The marathon might fall slightly lower on the average American sports fan’s list of priorities than, say, getting their oil changed, but everyone loves a good underdog story. That’s why you should get to know and root for Meb Keflezighi. The Californian-by-way-of-Eritrea shocked the running world in 2014 by becoming the first American to win the Boston Marathon since 1983 and the oldest to win since at least 1930 (prior to which, the bookkeeping was a little loose — blame Prohibition). He turned 40 just 2 weeks after the 2015 race, and whenever he retires his place in the sport’s pantheon will be secure — being the only American with wins at Boston and New York, plus an Olympic medal (silver, from Athens in 2004), will do that for your legacy.
The only things Keflezighi likes to talk about more than running are his wife and kids — probably because he swears he’s a better runner because of them. We caught up with him during a break from altitude training in Mammoth Lakes, where he didn’t sound the slightest bit out of breath.
Your daughters are 9, 7 and 5 — do they understand what you do for a living?
They’re old enough to understand. When I go places in San Diego, they ask, “Why does everyone know you?” I say, “Because I run.” They’re happy for me that I represent the United States, and they’ve seen me carry the flag so many times that it used to be known as “daddy’s flag.”
Have they expressed any interest in following you in your footsteps?
My wife and I, we want them outdoors, not in the house playing games. And they do like to run — we live almost a mile from their school. It’s 27 blocks, and we let them run one block at a time. They sprint, then they have to wait at the intersection, then sprint, then wait. And when I work out, we’ll take them to the park sometimes but if I’m training, I’m not going to slow down. So, they try to hold on for as long as they can. They’ll go, go, go for 15 or 20 meters. But I don’t want to push them; I’ve seen other parents with kids their age or younger and they try to push. Then their kids don’t enjoy the sport.
“You have to be there for them and support them but not give them everything — they have to earn it. That’s what the marathon teaches you: patience.”
Are you able to tell if a young kid will be a good runner?
You can see it when they’re walking around, you can tell from their body type and how they move. I could be wrong, but I think my middle child may be a runner. She’s very focused. At 6-years-old, if she started something she wouldn’t stop until she’d finished it and it’s hard to find a kid that age who’s that dedicated. She always wants to jog, “Hey, daddy, take us around the block!” She runs like me, too, with both feet off the ground, great mechanics. She has desire and you can’t teach that. Form, you can improve, but commitment, desire and competitiveness come from within.
How old were you when you realized you might have a talent for running?
I was 13. We used to run different distances, and if you ran them in a certain time, you got a T-shirt. I did the 50 meters and the 100 meters, but I didn’t stand out. And then, the mile, if you ran it in 6:15 you got a T-shirt; I ran it in 5:20. My PE teacher told me I would be an Olympian.
Being a world class athlete, you have a demanding training and travel schedule. Do you think that makes it harder or easier to be an engaged father, compared to a guy with an office job who’s always on his phone or computer?
Being an athlete is a lot easier, in terms of the quality of time with your kids. I can take them to school, pick them up from school. I come back from my first run and spend time with them before going for another run or the gym. You have that flexibility. Traveling is hard and I do a little FaceTime and Skype. I love to talk to them, but I don’t have to do it every day. They have their lives and I have my life and we make it work. I’m really fortunate because my wife is with them all the time. They’ve never been to a baby sitter, besides my family members if we’re traveling.
“Form, you can improve, but commitment, desire and competitiveness come from within.”
What has running marathons taught you about parenting?
Marathons are a love/hate relationship. When they go well, you love it and when they don’t go well you hate it. As a father, you want what’s best for your kids and sometimes they don’t get it. You want to be able to explain that to them. And you love them, but you also have to discipline them and make sure they do the right things. So, it goes both ways. You have to be there for them and support them but not give them everything — they have to earn it. That’s what the marathon teaches you: patience.
What about being a parent — has that made you a better runner?
People say that kids change you, but it didn’t change who I am. I was always disciplined, hard working and committed. My wife would say I’m more relaxed now that I have kids. I understand the value of family, because I grew up in a large one. I’m one of 11 children. A lot of people see family as hindering a career, but it’s done the opposite for me.
Are you bringing the family with you to Boston?
They’re coming — my parents are coming, too. It’s not often you get to be the defending champion, so I’m taking that opportunity.