As promised, here’s the second report on my journalistic gatecrashing exercise. In this installment, I share what I learned from talking with Khalid Khannouchi and with his wife, Sandra Inoa, who is also his coach and agent.
I was so involved in yammering with Patrick Smyth about altitude training that I didn’t notice Khannouchi had come in. But I did sense people drifting away from our table and eventually figured out why they were flocking to the other side of the room: the comeback story had arrived. I joined them a few minutes into their session.
If you don’t follow elite running, or your exposure to it has been very recent, you probably have no idea who Khalid Khannouchi is. Khannouchi is a Moroccan-born runner (he became an American citizen in 2000) who got on the radar by winning gold for the 5000m at the World University Games in 1993. But he gradually moved up in distance over subsequent years, establishing himself as a world class marathoner in the late 1990’s.
His marathoning career began with a bang: he ran a 2:07:01 in Chicago (a race he would go on to win three more times) in 1997, which was then the world’s fastest marathon debut time. It was also (again, at the time), the fourth fastest marathon ever run. But, as it turns out, Khannouchi was just getting started. Over the next few years, he managed to lower that time in four out of his next seven marathons. His best was a 2:05:38 in London in 2002, a time that still stands as the American record.*
Then, later in 2002, Khannouchi’s fortunes turned. He began to experience problems in his left foot, which would plague him for years an cut short his training for the 2008 Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials race in Central Park. Despite that, Khannouchi finished fourth, securing a spot as the team’s alternate in Beijing. After that, he ran just one more race, the Steamboat Classic in Peoria, IL, a four miler held in June, in which he would place ninth.
Surgery, followed by rehab
Khannouchi has had several surgeries on his foot and he’s hoping the most recent one, which was performed a little over a year ago, will be the one that solves his problem once and for all. When asked about the details of the surgery, he began to describe it, then leaned down and took off his shoe and sock to show rather than tell. There were his scars: one to remove a bunion and another along the top lateral instep to remove a bone spur. (Khannouchi has very attractive feet for a runner, by the way.)
Completing the rehab package are two custom made orthotics, with the left one being completely different in form and appearance from the right one. He has two sets of orthotics, one for running and one for just walking around. It took three months to arrive at the right structural formula for them. He’d get a pair, try them out, report back and then try a new pair that had been tweaked.
In the meantime, he was cross-training on a stationary bike, doing a lot of pool running and testing the waters with some jogging on the roads. He’s only been running again, after a complete post-surgery layoff from road running, for about six months.
Although he occasionally trains with his brother (I don’t know which one; he has several), Khannouchi usually trains alone, doing his track workouts at Sleepy Hollow High School’s track, trail running in Rockefeller State Park and sometimes doing a run in Central Park, where he is often recognized.
Baby steps, starting in Central Park on Saturday
What Khannouchi wanted to make perfectly clear was that the Healthy Kidney event was not meant to be a competitive race for him. He had no expectations of winning. Instead, this was a trial run to test everything out. Could he run fast and hard on pavement without pain? Could he race up and down hills? Could he push himself? These were the questions he was looking to answer on Saturday. He needed a competitive race for this experiment, and Healthy Kidney seemed like a good place to start: it’s in his backyard, he’d have competition around him and he could count on the full support of NYRR.
When asked about what other plans he had for his burgeoning comeback attempt, Khannouchi said he planned to do two more 10Ks this summer as similar, iterative tests: the Atlanta Peachtree race in July and Maine’s Beach to Beacon race in August. I went over to talk to Inoa about these races, since I figured she was the brains behind the plan. And she was. But first, she rolled her eyes and laughed when I asked about the two races. “He told you about Peachtree and Beach to Beacon?” she asked, looking a little exasperated. (As it turns out, Peachtree was already out there, but I don’t know if he was supposed to mention Beach to Beacon; a note to them post interview to inquire resulted in permission to publish their plans to go to Maine here).
Khannouchi didn’t do any 10K specific training for this race, primarily because he can’t. Because of his foot, he can’t run 200-400m track repeats, but, as he said, “You don’t need those for the marathon.” The 10K is a distance that’s long enough to reveal any lingering issues, but short enough to race frequently. I gathered that it’s also a distance that will allow Khannouchi to return to the races/courses in Georgia and Maine, where he’s done well and gotten organizational support in the past.
Two more tests, then a decision
Inoa has him running around 70 miles per week at this point. The plan is to gradually ramp up the mileage and intensity of training over the summer, using the two 10K road races to similarly test how he’s handling the load. A hard race will accomplish two things: for one, it will provide a “stress test” from which the couple can gather information about how his body is holding up to the ever increasing demands; for another, it will show whether he’s making absolute progress in terms of speed. If he’s going to compete at any distance, he needs to get faster.
Which brings me to another interesting facet of this story. Khannouchi is 38 years old. That’s not young for a male marathoner. Yet he is making a comeback in the open category, not as a masters runner. He wants to compete against everyone, not just his Age Group peers. Making a statement like that will almost certainly open him up to a wave of criticism and naysaying, which makes it all the more compelling that he’s saying it. As a side note, Khannouchi mentioned Meb Keflezighi’s comeback from what many had declared a dead career as an inspiration and galvanizing influence on his own decision to give competitive marathoning another go.
Anyway, the idea is that by the time he runs that third 10K race, he should be in or approaching full marathon training mode, meaning up to 110-120 mile weeks again. Beach to Beacon is going to be Sink or Swim, in a sense. That race should reveal his level of readiness to take on the full marathon at the competitive level he expects of himself. If he’s not ready, they’ll back off from their plans and reevaluate. If he is ready, then it’s full speed ahead.
Learning to be patient
At one point I asked Khannouchi about recovery time. I prefaced the question by saying that, since I’m a few years older than he is, I felt I could ask him this: “As you’ve gotten into your late thirties, do you find you need more recovery time? What about entire recovery weeks?”
His answer was that he did need a lot more recovery time and that it was not unusual to take workouts that he used to cram into one week when he was younger and spread them out over two weeks. But he does not take entire “down weeks.” Inoa just keeps his workload at a reasonable level throughout the training cycle.
Still, now that he’s running well again, Inoa has to rein him in. As she told me, “He’s been frustrated because he wants to jump back in and run fast workouts.” She has to hold him back and remind him that the focus right now is on regaining his fitness while avoiding injury. That means being patient.
Race day success
I spotted Khannouchi well behind the lead pack at mile 1.5 of the race, but holding up well. He was running fast and looked good. There was no sign of pain on his face, hitches in his stride or any other indicators of something being amiss. For a non-competitive effort, he still placed in a respectable 21st place, a little under three minutes off his best for the distance. He looked genuinely happy when he crossed the finish line.
I caught up with him after the race in the media area, where he was getting a massage. We chatted for a few minutes about how the race went. Here’s a transcript of our exchange:
Me: You looked really good at mile 1.5. You looked smooth and relaxed.
KK: I felt good throughout the race.
Me: So how was it?
KK: It was hard. First race in three years. I mean, it’s not going to come easy, but we felt like it was a good effort and it was very exciting to be out there. I feel like I pushed hard and, 30:30 or so — for a first race in three years, that’s a good time. Well, something promising. Not a good time, but something that we can build on.
Me: So you feel it was successful in terms of what you wanted to achieve?
KK: Just by being here it was a success. Like I said [yesterday], we talk about the fear of having injury in my mind. Just by being here it feels like I’m motivated to start all over again. It’s not going to be easy, right? We know that. So at least it was a start, and it was good.
Me: So no twinges?
KK: No, I’m going for a cooldown now, and [pointing to left foot] it feels good.
Me: I was talking with Sandra yesterday about how, if you don’t race for awhile, you can sort of forget how to race, how to pace yourself. Did you feel any of that today?
KK: Yeah, sure. Not only that, but you lose the rhythm, you lose the impact with the ground, you lose a lot of things that we have to work on. We need to improve everything little by little. It’s not going to come in a day or in a race or two. But it’s going to take patience and it’s going to take hard work and it’s going to take also, you know…the people around you have to be people that can motivate you, people that, in a bad time, will come to you and support you. I think all that stuff has to be together in order for us to make a comeback or do better or improve.
Me: And how was the crowd support? Did people recognize you and cheer you on?
KK: There was big support. I was very impressed. I always come down and do my running here when I have to get therapy in the city and people do recognize me. But there was more [of a] crowd today and there was more support. I was thrilled to run in front of them. It wasn’t what I usually run. It was, you know, more than two minutes off my personal best.
Me: Can I check in with you after Peachtree?
KK: Yes, of course! We’ll update you with what’s going on. I’m hoping it will be good news.
Me: Based on today, I think it will be.
*When I asked him which American marathoner he thought had a chance of breaking his record, he diplomatically demurred and went off on a tangent about things needing to go perfectly on race day. The guy certainly knows how to give an interview without getting himself into hot water.