Heave ho!

I have now experienced food poisoning three times in my life. Three times is at least two times too many.

Let me start by saying that I hate throwing up. I know that no one actually enjoys throwing up, but I have always found the experience to go beyond being merely a bad physical sensation. I seem to experience throwing up as a kind of mental trauma as well. It verges on existential crisis, meaning I feel as if I will be throwing up forever. I cry a lot. It’s always very dramatic.

There have been times over the years when I’ve felt really bad after eating or drinking something and Jonathan has said to me, “Just go throw up. You’ll feel better.” Just go throw up? To me, that’s like having someone say, “Just take a professional-grade nail gun to your instep. It’s no big deal. You’ll feel better.”

I remember my food poisonings in exquisite detail, perhaps because of the whole “throwing up as trauma” thing.

1983: Sloppy Joe Explosion

My first episode occurred during my senior year of high school. It came as a direct result of my having prepared sloppy joes a little too hastily. Looking at the slightly undercooked hamburger meat I was shoveling into my mouth, I thought, “Eh. What are the chances?” The chances, as I would learn around 90 minutes later, were very good indeed.

I was in a rush so I could meet up with friends later on to aimlessly drive around, smoke cigarettes and other things, and probably end up drinking terrible coffee (unlimited refills!) at the Corte Madera Denny’s* to cap off the evening. Our little group was spread over two cars, one  of them driven by my best friend at the time, Johanna. I have a vivid memory of walking down a street and knowing something was wrong with me. The only signs, ominous rumblings in my gut, were subtle but insistent. I tried to keep a lid on things to avoid causing widespread distress or having to cut the evening short. But at one point I broke out into a cold sweat and I guess I’d gone all alabaster, because when I said to Johanna, “I’m going to be in real trouble soon,” my appearance precluded any need for further explanation.

Johanna snapped into action, hustling me into the passenger seat of her Volkswagen Rabbit (diesel!), which she called “Trudy.” The evening was clearly over for us from a social standpoint, although it was just starting for me from a physical one, an odyssey that would end with my having spent so much time lying on the bathroom floor that I had imprints of tiles on one side of my face. Our friend, Chieko, joined us in the back seat. The plan was to drop Chieko off at her house, which was fairly close by, then make haste to mine, which was about 10 minutes from there.

I made it as far as Chieko’s driveway. Not wanting to vomit all over Trudy, I bolted from the car and instinctively headed toward the first source of physical support that I could find. There, in the merciless illumination of Trudy’s headlights, I spewed forth a ptomaine rainbow. Just moments before letting loose, I could hear Chieko’s small, high voice say in a tone of sad resignation, “Oh, no. Not on the mailbox.”

1999: Bombay Barf Fest

My second attack was restaurant-enabled, as was last night’s. I rarely eat out, for lots of reasons. For one, I usually find restaurant food to be overly salted (I don’t cook with any salt and I don’t even give it credit for being a spice — it’s a crutch for unimaginative cooks and a commercial tool for selling more drinks). Also, during the many years in which I suffered from panic attacks (I don’t anymore), restaurants were my primary “trigger venue,” with large crowds and airports a distant second and third. So I just got used to avoiding them in general. Finally, because I’m not made of money, I know how to cook a lot of different kinds of foods, and I don’t think of restaurants as “entertainment,” it’s just not something I care about spending money on. The possibility of contracting a food-borne illness is just one more reason to avoid them.

Anyway. This time we were in London for a visit with family before heading north to Scotland for a romantic Christmas on the Isle of Skye. We were staying with Jonathan’s brother, Rob, and his then partner (now husband), Phil, in their house in the Clapham area. A few blocks down the road sat — for me, menacingly — an Indian restaurant called Bombay Bicycle. We ordered in one night and enjoyed numerous food items. One of mine came with something extra.

As with my first poisoning experience, this one came on with a vague sense that something wasn’t quite right. I got up and took a glass of Alka Seltzer and went and sat in their living room to wait for it to take effect. And take effect it did, although rather than settling my stomach it served to move the inevitable proceedings forward. A wave of nausea hit me and I raced up the stairs to their sole bathroom.

This time around, both ends of of my digestive tract were involved, although fortunately they were tag-teaming. Several hours of alternating purgings later, I collapsed into the guest room bed, where I stayed for two days. When I wasn’t in bed I was monopolizing their bathroom. They were so nice to me. The only thing I remember about those two days is reading Into Thin Air, John Krakauer’s account of death on Mount Everest, and thinking, “Well, this actually sounds a little worse than what I’m going through.”

2011: Don’t Order the Duck

While last night’s ordeal didn’t feature the socially distressing dimension of my first bout, nor the extended misery of my second one, I think it was probably the worst of the three. If you don’t have a strong stomach, then you should probably stop reading now.

Have you ever thrown up onions through your nose? I have. It’s not fun. Nasal expulsion of vegetables was just one of the new and novel experiences I had last night. We had dinner with my father and stepmother, who are moving into a new place on 92nd Street, and a couple of their friends whom we know very well from having spent many a similar evening over the years. It was a good time. But I should have had the coq au van.

We came home and went to bed. I felt okay at that point. An hour later, I awoke, feeling only a primitive drive to get to the bathroom as quickly as possible. There was no prior warning this time. I didn’t even know what was wrong. Just that I needed to be in the bathroom. What happened next is a blur. I was not even awake, but I was aware of having a lot of trouble breathing and swallowing. Next thing I knew, my dinner was all over the bathroom rugs. I don’t know how it got there, but it seemed to be coming from my nose.

Why couldn’t I throw up the normal way? I still don’t know. Instead, an evening’s worth of cheese, snails, duck and vegetables — mixed with what felt like hydrochloric acid — was being violently sneezed in every direction. But that wasn’t all. My backside was also in on this party. At the same time. The mess was impressive. By this time I was fully awake, and fully horrified.

The weird part is that I didn’t even feel all that nauseated. This was a plus because it meant I was able to clean things up before heading back to bed. I thought that was it, but it was only the beginning. Like clockwork, I was up every hour or so for a new session of involuntary purging. Throwing up was bad enough, but by 4:00 in the morning there was nothing left to throw up, so I got to experience a few sessions of dry heaves. These were worse. Those abated at last as the sun’s rosy tendrils began to light the edges of our blackout shades. But my bowels were now working overtime. Jonathan was up periodically with me, doing what you’re supposed to do — applying compresses, murmuring soothing words, getting the hell out of the way — but what else could he do? He had to wait it out with me.

By 8:00 the crisis had passed and I was able to sleep for about three hours. I’m down over two pounds (yeah, it’s sick that I weighed myself, but I was curious). I can handle toast and honey. My insides feel as if they’ve been run through with the plumber’s snake I keep meaning to purchase. I had to cancel a meeting in Manhattan. I’m in bed, drinking tea and eating popsicles. My sinuses are still on fire. The day is shot.

I’m naming names. The source of my eight hour gastrotorture was a French restaurant on 98th and Broadway by the name of Aloutte. If you go there, the escargot is fine. But don’t order the duck.

*Reading the “reviews” I see that Denny’s remains a haven for bored and/or inebriated Marin County teens.

Training: Jan 30-Feb 12

Astute readers will notice that I’ve skipped a week, Jan 23-29. That was just an awful, awful week, runningwise and in all other respects. Let’s move on.

What I like most about the above image is that it’s starting to look like the log of someone who is actually training. I’m not training for anything just yet, but I will be soon. For now, I’m just focusing on getting the mileage consistently in the 50mpw range and getting in at least two (preferably three) quality workouts a week. If I can do this for a few more weeks and stay uninjured, I will be a very happy woman indeed.

Then I will start worrying about training for my only real “goal” race on the near-term horizon, the Long Island Half on May 1. I’ll only have about two months to train, which probably isn’t enough for running my best. But I just want to run a decent half marathon. On the way, I’ll run two NYRR club points races: the Coogan’s 5K in early March and the Scotland 10K five weeks after that. To prepare for those I will be doing a fair amount of fartlek and tempo running over the coming few weeks. I hate 5Ks, but it’s a points race, so what the hell. I’m looking forward to the 10K.

After Coogan’s I’ll start focusing on training for the Long Island Half on May 1. I am hoping that by then I’ll have a good mix of speed and endurance in place. The Scotland Run should be a good “thermometer” race midway through that training cycle. It’s true that eight weeks is probably not enough to produce a great half performance, but I don’t have a lot invested in a May race. I just want to not implode during training, run a good race, and feel like I’m set up for starting marathon training in the summer (and perhaps I’ll run a good Mini 10K in June).

But I must stay uninjured.

To help preserve this state of affairs, I am stretching and rolling fairly regularly these days — maybe 4-5 evenings a week. This is a harder habit to establish than was daily flossing (which I am doing, by the way), probably because flossing takes 30 seconds and rolling/stretching takes 30-60 minutes. I would like to be getting more massages than I am, but money’s tight so I need to do that judiciously. I also started breaking up some recovery runs into doubles to try to further give the graint a rest. I did an eight mile run after Sunday’s race and that was a mistake. Mr. Leg was not happy.

Sandra has a standard pre-race-week schedule — for shorter distances, meaning half marathon on down — and I notice that she crams in two hard workouts back to back. This week I followed that schedule, piling on the work on Wednesday and Thursday: two hard runs plus a big weight session (I added that one — don’t try this at home before a race). The little recovery run on Wednesday evening helped enormously, I think. My legs felt ready for the progression run. Paces are no longer embarrassing: 6:20-6:40 for the fartlek segments and 7:00-7:20 for the fast finish run. My graint was bugging me during the fartleks (so I cut out the two minute segments on the second set), but it was not terrible.

I was tired on Thursday and Friday evenings, and hungry, so I know I worked hard. But I am okay today and plan to do 10 miler in Central Park tomorrow with at least the last two miles at what I suspect is probably my current marathon pace, maybe around 7:40-7:50 on those hills. I was going to do 12, but that’s too far still. Especially after this, what I think of as my first significant (running) training week since the summer.

One word about the metabolic testing that happened last week. There was no metabolic testing, as it turns out. It was actually just a V02 max test. That’s because there was no C02 sensor in the machine. Which explains why, when Jonathan was asking them about “fat vs. carbohydrate usage,” they looked at him somewhat blankly and didn’t give a straight answer. Now I’m really glad I didn’t pay for it.

But all is not lost. The Nutritionist is consulting nutritionist to the Columbia University sports department, where she is also an adjunct, and Columbia is outfitted with metabolic testing equipment (and, presumably, people who know what they’re doing). But it’s on the fritz! What is it with sports testing equipment?! As soon as it’s fixed, I’ll probably go run on a treadmill with a mask attached to my face again, as well as get the resting metabolic test done (which the other place also neglected to do, although they could have with another machine they have).

I’m down a couple of pounds, finally. But it’s too soon to declare victory. When I’m down five pounds I’ll feel more encouraged. The Nutritionist is working with a basketball player who has the same issue with fat loss, except she’s 6’4″ and weighs around 225 pounds. We are the hard cases.

The fat mystery widens

I went to The Nutritionist today. It’s been about a month since I last saw her. Since then I’ve been declared healthy by The Endocrinologist and I have had a VO2 max test at a local gym/personal training place in Hartsdale. But apparently the testers did not do a resting metabolic rate test, which they were supposed to. My data readouts also did not include calorie usage at the various heart rates, another requirement. The Nutritionist thinks the data for the latter is probably still in their machine, so she’s going to go try to get it from them. If it looks wacky, I will need to go back for a resting metabolic rate test. And if it’s not available, I’ll have to go for the VO2 max test again.

It’s been around 7 weeks since I first met with The Nutritionist and in this time, following what normal people follow to lose fat, I should have lost about 4 lbs. I have lost nothing. I have tracked every morsel of food and in fact, when asked if I’ve failed to account for the errant cookie, had to point out the cake I had for breakfast one day as well as double or triple vodka shots some evenings. I’ve been honest, even about things I’m not proud of.

It seems that on some days I am cutting too few calories, too many on others. I also am failing to take in enough carbohydrates after hard workouts. And I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. So I’m going to be given a menu of what to eat and when. We’re cutting calorie intake slightly. Then after we chase down the missing data, perhaps make more adjustments.

I would by lying if I said I wasn’t losing both faith and patience.

Here’s what the VO2 max test was like, if you’re curious. I was told that the place preferred to do it on a bike, and now I know why (wait for it). I requested a treadmill test nevertheless. I’m a runner, so I figured the calorie vs. heart rate/pace data would be more useful to me as a runner. Too bad it’s missing!

Okay, here’s what happens: They attach a big mask to your face with straps around your head. You look just like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The mask is equipped with a flexible membrane that contains a sensor that measures your intake of oxygen vs. your expulsion of carbon dioxide. From that they determine things like aerobic threshold, lactate threshold and VO2 max. I have a tiny head (no derisive comments, please), so the straps were at their tightest. Yet still the mask was loose, which means oxygen was escaping out the top, over the bridge of my nose. This was not a good thing. So one of the trainers had to stand next to the treadmill and hold the mask in place. Awkward.

The test lasted 12 minutes. The heart rate monitor was wonky at first (which is why I rarely use them anymore), plus I was nervous, so my heart rate was a soaring 104. This is double my usual resting rate. It would not come down. So we just went ahead and started the test.

After a very short warmup at 9:30 pace we launched into things, gradually picking up the pace over the next couple of minutes. Soon I was running flat at 7:30 pace. That was a pace I could run very comfortably at, which was a pleasant discovery. I think my marathon pace must be slightly slower than that at this point. After gathering some data at that pace they started to increase the incline. Little by little, the hill got steeper and steeper and my heart rate went up and up. At the 10:45 mark it was starting to feel very hard.

Throughout this process, I could only stare straight ahead and use hand motions (thumbs up) to communicate. That’s because there was someone standing six inches away holding a mask to my face while someone else’s hands fiddled with the treadmill settings. I could not see anything below the bridge of my own nose. It was disorienting and worrying. I realized at one point that the reason they’d had me sign a waiver wasn’t that they were worried I’d drop dead of a heart attack — it was that I’d pitch backward off the treadmill and crack my skull on the belt. Tremendous concentration was required to stay upright and relaxed.

At 11:30 I was struggling. The incline was up to 4%, at 8mph about the equivalent of 6:45 (although who knows how fast the treadmill was actually going). At 12:10, with my heart rate at 202, I was gasping and we stopped the test. It was close enough to max, which I have clocked at 208 at the end of an “I’m about to puke” 5K race.

My VO2 max is 45.5 at the moment, a little lower than when I’ve been at my fittest (it’s more like 47 then). That was good to see, because it tells me that the months of mind-numbingly tedious cross-training were worthwhile and even the little bit of faster running I’ve been doing lately has helped.

The guys who did the test were really nice, and we chatted for quite awhile afterward. They don’t do many of them (which is why they did mine for free — to practice). They only work with about five runners, and I got the distinct impression that I’m the oldest one. So I sort of felt like someone’s science project. They offered to let me come back to do the test on the bike to compare the results (and, now I realize, so they could practice some more), for free. I may take them up on it.

In other news, I am registered for Sunday’s Gridiron 4 Miler in Central Park. I picked up my bib and for a moment thought, with a frisson of delight, that it was number 666. The last digit was obscured by the attached D-Tag. I am, in fact, number 661. If just five people had registered before me I could have run as The Antichrist.

The bib is blue. At least my pre-injury speedster paces have not expired as far as corral assignment goes. I was on the fence about doing this race, but getting a blue bib (it’s the color of the first corral, for those of you not in the NYRR know) makes me feel obligated in a some weird way.

I have no time goal for the race. I just want to race as best I can. It’s been six months. I miss racing. My biggest worry is that my problematic adductor will rebel, as it’s wont to do lately if I try to run too fast. I have promised myself that if it really starts to hurt then I will drop.

More random bloviations

Chicago was still open this morning at 8:00. Although I may as well have stayed up to register last night because I had insomnia. Because I was worried about not getting in. Damn you, Chicago Marathon. Anyway, we’re registered. I never thought I’d sign up for a big city race, but I’m doing what Coach Sandra says. Since it’s in October, and so far away, it feels completely abstract. That’s probably a good thing at this point. I’ll probably still hedge my bets with a New York registration as well.

It is now Snowing® (with Freezing Rain™!) for the ninth time this winter. My metabolic test, which has been cancelled twice already due to snow and once due to faulty equipment, is scheduled for noon today. At this point it is beginning to feel as abstract to me as the Chicago Marathon. The test was scheduled for 3 pm, but I rescheduled yesterday when I saw the latest weather warnings. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to negotiate the route given the dire warnings of impending death and destruction on the roadways.

But I will try. We live on a big hill and sometimes, if the crud is slippery enough, I can’t get my car up it. My wheels spin and spin, where I am usually trapped on a blind curve. Other drivers, who have four- (or front-) wheel drive, look askance and honk their horns. I can only reverse. Then I have to abandon our little jalopy in the church parking lot at the bottom of the hill. This is an experience I try to avoid if at all possible.

Also, about that test: I am not allowed to have any caffeine beforehand. That part’s probably harder than the actual test. I can already feel the headache coming on.

I skipped the Millrose Games on Friday. I have never been able to take that event seriously and it was just easier to sit on my couch and watch live coverage than it was to trek in on foot, then get home after midnight. I also knew I’d be spending all of Sunday in town and I can only take so much of Manhattan before I have to flee.

On Sunday I went to see this play, which my friend Michael’s wife wrote and has won a bunch of awards for. I confess that I don’t really like plays, which is odd because I love books, movies, and live music and comedy. But not plays. I don’t like opera or dance either. Notice a common theme? I am theatre challenged. I used to think it was due to a problem I have with the artifice of theatre, in that I can never suspend my disbelief. The weird, unnatural lighting; the sets that say “I’m a set!”; even the footsteps of the actors. I suspect that’s part of it, but it’s not all of it. I think I put my finger on why I can’t appreciate live theatre this weekend: I cannot help but empathize with the actors (the actors, not their characters) — meaning I feel embarrassed and worried for them, up there on stage, basically from the moment the lights come up.

Part of it has to do with my own mortification at being the center of attention in any way. I would not want to be up there (yet I know that’s precisely where they want to be). The real issue is that I find myself sitting there and obsessively speculating about their lives. Is he having trouble paying his student loans? What will she do after this play closes? Does he have health insurance? If she flubs her lines, will she get fired? So of course I’m totally distracted from what’s actually going on in the play. I have to continually guide my attention back to the characters and story, and away from the actors. I probably shouldn’t go to plays for this reason alone. I will say that I liked this one, to the extent that I am capable of liking a play, and admired the skill with which it was written, along with clever uses of various set devices, sounds and cultural ephemera. Coming from a theatre retard like me, I think that’s probably high praise.

For dinner I went out with my theatre companion and friend of 20+ years, Lisa, to this place (I like the genericism of its name). There, I learned that Turkish food is a lot like Greek food, except that it’s actually appealing. I had the lamb kebab.

Earlier in the day I had lunch with Pigtails Flying at this restaurant. I learned some things that I did not know about her. Here’s one: she’s a good lunch date.

Earlier in the week I made this:

And that was my week, plus 24 miles of running that are not worth going into detail about. This week I hope to run 40.

Testing. Testing. One. Two. Three.

The metabolic testing has been delayed yet again. It seems the facility’s carbon dioxide sensor isn’t working so they’ve had to mail off for a new one. While this is a bit annoying, there are advantages. For one, it’s allowed me a little more time to get my adductor muscle in order so that I can do the test on a treadmill rather than on a bike. But, even better, the facility’s going to do it for free because of all the delays. I didn’t ask for this. But I didn’t turn it down either.

Today I went up to White Plains for an appointment with The Endocrinologist. As far as doctors go, she was okay. She asked lots and lots of questions and is sending me for lots and lots of tests. But she doesn’t deal with athletic types. This was clear from the get go. I could see some of the things I was saying going over her head or being attenuated by Couch Potato Bias.

Me: “I got a serious stress fracture on 50mpw, running on soft ground, after averaging 75mpw on pavement in the previous 18 months. I’m concerned about a bone density issue.”

Dr.: “But stress fractures are common among runners, aren’t they? Also we don’t usually do bone density testing on pre-menopausal women.”

Okay, whatever. The bone density question wasn’t the primary reason I was there. It was the fact that there’s either something wrong with me or I am a medical miracle when it comes to fat storage. Seriously, the military should study me because they could produce troops that don’t require MREs in the field. But still, it was a little irritating. As was being told that “women typically gain a little weight after age 40.” As was being told my BMI is 23, which is “healthy.” Yes. I know. I’m healthy. I’m a healthy fat runner. Grr.

I’m glad that The Nutritionist at least does not think I’m insane to want to lose 8-10 lbs of fat for performance reasons.

2011: So far, so good

I ran 7.5 miles on the treadmill this morning and it was no big deal. This is major. I remember how running used to feel now. Or, at least, how it should not feel: namely, like a burdensome experience in which every step feels hard and every mile feels like three miles.

I haven’t bothered to post training, and I don’t dare tally up my miles for 2010. I’m sure it’s about half what I ran in both 2008 and 2009. Maybe that’s a good thing. But I’ll start tracking things soon.

Over the past few weeks I’ve run between around 25 and 35 miles a week. This week I’m trying for 40. On Sunday I had the first good run since August, an 11 miler in Central Park at around 8:20 pace. Considering that I’ve been plodding along at 9:20-9:50 on a flat treadmill, running that pace over hills is huge. I was in a great mood after that run. Weather permitting, I’ll probably go for a 12-14 miler in the park again on Sunday.

The stress fracture is totally healed up. The adductor pain is so subtle that I don’t even feel it much of the time when I’m running. It comes and goes, but mostly goes. I ran the last mile on Sunday in 7:15. I could feel it then, but it wasn’t bad. I will continue to test it with bits of faster running on Sundays.

In other news, I had my three week progress check-in with The Nutritionist. She is baffled by the fact that between being ill with a cold (and barely eating anything), then running just about every day (and eating what she has told me to eat, and when), that I’ve lost a grand total of .5 lbs. I reminded her of what I said when we met last month: “I told you I’m a hard case.” She assures me we’ll crack this case.

As part of the detective work, next week I visit an endocrinologist and also go for a VO2 max test. I would have gone for the VO2 max test earlier but I was sick with a head-and-then-chest cold for two weeks, and it seemed stupid to do anything that relied on good breathing, and then Christmas was upon us. So I called today to make the appointment. It was a funny conversation, with the person on the phone telling me what to expect, in a tone that was somewhat ominous: “It’s going to be a very hard workout.” She paused and then said, “Wait a minute. You’re a marathoner?” I said, “Yes.” She laughed, “Oh, good!” I guess she knows I like to suffer. 20 minutes pedaling hard on a bike? Pfft. Bring it on, lady. I’ve done Joan Benoit’s bike workout and that takes 1:20.

It’s a new year. I have lots of resolutions and goals, as usual. This year, however, they have a gravity to them that they have not in the past. I’m on a self-improvement tear. I have a long list of things to accomplish. I am not going to slack off or give up.

We started off the year with a massive clean out of our office. I’d spent about three days last month cleaning up the piles of paper surrounding my desk. Jonathan was infected by this bug and we just spent two days cleaning up the rest of the office. We’re recycling no less than four computers (and lots of peripherals). We threw out or recycled about eight large garbage bags’ worth of crap. It will not be our last trip to the Yonkers dump. Next up: the guest room closets.

Jonathan has been more attached to the things we own than I have traditionally. I would describe myself as ruthlessly unsentimental. I have no idea what’s changed in him — maybe it was my insisting that we get rid of the pool table (and actually disposing of it less than 24 hours later) and replace it with dining room furniture so we could live like civilized people. Now we have interesting conversations over dinner. We can have people over to eat. These are no small matters.

More shit is going out the door this year. The Bowflex. The rugs we don’t like. All of the semi-disposable IKEA furniture (with a nod to Douglas Coupland) that we bought with the idea that it would be temporary, yet which has insidiously become permanent. The mountains of I don’t know what in our basement. All this detritus is oppressive, both physically and mentally. I want a house that’s positively Japanese when we’re done.

The American Master: Khalid Khannouchi’s Second Last Chance

It’s a Saturday morning in September and for the last hour I’ve been staring at the back of Khalid Khannouchi’s head. We’re being coached through a workout in the deep end of a 25m pool in Briarcliff, New York. Directing us is Sandra Khannouchi, Khalid’s coach, manager and wife of over 14 years. She’s in the water with us, but she stays out of our way as we circle round and round her in Lane 4. Sandra is timing us through a fartlek run that she’s designed with varying intervals of hard running broken up with one minute rests. These are arranged in what has emerged as a diabolical order. The work is extremely hard both physically and mentally, and at one point she’s made it harder by forgetting to notice the end of the interval. “It’s been three minutes!” we protest at 3:02, our heart rates and tempers soaring. “Okay, okay…” Sandra says with some sheepishness, looking up at the huge clock. “Sorry.”

Khalid is injured. I am injured. So here we are. When he’s running fast in the pool he reminds me of a wounded duck, pierced by a bullet and struggling madly to get away. I realize at one point that this must be how I look too. Although I’ve met Khalid a few times before this, I barely know him. It’s hard not to feel a little starstruck; I’m doing a workout with the fastest marathoner this country has ever produced. Yet we’re moving at the same speed, water being the great equalizer. Sandra leaves and we remain for a 10-minute cooldown of leisurely laps. Khalid and I pass like ships. At one point he offers, “That was a good workout.” I agree and then tell him that it’s good to know that I’m not the only runner Sandra is constantly screaming at to go faster, harder. He laughs, but then I mildly regret what I’ve just said, realizing that I’m talking about someone who is not just his coach, but also his wife. Yet later on Sandra tells me that Khalid wants me to come back and do more workouts with him in the pool, so we can share the work. She adds, good-naturedly, “and the screaming.”

I first met Khalid and Sandra in May, 2010 at the NYRR Healthy Kidney 10K press event, the day before the race in which Khalid would make a tentative, and very public, return to competitive running after an injury-induced layoff of nearly two and a half years. At the time I was struck by his affability and candor. At one point he’d even taken off a shoe to show us exactly where on his foot he’d had his most recent surgery. Sandra as coach came across as realistic about Khalid’s current situation, yet exuding a sense of utter confidence in his ability to make a comeback. She was also smart. Those qualities were enough for me to approach her for coaching help a month or so later on.

After that 10K race, I looked for Khalid and found him just outside the Media tent. He surprised me with a warm hug and a question –  “How was your race?” – before I could get a chance to ask him how his had gone. Khalid had finished in 21st place. But he was upbeat. To him, the race was a success, because it wasn’t intended to be a race at all. Central Park had instead served as proving ground: would his foot hold up post-surgery? It had, and, while his chip time was nothing to write home about, he called the run “something promising…something we can build on.”

Now, months later, I sometimes run into Khalid when we’re both working alone in the pool. Devoid of body fat, he sits low in the water despite a buoyancy vest. So low that his breath hits the surface and, amplified by the water, sounds like a steam engine. He is always, always working ridiculously hard. After he leaves I’m sometimes tempted to ask the lifeguards, “Do you have any idea who that guy was?”

A spectacular ascent, in spite of injuries

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1997, if you follow elite running then you know who Khalid Khannouchi is. Originally from Morocco, he moved to the States almost immediately after winning the 5000m at the 1993 World Student Games in Buffalo. He first settled in that city, living for several months in the home of a Buffalo doctor he’d befriended at the games, then moving south to Brooklyn with other members of the Moroccan running team after quickly realizing that cruel upstate winters aren’t conducive to good training.

The next year, he joined Warren Street Athletic and Social Club and became a rising star on the Tri-State racing scene, winning the NYRR Club Championships in 1994. That was also the year he met Sandra, an American originally from the Dominican Republic (and holder of the women’s marathon record for that country) at a road race in Hartford, CT. Sandra,10 years his senior, took over his coaching and management as she was winding down her own career as a professional runner. A contract with New Balance followed in 1995, enabling Khalid to finally focus full time on running. In 1996, the two married. From the very beginning, they shared a love of running – and a belief in Khalid’s potential to do great things.

Over the next six years, he would set world records, course records, and the standing American record in the marathon. It’s an impressive résumé: fastest debut marathon in history, four Chicago wins, three sub-2:06 marathons, one of which (London, 2002) is considered by many to be the greatest marathon competition in history. A phenomenal, seemingly unstoppable talent.

Yet there were cracks forming as early as 1999. That year began with a dropout at mile 16 in London, his left foot burning with a neuroma. But Khalid came back later that year to run a sub-1:01 at the Philadelphia Half, followed by a new world record in Chicago that would take four years (and Paul Tergat) to break.

A victory at the 2000 San Blas 10K in Puerto Rico was immediately followed by a ligament problem in his ankle. That led to a compensatory hamstring injury. His run for third place in London in 2000, a race Khalid ran only because of citizenship delays that put a bib for that year’s USA Olympic Trials in doubt, only exacerbated his injuries. Things got so bad that he ran no marathons in 2001, although he got lucky in 2002, when his injuries abated enough that he could train for and win two spectacular races: his 2:05:38 at London, as previously mentioned, followed by a 2:05:56 at Chicago, his fourth win there.

From there, it was all downhill, in the bad sense of the word. Three weeks after that Chicago 2002 race, Khalid’s battle with his own body began. The battle continues to this day.

The forgotten champion

Khalid eventually gained US citizenship later in 2000 and looked forward to trying again for an Olympic berth in four years. But he missed the 2004 Olympic Trials, again due to injury. In the fall of that year, he finished fifth in Chicago. 2005 was another year lost to injuries. 2006 featured a fourth place finish in London with a 2:07, but it was a time that was more than fast enough to qualify him for the 2008 Trials. 2006 also saw the first of several foot surgeries Khalid would undergo over the coming years. History repeated itself in 2007 when, with a neuroma in his right foot this time, he was again forced to drop out of the London Marathon midway through the race. The following few months included a string of disappointing races, or withdrawals from the elite field altogether, again due to injuries.

Things looked up in the summer of 2007, though. In a rare period of pain-free running, Khalid was at last able to train for a viable US Olympic Trials race that November. Perhaps the third time would be the charm. But his training was too little, too late; after making adjustments to his new orthotics he and Sandra had just nine weeks to prepare. Despite a heroic run, he nevertheless finished in fourth place. It’s a race he still has mixed feelings about. “It was a good experience. But, you know, it’s disappointing because I was very close to making the team. When you finish fourth, it feels really bad: fourth place. At the same time I was happy because I was able to run a marathon. So I thought, ‘Maybe I can train again. Maybe next year will be good. Better.’”

Through eight years of injuries, two missed US Olympic Trials races, one Trials fourth place and frequent trips across the globe for surgeries, therapies and treatments, Khalid has not given up on his dream of representing his adopted country on an Olympic Marathon team. This despite having declared 2008 the deadline for that dream, a deadline that he missed by just under a minute on the hills of Central Park. “Realistically,” he told the New York Daily News in 2007, just days before the Trials, “This is my last shot.”

Do a search on “Khalid Khannouchi” on LetsRun.com or other popular running sites and you’ll hardly see anything following his failed 2007 Olympic bid. One forum thread from the summer of 2009 is entitled “Is Khalid Khannouchi still running?” In many ways, Khalid’s situation mirrors that of Meb Keflezighi’s a few years ago: a once-stellar runner completely drops off the radar, hobbled by injuries, living under the encroaching shadow of advancing years. Lots of people wrote Meb off, but he made a stunning comeback in 2009 in New York and has not looked back. Khalid has cited Meb as an inspiration and role model. Good things can happen. But you have to keep the faith, and keep trying.

Riding the second wave of American running

When asked why American marathoners have slipped so far behind the Africans over the past two decades, and why no other American has broken 2:06, Khalid is emphatic. “We are improving! I think the attitudes of American runners now are totally different. They think they can compete, and win honors, titles and all that. They can go and run with Kenyans and Ethiopians. We saw Meb win New York City. We saw Dathan get a medal in the World Half Marathon. We see people breaking American records, which is good! So you cannot say that because nobody has broken my record that we are not improving.”

Khalid also points to the growing pool of potential champions, as reflected in participation in the Marathon Trials of 2008 vs. the mid-to-late 1980s. “If you look at the number of people competing in the US Trials in ’84 or ’88 [compared to] the numbers in 2008 or 2012, you’re going to see that maybe we’ve tripled the numbers. That’s how you know there are more people coming up. But,” he adds, “It’s going to take a lot of time. And, believe it or not, there are people who are out training a lot harder somewhere else,” with “somewhere else” being a euphemism for “Africa.”

The Africans are the runners to beat, and Khalid has beaten them in the past. With Americans now seemingly poised to truly take on the current world-beaters, Khalid wants to once more be among those leading the charge.

For the most part, Khalid’s American cohorts are anywhere from 5 to 20 years his junior. He’ll turn 40 in 2011. Can experience compensate for the unavoidable toll that time takes on a marathoner’s paces? For Khalid, that’s not the relevant question. “I think fresh legs are what really matter. I’ve not been running for almost a year. So I feel like I’m 35 or 34.”

Reaching the age of 40 could be significant for Khalid in several ways. For one, he’ll be competing as a master at that point. That presents even more opportunities – such as new records to break – to add to his list of achievements. The possibility of beating men decades younger than himself is an extraordinary one in its own right. But his new status as a masters runner doesn’t factor into how he thinks about his comeback. “To be honest, I don’t feel like a ‘master.’ You try to take care of business, get healthy and get back to training. I think if I can do that, I still believe I can compete. And if it comes as a master, I don’t mind it.”

So many dreams, so little time

Try for a moment to imagine how this feels: you are the best marathon runner in the world.  You get injured, but you work through it and can clearly see that when you’re not injured you can still be the best marathoner in the world. Then the injuries just keep on coming. This goes on for eight years. “It’s very difficult,” Khalid acknowledges. “But you have to believe. You be patient, go to the gym, swim a bit, run a little bit. We had good, solid training. It’s just that I couldn’t keep up the work because I had little problems again. So you’re trying to get back and, for some reason – I don’t know if it’s a curse? Maybe I’ve done enough already.” Glancing down, he explains, “My feet are banged up. That’s the problem. If you have a good car without good wheels, it’s like you have nothing. That’s basically the problem I’m facing right now.”

Khalid had a plan back in 2007: finish in the top three in the Trials, run for the US on the streets of Beijing – and perhaps pick up a medal there as a souvenir – and then retire from competitive running. That dream died hard in November of that year and then was all but forgotten as new injuries took hold. At that point it seemed that even being able to run at all was an achievement worthy of pursuit. “Last year I wasn’t able to run for 20 minutes,” he notes. “So I said, ‘You know what, let me have surgery. I know it’s painful, but let me do it because at least then I can run like everybody else.’”

But then something happened. What began as an effort to simply get well enough to be able to run for more than a few miles without pain turned into a rekindled fervor for making the Olympic team. “Then when I started running like everybody else,” he says, laughing, “I said, ‘You know what, I want to get back and compete!’ I never wanted to run after 40. But I’ve got this opportunity: to be in the Olympics. I had the world record. I won the best marathons. But I’ve never been in the Olympics and I want that on my résumé.”

As Khalid and Sandra have learned over and over again, it can be dangerous to make plans, as they have a nasty habit of going awry. Perhaps this is why they speak of goals with a certain fluidity, a reflection not so much of shifting priorities but of their capitulation to the mercurial whims of Khalid’s body. The immediate goal is to get him healthy enough to train again, and run some test races at shorter distances, while avoiding further injury. The longer-term goal is to make a competitive comeback in the marathon. Ideally, an Olympic bib would figure into that comeback. But both of them acknowledge that betting all their chips on the US Marathon Trials in January of 2012 is risky. So he will run when Sandra says it’s time to run.

“It’s month by month,” says Sandra. “You don’t know what can happen. If, for example, it’s October and he says, ‘I feel good. Now is when I really have to run a marathon. Now I’m in peak condition,’ as a coach, as an agent, I will say, ‘Let’s go to New York.’ Because you don’t know what’s going to happen later. If you say, ‘No, let me wait until January,’ then you can get hurt again or that peak is not there anymore.”

Yet so many opportunities

From one perspective, Khalid’s comeback might seem at best daunting and at worst Quixotic. But from another, the whole world of running lies at his feet.

While the 2012 London Olympics is the headliner, other opportunities are waiting in the wings to serve as understudies should timing dictate: a run in New York, long-desired but always thwarted by injuries; or a return to Chicago; or perhaps a master’s world record or American record, if it happens – although Khalid has never entered a race with the intention of setting a world record, but rather picking one up as a bonus when that’s what the race required on that particular day.

Khalid knows what he wants to happen. “If I had a choice between going to the Olympics and running New York, I’d go to the Olympics.” But if the timing isn’t right for the Trials? “I want to run New York. I wish I had that opportunity in my day because I felt I could win New York, no problems. Chicago is probably the city where I feel more comfortable. It has a special place in my heart, more than London, more than any other place. Chicago is by far the best. But now, because I’m from here, I would love to have an opportunity to run New York City. No question.”

If Khalid does make the US Olympic Marathon Team, it will be historic regardless of what he goes on to run in that Olympic race in London. Only two masters men have ever represented the US in an Olympic Marathon. The last time around was James Henigan in 1932. Then there are masters’ marathon records to consider. The American record is 2:12:47, set by Eddy Hellebuyck in 2003, although given Hellebuyck’s recent admission of heavy EPO use during that period it can hardly be considered legitimate. The world record of 2:08:46 was set that same year by Mexico’s Andres Espinosa. That time is well within striking range for a healthy Khalid Khannouchi.

But, ultimately, what he wants most is just to have a good marathon, an experience that at this point seems very far away indeed. “I haven’t been running marathons. My dream is to run another marathon. I don’t care where. On another planet? I’ll go there!”

It’s not so easy, making a comeback

One of Sandra’s favorite observations, oft repeated, is, “It’s not so easy, being an elite runner.” That sentiment applies to making a comeback as well. When you are a world-class runner it’s impossible to participate in a race and go unrecognized. But the recognition isn’t the problem – it’s the expectation. Everyone watching is expecting you to win, even if that’s not why you’re there. Khalid tried to choose his test races carefully, in venues that would minimize the pressure to perform. But he still had to cope with people’s perceptions and assumptions.

He felt the weight of expectation on him at the Healthy Kidney 10K in May, his first race in well over two years. “You know, I thought at first, ‘It’s going to be the race to start with; it’s no pressure.’ But when I got to the starting line, everybody’s hugging you. You do feel the pressure. I said, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’ Because people know you, they love you, they expect a lot from you. That’s when the pressure hits you.”

After Healthy Kidney, Khalid ran a few other test races, including Beach to Beacon, a race that he’d hoped would be lower key. “We have a good host family, our friends. I feel like I’m going on vacation there, not racing.” He’ll return to such races in 2011 when he does his next round of test runs. Then the plan is to go for a Trials qualifying time at the half marathon distance, with that race as yet to be determined.

A major comeback demands major changes

Going forward, Sandra and Khalid know that they have to take the hard lessons they’ve learned over the years and apply them to every area. The first priority is healing from and preventing injuries. When the third neuroma of his career emerged earlier this year, they knew what to do: apply medications through local injections, slice a tendon to reposition the problem toe, then make adjustments to his orthotics once again.

Then there’s his training. The mileage will go down while the quality of those miles goes up. Lower mileage means lower impact and reduced chances of injury. As Khalid put it, “Running, running, running is what’s going to get you there.” But not so much running that he’ll be stopped dead in his tracks along the way. High levels of cross-training, along with strengthening and balance work, will augment the miles. “These other things will help to have a faster comeback,” Sandra asserts.

A move to Colorado Springs will further facilitate a comeback by reconnecting Khalid with some of his key training partners on a more consistent basis. That move punctuates a major change in his personal life as well. After 14 years of marriage, Sandra and Khalid have decided to divorce amicably. They’ll continue to work as a professional team and, in fact, both feel that the decision to part ways as a couple will only better his chances of racing well again.

“We care for each other,” Khalid says. “But for both our happiness, this is better. We have some differences. Lately we don’t agree. Maybe it’s because of me because I’ve been through hard times, dealing with injuries, not racing, not running like I would wish. It just seems like there is no good communication like we used to have.” He holds up a blue coffee mug. “When we had all the success, it was clear: ‘This is blue.’ We didn’t have to argue about it. And now…”

Sandra is quick to emphasize, “I think if he wants to make a comeback, it’s better not to be husband and wife. I really want him to make a comeback because I know he can do it. I think [the divorce] will be better because I can then concentrate and really give energy to him.” She reflects for a moment or two. “You have to be happy. When you’re doing something you want to do, whether it’s professional or your personal life, you have to be happy. If you’re not happy, nothing’s going to grow. I know that this is going to be better for both of us.”

Despite the plans to end their marriage, there remains an easy affection, and even jocular bickering, neither of which seems in danger of going anywhere. At one point Sandra offers me some Moroccan bread she’s made, although she was engrossed enough in our conversation that she forgot to take it out of the oven in time. As a result, it’s slightly overdone.

I tell them it’s fine, but Khalid says, “Bring her something else.”

Sandra laughs and says, “There is nothing else. You ate everything!”

While he may not be running at the moment, Khalid still has the appetite of a marathoner in training. “I am like a snake,” he says mischievously, weaving an undulating hand in the air. “I go through the house, eating everything.”

The sleeping giant

With the Trials set for January, 2012, it would seem that a year is plenty of time for a runner at Khalid’s level to prepare. But when you’re used to being blindsided by injuries, looking at a calendar can create more anxiety than confidence. So much can go wrong in those twelve months.

While Sandra may have her eye on 2011, Khalid can’t afford to look that far ahead. “I don’t want to talk about next year,” he says with a mixture of worry and conviction. “I’m talking about next month, when I start running and see the feeling. Look, I want to hear that everything is fine and I can run. If I do, then we’re going to have a lot of fun. Running 10Ks, maybe for six months. Just try to get back.”

It’s been over three years since he’s run a race with confidence, and that was the last Trials marathon in 2007. That’s enough time to forget everything you know. “Before, I used to know what I should do before races: I knew the workouts I should do, what I should eat. And now I’ve lost it. I don’t even know what I used to do before.”

Khalid is consumed with getting beyond his injuries and returning to the lead pack, displaying a drive to excel that even a decade’s worth of setbacks hasn’t diminished. “I want people to know that I’m trying the best I can. I invest a lot of money going to doctors and all that, just trying to get better. Because I really want to compete. I will never give up, and I’ll try. It’s frustrating. Eight years of struggle. People who have had injuries will understand me. We still hope. There is hope. I have faith that if I’m healthy I will compete again.”

As we’re wrapping up our interview, three of Sandra’s four grandchildren (by her daughter from a previous marriage) are making their arrival. I watch Khalid leap up from his chair, dash over to the door and impishly hide behind it, with a finger pressed to his lips. The kids tumble in, the youngest, four, tearing off her coat and throwing it on the floor. Khalid sweeps it up and shoves one arm into the pink sleeve. He struggles to get his arm into the other sleeve, but even on his 5’5”, 125 lb. frame, this is an ambitious proposal. Giving up, he lets the jacket drape across one shoulder and, eyeing the kids, singsongs, “I’m going outside for a walk now…” He’s Gulliver in a frock, eliciting a chorus of Lilliputian giggles. A few minutes later, as I’m walking away up the street, I can still hear faint laughter coming from the window.

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