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By David Monti

(c) 2009 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

HOUSTON (17-Jan) -- He's probably the best-known athlete in tomorrow's USA Half-Marathon Championships here, but 2004 Olympic Marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi comes into the race in the unfamiliar role of underdog.  The 33 year-old runner, who divides his time between San Diego and Mammoth Lakes, Calif., has struggled to regain the form which made him the American record holder in the 10,000m and a slam-dunk to win almost any domestic competition he entered.

"I think it's going to be exciting," said Keflezighi yesterday, choosing his words carefully.  "The weather's going to be nice.  I'm in good shape and I think it's going to be a good show."

Keflezighi's bid to return to the Olympic podium was thwarted twice in the last 14 months.  At the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in New York City in November, 2007, Keflezighi endured one of the worst days of his career.  Running in great pain, which he later found out was a stress reaction in his pelvis, he forced himself to finish the race in 8th position, only to be told at the finish line that his good friend Ryan Shay had died during the race.  He broke down in tears, and later had to endure the indignity of crawling to the bathroom during the night because the pain in his pelvis was so intense.

The injury was slow to heal, but he acquired enough fitness to enter the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 10,000m the following July in Eugene, Ore., after only seven weeks of training.  He made a good effort considering his brief training program, but he finished a distant 13th and would have to watch the Beijing Olympics on television after making the teams for both Sydney and Athens.  He would run only three more races in 2008, closing his season with a disappointing 28:22.44 at the Memorial Van Damme 10,000m in Brussels.

"It was kind of a tough year last year," said Keflezighi who is married and has two daughters.  "I haven't done any races since last September in Brussels and that didn't go very well.  I was trying to do a fall marathon and that didn't work out.  I've been waiting for this day, and this day has finally arrived.  I'm ready for this competition."

Keflezighi had hoped to do the ING New York City Marathon last November, but after committing to the race he had to withdraw because nagging hip and calf problems forced him to lose too much time in training.

"It was a decision just to be cautious," said his brother and manager, Merhawi, who added that Keflezighi was probably in "2:11 shape" before New York.  The athlete and his coach, Bob Larsen, didn't think that was good enough given the strength of the field.  Keflezighi has twice finished on the podium at New York, taking second in 2005 and third in 2005, and only wanted to race there if he could contend for the win.

Looking ahead, Keflezighi would like to get back to marathon running, soon.  He has long said that he'd like to run a fast time; his marathon personal best of 2:09:53 isn't comparable with his 10,000m best of 27:13.98.

"I would definitely like to do a spring marathon, depending on how this goes," he said.  "I still have the passion.  I still work hard.  Hopefully, Sunday will show all the hard work I've put in."

Brian Sell, who will also run tomorrow and finished third at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, thinks his Beijing teammate, Dathan Ritzenhein, and Keflezighi have the best chance to win tomorrow.  The course is fast; Ryan Hall set the North American record of 59:43 here in 2007.

"I think Dathan and Meb are really going to roll," said Sell.  "I think they could challenge Ryan's record."

LetsRun.com Editor's Note: For more on the race, see: *Message Board: Meb or Ritz at Houston?*Message Board: Houston Half-Marathon Championships
PHOTO: Meb Keflezighi on a hike near his home in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. (photo by David Monti)

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