With eight miles remaining in Sunday's New York City Marathon,
Abdelkhader El Mouaziz of Morocco stole a glance over his left
shoulder, searching for pursuers. What he saw--or, rather, what
he couldn't see--elated him: "They were so far back I couldn't
tell the runners from the spectators," said El Mouaziz, who by
that point had built a full minute's lead. "So I smiled, which
is funny for me because I don't smile when I run." After he
finished, in 2:10:09, ahead of runner-up Japhet Kosgei of Kenya
by 2:21, El Mouaziz was beaming and blowing kisses.
It was a marked improvement from the way El Mouaziz had moped
around as he walked through midtown Manhattan last Friday.
Pinching his hamstrings and grabbing his lower back, El Mouaziz
had looked like a man who'd just completed a marathon. In
essence, he had. Only five weeks earlier, El Mouaziz had faded at
the end of the Olympic marathon and finished seventh. For a
runner accustomed to two or at most three marathons a year, the
five-week turnaround to run in New York was akin to a pitcher
having to toss consecutive complete games on two days' rest.
Add to that the 25-mph head winds expected for the first half of
the race and the rolling terrain of Central Park in the last
three miles and El Mouaziz, a poor finisher known to crumble on
hills, barely seemed to stand a chance. "This race scares me," he
said in French through an interpreter on Friday. "I don't like
the hills they have here. I don't like winds like they expect. I
am feeling not so fit after Sydney. Maybe I will be not
especially skilled at running."
Say this for El Mouaziz: He is skilled at sandbagging. By the
ninth mile, El Mouaziz and Josia Thugwane, the 1996 Olympic champ
from South Africa, had pulled away from the pack. Running with
rabbit Jacob Losian of Kenya, the pair built a 12 second lead
into the guts of the gusts, covering that ninth mile in 4:29.
Then El Mouaziz kept going, opening a gap on Thugwane by the
13-mile mark. In the press room, Gabriele Rosa, the Italian-born
guru of Kenyan running and coach of six runners in Sunday's race,
watched on the television monitors as El Mouaziz pulled away.
"Ay-yai-yai," Rosa said, windmilling his arms in consternation.
He knew that his protege Kosgei, who had never lost in four
career marathons, was in trouble. "El Mouaziz runs from the
front," continued Rosa. "The gap must not become too much."
It already was: two city blocks, then three, four and six. El
Mouaziz was nearly out of sight by the time his pursuers reached
the long straightaway of Manhattan's First Avenue, which begins
at 16 miles. "I was thinking, Please come back, because I cannot
catch you," said Kosgei.
El Mouaziz had learned from his illconceived tactics in Sydney,
where he planned to stay with Portugal's Antonio Pinto and then
surge with six miles to go. Five months earlier, Pinto had
outkicked El Mouaziz to win the London Marathon in 2:06:36, the
year's fastest time. In the Olympic race, however, when a pack of
four took off at the 18-mile mark, Pinto stayed behind. El
Mouaziz did too and realized too late that fatigue, not strategy,
was holding back Pinto. "I came back from Sydney very angry, very
motivated," El Mouaziz said.
Upon arriving in Casablanca on Oct. 8, El Mouaziz did not head
home to Mohammedia, a city of 150,000 on the Atlantic coast, but
went straight to a high-altitude training center in Ifrane and
ran for 50 minutes before he slept. The next day his manager,
Enrico Dionisi, was phoning marathon organizers in New York
confirming that his client was ready to race again.
Was he ever. "What he did is a world record in good conditions,"
said Mexico's German Silva, a two-time New York winner who placed
14th on Sunday. "He was supposed to be tired after the Olympics.
But sometimes you misjudge the training and recovery. I think he
trained well enough to win in Sydney, but his body didn't use
that training base properly until today."
El Mouaziz might never have taken up running had he listened to
his father, Mohammed, an oil refinery worker. Wait until your
legs are more developed, Mohammed advised his 14-year-old son
when Abdelkhader said he wanted to race. Undaunted, Abdelkhader
consulted his mother, Ghanou, who hinted that his father wouldn't
notice if the boy entered a few events. When Mohammed gave his
O.K. after months of negotiation, Abdelkhader was a seasoned
racer. He was also a committed front-runner--which seems only
fitting, considering his start in life. El Mouaziz was born on
Jan. 1, 1969.
"The day was good for him," Dionisi says. "He had a head start
on the rest of the year."
said former champ Silva.