Running a marathon is hard work, in case you haven't heard. Maybe the only thing harder is running the same one again after you put everything you had into the last one and got exactly the result you always dreamed of, amid the most dramatic of circumstances.

That's the situation Meb Keflezighi finds himself in as he awaits the starting gun of the Boston Marathon on Monday. A year ago, Keflezighi, then 38, stunned the racing world by defeating a slew of younger and higher-ranked runners to win the event with a personal-best time of 2:08:37. It was the culmination of a lifelong ambition, and it carried an extra emotional payload, coming as it did on the one-year anniversary of the notorious bomb attacks that killed three and injured hundreds gathered at the finish line. "When the tape touched my chest, all I could do was look up at the sky and say, 'Thank you, God, for giving me this opportunity,'" Keflezighi recalls. 

Now he must dig even deeper to find the motivation to defend his title. It's a tougher challenge in every way: He's a year older--he'll turn 40 in less than three weeks--and, as the reigning champion, other top runners will be eyeing his every move.

On the other hand, he has a year's more experience. As he's gotten older, the knowledge he's acquired along the way has become an increasingly crucial component of Keflezighi's competitive advantage. (Much of that knowledge is gathered in his new book, Meb for Mortals: How to Run, Think, and Eat Like a Champion Marathoner.)

If he does repeat his Boston triumph, it will be less due to how he psyched himself up for this race than how he prepares for every race. Methodical and even-keeled, Keflezighi says 90 percent of his job is the work he does to get ready to run--core training, cross training, stretching, massage, nutrition, recovery. "The running is the easy part," he says. Year-round attention to detail means that Keflezighi can afford to be relaxed and philosophical with one of the biggest races of his life a week away, as he was when I talked to him a few days ago. "The mindset is, the hay's in the barn," he says. "Now, how good is the hay? That's the question."

To make sure the hay is always top-notch, here are three rules Meb lives by.

Set Goals, Plural

You might think an all-or-nothing mentality is what it takes to beat the world's best distance runners. In fact, that's not how Keflezighi approaches goal-setting at all. "You want to shoot for the stars, but you can't get there overnight," he says. He goes into every race with a tiered list of goals: to win, to finish in the top three, to set a personal best, and so on. This mindset ensures that Keflezighi always has motivation to push himself, however the competition shapes up. "You fight for every second, every spot," he says.

Just Underdo It

To win a marathon, you need to stay healthy and peak at the right time. Overtraining is the fastest way to blow both of those goals, yet it's a constant temptation. "One of the hardest things to do for elite athletes is take a day off," Keflezighi says. "We're so motivated. We like to go, go, go because rhythm is so important." The understanding of when to give his legs a day off has been a key pillar of Keflezighi's late-career resurgence. "You'd rather be healthy at the starting line and undertrained than feeling like you left it all on the practice field," he says.

They're Choices, Not Sacrifices 

In distance running, as in business, no one gets to the top without enduring a lot of pain and hardship. Telling yourself you're going to bear down and suffer through it works, but only as a short-term solution. If you're going to live with it for decades, as Keflezighi has, it's mentally healthier to accept it as something you brought into your life to enrich it rather than as something taken from you or inflicted upon you. "Anything we do, we can look at it as a sacrifice, but also you can look at it as a choice," he says. 

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Disclosure: My wife is an employee of Rodale Books, publisher of Meb for Mortals

Published on: Apr 17, 2015