“You never know who will show up here.”
The San Diego Track Club was just finishing its final workout of the year under Coach Paul Greer — 15 X 300 meters — when former marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi arrived at the San Diego High School track just after 7p.m. his left hand swaddled in bandages.
”I cut my hand this afternoon,” he explained, “and had to go have five stitches put in.”
Khalid was in town visiting his old friend and mentor Tracy Sundlun,vice president of Competitor Group, purveyors of the Rock `n` Roll series of races. Tracy had helped establish Khalid after the Moroccan-born runner emigrated to the USA following his win in the 5000 meters at the 1993 World University Games in Buffalo. At the time Sundlun served as head of the MAC, the Metropolitan Athletics Congress, regional running federation for the New York City metro area.
But this trip west from his home in Ossining, New York wasn’t simply a friendly visit or a break from the cold and ice back east for the U.S. record holder and four-time Chicago Marathon champion.
Since his retirement from running last year Khannouchi has become involved with Nordic Chip, a Swedish timing platform company that was in San Diego to make a presentation to Sundlun with an eye toward the lucrative CGI timing contract that involves over 30 events domestically. A group from the company headquarters in Sweden was on hand setting up its new overhead chip-reading system, while the San Diego Track Club runners were being used as guinea pigs to test the efficacy of the system at different heights above the track.
“In this day and age of really good technical people there are always new entrants into the market,” said Tracy as he watched the timing rig be ratcheted higher with each passing 300-meter interval. “This system is a little different than the ones used in the U.S. It has made a good impression in Europe with people I have confidence in. So we are putting it through some tests out here to see how high the chip reader can be raised before it loses the ability to read the bib-mounted chips.”
While other timing platforms like Chrono Track, MYLAPS, and IPICO use ground level technology, Nordic Chip has come up with a chip-reader than can be mounted over start and finish lines, and mid-race split locations.
“I don’t mean to imply that we are making a switch,” cautioned Sundlun. “We underwent a similar process a few years ago that moved us to Chrono Track, and we were the first to utilize that platform when the landscape was led by Champion Chip.”
The idea would be to integrate the overhead chip readers into current start and finish line structures rather than laying mats over wires on the ground.
“Every system has its strengths and weaknesses from a timing and logistical perspective. So we are just looking to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives.”
For the last 300-meter interval the reader was raised to a height of 13-feet, and the readings were still coming through cleanly.
“…AMERICANS ARE AFRAID TO TAKE A RISK…”
It was a busy pre-Christmas night at the San Diego High School track. Not only was the San Diego Track Club on hand along with the Nordic Chip team, but so too was 2nd Recess, the innovative children’s activity program started by local runners Natasha Lebeaud and Marco Anzures. They took to the infield after the San Diego High School girls soccer team took the measure of Chula Vista High 4-0. And on the far side of the track Toya Reavis (the wife) was putting a group of her TReavisFitness clients through a demanding circuit training session, as well.
“20 of them, Andrew! 20 of them, Holly! High knees next!”
Perhaps 150 runners of all ages ringed the track, with the top runners coming through their 300-meter intervals at an average of 46-48 seconds. But, the vast majority of runners were much slower than that, and it led me to ask Khalid his impression of the current marathon scene, given that he officially remains the fastest American ever over the classic distance.
“There is a huge difference now,” he began as fans lined up for photos and small chats. “It’s been a big improvement, more than two minutes better than my best (2:05:38, London 2002). Basically you are looking at Kenyans and Ethiopians training so hard, and young athletes coming into the marathon hungry and with an attitude toward running fast. It’s not a mystery event anymore.”
When I mention that 89 of the top 100 marathon times in 2013 had come from the two East African nations of Kenya (55) and Ethiopia (34), but no longer are the top marathoners graduating from the ranks of track stars like his contemporaries Haile Gebreselassie and Paul Tergat did, Khalid stood up for his generation’s approach.
“I think we did it the right way. People like Haile and Tergat ran cross country and track, and steadily moved up from 1500 to 3000 to 5000 before going to the marathon. We did it the old school way, and we had long careers. Now nobody pays attention to cross country or track.
“There is also a greater emphasis today on running world records. We used to run more tactical races. Plus, so many Kenyans and Ethiopians train together, it gives them a lot of confidence. ‘I just did 20 miles with this guy. I think I can race with him, too.’ So you do see a big improvement. The question is how long can they last?
Predominantly a road racer from 1994 to 1996, Khannouchi took up the marathon in 1997, winning Chicago in 2:07:10, the marathon debut record at the time. Three more Chicago titles followed, two world records, including the epic 2:05:38 win in London 2002 over Geb and Tergat, which still stands as the American record. Khalid’s final test over the distance came in New York in November 2007 where he finished fourth at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon after a series of foot injuries hobbled his preparation.
“To see an athlete (Dennis Kimetto) with just three years of experience running 2:03 is very surprising,” he continued. “But youth has a lot of power, and they can train harder and recover faster. But if you look at the number of runners who train for the marathon over there, it’s actually only a small percentage that succeeds; you have to look at that. Many get injured or lose interest. But all the circumstances are in their favor, too. There is no pressure to succeed, there are a lot of good training partners, and when they go to a competition it is like running at home. And $1000-$2000 is a good payday for them. When you have to run with the pressure of running to raise your kids or pay a mortgage that can play with your mind.
“It’s a different world, you can’t compare. Kenyans and Ethiopians don’t have anything to lose. They can take risks. Americans are afraid to take a risk, so they go into a race already losing. But if they had 3-4 years of (financial) security to train, they would be ready. We’ve proven it in every other field, so Americans can do it in running, too.
“If you look at the junior high and high school level, the USA is better than Morocco and many other countries. Participation is huge. But kids don’t see a future in running. There is no program to develop athletes as professionals, and so we lose that advantage.”
In introducing Khalid to the SDTC last night, Tracy Sundlun asked, “How many people think these world record holders are born?” Pretty much everyone’s hand went up. Then Tracy went on to tell how when Khalid first came to the USA he came with another runner. That man asked Tracy to help find him a sponsor so he could run. Though Khannouchi didn’t speak a word of English at the time he asked Tracy in French to help find him a job so he could live.
Impressed, Tracy took Khalid on doing odd jobs around the MAC, then helped get him a job bussing tables at a Brooklyn restaurant. It was only after work that Khannouchi went out to train at night.
“Slowly, but surely, he became an icon of the sport,” said Sundlun in summation.
“Running made my life,” Khalid told the gathering as he took the bullhorn. “If you are going to run the marathon, you will need commitment. But it will make you disciplined.”
Perhaps the SDTC members’ next marathons might be a tad faster than before after that pep talk. We’ll have to check the timing to see.