Meb Keflezighi, of the United States, reacts after winning the 118th Boston Marathon, April 21, 2014.
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When Meb Keflezighi ran his first competitive race in the seventh grade, his motivation was simple: to get a t-shirt for his school’s running club that his older brothers also wore.
Yet after running a mile in 5 minutes, 20 seconds, he discovered he had a unique talent. His teacher at the time told him, “You’re going to go to the Olympics.” And word in school quickly spread.
“I didn’t speak English at the time, but my picture by the gym made history,” said Keflezighi, who immigrated to the U.S. from Eritrea.
“They said, ‘Hey, here’s the fastest kid,’ and people started giving me high-fives,” he added. “And that was how my running started.”
Today, Keflezighi, 44, is the only runner to have won an Olympic medal, the Boston Marathon and the New York City Marathon. This year’s New York race, expected to attract more than 50,000 runners, kicks off on Sunday morning.
However, those highs also came with their fair share of challenges.
Before winning the New York City Marathon, Keflezighi faced a number of setbacks that led him to question whether he would ever be able to run again. That included a stress fracture in his hip that left him crawling on his hands and knees just to get around.
Meb Keflezighi crosses the finish line during the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon on November 4, 2018 in Central Park in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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“I couldn’t stand up to bear weight, and I remember looking over the window of the city, because I couldn’t stand up,” Keflezighi said.
Around that time, his friend and fellow professional runner Ryan Shay died of a heart attack.
“You can’t compare when the guy you were sitting next to on the bus to the starting line passed away,” Keflezighi said. “That kind of puts life in perspective.”
Keflezighi, who was already an Olympic silver medalist, considered retiring. But something internally told him he was not done.
“What it taught me was to celebrate every personal best,” Keflezighi said. “Just to be able to run, you’re grateful when it’s not taken away from you.”
He set his sights on winning the New York City Marathon. In 2009, with a time of 2:09:15, he became the first American to win the race since 1982.
If you can overcome those challenges to get ready for a marathon and get to that finish line, it changes your life.
The challenges did not end there. In 2011, Nike declined to renew his contract. Though Keflezighi still had other sponsors, he relied on the shoe brand for the bulk of his financial support.
He went without a shoe contract until August of that year, when Skechers stepped up.
“They took a risk,” Keflezighi said. “They gave me a one-year contract.
“I said, I need more than that, but let’s see how it goes,” he added. “And it went really well.”
In 2012, Keflezighi made the U.S. Olympic team and placed fourth in the summer Olympics marathon. “Finishing fourth, that kind of sparked a little light in me to say, ‘Hey, I can still win,” he said.
In 2014, he did win, coming in first in the Boston Marathon, with a time of 2:08:37. At the time, he was the first American man to come in first since 1983. The race was one year after the notorious bombing. To pay tribute to victims of that terror attack, Keflezighi wrote their names with marker in small letters on his bib.
“As a lead athlete, they tell you not to tamper with your bib, but I took a risk,” Keflezighi said. “I just wrote it with a Sharpie to give them respect and to draw inspiration from them.”
Participants run during the New York City Marathon in Manhattan, New York, on Nov. 04, 2018 (Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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In 2017, Keflezighi retired at the New York City Marathon after running 26 marathons.
Today, he works to inspire other runners through the Meb Foundation, which works to help promote children’s health, education and fitness.
This week, he was inducted into the New York Road Runners Hall of Fame, 10 years after his New York City Marathon win. And the lessons he has learned along the way inform his advice for other runners.
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Aspire to run one marathon in your lifetime
Participating in races is a great way to increase your motivation. But nothing compares to running a full marathon, according to Keflezighi.
“I tell people you should do one marathon in your lifetime,” Keflezighi said. “After that, it’s optional.”
That’s because running that 26.2-mile distance can teach you things that running a half marathon or 10K or 5K race can’t, he said.
“If you can overcome those challenges to get ready for a marathon and get to that finish line, it changes your life,” Keflezighi said. “You are going to find something you never thought you were capable of doing.”
Refocus after disappointing results
It’s important to stay focused on your goals, even when you are faced with setbacks.
“You go through ups and downs in life, and you go through ups and downs in training,” Keflezighi said.
With the sport often come injuries. The beauty of running, Keflezighi said, is you can scale down your efforts or cross train with another activity, such as swimming or biking.
“If you’re hurting, get healthy, refocus and set a new goal,” Keflezighi said.
The same goes for long-term achievements that you look to accomplish in life, he said. For those goals, it’s important to remember that one setback does not have to interfere with your progress over months or even years.
“Don’t give up on your dreams,” Keflezighi said.