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

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*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.

A few minutes with Leo Manzano

Leo Manzano, 26, loves his job. And he’s getting much better at it. This year was a watershed year for Manzano, who specializes in the 1500 (and now the 800 as well) — especially on the European racing circuit, where he racked up one PR after another. His string of great races culminated in a 1:44.56 in Berlin followed by a 3:32.37 in Bruxelles less than a week later. That was the third fastest 1500 run by an American this year, behind Lopez Lomong and Andrew Wheating. I came away from this interview with a nickname for Manzano: Mr. Fun.

Can I monopolize your time for a few minutes?
Sure! Let’s do this!

Great! So, your closing speed this summer was really good, putting you right up front in a lot of the European races. Was that something you worked on specifically this year?
My closing speed has always been there. But there was a mental aspect of being able to run with a lot of the African runners. They’re just so tough and so good. I think sometimes as Americans we tend to put barriers on ourselves and we just can’t do it. But it was kind of a progression where I got thrown in with the guys and had to figure some things out about myself — and then mentally that really opened up a lot of doors and the barriers just kind of went away. It was like, “Man, I can run with these guys!” So I started finding myself up toward the front. But I think the speed has always been there.

Was that a realization you had over time or was it a “Eureka” moment?
I think I run really well when I take it back to the basics. That’s what running should be all about: having fun doing it. When you start thinking about times, and who’s going to race, and all this other information that’s really useless…I just want to take it back to the playground, “Let’s go touch the tree, or race to the fence.” Just take it back to those times and make it fun. And all of a sudden you’re not thinking about anything except the running.

Has running always been fun for you?
I’ve always loved it. I used to race with my grandfather back in Mexico. One thing I didn’t like, of course, is that he’d always beat me [laughs]. I’ve always been very competitive, always enjoyed running. This year I hit a little bump in the road, where I was thinking, “Is this really what I want to do? Is this what I like?” Because after awhile, you train so much — it’s all these hours — and am I seeing results? It becomes really tough to stay focused and enjoy it, because of the workload. But after awhile you realize, “I have one of the coolest jobs in the world.” I could be sitting in an office or working construction — doing something that I probably wouldn’t enjoy.

How do you deal with the inevitable plateaus in development and performance?
The lows in the sport help you appreciate the highs. Looking back on The Prefontaine Classic and Monaco — those were horrible races for me. But I felt like I turned it around and made it into a very positive season.

Do you go back and look at recordings of your races, either to analyze them or look for issues with your form, for example?
I definitely go back and look at them to see what was a strong point, or where I could have worked [harder]. But every race is its own race. Even if I were try to come back and have the same race, it’s kind of difficult. You aso have some races where you just don’t want to look at them. And others you think, “Oh, I can look at this race again, rerun it in my mind again.” I don’t tend to analyze a lot. When it comes to my form, I’ve done things with my coach where we’ve filmed and then seen what’s out of place, more for physiotherapy. For example, I sometimes have a nagging knee problem. So we’ll try to figure out what’s causing that – you’re running a certain way or your foot’s coming in a lot. So we’ll try to correct that, whether with exercise or therapy.

What do you have to do besides running? Things like weight work, drills, massage.
With sports massage, I do that and ART. I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody, but I try to get in to see somebody at least once a week, once every two weeks.

Is that to treat niggles that come up? Or is it purely preventive?
It can be a little bit of both. When you’re training at this intensity, at this level, it’s hard to stay there. You’re putting so much stress on your body that sometimes you need to get worked on. Something’s bound to happen.

Do you mind doing these interviews?
I love it. I work off people’s energy. So, I’m like, um…

An extrovert.
Yeah. If I’m around people with really low energy, then I kind of get like that. If you’re a very excited person and there’s a lot of stuff going on, then I’m ready to go. I get very fired up about stuff.

You guys travel around a lot and train in different places: London and Mexico are two places I can think of where you’ve trained. Where’s your favorite place to train?
I don’t think I have a favorite place. But the fact that we move around to different places makes every experience fresh. Meaning when we’re in one place, it gets tedious. But once you move and you change locations, you’ve got a new place to run. You’re changing it up, which makes it that much more fun.

Within those places, like in Mexico, do you always go to the same place in Mexico?
The good thing about that is that we have a variety of places [in that one area]. We try to not always go to the same place. Because after awhile, you’re getting up out bed and going to the same place. It doesn’t make for an adventure. You want to get out and see something new and go somewhere that you haven’t been before.

How do you minimize the stress of travel?
Well, we try to wear compression socks. Your legs get swollen – you get the cankles. The biggest part of keeping stress away is realizing that this is one of the coolest jobs ever. I think I would have a really rough time going back to a 9-5 job. One thing you’ve got to realize is that it’s fun. It’s fun to travel. It’s fun to see new places. And when it comes to the actual competition, in front of anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 people, you don’t need to stress because you’ve already done the work. You’ve already put in the hours and the time. The only thing you’ve got to worry about is just going out there to compete.

Have you thought about what you want to do after your competitive running career is over? Obviously not work in an office.
There’s a couple things that I’ve thought about. I’m not totally sure just yet. First things first is that I’ve got to focus on my next couple years. Really get down to the grind with that.

Meaning the World Championships and then the Olympics?
Yeah. And, really, I know that our lifespan for running is not that long. I may have six, maybe a maximum of ten, more years of competitive running. I know that I’ve got to take every opportunity that I can and really try to enjoy it to the fullest.

When you’ve got goals that are that far away, is it difficult to stay motivated?
It is a little bit difficult. But you always have something every year that you put in front of you. For example, this year was kind of an off year, so there wasn’t much going on in terms of a World Championship or an Olympics as the main events. But you start looking at different races in different countries, where you get to travel. On top of that, it is a job. But even though it’s a job, you’ve got to have fun with it.

And you’ve had a great year. You really seem to be hitting your stride at your chosen distance. Do you want to stay there for awhile or are you looking to move up to longer distances?
I don’t see myself moving up. If anything, this year I ran 800s more.

What was that like?
Man, it was amazing. That’s the first word that popped into my head: amazing. I loved it. It’s not like the 1500 where you’re more in a rhythm; you’re thinking a lot more about strategy, whatever that may be. The 800′s more about – you step onto the line, you run the first 200 meters, and then all of a sudden you just hold on for dear life. The next thing you know, it’s over. So in the blink of an eye, it’s done. You don’t really think about it. You just go.

How do you pace an 800?
With me, I don’t have the “get out” speed that a lot of the other guys have. A lot of the guys just take off from the gun and really get out. They probably go through in 23-24 seconds for the first 200 meters. I usually hang back a little bit and come through in 25-26. After that it’s kind of like a freight train. All of sudden, they’re getting weaker and I’m either staying the same or picking up. That’s where my bread and butter is – I’m suddenly at the front feeling very strong and starting to pass people. It’s just a good thing.

What else do you do for fun?
I love coffee, actually. One of the things I really like doing is hanging out with my friends in coffee shops and just doing what you and I are doing here. Just talking. I love talking.

I heard you mention a foundation that you’re starting up. What’s that about?
It’s hard to narrow it down because there are so many things I want to do and so many things I get excited about. Two things that come to mind: the first is health promotion, health education — aimed at youth. But not just for youth, everybody, really. I think that’d be a lot of fun. And then the other idea is to help people who can’t afford to get citizenship. I went through that process and became a citizen in 2004. I have a friend who helps people with the process. Sometimes it’s very difficult for people to apply for citizenship and to pay for it. There are single mothers out there who would have a hard time affording it — it’s something like $675 to apply.

I imagine a lot of them would need additional legal help as well.
Yeah, exactly.

So are you looking to raise money to connect people who want to become citizens with people who can help them do that?
I’m not really sure on the details just yet. But it would definitely be something along those lines. For people who can’t afford it, I’d like to help them out.

You should open an office in Arizona — and change those laws.
Yeah, I’m not going to comment on that [laughs]. It’s a very touchy subject, and probably something I don’t need to be getting into.

I understand. It’s a good idea. I wish you luck.
Thanks!

A few minutes with Morgan Uceny

Morgan Uceny, 25, runs the 1500 and 800 and trains with Terrence Mahon’s group in Mammoth Lakes, CA. A former basketball player (she’s pretty tall, even sitting down), she went on to place fourth in the 1500 and sixth in the 800 at the the 2008 Olympic Trials. This year she won the USA Indoor Championships with a 4:19.46, among other distinctions. Her personal bests are 4:02.10 and 1:58.67. If 2008 was the breakout year for American women in the 1500, then 2010 has been the year for American women to make big gains in the 800. Uceny has been among those leading the charge.

What do you think of the Caster Semenya controversy?
It’s obviously a tough question. I don’t think there’s a right answer for that. It’s just a really tough situation. I think there’s some unfairness in the playing field. I haven’t ever seen anyone make the progression that she has. So it just seems like something else is going on that’s unfair for the rest of the playing field. No one knows what’s going on. There’s no information, so that just makes it more frustrating for the everybody involved.

How do you deal with the stress of traveling to all those races on the European circuit — things like logistics, jet lag, nutrition — how do you keep all that from impacting your performance?
Some people are terrible with traveling. I happen to be lucky. I don’t get jetlagged; I can adapt to the new timezone overnight. It doesn’t really stress me out. Now I’m usually traveling with my coach or also with my teammates. That really helps alleviate the stress, because I’m with a group — if you don’t really know where you’re going, someone else does. So it’s really not that bad anymore.

Do you get a chance to enjoy the places that your visiting, or are you just flying through them and running and that’s it?
Switzerland’s one of my favorite countries. But when we were in Zurich we were near the airport and didn’t really have a way to get into town. So I didn’t really get to see anything, which was frustrating. But in other places I’ve had a couple days where I could take a day trip. I was in Italy two years ago and went to Venice for the day. So, it’s better in some places than others. But I think you do need to make an effort to get out of the hotel and see what’s around you. That just makes you enjoy the experience that much more.

In the past few years it seems like the paces set for the the Grand Prix races have been set up to be very fast. Was that the case again this year?
Yes, it’s still the case. I had maybe one unpaced race at Gateshead, the 1500. And, honestly, it’s great to get out there and know that you’re going to have a fast pace. So it’s a good opportunity to run fast. But I think our sport is relying too much on pacers these days. I think we need to have more races without pacers. It’s more exciting when you just have a race. It’s not just people lined up, trying to run a certain time.

Is European racing as rough and tumble as they say it is?
Yes and no. If you look at the American runners, people are aggressive. But it is different in Europe. People will be, like, pushing your hip. Or there’s all this jockeying going on.

Sometimes it looks like the American runners are just trying to stay out of the way, whereas the European and African runners seem to be, as you say, almost trying to guide people. I imagine it’s kind of a shock the first time you experience it.
Right. When you get into those races you can kind of tell who’s in control. It’s kind of distracting, though, meaning it takes your mind off the pain. You’re watching your space and making sure someone’s not trying to cut you off. It’s kind of like a game when you’re out there.

Do you think that to race middle distances you have to have an exceptionally high pain threshold? It’s an unusual level of pain compared to something like the marathon.
But, see, with the marathon — that’s pain for a long time. The 1500 is even different from running the 800. It’s painful, but you’re running the first couple laps and thinking, “Oh, this is okay.” Then it starts slowly creeping in, the lactic acid. By the end, it’s really painful. It’s a little different for each event. But our workouts are usually harder, so you’re callousing yourself to those pain levels. It’s always painful, but at the end of the day it’s worth it when you have a good performance.

What do you do for fun?
Living in Mammoth Lakes, CA — it’s one of these beautiful outdoor towns. We’ll go on little hikes, or fishing or paddleboating. Or maybe we’ll just all sit around and play board games or card games. It’s sort of like we’re all living senior citizen lifestyles sometimes. “We’re gonna play Uno tonight? I’m so excited!” Alistair Cragg and I got a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and we thought, “This is going to take us so long. It’ll be great to have something to distract us…” And it was done in four days.

What you do then is flip the puzzle over and do it upside down.
[Laughs and looks incredulous]

Have you ever tried snowshoe running?
I haven’t.

It’s really hard.
It’s like walking, right?

Yes. I respect snowshoe racers.
[Looks incredulous again] They race?

Yeah. It’s really big in New Hampshire.
I feel like your hip flexors would be so stressed. What distances to they do? All distances?

The national championships are usually 10K and 5K.
Have you done it?

I ran in snowshoes a couple of times and it wasn’t for me.
Just enough to earn their respect. Anyone who does that…

I already feel slow enough. I didn’t need that.
[Laughs]

Houston Hopefuls go all Hollywood on us

Okay, not really. No battles for movie rights yet. But I will be appearing with some of these amazing runners on Wednesday, October 20th on The Runners Round Table podcast. The tentative list includes: Julie Wankowski, Tammy Lifka, Jaymee Marty, Jen Hitchings and Lori Kingsley. To listen in, register at TalkShoe.com ahead of time. The show number is: 34812

More info here: RRT 103: Houston Hopefuls

Congratulations, Jaymee.

For those who may have missed it, inaugural Houston Hopeful Jaymee Marty just qualified for the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials this morning in Chicago.

Many of us among her virtual fan base sat glued to our monitors this morning, frantically hitting “Refresh” every 19-20 minutes to get her 5K splits. She faked us out with some slight slowing in the last few miles. What a drama queen. Final time: 2:45:09.

Having followed Jaymee’s blog for a couple of years, and been the beneficiary of more than one helpful and encouraging comment and email, I am over the moon today with her accomplishment. I hope she savored the moment at the finish line, as this was an achievement both hard won and well deserved.

Joe has posted the anxiety-ridden blow by blow from the Facebook peanut gallery who were tracking Jaymee’s splits.

New Houston Hopeful Interview: Julie Wankowski

“Don’t sweat the small stuff; focus on your goals; take it day by day; and never doubt that you can do it.”

If these aren’t words fit to live by, then I give up.

Houston Hopefuls > Julie Wankowski

New Houston Hopeful interview: Tamara Karrh

Tamara embodies a kind of runner that I was just talking about yesterday with Coach Sandra: she is a runner who has moved her status from recreational to elite without losing her love of running in the process. Once you step up training and start having to work it around other life commitments — of which Tamara has many, including four young kids — it’s easy to start to experience training as a grind, a burden. As Tamara says, “A lot of it is just the love of it. I love the training…it’s something that I thoroughly enjoy and look forward to each and every day.”

I should note that Tamara is no longer technically a “hopeful”: she qualified for the Trials with a 2:40:22 last fall. This weekend she’s going for the A standard, a 2:39:00 or better.

For the full interview: Houston Hopefuls > Tamara Karrh

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