A few (more) minutes with Shannon Rowbury

I interviewed Shannon Rowbury at last year’s Fifth Avenue Mile. This year she was as gracious and candid as she was a year ago. Rowbury was on the comeback trail for virtually all of 2011 after struggling with injuries, which were a central topic in our conversation last year. Rowbury finished seventh in the 2011 edition of the run down Fifth Avenue. She looked a little disappointed coming in, but was all smiles afterwards. Fun fact: my brother-in-law was close friends with Rowbury’s dad when they were little kids. Here’s last year’s interview.

You recently did a commercial for Dick’s Sporting Goods. I know you studied film in graduate school. What was it like for you to perform in front of the camera?
It was really fun, seeing how the professionals do it. I studied film in college and had I not gone the running route I would have tried to get involved in film production. I did some lower level things in college, but to really be a fly on the wall, watching how the pros get it done, was really cool. It gives you an appreciation for how much work goes into a 30 second spot. There was an all-day session with me. They’d been filming for the day or two before. Then they filmed the day afterwards. All of that just to go into a short commercial. Everyone was really friendly and it was cool to talk to them and learn from them. I’d love to be able to do more stuff like that, either on camera or off – both sides were really fun and exciting to me. I always wonder, when I finish with running, what I’ll do with myself. I want to have a family, but I also have too much energy to not have a career. It’s cool to observe something like that and it makes you feel like, “Okay, I’ll find something.”

You seem comfortable when you speak in front of people. Were you also comfortable in front of the camera?
I was. You know, it helps when you’re working with friendly people. They’re positive, they give you corrections, you try to adjust accordingly. Something like running in front of the camera, running is so natural, so it’s pretty easy. With my dance background, figuring out timing wasn’t too bad. I had fun with it. Compared to standing on the starting line at the Olympics or something, I thought, “This is easy, I’m not nervous at all.”

You’re defending two wins here. Do you feel like there’s more pressure on you this year since you’ve won the last two years?
Not too much. I want to win again because I love this race and it’s such a fun way to end the season. I feel like I’m a good road racer and have a good track record with road miles. This year, with all my injuries, I wasn’t sure if I’d even make the world team. To even have been able to race was exciting for me. I was very disappointed with how worlds turned out. But as I try and process everything and take in the bigger picture, I’m just excited and happy to go out and step on the starting line tomorrow, back in the US finally. And try and defend my title, try and get three in a row. It’s a great field of women and I know they’re all competitive. So they’ll all be fighting for it as well. I’m just going to do my best to be the best out there on Saturday.

You’ve always won by doing a last minute surge in the last 20 meters. Is that your strategy again this year?
Well, I don’t want to give anything away. But I think what’s neat about the road mile is that because there’s no turns, it’s not as tactical. You can be literally eight, nine, ten women across and you’re not in any sort of disadvantage. I like that about the race. I’m a tough competitor. I’ll grit it out if I have to and keep myself right in it. In every race, if you can’t hold it together the last 50 meters, you’re not going to do well. And that’s something I’ve sort of struggled with in track races. So I’ll keep working on that. Even though this is the road verses the track, it’s still a great place to practice.

I had a question about 1500 track racing. Oftentimes, when you watch them there’s almost a pattern, where in the third lap there’s this almost perceivable pause during which everyone seems to be gathering themselves for the last lap. Does the equivalent happen in a road mile?
Here it’s interesting because with the road mile it is sort of affected by the terrain. So here we have the first half mile that’s down, then up. Then you hit the half mile mark and you start pretty much going down. I remember my first year racing here, they said over and over again, “Make sure you don’t go too early. You’re going to hit the half mile mark and it’s going to look like you’re finishing. But you’ve still got 800 meters.” So I think it’s different. When you can see the finish line, straight in front of you, I think people get antsy and excited. With the 1500, because it’s laps, it can get almost predictable, because everybody has the same strategy going into it. “Lap one, I do this. Lap two, I do that. Lap three, I prepare. And lap four, I go.” When you’re on the road and you kind of have markers, but it’s harder to tell, it takes a little bit more finesse, maybe. Each person’s going to have a slightly different plan.

Can you comment on how strong and deep the field is this year?
I looked at the starting list and I was pretty impressed by it. In previous years we’ve had some international athletes, but it’s been largely US and Great Britain. This year we’ve got the top US women, the top Brit, a Norwegian athlete, German athletes. We’ve got a bunch of women, which I think is fun. For me, it hasn’t been the best year because I was injured early on but I’m still excited to go out there and race the best in the world, whether it’s on the track or on the road. Just test myself and see how I can do. So I think it’s going to be a really good race out there. We have 5K runners, we have 800m runners, so it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. You’re going to have both ends of the spectrum: people who want it to be slow with a kick, and people who want it fast from the gun, and then the milers inbetween, who aren’t really sure what we want. So, yeah, I think it’ll be an exciting race.

Can you talk about your injuries this year? What happened?
I had a series of Achilles injuries. First I hurt my right Achilles in October [2010] and struggled with that for a few months. Right as that was recovering my left Achilles started hurting. I think maybe from overcompensation, I’m not sure. But basically it was 6-8 months of struggling with that. The Achilles is a hard animal to tame because it’s different from other things. My last major injury was in 2007, when I had a stress fracture in my hip, and that I thought was challenging because you’re hip is the main joint of the body. But it’s also protected by a lot of muscles and tendons. So as long as you can be strong in other places, you can kind of get by. With the Achilles, it’s just the Achilles. So if it’s in a bad mood, it dominates everything. So I had to learn patience. I had to learn how to deal with a tendon injury, which was something I’d never had before. And manage my own crazy, wanting to train and feeling like time was slipping by. But you can’t will yourself to be healthy. You have to just give it the time that it needs.

Last year you told that your 2007 injury was ultimately a positive event because it made you reexamine your training. So did you have a different perspective this time around on being an “injured runner”?
Yes, it was different for me this year because in 2007 I was finishing college. I ended up transitioning from my college coach to my new coach. The injury was basically season ending. So I was able to let the expectations that I’d had for that year go and really focus on a long term plan for the next year. This year, I got injured at the beginning of training, so it was easy to be patient early on. But then as things weren’t progressing as quickly as I’d wanted, I was thinking, at first, “Okay, I’ve got eight months.” Then it was, “I’ve got five months.” Then, “Oh, my gosh, I have three months.” And then, “A month  and a half until USAs. What do I do?”

So that was the first experience I’ve ever had trying to train through an injury. It was kind of a gut check moment for me, figuring out why I was doing this, finding new ways to stay motivated. I still think I learned a lot of things. Competing now this past three months, over the summer, without as much of a base – we had to alter training a little bit – I’m proud of myself for still being able to do decently well, given that I missed so much. To be able to even hang in there with the best in the world off of first a month and a half of training and then three months of training. I think it gave me some pride. I was able to learn some stuff about myself when things aren’t going perfectly: what can I get? What are my strengths and weaknesses. I’m hopeful that that’ll inform my training next year and motivate me to be smart but also have that drive to be the best in the world, which I know I can be if things go well.

How do you warm up for a road mile?
My warmup doesn’t really change that much from the track. I’m a really big believer in consistency. So when I’m doing a hard workout on the track, my warmup for that is very similar to my warmup for a race. The difference with a road mile vs. a track race is that I get to run outside. When I’m doing these track races in Europe, it’s usually lap after lap on the infield because you have just the warmup area, which can be kind of boring. But for the road mile, yeah, it’s just a jog. I do my little run, 15-20 minutes. I do form drills, dynamic flexibility, active stretching. Leg swings, that sort of stuff. Strides. It’s pretty basic. I usually start my warmup about an hour beforehand. It’s fun, too, with a road mile, because you kind of get a bit of adrenaline that’s different from the track because the people are right there – it’s so much more up close and personal. So I always love that as well.

A few minutes with Sally Kipyego

Sally Kipyego, 26, originally from Kapsowar, Kenya, established herself as a standout runner at Texas Tech, becoming the first runner to win three consecutive women’s titles in the NCAA Division 1 championships, among other collegiate distinctions. But you probably recognize her more recently as having won Silver in the 10K at Daegu. She’s something of a rarity in that she races well from the 1500 up to the 10K, and seems able to move up or down in distance effortlessly. Kipyego is also beautiful to watch, always running with a relaxed form and an oftentimes almost serene expression.

I’m curious to know why you’re running a mile and what it’s like to go from 10K on the track to a mile on the road.
I love the 1500. I do them, just for speed at the beginning of the year, just to get my legs going. But this is a great race that I’ve known about for a few years now. But I haven’t had a chance to participate. I’ve always thought it was a fantastic race and a great way to end the season. But every year, at the end of the year, I’m exhausted and don’t want to do any more racing at the end of the season. It’s a wonderful way of finishing the season, in New York City, on Fifth Avenue. It’s a really well-known, good meet.

A track 10K is 25 laps. I’ve always wondered, when you race that, do you ever lose count?
No. Well, for 2010 I made a conscious decision to not wear a watch on the track. In 2009 my watch was affecting every race, because all I was doing was looking at my watch on every lap, trying to get the splits. It really took the fun out of running. So I made that decision, not wearing a watch. So now I don’t look at the lap count, I don’t look at my watch and I don’t look at the time. I don’t look at the lap count until probably the last five laps. I just totally zone out and get into a rhythm. At the end of it, maybe around five or six laps to go, I start paying attention because that’s when the race actually begins. In the first 5, 6, 7k, I’m pretty low key and I just need to get into a rhythm.

So you’re finding that you’re racing better without a watch?
Absolutely. It’s made a huge difference. Because I’m not paying attention to the splits now. I’m competing. I compete. I race against people, not a clock. It’s difficult on your mind, when you’re trying to get specific splits. Maybe you’re one second off, but it messes when your mentality. “Oh, I’m off. I’m not running well. Or I’m running too fast.” If you’re just rolling with it, it’s not about the clock. It’s about how you feel. It’s a lot smoother and a lot easier on your mind. At least that’s what I find.

What are you thinking about when you’re zoning out for the first three-quarters of the race?
I go to my happy place. I have a mental picture. When I’m doing my easy runs, I go to a place where it’s really calm and quiet. It’s strange, but I always think of water. A fountain. Or a waterfall. It’s really calm, really quiet. Just breathing. I try to bring that picture to my mind and zone out and get in that place. When I do that I don’t even feel the laps going by. I just get really relaxed and feel really light on my feet. I’m just really calm. And when I’m calm, I do better.

Have you always done this?
No. I read this book about visualization and relaxation to do before races. I started to, for 30 minutes before going to bed, laying there and trying to calm myself down, trying to get a mental picture of a really quiet, calm place. The more I did that, the more I got relaxed. I started doing that in my easy runs. It’s a skill. Why not try it? Give it a shot and see. I found out that when I’m relaxed in a race, I perform so much better than I do when I’m tense. So if I can get into that relaxed state, it’s just easier on my body.

Do you do any other kind of mental training? Do you, for example, simulate races?
I will go through my races ten times, so many times before I run. When I’m getting to a race I’ve got a plan A and I’ll mentally play that in my head many times during my runs. During my long runs I’ll go through a race and think about how that’s going to play out. I guess that’s what you do when you’re doing 80-90 miles a week.

It’s a lot of time to think.
Yeah.

Do you remember the first race that you ever ran?
Yes. I raced in 1999. It was my first time racing in Kenya. It was a district meet. I probably ran some races in school. But that was [the first] proper race, so to speak, where I actually raced against people who were fast. I just ran with them. I didn’t have a goal. I just ran. I got through the finish and thought, “That wasn’t so bad.” I didn’t have a goal, I didn’t have an objective – I was just running.

Do you still race the same way? Or are things more loaded now?
There’s pressure. If it’s your professional career, you’re running for a lot more than running a race. You have sponsors. But I like the purity of running. I think it’s one sport that’s very pure. It comes with that sense of you and the track – it’s just you and the race. I love that.

So you still like running, despite all these new pressures.
I love running. The first day I came out and ran in school, I was so stressed. I wanted to perform well, and put so much pressure on myself. I didn’t enjoy running at that time. Every time I toed the line, it was about something. I either wanted to impress sponsors, or it was something else. But now I’m just so grateful that Nike gave me a chance, that they sponsored me and gave me a chance to do what I love to do, because I know now that I truly love running. This is what I love. I can’t imagine my life without running. I love the purity of it and how it makes me feel. It’s a liberated feeling and I’m grateful that I get the chance and opportunity to do this for a living.

What do you want to do when you can’t run for a living anymore?
I’ll go back to nursing. My heart is still there. Even if I don’t work in a hospital, I’d like to do something related to nursing. I would still love to do something related to health care.

How do you warm up for a road mile?
The mile is quick. 1500’s are pretty quick for me, so I’ll take a little longer to warm up. For a mile I’ll probably warm up more than I would for a 10k. I’ll do a pickup, a two minute pickup that’s a little bit faster than tempo pace. Not quite race pace, but quite high – a fast tempo pace. Just to get my heart going, get my lungs going. Just to get that feeling, where my heart rate is elevated just slightly before a race, then come down. So that when the gun goes off, it doesn’t get me off guard, my body’s ready to go.

It’s funny. Everyone I’ve asked has a slightly different warmup.
I probably do more drills for a mile than I would for a 10k. For that distance you warm up slowly, because you have plenty of time to adjust. But in a road mile, it’s a pretty short event so you have to be ready to go.

…and Lauren Fleshman just got even more interesting

Today I had the pleasure of sitting in on a NYRR press (tele)conference with Lauren Fleshman and another 5000 champion, Bobby Curtis (whom I met at last year’s Healthy Kidney 10K). Both runners were there to announce that they’ll be making their marathon debuts at the New York Marathon in November. I only got to ask two questions, but some of the other interviewers hit on the ones I’d wanted to ask, so I lucked out.

Here’s what’s interesting about Fleshman’s marathon approach: at least in the near term, she’s not going to be trying to become a great marathoner per se; instead, she’s using marathon training to try to build strength in order to avoid the cycle of injury that has plagued her over 11 years of racing 5Ks — and (she hopes) help her improve at that distance for the 2012 Olympics.

“The marathon was never on my radar,” she said today. “But I remember when the 5K used to feel so long. I’ve gotten stronger over the last couple of years, dealing with injuries. That’s opened my mind to things that I thought weren’t possible…changing things up and focusing on pure strength for the 5K. For me, [the marathon] is kind of a means to an end, but an exciting one.”

Perhaps most intriguing about this move is the fact that Fleshman’s running history includes a lot of bouts with injury, and she tends to break down at higher volumes. Embracing marathon training, which typically involves lots of mileage, is always risky for injury-prone runners. But there’s more than one way to skin the marathon training cat, and Fleshman will be relying heavily on something called the Elliptigo, a cross-training contraption that she used quite a bit during her most recent post-injury buildup.

Fleshman will continue to use this quasi-bike while preparing for New York. “I plan to use the Elliptigo to make up for volume,” she said. “This isn’t the time to take a huge risk and add 20% volume. Now that I’m doing 70 miles per week I’ll use that as my main form of complementary running. I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried it.”

When asked if the Olympic Trials in January might be a secondary goal, she dismissed them. “That’s not on my radar right now, to be honest. I want to give the marathon a chance to help my 5K. I will try to run as fast as I can [in the marathon], but the marathon fits into the goal of the 2012 [Olympic] 5K. In a way, I feel like I’ll have two debuts: NYC this year and a post-2012 marathon. For now, it’s more of an experiment and we’ll just have to see how that goes. You’ll see more of me in the marathon, I’m sure.”

As noted previously, Fleshman’s running blog is outstanding. It provides practical information as well as an intimate view into what it’s really like to be a professional distance runner. Apparently her inspiration for starting it was Paula Radcliffe, who began chronicling her experiences online way back in 2004 (unfortunately, she hasn’t kept it up). We learned today that even runners of Fleshman’s calibre are not immune to being starstruck. “When I met Paula last year, I was so dumbstruck. I walked away. Next time, we had a great conversation, went out to dinner. I’d rather go to dinner with Paula Radcliffe than any movie star. We still chat and email and I’m lucky that she’s shared some of her knowledge with me.”

In the days since Fleshman’s impressive run in London over the weekend, in which she easily met the A Standard that eluded her at the US championships earlier this year (she came in 8th there), there’s been speculation about whether she’d get a spot on Team USA for the World Championships in Daegu later this month. I asked her what the status of that was, but she didn’t know yet. Fortunately, there was someone from USATF on the call and he confirmed that they’d just released the team start list. Yep, Fleshman’s in for the 5K, which means my Fleshman Fangirl Train will keep rolling through the summer and fall.

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.

Things for you to read: what’s here and what’s on the way

I have a giant list of writing-related project to dos (plus some podcast prep stuff). But most of them are so daunting. I haven’t got it in me today. This fucking head cold is still here. It abated for a bit last night, but it’s back with a vengeance this morning. I spent three hours shouting over ambient noise at the NY Harriers holiday party, which probably didn’t help. But I met some nice people, and it was good to get out of the house after four days of cabin fever, so it was worth the trip in.

My head’s both everywhere and nowhere with this cold, but since I’m not up to a run or gym trip today, I feel like a sloth if I don’t do something productive with the time. So I’m tackling a few of the smaller writing projects.

First, there are several updates to the Houston Hopefuls site for anyone following along: one is an account of Tammy Lifka’s experiences with injury and his-and-hers blood clots; then there are the race reports from Jen Hitchings and Julie Wankowski from last weekend’s California International Marathon. My next interview will be with Lori Kingsley, a woman who went from being a slightly overweight, smoking non-runner to a national masters champion in just six years.

Second, I’ve made lots of updates to this blog’s Faves page. Some old favorites are still there, but I swapped in 75% new content. 75%! That’s massive! Go check it out.

Third, I’m working on an interview I’ve had lying around since September, with the recently crowned American 5K record holder Molly Huddle. I hope to at least get that transcribed today, if not posted. It’s up here: A few minutes with Molly Huddle

Fourth, I’ve finished work on a long feature article about Khalid Khannouchi, a follow-up to my article earlier this year about his comeback. I’m very proud of it. So much so that I’m trying to find a real publisher for it. But I don’t want to sit on it forever, so if those efforts don’t pan out then it should be posted up here sometime over the next few weeks.

And, finally, my second Running Times article appeared in print this week. It’s toward the back of the Jan/Feb issue and it’s entitled “The Racer’s Wish List.” The genesis of the article was a survey I did of race participants, which I then shared with one elite runner, one race management company owner, and four directors of races of varying sizes. I’ll put up a link to the online version when that appears in a month or so.

Running Times: Tamara Karrh profile is up!

My profile of Houston Hopeful Tamara Karrh is up on the Running Times website.

This is old news (especially since Tamara already ran the Twin Cities race the article mentions anticipatorily*). But what the hell. I thought it was worth posting for anyone who doesn’t get the print edition.

Running Times > Tamara Karrh Training for the Trials

___________________________________________________________

*You like that? That right there is a thirty dollar word.

A few minutes with Shannon Rowbury

Shannon Rowbury, 26, is one of the better known American middle distancers. You’ll mostly see her running the 1500 (where she placed 7th in the 2008 Beijing Olympics) or the mile; although she’s done well at the 3000 (winning the National Indoor Championships at that distance in 2008) and 5000 distances too, as well as the 800. Personal records of note include: 2:00.47 for the 800, 4:00.33 for the 1500 and 4:20.34 for the mile. I hired my former coach, Kevin Beck, partially on the basis of a 2008 Running Times article he wrote about Rowbury (and her then teammates Erin Donohue and Shalane Flanagan). I figured anyone who could connect that well with his article subjects and write as intelligently as he did about them and about running would probably be a good person to work with as a coach too. Kevin has described Rowbury as a “sweetheart” — and she is. I enjoyed talking with her about her running and other things — and even received the bonus of getting some injury advice from a real, live Olympian.

On your blog, maybe about a year and a half ago, you had a couple of posts — they were kind of poignant — about the difficulty of adhering to drug testing requirements? Has anything improved since then?
After I’d made those posts, and there was some talk about that problem, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) came out with a list of “suggested” supplements. There’s still a lot of work to do. They still say to use things at your own discretion. But they said, “These are some things that are a little bit more…”

It was crazy, because they were saying “You can use this kind of Midol, but you can’t use that kind”…
Exactly. I felt, and I still feel, that it’s so naive to say, “Just don’t use anything. Don’t take any vitamins. We can’t guarantee that any of them are good. You can get everything from your food.” I wish that were true. There have been times when I’ve tried to do that. But when you’re training five or six hours a day, when you’re trying to get a workout every other day — you’re asking your body to do these things that are somewhat unhuman, and then expecting that you can eat a good sized salad to get all the vitamins that you need. It’s just not practical.

Would you ever want to get involved in influencing the drug testing policies to make them a little more doable for runners?
My goal when I finish running is I’d love to be involved with the sport in another capacity. Taking what I’ve learned and taking my experiences and trying to help future athletes to have better opportunities and a better situation. Because I think it’s so important for the athletes who’ve lived through it to then go on to share their experiences and help shape the direction that the sports heads in. So I’m hopeful.

You’re kind of already involved now in that way with the Bay Area Track Club. What are you practically contributing to that club?
For the club right now I’m involved with David Torrence, Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, Bolota Asmerom, Tony Kauke and Crosby Freeman. We’re the founder’s committee, if you will. So we meet to talk about what we want to do with the BATC and what direction we want to head in. For me, specifically, I manage the blog that we have for the website. We’ve also got a cross country race that we’re putting on. So I’ll get on different committees we create to try and help with specific projects. But across the board the six of us are just doing whatever we need to do to make things happen. We’ve been around for a little bit more than a year now, but all of us are still working for free because we’re passionate [about it]. So if something needs to be done, it’s like, “Okay! I’ve got the time! I’ll do it!”

Do you ever get sick of wearing the same Nike racing kit? Are you ever tempted to “customize” it?
[Laughs] You know, I don’t get sick of wearing the same thing. I’m a product of the “uniform system” growing up, from elementary school, and I kind of liked the consistency. “This is what I wear.” But I do wish — and I have shared this with some other friends — I think it would be really cool if the Nike athletes could ID their uniforms. Because in, like, the women’s 1500, in a field of 20 athletes, 15 will be wearing the same exact uniform.

Right. Sometimes you can’t actually pick out the individual athletes.
Yeah. Nike already has the Nike ID set up for shoes. I wish they would have, maybe, a small color scheme of, say, five colors that are allowed and then let each athlete go in and ID their uniform the way that they wanted. That would be cool. And then I’d wear that all the time.

This one is from my friend Joe: Have you ever finished a workout and thought, “I should really go back to stepdancing.”?
[Laughs] Sometimes I do think that after some of those monotonous, really boring workouts. I think, “It would be so fun to be dancing again.” You get to learn a routine and have music, and it’s so energetic and lively. So there are times when I miss that creative aspect. But not so much from workouts where I’ve been so trashed that I didn’t want to run anymore. Usually after that I just go home and melt into my bed.

You struggled with injury a few years ago. What were the details of that?
I was diagnosed in April of 2007 with a stress fracture in my left femoral neck.

Hmm. What were your symptoms?
It first started with tightness on the side of my hip. Then it went back into the glute. Then, with that kind of injury, you’ll feel it in your groin, kind of in your adductor.

That’s what I have…
Uh, oh.

I have an injury and I’m convinced that’s what it is. It’s been seven weeks, so I think it’s healing.
I would suggest getting some really good massages and chiropractic work — when I was diagnosed I started getting that twice a week, every week, for, like, three months. In order for me to even get that injury in the first place, all my muscles had just gotten so knotted up and were misfiring. So one of the biggest things for me was getting everything back in alignment so that, once I was healed, I wouldn’t have that same bad pattern.

How long were you unable to run?
After six weeks I started running on an Alter-G treadmill. It was about three months until I ran on the ground.

Did you do any other cross-training during that time?
Yes. I first did swimming, then biking and then elliptical/Alter-G — my doctor kind of saw them as synonymous. That was mainly it. Primarily either bike workouts or Alter-G.

Did you do speedwork equivalents when you were doing elliptical or just steady paces?
I did do workouts. The pool, not so much — it’s more for recovery, like jogging. For the bike, I would do interval workouts there that were harder than some of my running workouts. And then on Alter-G I would do uptempo stuff. The highest intensity work was on the bike, just because there wasn’t the impact or the danger of reinjury.

Did you have trouble accepting the injury mentally?
It was weird, because I’d had a period from late February into March where I was injured and unable to run “right,” but was being told by my trainer that it was just tendonitis or something. So I should be able to run, but I couldn’t. So once I was diagnosed it was actually a relief. “Okay, I’m not crazy. I’m not a wimp.” So once I had that diagnosis and a plan of attack, I was so focused on getting healthy. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be running again, that I wouldn’t be back by the fall, training. So I just powered forward — cautiously — but kept making progress in small steps.

Did you feel that you lost any fitness, or did the cross-training help you maintain — or even gain — fitness?
It was one of the best things that could have ever happened to me. It was extremely hard emotionally. But it gave me a separation from college. It pushed me towards my new coach. It forced me to sit down and study where my weaknesses were biomechanically and across the board — and really fix all of those problems. It really set the foundation from which I could move forward in my professional career. Maybe I lost a little bit of fitness base from not running for that many months. But I think I gained general strength that I’d never had before.

A lot of the European races this year were ridiculously crowded.
Yes.

I’m curious to know how you deal mentally and strategically with a race of, say, 20 people vs. something more manageable in size.
It is a little bit frustrating. It’s crazy, the difference that even three extra athletes can make. That being said, I have no control over the entries in a race, so when it is a really packed field, I just try and do my best to get out, get into a good position, and just be very aware of what’s going on. I fell once at Worlds last year, which was more of a trip than a stumble. I think my dancing background helps me stay on me feet. I try to just defend my space and get myself into a good, clear position. Also, I think it’s important to be relaxed when you’re in these big crowds. Because if you start getting frantic, then that’s when falls happen, that’s when you get into trouble. So I usually just try to “go to a Zen space” or something [Laughs].

It seems like a lot can go wrong very quickly at those speeds.
There were falls in multiple races this year. It definitely was not a clean season. It was frustrating with the 1500. I would always get so jealous of the men’s races because they would have David Krummenacker perfectly pacing every single 1500 that was raced. [In our races] every single rabbit would go out in 61 and then run 66 for the second lap or something. So, it was kind of challenging for that race to have a good one. But it’s good practice, because the Championship races are always tactical, so getting better and better at that [is important]. And you can really only get good at that through practice.

And they’re rough races sometimes.
Yeah, they’re also good practice for that. I try to, in general, be a nice, friendly person. But the more I get into these tactical races, the more I can get good at just defending my space. Not being a jerk, not being aggressive just to be aggressive — but learning how to keep other people from taking advantage of me. As I’ve gotten more adjusted to it, I think I’ve developed more confidence in myself to not let other people push you around, like when they try to guide you or take over your space. Usually you can see ahead of time if it looks like someone’s going to impede your space, and you can just tap them or make a little noise to let them know that you’re there. But it’s about protecting the little space that you’re in.

Have agents complained to the organizers about the size of the fields?
I think a lot of the field sizes come as a result of the agents. A lot of the agents are pushing to get a dollar or two out of having one or two more of their athletes in a race. They’re hoping to get something from the prize purse. So there’s still some work to be done to figure out how to make these races a little bit more fair in size.

How do you get yourself through really tough workouts?
I remember a workout in Mexico — a tempo run at altitude in the hot sun — where I was making a deal with myself in my own head as I was finishing the workout and feeling exhausted. “Okay, body, just get through this and I will give you a great lunch afterwards, we’ll take an ice bath…” Bizarre, neurotic deals you make with yourself.

It sounds like, from a professional standpoint, you want to stay involved in running once you finish your competitive career.
When I studied film I was really interested in the production aspect of things. Had I not gone into running I think I would have done further schooling to try and get an MFA to work in film production. But because film and running are mutually exclusive, that’s kind of taken a backseat. But I enjoy multimedia and media — and being a distance runner, you’re kind of Type A — I enjoy being involved in a project from many angles. And so I think when I finish with competition [I'd like to] be involved in some sort of role of helping to promote the sport and getting to have a hand in many things.

Do you see yourself as a “behind the scenes” person or someone who’s out front, like a spokesperson?
I could see myself doing either or both. I like the behind the scenes, organization, making things happen [role]. But I also really enjoy getting out and getting to talk to people and hearing from them. That interaction is really important. So ideally I’d get to do a little bit of both.

I know last night you co-hosted a fundraising event by the Young Professionals to raise money for the youth programs that NYRR runs.
It’s a group in their late-twenties to mid-thirties. It was so cool to walk into a fundraising event and see a crowd that was so young — see my peers already starting to “give back.” I think that’s really important and it was really neat to see that.

You seem like a fairly outgoing person. Are you comfortable playing that role? The public aspect of competitive running is something that you wouldn’t necessarily think of when you start out.
You know, I’m excited by it. When I first started — you know, I came from a dancing background, where you had to learn a routine, and then practice it and get it down. In high school and college, we had to do some extra stuff, but it was pretty straightforward [running]. I found it not very stimulating mentally. Once I started with Coach [John] Cook, there were more drills and things like that to work on that I enjoyed. And finally, as I’ve been doing this, to have more opportunities to speak to people, to challenge myself mentally — I fell in love with the sport even more, because the mental aspect comes into it. I feel like I can be doing my career and being a complete person rather than just a runner.

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