NEW YORK — Meb Keflezighi's coach jokes that if the top American marathoner isn't ready for February's Olympic trials, USA Track & Field should just postpone the event.
History suggests there will be no need, that Keflezighi will be prepared to make the team less than 3 1/2 months after running the New York City Marathon — even at age 40.
"He recovers pretty quickly," said Bob Larsen, Keflezighi's coach since his UCLA days. "At age 40, maybe not quite as quick. But so far, so good in his workouts."
Four years ago, Keflezighi was the only top American to enter the NYC Marathon when it was just 10 weeks before the Olympic trials for the 2012 Games. He set what was then a personal best in finishing sixth in a fast field in New York, before missing three weeks with a bizarre injury — a foot infection from running that race with his nose strip in his shoe.
Keflezighi still went on to win the trials in another personal best. He's four years older now, but he also has 15 weeks to prepare for the 2016 trials, which are Feb. 13 in Los Angeles. And he's just 18 months removed from setting his current personal best in winning the 2014 Boston Marathon.
That mark of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 37 seconds is the best qualifying time for the U.S. trials by more than a minute.
Nick Arciniaga is the only other American man with a personal best under 2:13 entered in Sunday's NYC Marathon, and none of the U.S. women expected to contend at trials are planning to run.
Keflezighi figures there's no reason for him to play it safe. His past success with quicker turnarounds gives him confidence he can do it again — and all his past successes give him comfort about the possibility he won't make his fourth Olympic team.
He's won the 2004 Olympic silver medal and the 2009 NYC Marathon to go along with the 2014 Boston Marathon, each time snapping a long drought for Americans. Back before the 2012 trials, Keflezighi, who lives in San Diego, insisted he'd be retired by the time the 2016 Games rolled around.
Now he hopes to be running in Rio at age 41 — and to do a couple more marathons after that. Keflezighi, who finished fourth in the 2012 Olympics, has long said any additional accomplishments would be the proverbial icing on the cake, and yet he keeps competing.
"Because the frosting just gets better and better," he said Thursday, laughing.
"I could have quit when Nike dropped me (in 2011) and kind of moved on," Keflezighi added. "But I felt inside of me, you know what? I still got it. I don't want to be hanging on to see, oh, the Masters (records), I finish 20th or 30th. Which is not to discount anybody, but for me, I was able to win."
Sunday's race will be his 22nd career marathon (it's his 10th in New York), and he'd like to reach 25. Keflezighi figures he'll run Boston and New York again before retiring from elite competition. He can envision himself helping pace someone to a 3-hour marathon in New York in a few years.
For now, he's training to run a lot faster than that. But the key to still contending in his 40s is occasionally going slower in practice. Sometimes he might even do an 8-minute mile at the start of a workout before easing into the kinds of splits more typical of an elite marathoner. Sometimes he'll postpone a run if he doesn't feel up for it physically.
After what he estimates are more than 100,000 miles in his career, Keflezighi knows his body — and knows that it's OK to hold back at times.
"He's been injured enough in his life that he knows that if he can avoid injury and do several weeks without injury, he'll inevitably come up with a good race," Larsen said. "He's willing to sacrifice the nth degree of fitness, for a little bit holding back, to be at the starting line and be healthy. And that's the compromise. That's the compromise you hope everybody comes to as they mature."