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.

Khannouchis to split as couple, remain intact as coach and athlete

I wrote this press release with some sadness a few weeks back. But I will say that theirs is the friendliest divorce I’ve ever seen. I will have more coming on Khalid Khannouchi very soon.

————

December 6, 2010

New York, NY — American marathon record-holder Khalid Khannouchi and Sandra Khannouchi, his coach and manager of 16 years, have announced that they will be divorcing amicably later this year. The couple met at a road race in 1994 and a year later began working together as coach and runner. They married in 1996. The couple will continue their working alliance. Both are relocating from Ossining, NY to Colorado Springs, CO this month.

Ms. Khannouchi, who will keep her married name for professional reasons, coached Mr. Khannouchi to successes including four Chicago marathon titles, the standing American record at the 2002 London Marathon, and numerous course records at shorter distances.

“No one can coach me better than Sandra can,” said Mr. Khannouchi. “So it makes sense that if I want to finish out my career on a high note, she is the person I should work with to get there.”

Mr. Khannouchi, who placed fourth in the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials, has been recovering and training through a series of surgeries to resolve a chronic injury issue. He expects to be racing again in the coming months.

Healthy Kidney 10K: Khannouchi’s Comeback

As promised, here’s the second report on my journalistic gatecrashing exercise. In this installment, I share what I learned from talking with Khalid Khannouchi and with his wife, Sandra Inoa, who is also his coach and agent.

I was so involved in yammering with Patrick Smyth about altitude training that I didn’t notice Khannouchi had come in. But I did sense people drifting away from our table and eventually figured out why they were flocking to the other side of the room: the comeback story had arrived. I joined them a few minutes into their session.

If you don’t follow elite running, or your exposure to it has been very recent, you probably have no idea who Khalid Khannouchi is. Khannouchi is a Moroccan-born runner (he became an American citizen in 2000) who got on the radar by winning gold for the 5000m at the World University Games in 1993. But he gradually moved up in distance over subsequent years, establishing himself as a world class marathoner in the late 1990′s.

His marathoning career began with a bang: he ran a 2:07:01 in Chicago (a race he would go on to win three more times) in 1997, which was then the world’s fastest marathon debut time. It was also (again, at the time), the fourth fastest marathon ever run. But, as it turns out, Khannouchi was just getting started. Over the next few years, he managed to lower that time in four out of his next seven marathons. His best was a 2:05:38 in London in 2002, a time that still stands as the American record.*

Then, later in 2002, Khannouchi’s fortunes turned. He began to experience problems in his left foot, which would plague him for years an cut short his training for the 2008 Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials race in Central Park. Despite that, Khannouchi finished fourth, securing a spot as the team’s alternate in Beijing. After that, he ran just one more race, the Steamboat Classic in Peoria, IL, a four miler held in June, in which he would place ninth.

Surgery, followed by rehab
Khannouchi has had several surgeries on his foot and he’s hoping the most recent one, which was performed a little over a year ago, will be the one that solves his problem once and for all. When asked about the details of the surgery, he began to describe it, then leaned down and took off his shoe and sock to show rather than tell. There were his scars: one to remove a bunion and another along the top lateral instep to remove a bone spur. (Khannouchi has very attractive feet for a runner, by the way.)

Completing the rehab package are two custom made orthotics, with the left one being completely different in form and appearance from the right one. He has two sets of orthotics, one for running and one for just walking around. It took three months to arrive at the right structural formula for them. He’d get a pair, try them out, report back and then try a new pair that had been tweaked.

In the meantime, he was cross-training on a stationary bike, doing a lot of pool running and testing the waters with some jogging on the roads. He’s only been running again, after a complete post-surgery layoff from road running, for about six months.

Although he occasionally trains with his brother (I don’t know which one; he has several), Khannouchi usually trains alone, doing his track workouts at Sleepy Hollow High School’s track, trail running in Rockefeller State Park and sometimes doing a run in Central Park, where he is often recognized.

Baby steps, starting in Central Park on Saturday
What Khannouchi wanted to make perfectly clear was that the Healthy Kidney event was not meant to be a competitive race for him. He had no expectations of winning. Instead, this was a trial run to test everything out. Could he run fast and hard on pavement without pain? Could he race up and down hills? Could he push himself? These were the questions he was looking to answer on Saturday. He needed a competitive race for this experiment, and Healthy Kidney seemed like a good place to start: it’s in his backyard, he’d have competition around him and he could count on the full support of NYRR.

When asked about what other plans he had for his burgeoning comeback attempt, Khannouchi said he planned to do two more 10Ks this summer as similar, iterative tests: the Atlanta Peachtree race in July and Maine’s Beach to Beacon race in August. I went over to talk to Inoa about these races, since I figured she was the brains behind the plan. And she was. But first, she rolled her eyes and laughed when I asked about the two races. “He told you about Peachtree and Beach to Beacon?” she asked, looking a little exasperated. (As it turns out, Peachtree was already out there, but I don’t know if he was supposed to mention Beach to Beacon; a note to them post interview to inquire resulted in permission to publish their plans to go to Maine here).

Khannouchi didn’t do any 10K specific training for this race, primarily because he can’t. Because of his foot, he can’t run 200-400m track repeats, but, as he said, “You don’t need those for the marathon.” The 10K is a distance that’s long enough to reveal any lingering issues, but short enough to race frequently. I gathered that it’s also a distance that will allow Khannouchi to return to the races/courses in Georgia and Maine, where he’s done well and gotten organizational support in the past.

Two more tests, then a decision
Inoa has him running around 70 miles per week at this point. The plan is to gradually ramp up the mileage and intensity of training over the summer, using the two 10K road races to similarly test how he’s handling the load. A hard race will accomplish two things: for one, it will provide a “stress test” from which the couple can gather information about how his body is holding up to the ever increasing demands; for another, it will show whether he’s making absolute progress in terms of speed. If he’s going to compete at any distance, he needs to get faster.

Which brings me to another interesting facet of this story. Khannouchi is 38 years old. That’s not young for a male marathoner. Yet he is making a comeback in the open category, not as a masters runner. He wants to compete against everyone, not just his Age Group peers. Making a statement like that will almost certainly open him up to a wave of criticism and naysaying, which makes it all the more compelling that he’s saying it. As a side note, Khannouchi mentioned Meb Keflezighi’s comeback from what many had declared a dead career as an inspiration and galvanizing influence on his own decision to give competitive marathoning another go.

Anyway, the idea is that by the time he runs that third 10K race, he should be in or approaching full marathon training mode, meaning up to 110-120 mile weeks again. Beach to Beacon is going to be Sink or Swim, in a sense. That race should reveal his level of readiness to take on the full marathon at the competitive level he expects of himself. If he’s not ready, they’ll back off from their plans and reevaluate. If he is ready, then it’s full speed ahead.

Learning to be patient
At one point I asked Khannouchi about recovery time. I prefaced the question by saying that, since I’m a few years older than he is, I felt I could ask him this: “As you’ve gotten into your late thirties, do you find you need more recovery time? What about entire recovery weeks?”

His answer was that he did need a lot more recovery time and that it was not unusual to take workouts that he used to cram into one week when he was younger and spread them out over two weeks. But he does not take entire “down weeks.” Inoa just keeps his workload at a reasonable level throughout the training cycle.

Still, now that he’s running well again, Inoa has to rein him in. As she told me, “He’s been frustrated because he wants to jump back in and run fast workouts.” She has to hold him back and remind him that the focus right now is on regaining his fitness while avoiding injury. That means being patient.

Race day success
I spotted Khannouchi well behind the lead pack at mile 1.5 of the race, but holding up well. He was running fast and looked good. There was no sign of pain on his face, hitches in his stride or any other indicators of something being amiss. For a non-competitive effort, he still placed in a respectable 21st place, a little under three minutes off his best for the distance. He looked genuinely happy when he crossed the finish line.

I caught up with him after the race in the media area, where he was getting a massage. We chatted for a few minutes about how the race went. Here’s a transcript of our exchange:

Me: You looked really good at mile 1.5. You looked smooth and relaxed.

KK: I felt good throughout the race.

Me: So how was it?

KK: It was hard. First race in three years. I mean, it’s not going to come easy, but we felt like it was a good effort and it was very exciting to be out there. I feel like I pushed hard and, 30:30 or so — for a first race in three years, that’s a good time. Well, something promising. Not a good time, but something that we can build on.

Me: So you feel it was successful in terms of what you wanted to achieve?

KK: Just by being here it was a success. Like I said [yesterday], we talk about the fear of having injury in my mind. Just by being here it feels like I’m motivated to start all over again. It’s not going to be easy, right? We know that. So at least it was a start, and it was good.

Me: So no twinges?

KK: No, I’m going for a cooldown now, and [pointing to left foot] it feels good.

Me: I was talking with Sandra yesterday about how, if you don’t race for awhile, you can sort of forget how to race, how to pace yourself. Did you feel any of that today?

KK: Yeah, sure. Not only that, but you lose the rhythm, you lose the impact with the ground, you lose a lot of things that we have to work on. We need to improve everything little by little. It’s not going to come in a day or in a race or two. But it’s going to take patience and it’s going to take hard work and it’s going to take also, you know…the people around you have to be people that can motivate you, people that, in a bad time, will come to you and support you. I think all that stuff has to be together in order for us to make a comeback or do better or improve.

Me: And how was the crowd support? Did people recognize you and cheer you on?

KK: There was big support. I was very impressed. I always come down and do my running here when I have to get therapy in the city and people do recognize me. But there was more [of a] crowd today and there was more support. I was thrilled to run in front of them. It wasn’t what I usually run. It was, you know, more than two minutes off my personal best.

Me: Can I check in with you after Peachtree?

KK: Yes, of course! We’ll update you with what’s going on. I’m hoping it will be good news.

Me: Based on today, I think it will be.

*When I asked him which American marathoner he thought had a chance of breaking his record, he diplomatically demurred and went off on a tangent about things needing to go perfectly on race day. The guy certainly knows how to give an interview without getting himself into hot water.

Healthy Kidney 10K: The Front Runners

In which I gatecrash a function meant for actual journalists

Yesterday marked by first foray into something resembling running journalism. I joined Steve Lastoe, who founded and runs NYCruns.com at the Warwick Hotel in midtown, where we met with several members of the elite field for today’s Healthy Kidney 10K run for a series of interviews.

I should point out here and now that I am totally unqualified to interview anyone about anything. I have no journalism background whatsoever. But I know how to research people, ask questions and write about the answers. I’m already flailing down this road with my Houston Hopefuls project with completely unwarranted confidence. Why stop there? I figured I’d give this a whirl for the experience.

Anyone who knows me will note that I am somewhat shy and very soft-spoken. These are not helpful qualities for an aspiring journalist, a field that tends to favor aggressively nosey loudmouths. But sometimes it’s easier to do something new when you’ve got a clear role, and yesterday I had one. I just had to remember to relax, speak up, and hit “record” at the right time.

Steve (who’d I’d never met until five minutes before the conference) and I had collaborated via email on doing pre-conference research on most of the runners who were there. We ran out of time on others, including the winner of the race, Gebre Gebremariam. I’m sure if we’d done some handicapping that wouldn’t have happened, but live and learn.

Since I started following track and field seriously a few years ago, I’ve always found its lack of popularity hard to accept. But yesterday I saw the upside of such systemic indifference: namely, that a nobody like me can turn up at something like this, offer the lamest of explanations for my being there (“I’m a blogger and I thought it would be interesting to talk to these guys.”) and still be welcomed with coffee, pastries and, best of all, unfettered access to some of the world’s top male runners for well over two hours.

In which my suspicions about elite runners are all confirmed

By and large, most runners are friendly, down-to-earth individuals. That’s why I like them. And you know what? The elites are no different in this respect. These people didn’t know me from a bucket of rocks and yet they were still willing to sit there and answer my questions, more often than not offering up smart, articulate answers.

The highlights

I’ve got well over two hours of poor quality audio. I won’t inflict that on you, but I will pull out some of the highlights from yesterday. As previously noted, I didn’t speak with the man who would go on to win the race, Gebremariam. But the five others more than made up for that lapse. My time talking with a sixth, Khalid Khannouchi — and his wife, Sandra, (who is also his coach and agent) — warrants its own post, which I’ll put up soon.

Peter Kamais (Kenya)
Kamais, 33, won the NYC Half in March by quite a wide margin. He also placed fifth in the highly competitive World’s Best 10K this year, which is always run in horribly hot and humid conditions in Puerto Rico. His time there was 27:54. This is important to note because today’s race featured a $20,000 bonus to the man who could not only win but also break the course record of 27:48. He has run 27:09 on a flat course (Tilburg, Holland in 2009). That was on the road, not the track. In other words, this man has invisible wings on his feet.

Get to know him:

  • Kamais is self coached and has always been self coached. He trains with a group in Iten, Kenya and runs with others much of the time, but he plans out his training and runs his own paces when he needs to.
  • He says he makes adjustments to his training often, based on how he feels from day to day. He does not push things on days when he’s not feeling up to doing a hard workout.
  • He loves racing hills.
  • When asked who he felt was the biggest threat in this race, he said it was Boaz Cheboiywo. But I suspect he may have said that because the man who would ultimately win today (and break the course record), Gebre Gebremariam, was sitting a few feet away within earshot.
  • His goal for the Healthy Kidney race this year was 27:45. More on that below.
  • He’s going to start training for his first marathon in August. He’s not sure which one he wants to choose as his debut race.
  • When I asked him which Kenyan marathoner he felt would be his biggest rival — the person he wanted to beat at that distance — he told us it was Paul Tergat.

Quote:
“If you’re going to run the marathon, you have to run more miles.”

Place, time, pace today:
2nd, 27:49 (4:29)

I did a run in the opposite direction so I could spot the elites (and others I knew who were running) in the early miles, then be at the finish line for the race’s conclusion. I saw the elites come through just shy of the 1.5 mark and Kamais was in the lead, but barely. Gebremariam was one step behind him and Kamais kept looking back at him.

I gather that most of the race unfolded in this fashion, with Gebremariam then making a break past the five mile mark. He came in at 27:42, besting Tadese Tola’s 27:48 and securing a $20,000 bonus. Kamais shut down in the last few strides and jogged through in 27:49. Had he not done that, he could have beaten the 2009 record, but not the 2010 time. And that was all that mattered this morning.

Collis Birmingham (Australia)
Birmingham, 25, has raced once before in New York at the 2009 Fifth Avenue Mile, where he ran 3:53.9. He represented his country in the 5K in Beijing. He’s run a 27:29 for 10K on the track, which is the current national record. He, along with his colleague, Ben St. Lawrence (below), are gearing up for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India in the fall. He considers himself a specialist at the 5K distance.

Get to know him:

  • At the Penn relays, in which he was running the first leg (1200m), Birmingham lost his shoe in the first 200. He finished the leg in 2:54.9 but then had to take a week off because he’d completely torn up his foot in the process.
  • He trains for approximately 10 weeks a year in Falls Creek, Victoria, at altitude. He’s also training in Laguna, California, near San Diego, which is at about the same altitude: roughly 6000 ft.
  • He’ll be doing the 5K at the Prefontaine Classic this summer.
  • Birmingham ran at university after a short period as an apprentice carpenter. Now he wishes he’d taken the opportunity to run for a university in the States to take advantage of the collegiate system, which is stronger in terms of runner support than what’s available from Australian universities.
  • Birmingham has gotten some help from the Victorian Institute of Sport, which offers physical services such as massage. Otherwise, as in this country, athletes are on their own to make a living aside from whatever sponsorship they can secure from shoe companies.

Quote:
“We’re not afraid of the hills.”

Place, time, pace today:
14th, 29:16 (4:43)

Ben St. Lawrence (Australia)
St. Lawrence, 28, also considers himself a 5K specialist, although he was 2nd in the Australian 10K championships last year. He ran 13:25.9 at Mt. SAC last year as well as 28:05.8 on the track, also last year.

Get to know him:

  • Upcoming races include the 3K in Ostrava, Czech Republic (his debut European race), followed by 5Ks in France and Sweden.
  • St. Lawrence ran while at university, but then decided to take a year off. That year turned into 5+ years. He got back into the game about four years ago.
  • He works full-time for ING in the HR department. The company has given him 10 weeks vacation this year to accommodate his racing schedule.
  • Does a fair amount of training on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). He enjoys trail running and says he could be interested in doing a trail race or ultra marathon, but the race season for that conflicts with the Australian track season, so he hasn’t pursued it.

Quotes:
On why he got back into competitive running:
“I guess to start with, it was just to get fit and healthy again. And then I was actually a spectator at our last Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and saw a few Aussies out there running and just decided that I’d rather be out there running than sitting in the stands spectating.”

On whether they ever see wild animals on the PCT:
“You see a few coyotes. And turkeys. Sometimes we’re a little worried about the turkey hunters.” [Pauses in a moment of reflection.] We don’t look like turkeys.”

Place, time, pace today:
7th, 28:36 (4:36)

Bobby Curtis (USA)
Curtis, 25, was the 2008 NCAA 5K champion and has placed well at the World Cross Country Championships (37th in 2009 and 48th this year), considering the formidable competition from Kenya and Ethiopia. He hit his personal best at the 10K (27:33.4) just two weeks ago on the track at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational at Stanford.

Get to know him:

  • Thinks that running can potentially offer greater financial success than other, more traditional avenues might. If it doesn’t go well, he still considers that he’d have gotten an enriching experience from the competition and travel.
  • Has a master’s degree in public policy from William & Mary. He’ll probably go into finance, having gotten a job offer in that area, should pro running not prove lucrative enough. But he also hopes to make contacts in running and do something with that professionally when he’s done racing competitively.
  • He was realistic about his chances in the race today, acknowledging that the pace guys like Kamais would likely set would have him running outside of his current capabilities.
  • In terms of his future racing “wish list” he thinks perhaps a NYC marathon might be in his future, along with some Diamond League meets and perhaps the Great Ethiopia Run where “shopkeepers in Ethiopia run something like 27:50.”

Quote:
When asked about Josh Cox doing Comrades and whether he considers taking on an ultra race:
“I guess if you’re into something like that, that’s the best race to do it. It’s a very prestigious race. Best of luck to him. But you’ll never see me out there.”

Place, time, pace today:
22nd, 30:39 (4:56)

Patrick Smyth (USA)
Smyth, 23, bears a striking resemblance to Adam Ant (without the makeup) and is probably too young to know who Adam Ant is. His track 10K PR is 28:25.9. He placed 2nd in the USA Half Marathon championships in January with a time of 1:02:01. He trains with Team USA Minnesota/Nike.

Get to know him:

  • Smyth felt like an underdog in college and continues to feel that way. His focus is now on making a name for himself by, as he put it, “surprising people in road races.”
  • He loves the half marathon distance and wants to move up to the full marathon distance, as that’s where he feels his future is.
  • Didn’t get signed on for sponsorship out of college, so he was all set to start grad school in Chicago for a master’s in social sciences, with a focus on history. Then he started to flourish in road races last fall and has ended up deferring entry in that program until such time as it becomes obvious that professional running isn’t going to work out. So far, that hasn’t happened.
  • He’s making a living, much of it off of the US road championships (20K, 10 mile, etc.). It keeps him on the radar and keeps the money coming in. But he also can’t pick and choose. He has to compete and try to win money in order to stay afloat; that means sometimes making compromises in terms of how he’d ideally like to lay out a training cycle.
  • Smyth leaves Minnesota in the winter for the friendlier climes of Albuquerque. He has trained at altitude for the past three years and says he’s seen the difference it makes.
  • He enjoyed the NYRR Emerald Nuts run on New Year’s Eve, despite the bad weather, noting the novelty of racing with fireworks going off overhead. Although it was odd to wait around all day to race at midnight and presented logistical challenges, such as figuring out when to eat.

Quote:
When asked about the sudden drop in 10K times amongst Americans like Dathan Ritzenhein and Chris Solinksy and whether it’s changed his outlook on what he can do:
“It’s really more what I have to do to get to that level. That race (Solinsky’s 26:59.6 at Payton Jordan) really kind of objectified where you need to be to be in the mix of guys who are going to make an Olympic team or a World Championship team. So now I’ve got to just set about getting there.”

Place, time, pace today:
12th, 29:03 (4:41)

[Edited: I promised a Khannouchi profile this weekend as well, but I'm going to take some time with that one, so it could be another week or so before I post about him. For now, I'm back to working on my interviews project for the women's 2012 trials.]

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