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Meb Keflezighi has plenty left to give

Meb Keflezighi's pride in winning Boston is equaled by his hometown's pride in him. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

SAN DIEGO -- Many of the other runners know his name. They recognize the familiar face and the athletic gait of the slender 5-foot-5 champion as he runs past them through Balboa Park or along Mission Bay in San Diego. Often, they call out to him.

"Hey, Meb!"

"You got it, Meb!"

"Meb, you're my hero!"

No doubt, many can recite his résumé and accomplishments. Some jump in with him for a few strides on his training runs through the city where he grew up, went to school and fell in love with running. Others see him and know he's someone they should know.

"Some people, they don't know his name, or at least in their excitement, they maybe forget his name," Rich Levy says.

Levy, who rides a bike to pace Meb Keflezighi when he trains, laughs about some of the encounters they've had.

"They say, 'Hey, you're that guy! You're what's-his-name. You're that runner, aren't you?'"

Whether they know him or not, Mebrahtom Keflezighi -- winner of the Boston Marathon, the New York City Marathon, an Olympic silver medal and a long list of NCAA, national and international championships -- always acknowledges the attention.

"Always, always, always," says Levy, now retired, who has known Keflezighi since Meb was a freshman at San Diego High. "One hundred percent. He's very gracious. It's almost like he doesn't believe all the attention he's getting, and he appreciates every bit of it. Every bit."

Over the past year, that attention has increased significantly. That happens when in 2014 you become the first American in 31 years to win at Boston -- and in the year when more people than ever were paying attention because of the 2013 attacks at the finish line.

"It's been a whirlwind, for sure," says Keflezighi as he sits in a small Mission Hills coffee shop, sipping hot chocolate. "But you'd never know what winning the Boston Marathon would bring. But it wasn't any ordinary Boston Marathon."

The image of Keflezighi with the American flag draped across his shoulders and his fist thrust in the air will be remembered for years. His victory was a celebration embraced by the thousands who lined the route and chanted his name. Boston and Meb were connected at the heart. On his race bib, he'd written the names of the four people killed in the 2013 bombings and their aftermath.

In the months since, he's been stopped in grocery stores, at the gas pump, nearly everywhere, by people who want to congratulate him or thank him for what he did that day.

That Boston victory was the pinnacle of an amazing 2014. In January, Keflezighi won the USA Half-Marathon Championships in Houston. In November, he gutted out a fourth-place finish in the New York City Marathon, with winds gusting to 45 mph. Multiple honors came his way, topped by USA Track and Field's Jesse Owens Award, given annually to its most outstanding athlete.

Keflezighi - who will turn 40 in May -- is excited to return to Boston. He wants to defend his title. In February, he did more than 600 miles, either on foot or on his ElliptiGO (a bike powered by the running motion of its upright rider). He says he's healthy and fit.

"It's going to be pretty special," he says. "Just because, hopefully, the same people that came out last year, they can come back and cheer me on and get to see me go by one more time. You can never replicate what happened last year, because that was a special year. But I'm going to do the best I can."

He knows how hard it is to win. Heck, Americans had been trying and failing since 1984. But Meb is Meb. He's always up for a challenge.

"Can it happen again in 2015? I wouldn't be surprised. Some people might be surprised," he says, smiling. "But I've been working as hard as I can."

'San Diego is home'

Most of that work now is done in San Diego. After years of shuttling between homes in Mammoth Lakes, California, and San Diego, Keflezighi, his wife and three young daughters moved back permanently in 2013 to the city where his parents still live.

He's continued to go to Mammoth for altitude training a few weeks each year before big events, but his school-age girls needed a more stable situation, he says.

And as he nears the end of his career, his return to San Diego made more sense. He'll be able to make more public appearances, get involved in the community he loves and help others.

"San Diego is home," he says.

Every day during his crosstown training runs or drives through the city, there are familiar sights. One recent morning he'd met a friend for breakfast, and the restaurant was just steps from the elementary school he first attended at age 12.

In the same North Park neighborhood is the small home where he and his family lived after emigrating from war-torn Eritrea in 1987, following a year-and-a-half in Italy. The area reminds Meb that he didn't speak a word of English, and that his family didn't have much but the love for each other and a desire to "work hard and do the right things."

At a nearby park is where he first saw runners. They baffled him.

"What were they running for?" he recalls thinking. "We used to play soccer there, and they're not chasing anything."

To the west, near the zoo, is the junior high he attended. It was where he ran for the first time, earning an "A" and a T-shirt for winning (and setting a record) in a mile run in phys ed class.

Not too far from the school is Balboa Park's Morley Field, the site of so many high school cross country races. Every time he runs there, moments come flooding back.

"There are pictures that come to you. There's one point where I'm racing at the [national] Foot Locker [cross country championships]. Every time I step into that 50 meters, it's like automatic," he says, snapping his fingers. "It comes to that race."

About three weeks after winning at Boston last year, Keflezighi found himself thinking about where he'd been and how far he'd come. He was glad to have deep roots. It was at the city's "Meb Keflezighi Day" ceremonies at San Diego High School.

There he was, being honored in front of friends, family, fans and city officials at the same track where he began his long climb to becoming a marathon champ, three-time Olympian and favored son. Nearby was a tree planted in his honor after he won the silver medal at the Athens Olympics.

Keflezighi said it would have been impossible for the teenage Meb to envision such a future.

"It's beyond imagination to be there," he says. "Yeah, who would have ever thought, if you'd told me, 'You're going to win 23 national titles, you're going to have a silver medal, you're going to win New York, you're going to win Boston.'

"'You're crazy.'"

Keflezighi smiles as he tells about the time in high school when a teammate's dad, who often drove them to meets, told him, "You're going to be a beautiful marathoner."

"No, I'm a miler," he recalls saying. Then he laughs.

"I didn't know how far a marathon was."

So good, so long

When Keflezighi won at New York in 2009, he was 34. When he finished fourth in the 2012 London Olympic marathon, he was 37. When he won at Boston, he was nearly 39 -- the oldest to win the race since 1930.

He feels great. He's having fun. He isn't ready to retire. Though he'll be 41 during the next Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, he's eager to qualify for a fourth Games and has good motivation: his youngest daughter was too young to remember her dad running in London in 2012.

So, for now at least, he's thinking 2017 might be a nice stopping point.

How has he managed to be so good in his late 30s?

Keflezighi ticks off the reasons. He lists his supportive wife and sponsors, his attention to proper nutrition, and the way he takes care of himself when he's not actually running.

He gets physical therapy, he visits chiropractors, he makes rest a priority and he uses the low-impact ElliptiGO for cross training.

"I spent tons and tons of money and tons of time to stay healthy, because that's the name of the game for me at this point," he says.

Running is the easy part. He can run hard for two hours, but says what he does in the other 22 may be more important.

Also, that high school mentality -- wanting to be a miler, not a marathoner -- has played a role. He evolved from the 5K to the 10K to the half-marathon to the marathon.

"I was never the high-mileage guy," he says. His body was spared a bit, relative to his age.

Plus he knows his body completely. He'll often change his workout plans during a day based on how he feels.

Former UCLA coach Bob Larsen, who recruited Keflezighi and has been his coach or mentor since that freshman season of 1994, says he's been able to be elite for so long because of his intelligent approach and work ethic.

"He's been very good at doing the more boring parts of training and taking care of himself," says Larsen, who encouraged such runners as Keflezighi and American women's marathon record-holder Deena Kastor to work with him at altitude in Mammoth after he retired from UCLA in 1999.

"Great distance runners like to go out and run. Very seldom have I known a runner that didn't want to put the miles in. But very few guys want to do the stretching, do the ancillary work that helps them get to the top level, stay at the top level for a long period of time."

Whether it's his diet, warm-ups, cooldowns, cross-training work or injury recovery, Larsen says Keflezighi takes every aspect seriously.

"It's pretty amazing that someone at his age and who has accomplished so much, still has this drive," says Larsen. "Not only the drive to go out and run a few miles each day, but to do it right, to do all the extra things that any-age athletes don't really want to do."

His next goals

Over the last few weeks, that Keflezighi drive has been apparent.

From his home in the Mission Hills area, he makes long, looping runs down around Mission Bay, then heads home, sprinting through Old Town and up steep streets to his neighborhood.

One day, he did a three-loop, 17-mile run around the bay, then ran up Mount Soledad overlooking La Jolla and the Pacific.

"I've done more hill runs this year than I did last year, probably," he says.

He'll do the NYC Half on March 15, the go to Mammoth for high-altitude work.

"February was building up stamina, building up endurance," he says. "I feel I have that. Now [that it's] March, I will try to use that as ... trying to get faster."

Though he has no more major races to cross off his career checklist --- "Boston, that was the missing link for me," he says -- Meb remains motivated. After all, it's a family trait.

His brothers and sisters are driven, too. They are engineers, doctors, lawyers and successful in business. Levy, who has paced Keflezighi for years in Mammoth and San Diego, says the entire family is made up of "special human beings."

Already, Keflezighi is thinking about his post-racing goals. He'll start a new checklist. There will be speeches to give, books to write, coaching to do. He'll want to give back to the city, the people and the sport he says have given him so much.

"It's an idea I have in my head that I want to do those things," he says. "But I have to be a little bit selfish still, because I still have 2016 [Olympics]. And then I'm available."

In the meantime, Meb will continue to be recognized as he runs through San Diego, stopping (or at least slowing down) for high-fives, smiles, waves and pictures.

Even for those who aren't quite sure of his name.