Inside the mind of a four-time New York City Marathon champ

Editor’s note: This piece was published before the start of the 2019 New York City Marathon and updated to reflect Mary Keitany’s second-place finish.

MARY KEITANY KNEW she was going to win the 2018 TCS New York Marathon. With about a mile to go, the next runner was three minutes behind her — and Keitany had only one thought. She wanted to see the joy on her children’s faces as she crossed the finish line. This moment was about making them proud. It was about the sense of accomplishment she felt when their eyes twinkled. It was also a new way of thinking for her.

As her body brushed the finish line tape, she raised her arms, index fingers pointed to the sky. She made the sign of the cross and then found what had pushed her through those 26.2 miles. Her husband, Charles Koech, and their two children bounced with excitement behind the barricades. Her 10-year-old son, Jared, and her 5-year-old daughter, Samantha, who was perched on the steel barrier, reached out their arms and hugged their mother. Keitany laughed through her tears, feeling at peace with life, her race. She’d run several marathons with her family at the finish line, but this time — for the first time — she felt a seismic shift in how she thought of running.

Early in Keitany’s marathon career, when a race was more of a solitary act, she would run the last mile zeroed in on the finish line, her face expressionless, her eyes focused on the road ahead. The Kenyan made running — and especially the last 6 miles — look effortless. Her rivals sometimes slowed down to recover, but she powered through the course, hardly showing signs of fatigue. Nothing could distract her.

The seven-time World Marathon Majors winner had chased every record, accomplished more than most long-distance runners could ever hope for, won every marathon she ever wanted to. An Olympic medal was the only feat that eluded her, although she came close in 2012, trailing the bronze medalist in London by less than 30 seconds. She was injured for 2016. Now, as her career wound down, she wanted to run again for the love of running, just as she did while growing up in Kenya. Running had rooted her to her soul, and now she wanted to return to that sense of stillness.

Although she did not win Sunday, this shift in thinking was enough for the 37-year-old to finish second in the New York Marathon with a time of 2:23:32, 54 seconds behind winner Joyciline Jepkosgei. And she hopes it will be enough to medal in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.

AS A YOUNG GIRL, Mary Keitany ran. When her mother wanted her to fetch water at their farm, she ran. When she was late to school after helping with early-morning chores, she ran. When the final bell of the school day rang and she was hungry, she ran.

For as long as she can remember, she ran. At least 10 kilometers every day. It came from the depths of her being, an act she describes as from “deep within the soul.”

Running was also something she was naturally good at. In her high school in Kabarnet, a small town in eastern Kenya, she ran the 100 meters, the 10,000 meters and everything in between. During relay races, if she ran the first leg, “nobody would be able to catch up,” she said, and if she ran the last one, she’d make up for lost time and “nobody could outrun” her.

Coaches and trainers told her that she was a gifted runner, that she could win medals. During one of her high school races, she looked around the track and thought to herself that she could have the best of both worlds. If she could perfect her art, win medals and make money doing it, wouldn’t that be the ideal career?

From then on, the girl people called “The Lightning” made running her mission. She would set a goal and stop only when she had reached it — and that mentality paid off. Her first-place finishes in road races and half-marathons in Kenya got the attention of international tournament directors.

In 2006, she made the list of elite athletes to participate in her first half-marathon abroad: the Sevilla Half Marathon in Spain. But there was one major obstacle. The then-24-year-old didn’t have a passport. She was born at home and didn’t have the documents she needed.

Keitany had honed a single-mindedness to solve every obstacle that came between her and running. For days, she stood in line at government offices, first for her birth certificate and then for her passport. With just days to go before the race, she walked back home with passport in hand.

The minute she stepped off the plane in Sevilla, she was overcome with emotions, remembering a conversation she’d had with her father. “I will travel beyond Kenya one day and run for my country,” she told him.

Keitany won it, her first major victory outside of Kenya.

“I didn’t care where the plane was leading me. I had prepared myself well, but I didn’t know the time, the best finish or anything,” Keitany said about her first international run. “My aim was to just run. My aim was to just finish.”

That race launched her professional career. Keitany won silver at the World Road Running Championships in the half-marathon the next year, finishing behind Dutch runner — and fellow Kenyan — Lornah Kiplagat, who broke the world record that day. She continued to focus on 10Ks and half-marathons. “One thing to perfect at a time,” she thought to herself.

But along with the international laurels came a new way of life. She was pregnant with her first child in 2008. And if she were to remain a dominant runner post-pregnancy, she had to rethink the way she approached running.

WITH KOECH HOME to watch the new baby, Keitany would sneak out every morning at dawn to run 10 kilometers. That’s when, the new mother learned, her son slept the deepest. This was after she’d wake up at least three times during the night to feed him and sing to him as he fell asleep. But instead of feeling stifled, she felt a new sense of purpose.

“It really motivated me a lot to do quite well because when you have somebody else looking up to you, you are responsible for what they think of you,” said Keitany, who now lives and trains in Iten, Kenya. “It’s not easy. You have to teach yourself that you’re not running for yourself. ‘I am running for my country, I am running for my children,’ I kept telling myself.”

Two years after her son was born, she decided it was time for a new career focus: marathons. She heard from runners in Kenya that the course in New York City was challenging and reminded them of their training routes in Kenya. She knew then that she wanted to make her debut at the 2010 New York City Marathon. Though it was her first such race, she trained with the goal to win, and she ran with the goal to win. During every mile of the race, the varied terrain of the course — the uphill of the Verrazzano Bridge and the straightaway of the last 4 miles — reminded her of home, calming her and pushing her. Keitany finished third, behind Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat and American Shalane Flanagan. Even then, she was pegged as a future New York City winner.

Once she had her second child, Samantha, in 2013, the children’s hectic schedules gave Keitany’s life even more structure. She knew exactly when they ate breakfast, which meant she knew exactly when she could go on a long run, or train a few extra minutes. It helped that she had a nanny and that her husband was also her training partner. She and Koech would spend hours talking about their next challenge and how they were going to prepare for it.

Her strict lifestyle produced spectacular results. She won the London Marathon twice (2011 and 2012), running the fourth-fastest marathon for a woman in the first one at 2:19:19, then beating her own record with the third-fastest marathon for a woman at 2:18:37 in the second one. In 2014, she won her first New York City Marathon, the first of three straight wins.

“I always refer to her as a petite powerhouse when it comes to running,” said Peter Ciaccia, former New York City Marathon race director. “She has that extra ingredient that puts her above the rest of them. Mary is defining the current era of women in marathon racing.”

On the course, even the best runners showed signs of weakness, indicators that they weren’t at the top of their game. A bathroom break if the weather was cold, a moment to catch their breath. But Keitany aimed for perfection. At the starting line, when rivals Flanagan and American Desiree Linden sometimes waved to fans and made small talk, Keitany moved through her warm-up on her own, her face stoic. At 5-foot-2 and 93 pounds, she ran entire races with that same stoic expression, no indication of slowing down, no indication that she was anything less than a perfect runner.

“[Competing against Mary is] demoralizing,” said Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon winner. “I can have the best preparation of my life and be in top form, and even then I have to hope that Mary finds a way to beat herself. She’s an incredible talent, and I’ve seen her absolutely destroy the best in the world, particularly over the last 6 miles of the marathon when others are hitting the wall and she’s just getting going.”

Keitany’s rise in the marathon world coincided with the time Kenyan runner Jemima Sumgong tested positive for erythropoietin, aka EPO, a drug that helps produce red blood cells, supplying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Keitany, for whom running is a spiritual experience every time she puts on her shoes, spoke out after winning the 2017 London Marathon, calling for universal criminalization of doping violations in sports. She called Sumgong’s violations embarrassing to her sport and said doping was killing the sport for the future.

Keitany, who is usually known as a shy and unassuming runner, had taken a stance. She felt strongly about it and thought she had to say something. With a family that’s looking to her for guidance, to live a meaningful and truthful life, she owed it to them to give her best on the field and off it, she said.

AS KEITANY PREPARED for the 2019 New York City Marathon, her training sessions with Koech had a different feel. The once ultra-focused runner is laughed more with her husband during runs — they enjoy the process more. Sometimes Jared and Samantha, who are now 11 and 6 years old, respectively, rode along in the support car as their parents run. Keitany has achieved so much that she no longer feels pressure to break records, Koech said.

According to Flanagan, most runners experience that shift as they grow older and think about the definition of success. For the 2017 New York City champ, who retired in October, that meant focusing on how her running had an impact on her community and her team. For celebrated runners like Meb Keflezighi and Joan Benoit, that meant more time with family and running to raise money for charities. For Keitany, who is a longtime ambassador for the Shoe4Africa school and hospital in Kenya, giving back to her community could become even more of a focus, Flanagan said.

“You have to find new ways to inspire yourself and create new goals, and if you are fortunate enough to have a lengthy career, you have to redefine what success is to you and what is important to you,” Flanagan said. “Understandably, I can see that Mary is redefining what running means to her, how she enjoys it and how it’s incorporated in her life.”

The fierce competitor that Keitany is, though, that new definition did not stop her from training for New York and working toward the goal of medaling in the 2020 Olympics. Keitany had an uphill battle ahead of her Sunday, and she pushed herself one last time and came within a minute of another victory/

“If I can win a few more marathons, that’s well and good,” Keitany said before New York. “But I want to try to remember how I felt when I ran everywhere as a kid. I want that feeling of freedom and the air on my face, and I want to run this marathon for the love of it all.”

Maybe this is exactly the right mindset Keitany needs to get to the Olympics, and this time do one better — win that elusive gold medal.

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