Lessons from Meb Keflezighi

As many of you know, I write a regular column in the monthly newsletter published by the Birmingham Track Club. My column is titled “Ramblings” because I just write whatever I feel like writing each month. For the January issue that was just released, I shared something that I read not too long ago about Meb Keflezighi. Since we are starting a new year and I thought this was good advice, the following is a reprint of the article:

Sports Illustrated recently blew a historic opportunity to make a strong statement to the sports world when it selected Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants over Meb Keflezighi as their 2014 Sportsman of the Year.  Taking nothing away from Bumgarner, he was incredible in the playoffs last fall, but Meb accomplished something that transcended sports when he won the 2014 Boston Marathon.  To me, it seemed like such an easy choice to select Meb as Sportsman of the Year.  One year after the terrorist bombings at the finish line on Boylston Street, Meb ran a PR on his way to winning the marathon.  He honored the four victims killed the previous year by writing their names on his bib.  He wanted to do something special for the running world and, more specifically, the city of Boston.  And he did!  Just shy of his 39th birthday, Meb took the lead early and held it throughout to become the first American winner since Greg Meyer in 1983.  With his victory, Meb brought pride to our country and he reclaimed the streets of Boston for the community and runners.  The win also made him the first runner in history to win both the New York City Marathon and the Boston Marathon along with an Olympic medal.  Those of us who know him personally could not have been prouder.  I just wish Sports Illustrated had recognized the magnitude of his accomplishment.

Reading all of the posts on the internet in the aftermath of Sports Illustrated’s decision, I ran across an excellent article outlining lessons that we could all learn from Meb.  I dug it back out and thought I would share the advice here.  Regardless of ability, all of us can strive to better ourselves in 2015.  I hope you find this as good as I did.

Lesson #1:  No Pity Parties

If you have run for any length of time, you have most likely experienced a pity party.  If you run a marathon, you will see many pity parties all around you as you get deeper into the race.  When things become difficult, human nature is to dwell on the pain and suffering.  This is something Meb does not allow to happen.  Because of his mental strength, he is a master at refocusing his attention away from negatives.  When my wife told him she did not like to run long distances because it hurts, he laughed and told her that a marathon hurts him for all 26.2 miles.

Just like all of us, Meb suffers when he runs but he refuses to live in the suffering.  He quickly redirects his thoughts to things, usually external, that can be beneficial to get him back on track.  I have heard Meb say that he often thinks of his father who escaped Eritrea by walking more than 200 miles to get his family out of the country.  When he began to struggle in the Boston Marathon and Wilson Chebet was gaining on him late in the race, he thought of the victims from the previous year’s tragedy to find the strength to keep the lead and race to victory down Boylston Street.

For those of us that have been fortunate to train with Coach Danny Haralson of Run University, we often hear him tell us to think about other things when we feel tired or deflated during a race.  He tells us to think positive thoughts to get our minds off the negativity.

Meb’s ability to refocus from the negative to a positive mindset is a key to his consistent success in running and life.  As he often says, “I run to win but winning doesn’t always mean getting first place.  It means getting the best of yourself in each race.”

Lesson #2:  Relentlessness

Meb displays the same relentlessness in training as he does in races.  If you are familiar at all with his story, you know he has had more than his fair share of injuries.  Others have written him off repeatedly.  Sponsors have chosen not to renew his contract.  He just keeps coming back, stronger and better.  His secret is relentless hope.  He believes that if today is not his day, then it probably will be tomorrow or maybe next week or even next month.  He is always looking ahead with hope.

When he races, he always has several goals.  At this year’s New York City Marathon, he had three goals:  win, top three finish or PR.  The wind gusts created conditions that took the PR off the table, but he kept his sights on his other two goals.  He ran with the lead pack for most of the race but was unable to match some of the late surges and fell back to eighth place at one point.  He saw the reigning world champion, Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda, ahead of him and thought, “Well, that’s not too bad to finish behind the Olympic champion.”  As soon as he thought that, his relentlessness kicked in and he decided to give it one more push.  He soon caught Kiprotich as they set their sights on the next runner ahead, defending champion and course record holder Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya.  That is when Meb thought to himself that this might be his only chance to beat Mutai so he continued to push.  Just like that, he found himself in fourth place and began thinking, “Maybe one of the top three will fade and I can achieve my goal.”  No one faded, but that is how he thinks during a race.  He is always hopeful and ever relentless.  By the way, that fourth place finish was good enough to be the top American finisher.

Lesson #3:  Hard Work Pays Off

An interesting fact about Meb is that he thought the marathon distance was too hard for him after he ran his first marathon.  He then went for a visit to his native Eritrea and was reminded of what “hard” really is.  The trip rejuvenated him and what he thought was hard was no longer hard.

In both his running and non-running activities, Meb works hard.  He spends a significant amount of training time on non-running activities such as cross training, mobility, massage, nutrition, etc.  At age 39, Meb believes he has to work even harder on these non-running elements than he did ten years ago.  His long and consistent career is testament to the fact that he knows hard work pays off in running.

It does not matter what kind of runner you are, we can learn something from these lessons.  Whether you are a front-of-the-pack runner trying to win races as Meb does or a middle- to back-of-the-pack runner just balancing life and running, you would do well to keep these three simple lessons in mind.  I call them simple because conceptually, they are.  Putting them into practice is much more challenging.  We all have the tendency to focus on our pain or feel content with where we are rather than push to see how much better we can be.

Most of us want this running thing to be easy.  I hear people say all the time that if it were easy, everyone would do it.  As runners, we are already mentally, physically and psychologically stronger than the vast majority of the population.  The truth is that the only thing that can really hold us back is ourselves.  As we embark on a new year, make the commitment to “run to win” as Meb describes it.  Find out how good your best can be!

If you have not read Meb’s book, Run to Overcome, I highly recommend it.  If you cannot find a copy at the bookstore, just go to www.runtoovercome.com to order a copy.  The latest edition includes a chapter about this year’s Boston Marathon.

I also like to include some inspirational quotes with each of my articles. Since I chose to include quotes reflecting on hard work, I wanted to share those here as well.

“Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all.”

   ~ Sam Ewing, a former baseball player for the Chicago White Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays

“The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.”

   ~ Thomas A. Edison, (1847-1931) an American inventor and businessman

“All growth depends upon activity.  There is no development physically or intellectually without effort, and effort means work.”

   ~ Calvin Coolidge, (1872-1933) the 30th President of the United States

“We forget that every good that is worth possessing must be paid for in strokes of daily effort.  We postpone and postpone, until those smiling possibilities are dead.”

   ~ William James, (1842-1910) an American philosopher and psychologist who was also trained as a physician

“The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work.  Hard work is the price we must pay for success.  I think you can accomplish anything if you’re willing to pay the price.”

   ~ Vince Lombardi, (1913-1970) an American football player, coach and executive best known as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s

“Focused, hard work is the real key to success.  Keep your eyes on the goal, and just keep taking the next step towards completing it.  If you aren’t sure which way to do something, do it both ways and see which works better.”

   ~ John Carmack, an American game programmer and the co-founder of Id Software

“It is only through work and strife that either nation or individual moves on to greatness.  The great man is always the man of mighty effort, and usually the man whom grinding need has trained to mighty effort.”

   ~ Theodore Roosevelt, (1858-1919) an American politician, author, naturalist, soldier, explorer and historian who served as the 26th President of the United States

I hope you enjoy this and find it to be good advice. I did.

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