Meb Keflezighi & Bob Larsen: the Gamblers
by Larry Eder
The race was fantastic. 111 men in the field, and 50 under 2:19.01. Nineteen personal bests, including best Olympic Trials marathon times for places two to fifteen! Meb Keflezighi's win was masterful, a stroke of real genius and also, amazingly lucky. Bob Larsen, Meb's coach, and Meb Keflezighi took a gamble, with their eyes open, and once again, the gamble paid off. Here is the behind the scenes' story that will show you just how amazing their coach-athlete relationship is and how great of gamblers Bob & Meb are.....
I remember seeing Bob Larsen, Meb Keflezighi's coach for the past 18 years, at the USATF Convention in early December 2011. We chatted, as we always do, first with a couple of jokes, then some track geek talk. I have been lucky enough to know Coach Larsen for nearly thirty years, first, as a coach at Grossmont College, then, the Jamul Toads, and then UCLA. One would be hard pressed to find a finer coach, or, in my mind, finer man.
Bob is not prone to hyperbole. He does not exaggerate or make things up. So, when he said, that Meb was just beginning training for the Olympic Trials, I did not worry or panic. Bob said it matter of factly, but there was some concern.
Bob Larsen's relationship with Meb Keflezighi is rare among American athletes. Their relationship stretches back to Meb's freshman year in college, at UCLA. It was during Meb's senior year that Bob talked to Meb about aiming for the Olympic Games. The relationship has matured, to where, one might describe it as mentor/advisor/friend. Bob is good for Meb and Meb, in truth, is good for Bob. Meb focuses on the workouts, and Bob, worries, but never for one to see. There is always a smile on Larsen's face.
Understand this, please. For great athletes, they are always chasing the red line. There is that gambling nature between too much work, too little work and being ready for the race. Meb & Bob, while they look quite conservative, are great and lucky gamblers. The difference is, that for Meb & Bob, two veterans of the world class athletics gamesmenship, they know the odds. Meb has had periods where he could barely walk, much less run world class times.
In 2004, Meb had six and one half weeks of good training before the Marathon Trials. Meb and Bob actually discussed Meb not running in 2004, and yet, he made the team. Bob Larsen insists that Meb's shape before the 2004 Olympic trials 10,000 meters was better than when he ran 27:13.98 for the AR in 2001 (It was not broken until May 1, 2010).
In 2004, Meb ran 27:36, to win the US Olympic Trials 10,000m. Then, Meb went on to win the Olympic silver medal on a day so hot in Athens that it was aggravating to breathe. "I knew I was going to get a medal there about twenty miles, and I wanted to push Stefano (Baldini), but I just did not have any more." Meb did not give up, as while Stefano Baldini's last mile was 4.28, Meb ran 4.38 for the final mile of the 2004 Athens Olympic marathon.
Bob Larsen related that when Meb Keflezighi went over to shake Stefano Baldini's hand after the Athens marathon, Stefano, the Olympic champion, could barely stand up on his own. Meb, while tired, was walking around pretty good.
The 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials, held in New York City's Central Park, was a nightmere for Meb. First his former training partner and friend, Ryan Shay, collapsed and died during the race. Secondly, Meb broke his hip and finished 8th. In 2008, Meb did not make the team, after having made the teams in 2000 in the 10,000 meters and in 2004 in the 10,000 meters & the Marathon. His injuries took a long time to heal and he questioned whether he could do this journey one more time...
Meb Keflezighi is a tough, consistent runner. Since his 2:10.03 at Chicago, he has run 2:09 times eight times! Yet, Meb has not run a real fast time, when 2:05 marathon times are coming in relatively fast. The difference? Meb is a championship runner, he runs well when much is on the line, such as an Olympic Trials, and Olympics. His silver medal in 2004 was not given to him-he earned it. Likewise, his victory in 2010 at the ING NYCM was a gutty, exhilerating run to the finish-line.
Meb ran his 2:09.13 at ING New York in 2011 was masterful. Meb developed, first a blood blister, then an infection in his foot. " It was painful, and it did not heal for three weeks. In retrospect, that rest was good for me."
Meb did not call the blister a blister. He first called it an infection, then, he called it, "the wound." Think about that. For a guy who has run nine marathons under 2:10, a wound has to a near gaping hole. I am almost surprised that Meb & Bob did not name the near nemesis of this Marathon Trials a proper name. Just the same, blister, infection or wound, it did play a part in the preparation of Meb for this race.
No one knew about Meb's three weeks off, due to the blister until Bob noted it at St.Louis, on December 2, at the USATF Convention. Larsen was not in a panic-he never is. Bob just told us that Meb was just starting training as he had a blister issue. So, Meb's sixty-nine days between ING New York and the 2012 US Olympic Trials Marathon were cut down by twenty-one days. 48 days of training. Heck, I am not sure Jeff Galloway, the minstrel of new marathoners, would consider 48 days enough time to prepare for a 10k, let alone a marathon. However, Meb Keflezighi & Bob Larsen persisted.
"It was much worse than we let on. It was on the center of my foot, just before my arch, and it would just not heal. In fact, it did not heal completely until three weeks ago." noted Meb this morning in a post race conversation.
"We were not sure." noted Meb. " I really would have liked two more weeks of training, as I wanted to run a 2:08."
"The race was okay. I had trouble swallowing some liquid before the race, so, I was a little concerned, and in fact, until I burped about 22 miles, I was not feeling great. Up until then, I was not sure I would finish. Remember, they almost dropped me about 22 miles? " noted Meb this morning, " I was thinking of dropping out."
"Ryan made a move about 23 miles, and I was finally feeling good, after the burp, and when he let me go, about 24 miles, I charged hard for the next 400 to 500 meters. I knew I had to do it, and I took off." smiled Meb.
"I have a blood blister on the same foot, I will let it heel, but it is not that bad. This race is for the girls. I want them to remember that their Dad ran in the London Olympics." noted a smiling Meb.
Meb Keflezighi is selfless. He signed autographs today and took pictures at breakfast this morning. As I am writing this, I witnessed Meb's longest uninterrupted time with his wife and family. For Meb, having a cup of coffee, and hanging with his brother, Hawi, as their girls run a bit and giggle, doing what little children do, is a luxury.
So, now, the race is over. "This race was the tough one. I needed to make the team to run in London." noted Meb. He is right, the Olympic Trials are a battle supreme. Bob & Meb gambled, and once again, they won!
Now, Meb Keflezighi, US Olympic Trials marathon champion, will take a couple weeks easy, bask in the celebratory events for his victory, spend time with his lovely wife and children, and then, he and his coach will plan for London 2012.
Bob Larsen & Meb Keflezighi will take the time to plan out their training for the London 2012 Olympics. The Olympics that Meb can share with his wife and daughter. The Olympics that Meb wants to run well, leaving an indelible mark. This will be proper marathon training, and that should mean a very special marathon performance. A very special performance for these two gamblers.
You might want to bet on it....