts local and elite runners from around the globe, and Mebrathom “Meb” Keflezighi—the 2014 Boston Marathon winner, the 2009 New York City Marathon winner and the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the marathon—will once again be in the lead pack, as he heads to The Rock to race for the second consecutive year.
Keflezighi will run the race, which starts at 5:30 p.m., and will also be on hand earlier in the day to chat with competitors and sign his new book, Meb for Mortals, from 2–4 p.m. “I love interacting with people and my fellow runners,” says Keflezighi. “My dreams have been realized, so it’s time to give back to a sport that has done so much for me.”
The 40-year-old Keflezighi is coming off of setting two U.S. Masters records (ages 40-plus) in the 15K and the 10 mile at the Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon. He clocked a 44:23 at the 15K; and 47:39 at the 10-mile mark en route to a second-place finish in the half marathon. “It’s a huge honor,” says Keflezighi of the records. “For the half marathon to be in San Diego, where I grew up, [and to achieve the record in front of the] people who watched my first mile race, then two mile and eventually throughout my career.”
Keflezighi is renowned in running circles not only for his talent, but also his optimism and ability to inspire others in their running goals. “I try to be approachable. I don’t even have to try in many ways,” he laughs. “That’s how I’ve been since high school.” His attitude is always on display, whether he’s listening to fellow runners as they ask him for training advice during his book signings; or when he doubled back along the San Diego half marathon route after his historic race, joining fans in the “Meb Zone” to high-five runners as they finished.
At last year’s Shelter Island 10K, Keflezighi enjoyed spending the weekend on the Island with his wife. “The community embraces the race. It’s great to interact with them,” says Keflezighi. “I can hang out [in town] and be able to have a coffee and have a chat there. It’s more a relaxing environment than an intense one. I’m going toward that with my career anyway,” laughs Keflezighi about his age. He turned 40 on May 5, two weeks after finishing eighth in the 2015 Boston Marathon. Keflezighi encountered stomach problems that day, but still finished the race with a smile on his face, crossing the line hand-in-hand with elite female runner Hilary Dionne.
“The thing that stays the same is one foot after another,” says Keflezighi of his training at 40 years old versus 20. What has changed is Keflezighi’s meticulous attention to detail, specifically nutrition. He also now allows himself to wholly listen to his body and make decisions about training on a day-to-day basis. “It doesn’t have to be a killer workout. I just have to be consistent and healthy,” he says. That mentality is the premise of Keflezighi’s most recent book, Meb for Mortals, where he discusses how “doing the small things will eventually have a big impact on your life and your career. The small things make a big difference.”
At last year’s Shelter Island race, Keflezighi began with the lead pack and finished in 4th place with a time of 30:24. This year, he hopes to race more competitively. “We went out pretty fast last year. We went out under 4:30 [minutes per mile pace]. We pushed it again at the third mile. At the 5K they started getting away from me, and then at the fourth mile I was trying to push toward them again and then it was rough,” recalls Keflezighi of the 2014 race. “Last year, I didn’t have the smoothest recovery after the Boston Marathon. But things are coming along right now.”
The race begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Shelter Island School. The evening start time is unique. “I’m a morning person, I like morning races,” says Keflezighi. “But I understand why [the organizers] do it. You want to give people opportunity to come from the city or elsewhere to join.”
However, Keflezighi has found success with races that begin at all times, recalling that the 2004 Olympic Marathon in Athens, where he took silver, which started at 6 p.m. Ever the optimist, Keflezighi notes that since the Shelter Island race is only a 10K—6.2 miles compared to the marathon’s 26.2—the disruption to his typical race-day prep shouldn’t impact him too much.
Last year, Keflezighi jetted to Shelter Island just two months after his historic win in the 2014 Boston Marathon, where he was the first American male to win the race—the oldest and most storied of the six World Marathon Majors—since 1983. The emotional win came just a year after the finish line was bombed in a terror attack, and Keflezighi ran the race with the names of the four victims who died written on his race bib. “I always had a dream of winning Boston, and it happened at the perfect time and opportunity, for an American to win. Dreams and reality met that day, so that win stands out the most,” says Keflezighi of crossing the finish line first. “All [of my accomplishments] have significance, but the one that stands out is the Boston Marathon.”
Now, Keflezighi once again has his sights on the Olympics, as he has qualified to race in the Olympic Marathon Trials, which will be held on February 13, 2016 in Los Angeles. Keflezighi raced in the 2012 Olympics, finishing fourth in the marathon; but he missed the cutoff for the 2008 Olympic Marathon team, breaking his hip during the trials in Central Park, New York. The setback had many encouraging him to retire from running, but Keflezighi persevered, winning the New York City Marathon in 2009. “[After not making the Olympic team, I thought], I’m going to make my own Olympics. I’m going to go to the New York City marathon and meet as many Olympians as possible, and then I won the whole thing, so that was outstanding in itself,” says Keflezighi. “People say you’re old. You can’t do it. But you bounce back.”
Keflezighi hopes to impart his persistence and motivation to everyone he meets. “I’ve thought about retiring from a marathon, but I still want to be a part of the sport. The sport has done so much for me, and I want to give back. I always want to encourage people to get out and do their first 5K or 10K or half marathon, and hopefully, once in a lifetime, a marathon.”
As Keflezighi becomes more involved in motivational speaking, he recently served as the keynote speaker at a number of graduation ceremonies. In addition to his storied career, Keflezighi recognizes that “people also want to hear what my parents have done to get from poverty to achieve what we have achieved. Not only me, but all my brothers and sisters.” His story is the quintessential American dream. Born in 1975, Keflezighi is one of 10 children. He and his family are refugees from war-torn Eritrea in eastern Africa; they arrived in San Diego in 1987.
Keflezighi also hopes to give youth the opportunity to succeed through his MEB Foundation, which seeks to give back to kids’ health, education and fitness programs. “Exercise is a good thing,” says Keflezighi. “It’s good for academics good for society. [It teaches kids] to set goals, work hard, determination, discipline, time management.”
Plus, says Keflezighi, “I really think that people who are outdoors are happier than people who are indoors.”