NEW YORK -- When Spike Lee heads out in the grand marshal’s car for the TCS New York City Marathon on Sunday morning, he will lead 50,000 runners from more than 125 countries through a tour of his native city’s five boroughs, beginning at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Staten Island, up the western side of Brooklyn and into Queens and the Bronx, before winding down in Manhattan’s Central Park.
It’s the largest, most popular marathon in the world, and Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi wouldn’t dream of missing it. The San Diego-based runner is back for his 10th bite at the Big Apple, an event he won in 2009. He has placed among the top 10 runners seven times since 2002.
“If I can land at any of those places, I’ll be happy,” Keflezighi said. “First place is obviously better. I feel ready.”
The 40-year-old runner held court with reporters at the NYRR Team for Kids press conference on Thursday. This is Keflezighi’s second year as an ambassador for the charity, which raises funds for free youth running programs across the United States.
“We all have to start somewhere,” he said as fifth-grade students from New York City’s P.S. 1 gathered around him. “I started with a one-mile run in the seventh grade.”
Keflezighi has come a long way since then, winning the 2004 Olympic silver medal and, most memorably, the 2014 Boston Marathon. In 2015, the veteran marathoner placed eighth in Boston in April and second at the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in late May.
His decision to run in New York is ambitious, since the race is just 3 1/2 months before the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Marathon in Los Angeles in February. He has done it before, placing sixth at the 2011 New York City Marathon and winning the 2012 Olympic trials, but that was four years ago.
“I’m older, but I’m wiser,” he said. “It all depends on your preparation game. If it’s there, you’re all right. If there was any question, obviously I wouldn’t be here, but I’m training well.”
In a nod to his age, Keflezighi explained he spends more time “loosening up” these days, starting his training runs slower and continuing them for longer intervals.
“I don’t put all of my eggs in one basket,” he said. “This will be a good base (for the Olympic trials). I want to qualify for my fourth Olympic team. I just have to take some time off after (New York). I will be unable to move until Thursday, for sure.”
He added, “I’ll take those days off, and then I’ll jog for 10-15 minutes four days later, see if there are any injuries. With all of my hard work training, we’ll see if I pass the test.”
On Sunday, Keflezighi will come up against defending champion Wilson Kipsang of Kenya, who won last year’s race in 2:10:59 in cold, windy conditions. Other notable challengers include the Ethiopian trio of Lelisa Desisa, winner of the 2015 Boston Marathon; Yemane Tsegaye, who finished second at both the Boston Marathon and IAAF World Championships marathon; and 2010 New York champion Gebre Gebremariam, who was third in New York last year.
Other top U.S. men running on Sunday include Nick Arciniaga, 10th in New York last year, and Craig Leon, who ran 10th in the 2013 Boston Marathon.
The international women’s field is headed by defending champion Mary Keitany of Kenya, along with fellow Kenyan Caroline Rotich, winner of the 2015 Boston Marathon. Ethiopians Aselefech Mergia, who won the Dubai Marathon in January, and 2015 London Marathon champion Tigist Tufa, also look strong.
Top U.S. women entrants include Alana Hadley, an 18-year-old freshman at UNC-Charlotte, and Laura Thweatt, a U.S. cross-country champion who is making her marathon debut.
In the women’s wheelchair event, all eyes are on two-time defending champion Tatyana McFadden, who is gunning for her 12th consecutive major marathon title.
“I’m excited; it’s all about pushing the sport and pushing myself,” McFadden, 26, said on Thursday. “New York is my last marathon (of the year), and I want to finish strong.”
McFadden, who won a second straight grand slam sweep of the Boston, London, Chicago and New York marathons last year, is one win shy of a threepeat. She said she stuck with her regular training plan after winning the Chicago Marathon in early October.
“I tapered off a little bit, but really I got right back into it,” she said. “The two races are so close together, there’s not much time to recover.”
Josh George, winner of the 2015 London Marathon, is the top U.S. hope in the men’s wheelchair event. He will square off against defending champion Kurt Fearnley of Australia, who won the Chicago Marathon earlier this year.
More than $700,000 in prize money is up for grabs, in addition to potential time bonuses. Winners of the men’s and women’s events will each receive $100,000.