Former marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi with fan
Former marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi with fan

“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.

Nordic Chip testing with SDTC
Nordic Chip testing with SDTC

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.

Nordic Chip 2
“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.


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.

Khalid winning 2002 London Marathon versus Haile and Tergat in a world record 2:05:38
Khalid winning epic 2002 London Marathon versus Haile and Tergat in a world record 2:05:38

“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.”

Tracy Sundlun (in vest) introduces Khalid to SDTC
Tracy Sundlun (in vest) introduces Khalid to SDTC

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.



  1. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if
    it’s the blog. Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Hello there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and
    found that it is really informative. I am going to watch out for brussels.
    I’ll appreciate if you continue this in future. Lots of people will be benefited from your writing.


  3. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit,
    but other than that, this is magnificent blog. An excellent read.
    I will certainly be back.

  4. Hi! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a
    collection of volunteers and starting a new project in a community in the same niche.
    Your blog provided us useful information to work on.
    You have done a outstanding job!

  5. I don’t even know the way I stopped up right here, however I thought this submit was once good.
    I don’t understand who you might be however certainly you’re going to a
    well-known blogger should you are not already. Cheers!

  6. As an RD in VA I am obviously interested in the timing gear- but the thoughts of T&F all stars on US tracks makes for fun future.
    Can we grow our T&F? get more on TV, more swimming on TV, more cycling on TV- as a football and basketball player they are fun to watch but WE ( USA) need more of the olympic sports.

    I was a thrower- so look forward to seeing more shot/discus/javelion and hammer fun as well. Thank God youtube has those events.

  7. Americans are obsessed with the shorter distances on the track. By the time their athletes make it to the marathon, they are burned out from speedwork. It’s not surprising they are not performing well at the marathon. When 40 year olds (Meb and Deena) are still front runners it is evident there are problems. Those two would be tending to their cows in retirement in East Africa. If Americans want to be on the marathon world stage, they will need to start cherry picking young athletes right out of college or possibly even high school and coaching them for the marathon. Not to mention, it’s always the same coaches in the U.S., and none of them have had results worth bragging about. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the U.S. college running system (if they want to succeed at the marathon. Otherwise, stop complaining and carry on).

    Young American runners assume that they will never be successful due to genetics and that is one of the big problems. Even though testing has shown that there are no differences between Kenyans and Caucasians, Americans still believe that that they are at a disadvantage and there is something to be said about faith in yourself and confidence. When I was in Kenya I was amazed by the confidence runners of mediocre abilities displayed. They will run a 16 min 5000m and then tell you that soon they will be a world record holder. They are not just playing for their home town favour, they are playing for the top….

    1. The marathon is an insanity that will run it’s course. The health issues involved are slowly starting to be seen. I have no doubt that some genetically gifted and/or well-trained people should run this event, but the vast majority who do, are putting themselves at serious risk to satisfy their over-inflated egos.

      Regarding your assertions about American obsession with shorter distances, I disagree. People tend to like success. We have had success there so we lionize that. Given the lack of exercise among our youth and their pampered existence, thank heavens we are obsessed a bit with shorter distances and other sports.

      The worst formula for developing a great marathoner in a developed country, would be for him or her to bypass development at shorter distances or other sports. The leg power and turnover has to come from somewhere. Our kids are not fetching buckets of water uphill or chasing goats. Kids don’t even walk to school anymore. This problem is actually worse in the suburbs than in the inner-city. At least the urban kid may have to walk to the subway or in some cases even walk or frolick the three quarter mile home. Even rural kids are not doing much walking and physical activity anymore. Not too many people are involved in farming, and farming has become so mechanized, that the kids there may be doing less physical tasks.

      I personally believe the demise of many of our distance talents lay squarely on the backs of over-zealous coaches who continue to fail to develop the leg power and turnover in these athletes when they are still young. These coaches get over excited and put these athletes on a diet of long slow running. Every athlete has strengths and weaknesses. Maximizing the strengths are important, but we have to also improve the weaknesses. The best time to take care of the weaknesses, is when we have time on our hands. Smart coaches know that you fix weaknesses when you have time, and when you are out of time, the only thing you can do is maximize strengths.

      Also keep in mind that the marathon has changed in the last five years. We are seeing faster people in this event. These guys running below 2.05 are all great milers. Guys who would have run the mile or steeple or 5K are just going straight to the marathon. Any decent coach could get these guys to break 3.55 in the mile. That is the game changer. There used to be a time where a guy could run conservatively, and then catch the fading runners in the last quarter of the race. That doesn’t happen anymore.

      What’s typically happening, is these guys making a break just before or in the early stages of the last quarter of the race and never coming back to anyone. And when the break is made, it’s an absolute insanity of speed, like a sub 4.30 mile and then a string of sub 4.40 miles. So one has to have speed to match that. Our marathoners lack that ability, not so much because it’s outside their capabilities, but because they have been trained poorly. Also keep in mind that those sub 2.05 marathons are 4 40something per mile. That’s speed, a lot of speed. We need more obsession with shorter distances, to ever be successful at the marathon.

    1. Yes, but it took Haile 8+ years to get to it, coupled with years of track and XC as well. Khalid’s point was that the “new breed” of East African runners are skipping the usual steps and heading straight to the marathon.

    2. Michael,

      I looked at the 2002 marathon stats on the website, and came up with the following.

      Of the 100 best times of 2002: Top time = 2:05:38 – world record Khannouchi, USA
      100th best time = 2:10:40 (5 minute spread 1 – 100)

      – 51 by Kenyans
      – 10 by Ethiopians
      – 8 by Japanese
      – 6 by Italians
      – 5 by French
      – 3 by Americans (including two of top three by Khalid, #46 by Alan Culpepper)
      – 3 by Koreans, Spaniards, and South Africans,
      – 2 by Moroccans, and Estonians
      – 1 by Mexican, Portuguese, British, and Algerian

      Compare those totals to 2008, Haile’s 2:03:59 world record year:

      Of the best times of 2008: Top time = 2:03:59 – Haile Gebrselassie, Eth
      100th best time = 2:09:54 (6 minute spread 1 – 100)

      – 65 by Kenyans!
      – 14 by Ethiopians
      – 8 by Japanese
      – 4 by Moroccans
      – 1 each by eight other nations

      And finally total from the year just ending.

      Of 100 best times of 2013: Top time = 2:03:23 – world record Kipsang, Kenya
      100th best = 2:08:46 (5 minute spread 1 – 100)

      – 55 by Kenyans (including top 4)

      – 34 by Ethiopians

      – 4 by Japanese

      – 3 by Eritreans

      – 1 by runners from Morocco, Uganda, South Africa, France

      What we discover is that the overall quality of the world’s marathoners over the last decade has improved by two minutes, both at the very top and through to the 100th best performance. I believe that is the new world that Khalid speaks about in the interview. Also look at the distribution of nations through the top 100.

      Kenya remains at the same level in numbers of top 100 marathoners, totally dominant, but there has been a real growth in the number of Ethiopians Haile influence?) and a distinct loss in the number of European nations represented in the top 100. The world of marathoning has been winnowed to a binary competition between Kenya and Ethiopia. The Japanese are holding as best they can, but both the European and American presence has disappeared. Especially the Europeans, who represented 18% of 2002’s top 100 marathon performances, but in 2013 only had a single representative.

      Thanks for the input.

      1. Toni, thanks for the stats.
        So what explains the present dominance of the East Africans? Kalid offers his explanation. I suspect there are many reasons but one question that arises is, can they all be clean? I’ve often wondered if any real out of competition testing goes on in East Africa. Does anyone know? Mick

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.