NYC marathon winner Meb Keflezighi: Race day is 90 percent mental

“I like to prove people wrong,” said Meb Keflezighi.

Seven years after winning the New York City Marathon, Meb Keflezighi remains the American dream in running shoes.

Born in war torn Eritrea in Northeast Africa, the 5-foot-6 Keflezighi won marathons in New York in 2009 and Boston in 2014 despite being an underdog.

“I like to prove people wrong,” said Keflezighi, who won silver at the 2004 Olympics and competed in Rio over the summer.

He has indeed. Keflezighi, 41, is in town for Sunday’s TCS New York City Marathon, which he’s sitting out. After seven top 10 New York finishes, Keflezighi set a masters record last year. One of the sport’s prominent faces, this U.S. citizen since 1998 was the first American marathoner to win in New York in 27 years.

Physical training aside, how does Keflezighi prepare for a marathon mentally?

“When it comes to a race day, then it becomes 90 percent mental,” he said. “Now you’ve done the preparation, you’ve done the work, you’ve done the mileage. And now don’t freak out, don’t make stupid mistakes. Execute a good plan, and go for it.”

Keflezighi is promoting one of his sponsors, KT Tape, makers of kinesiology tape for strength and support. Even Keflezighi aches after 26.2 miles.

“And you want to stop, but you can’t,” he said. “There’s an inner motivation, and you dig deep for those. And it becomes all a mental game.”

From the starting line, Keflezighi emphasizes focusing on goals. In 2009 in New York, “I just thought, ‘Why not me?’ ” he said.

Mid-marathon, adjust your goals if necessary, Keflezighi says.

A runner may think, “I went out too fast, I hit the wall, I can’t do it,” Keflezighi said. “But that’s the beauty of running. I’m going to slow down and collect myself, work on my mechanics or my posture. I’m going to get that finish line.”

In the home stretch, “The emotion and the sweat takes you to another gear,” Keflezighi said. “You don’t want to be anywhere else but coming across that finish line with a smile on your face.”

After 24 marathons, Keflezighi says he’s aiming for 26, including New York in 2018. The 50,000 competitors know that as a spectator this year, he won’t pull one of his patented upsets.

“This is a good year to discount me,” Keflezighi joked.

Joey Wahler