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By Robert Senior
For Michael McKeeman, running’s always been about competition. From the day he got involved with the sport, McKeeman’s been fighting to get to the top.
“When I was 12, one day we ran the mile in gym class,” he recalls. “I was one of the fastest kids, but not the fastest. That really motivated me.”
The desire to be the best pushed this 1994 North Penn High School graduate through a cross-country and track-and-field career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. McKeeman excelled in the 1600-meter, 3200-meter and steeplechase events in college, and progressed to 10Ks, half-marathons and ultimately marathons after graduation.
The 2006 Philadelphia Marathon was one of McKeeman’s first. He ran the course in two hours, 17 minutes and 50 seconds, good enough for an impressive second-place finish.
Impressive, that is, to everyone except Mike McKeeman. This year, the Ardmore resident will be back at the starting line, doing what he does best—working to get better.
McKeeman’s 2006 finish is even more remarkable when considering it came less than a year after he started running marathons. “I think I always knew eventually I’d be running marathons,” he admits. “I wasn’t in any hurry to get to that point, but the longer I ran the better my results.”
Nonetheless, his transition into the 26.2-mile races happened almost by accident. His local friend and running partner, Terrence Mahon, moved out to Mammoth Lakes, Cal., in early 2005 to coach Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor. It didn’t take Coach Mahon long to realize his new pupil needed some extra motivation.
“There weren’t a lot of women who could run at Deena’s level,” says McKeeman. “She was doing a lot of training alone, so Terrence needed someone to come out there and push Deena in her training. When I got out there, she was training for a marathon, so guess what? I was training for a marathon!”
Not surprisingly, training with Kastor was pretty strong preparation for McKeeman’s first marathon endeavor. He debuted in London 2006, where he qualified for the Olympic trials in a time of two hours, 20 minutes.
“I was really fortunate to train with Deena and a top coach,” he recalls. “Even though I’d never run the marathon before, I knew I was ready for it. I’d gone through the same training as an Olympian—it was going to work.”
McKeeman is grateful for his access to such accomplished athletes and coaches. “No matter what you do, the races are extremely hard,” he clarifies. “But I was confident that training at such a high level would give me every opportunity to succeed.”
After his London finish, McKeeman could’ve run in just about any race he wanted—but he chose to come back home to go for the win. “I was still training with Deena Kastor, and she was running the New York City Marathon,” he says. “But I wasn’t as interested in running New York, because I wanted to come here. That was what mattered to me.”
Going into the race, McKeeman was excited about his prospects. “Based on what I’d seen from previous results, I thought I had a chance to win,” he remembers. “In some races, your focus is running a certain time—but I run my best when I’m competing to win. And to have an opportunity to do that here in Philadelphia was something that really appealed to me.”
Early on in the race McKeeman dropped a couple minutes behind the leader, but his finishing strength allowed him to close the gap as the miles piled up. “I just ran out of room at the end,” he laments. “He beat me by about 40 seconds.”
Since that day, McKeeman has moved back to the Philadelphia area. He is still coached by Mahon and set a personal-best marathon time in the 2009 Chicago Marathon (two hours, 17 minutes and 42 seconds). While he trains alone a good deal of the time, he says that’s been to his advantage. “I’ve got some pretty lofty goals this year,” he admits.
He may train alone, but McKeeman stressed that he could never go through the preparation for a big race without the support of his wife Amanda, his parents and several sponsors and supporters. “I run and work for the Bryn Mawr Running Company, and I have the support of PowerBar Team Elite,” he says. “People often overlook the team element of the sport.”
McKeeman’s gotten involved in coaching himself as part of Run Mammoth Performance Coaching, where he works with Mahon to help runners who are just getting involved in racing or those aiming for a personal-best time.
Like most runners, McKeeman won’t assess his own prospects for victory until he knows who his competition will be. “One of the weird things about running is that actually winning a race has a decent amount of luck,” he says. “It depends on who shows up—you can run the best race of your life, and somebody else might be better than you. But based on past results, I think I have a shot.”
Five Questions with Mike McKeeman
What’s your goal for this year’s Marathon? “My goal is to win.”
What’s your favorite thing about the Philadelphia Marathon? “I like that the course is flat, and that the weather is usually nice and cool. I hate hot weather.”
If you were to run the race with a Philadelphia celebrity: “Can it be a fictional character? I think I’d run with Rocky Balboa. If you’ve seen that first movie, he ran forever—and he was sprinting the whole time! But I guess it worked—he was a champion.”
If you brought a friend from out-of-town to go running in Philadelphia, where would you take them? “I’d probably take them to the Forbidden Drive (Wissahickon Trail). I think it’s amazing that there’s a big park within the city with a dirt path, a creek, trees… people must be surprised to find something like that within the city of Philadelphia.”
If you could change one thing about the Marathon: “I guess I wouldn’t start the marathon or half-marathon at the same time. It can be a little confusing when you’re looking for your competition.”