David Epstein
Tuesday November 6th, 2007

"Live like a clock," were the words of famed Villanova running coach Jumbo Elliot. So who set Khalid Khannouchi's clock such that the former marathon world-record holder was tearing around the Central Park reservoir each night at 1 a.m. from mid-September through the first two weeks of October?

It was Ramadan, the month of day-time fasting for Muslims. The Moroccan born runner was not so much as letting a drop of water touch his lips between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. When the fast ended each day, he would have his meal, but by the time he had digested, the Rockefeller Preserve near Khannouchi's home in Ossining, New York, was too dark for training runs. So Khannouchi and his wife Sandra would jump in the car and drive 45 minutes to Manhattan, arriving around midnight to start his workout. With 8.8 million people in the city around him, these were nights when the man who set world marathon marks in 1999 in Chicago (2:05:42) and in 2002 in London (2:05:38) did not hear a soul.

"I won't say I'm a very religious person, but I respect my religion," says Khannouchi, who acknowledges the toll his Ramadan running schedule took on him. "I felt terrible," he says. "Sometimes I thought I'd do my track session in the morning, and I'd feel too tired and put it off until night." His weariness showed on October 14 in San Jose at the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon, where he ran 1:05:04 and was beat by 13 competitors, among them a pair of college runners from Chico State. Khannouchi's assessment: "I sucked." It's not the kind of form he had hoped to have leading into the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, where he must finish in the top three to represent the U.S. in Beijing. But with Ramadan in the rearview mirror, "I feel so much better," he says. "It took me a week to acclimate, but now I feel much better."

Still, even though Khannouchi's energy has returned, his imperfect preparation can't be redone, and he was unable to reach the training volume he had hoped for. "During Ramadan, I couldn't surpass 100, or 105 miles [per week,]" he says. "I would prefer to do 120 to 130 ... I would be worried right now if I were preparing for a 2:05 or 2:06 race, but it will be a tactical race." If he falters, it may be the last tactical marathon Khannouchi ever runs.

It has been 7-and-a-half years since Khannouchi's rush for citizenship failed to deliver a green card in time for him to compete in the marathon for the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. So America had to wait four more years for it's first men's marathon medal since Frank Shorter took silver in 1976. And when it happened, it was Meb Keflezighi, not Khannouchi, who had withdrawn from the trials for Athens with foot and knee injuries.

Five years ago, it was unthinkable Khannouchi could be an underdog in a race full of Americans, and his 2:07:04 just last year in London is still faster than any other American athlete has ever run. But coming off of his Ramadan training and having struggled with a neuroma on his right foot, Khannouchi is the biggest wild card in arguably the most talented Trials field since 1980, if not ever. Whether he qualifies or not in this, the first U.S. Trials he has run, it will be the close of an American's Olympic dream that seemed not so long ago like it would end festooned with medals. "Realistically," Khannouchi says stolidly, "I still have weapons to win major marathons, but this is my last chance to be competitive in the Olympics."

Meb Keflezighi (2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist)

On motivation: "You have to know who I am. I'm more motivated than ever...I still feel I can run faster and win titles. I haven't seen the [Olympic silver] medal in five or six months. I put it away."

On his shoes, after losing his luggage last year before the New York Marathon: "I carried them myself this time, I didn't check them."

Abdi Abdirahman (two-time Olympic 10k runner):

How big these Trials are: "Every single person in my town [Tucson, pop: 500,000] knows about the Trials."

His training: "It's the best I've ever done in my life." [Abdi said that before his 2:08:56 last year in Chicago, he never ran more than 18 miles, and wouldn't finish hard on those runs. This year, he says, he did 22 and 23 mile runs, and would finish around five minute pace at an altitude of 8,000 feet.]

Race strategy: "If one of these guys go, I'm going...there's five guys here, and 120 sitting in hotels, and only three spots. I'm not taking any chances."

Ryan Hall (American half-marathon record holder (59:43):

On marathoning: "I think I enjoy it the most of all the events ... I just have a special connection with the marathon. I feel like it was the event I was created to run."

On a tactical race: "I get more nervous for a race like this as opposed to where you can sit on a rabbit for 20 miles, and you know what he's going to do. This is more variable."

Brian Sell (fourth in 2006 Boston Marathon in 2:10:55):

On his training load: "I got up to 160 [miles per week]. I have to do that, because if I'm on the track against Ryan Hall in a 10k, he's going to lap me every time ... I might be running 100 percent to run a 4:30 mile, where some other guys are running 70 or 80 percent, but then at mile 22, we're both running 95 percent to run five-minute pace.

The importance of this race: "I'm 29 and getting toward the end of my career, so what better race to put everything on than this one."

Frank Shorter (1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist, '76 silver medalist) on:

The course, which is essentially five loops inside Central Park: "It's the ultimate out-of-sight, out-of-mind course. You can be 150 meters ahead, and with the rolling hills and the turns, nobody can see you. Running from behind, you have to have the feeling you're gaining ... once you lose contact, there's something psychological that happens."

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