Kathy Willens, AP Photo
Meb Keflezighi may be one of the world's most accomplished and elite runners, but he had a very common reaction after finishing his first marathon.
He questioned his sanity.
After being told most of his life, including his time as an All-American at UCLA, that he could be one of the world's best in marathon running, Keflezighi finally decided to give the 26.2-mile test a try.
"The first time I did it, I finished and I thought, 'Why did I put myself through this?'" said Keflezighi, who was in Boston last weekend making appearances for sponsor Sony Walkman. "I never want to do this again."
He finished in ninth place but was in such pain that even his mother asked him never to run a marathon again.
"But when you feel like you have God-given talent, you have to honor that," said Keflezighi, who published his autobiography in 2010 — "Run to Overcome."
One of the things that changed his mind about marathon running was a visit to the country where he was born in Africa. He returned to the place where his father had to walk 125 miles by himself in order to help his family escape the tumult. He feels nothing but gratitude that he's able to earn a living doing something he loves.
"It changed my perspective," said Keflezighi, who became a U.S. citizen the same year he graduated from UCLA. "I can't complain because the discomfort I feel, it is temporary."
And it is voluntary — unlike those who struggle just to stay alive in drought-ridden and war-torn areas of Africa.
"No one put a gun to my head," he said. "We volunteer to do it. And once we do it, for many people, it becomes a positive addiction."
Keflezighi won a silver medal in the Athens Summer Games in just his fourth marathon.
"It was a hard decision because I thought my chances to win in the 10,000-meter were better," he said. "But I also wanted to change the way marathon was seen in America. And I thought what a wonderful experience it would be to run the original course of the marathon."
The deeply religious father of three said he was humbled to stand on the podium of the Olympic Games representing his country.
"It was just a dream come true," he said, pointing out that, for runners, there are three magical races — 100 meters, 1 mile and a marathon.
"To achieve this for my country was so special," he said.
Keflezighi pulled off another upset in the Olympic trials for the 2012 London Games. He won the trials, besting favored Ryan Hall. Both men will compete in London, along with Abdi Abdirahman, and they make up the most experienced Olympic team the U.S. has fielded.
His advice to runners participating in marathons — like Saturday's Salt Lake Marathon — was very simple.
"I try to avoid spicy food," he said. "But try what works for you the day before a long run. Pasta and lasagna, and I am ready."
He said the secret to success in running isn't really a secret at all.
"Train," he said laughing. "Whatever the goal is, to break four hours or five hours or six hours, all the guys and gals have to have determination to persevere. You might not hit it the first time. Work hard, stay healthy and hopefully Mother Nature will help you with good weather. Control what you can. Train, be healthy and get to the starting line in one piece."
Running, he admits, "is a mind game. When it comes to race day, it's 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. Now you have to play the game. As they say, the hay is in the barn. It's training that is 90 percent physical and 10 percent mental."
He hopes everyone finds purpose in achieving a goal in the sport of running, regardless of what it is. But for those who hope to run a marathon, he offers them one more bit of advice.
"A marathon," he said, "is about patience."
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