The American Master: Khalid Khannouchi’s Second Last Chance

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

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

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

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

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

A spectacular ascent, in spite of injuries

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

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

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

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

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

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

The forgotten champion

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

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

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

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

Riding the second wave of American running

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

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

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

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

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

So many dreams, so little time

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

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

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

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

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

Yet so many opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not so easy, making a comeback

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

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

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

A major comeback demands major changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sleeping giant

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

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

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

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

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

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