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Even Olympians Train on Trails

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Meb Keflezighi trains on trails for his road running success. Photo courtesy of PowerBar

Marathon superstar Meb Keflezighi, 40, of San Diego, trains a little differently than other road runners. Most famous for his 2014 Boston Marathon victory, where he was the first American to win the race since 1983, Keflezighi has a string of top road-race finishes, most recently in the marathon, stretching back more than a decade and a half.

And part of that success, it seems, comes from trail running.  “About 80 percent of my training is done on trails,” he says.

Keflezighi was born in Eritrea, which was then in the midst a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. In 1987, he and his family fled the violence and moved to San Diego.

When he was in the seventh grade, Keflezighi kick-started his running career by clocking a 5:20 mile. He went on to win three state titles for his high-school cross-country team at the 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter distances. He then ran for UCLA on a full scholarship, bagging four NCAA championships before graduating in 1998. He earned full American citizenship several months later.

In 2000, Keflezighi made the U.S. Olympic Team for the 10,000 meter and finished 12th in the Olympic finals. Four years later, he nabbed second at the Olympic Marathon in Athens. In 2009, he won the New York City Marathon, and in 2012 finished first at the Olympic Marathon Trials.

In a 2012 Q&A with Trail Runner, the road veteran credited a lot of his success to training on trails, though said the prospect of racing a trail or ultra event didn’t interest him. “It would take an NBA salary for me to try a 166-kilometer trail run,” he said. “I am very happy for those that can do it … Trail runners are passionate and dedicated, and I can appreciate those experiences without wanting to do it myself.”

On Sunday, Keflezighi returns to the New York City Marathon. He recently spoke to Trail Runner about his prep for the race and why he trains on trails—and whether anything has changed since he last ruled out competing at a trail race.

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Training with a mountain view. Photo courtesy of PowerBar

How did you start trail running?

I started trail running in the ninth grade as preparation for cross-country season. Coach [Eduardo] Ramos introduced trail running to us at the horse trail in San Diego, in Balboa Park.

What do you like about trail running? What do you find the most challenging?

The good part about trail running is that you recover faster because there is less pounding on your body. The tough part is that because of the soft surface, you have to dig deeper with your feet.

There are always obstacles on the trails, but that also helps you with your agility. Up and down hills, and avoiding tree roots and rocks, requires you to be focused and aware of your surroundings.

How do you think trail running has contributed to your road-running career?

As I get older, it is so important to vary the surfaces that I train on. I have to listen to my body a lot more.

I do a majority of training on trails and other surfaces to give my body a break. Running on soft surfaces helps decrease the impact on my knees and feet and minimize injuries. It’s too much to run for two consecutive days on pavement.

Where are some of your favorite places and trails to run?

Rancho Penisquitos, Rancho Sante Fe woodchip trails, Bonita Park and Balboa Park in San Diego, and all of the wonderful trails in Mammoth [Lakes, California, where Keflezighi has done altitude training].

I like smooth and wide trails. Preferably a loop trail.

How have you been preparing for the New York City Marathon?

Having a routine is very helpful. I don’t waste energy thinking about whether or not I should do a specific stretch or run.

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Keflezighi’s typical daily intake. Photo courtesy of PowerBar

I also have the same eating routine as in high school. For breakfast, I like to eat a bagel with almond butter. For lunch, a sandwich with fruit. For dinner the night before a race, I like to have pasta. I have a protein bar as a healthy snack in between meals, and, of course, after hard workouts for recovery. Good nutrition is very important to me.

How do you feel going into the race?

I feel excited, and a little bit anxious, but prepared. There are many things that go through my mind when I am running. In most of my races, I pray and think of my family and support team.

I am very fortunate to have a job where my task is to be as fit and healthy as possible. Running is also very therapeutic. It keeps me grounded and balanced.

Where do you see yourself going from here?

For 2016, my biggest goal is to make the Olympic Team. If I do, it will be my fourth. The Olympic Trials will be held in Los Angeles, on February 13, 2016.

Would you ever run a trail race?

I probably wouldn’t run an ultra race, but I would enter a trail race.