The marathon American record holder is on the comeback trail after foot surgery last year.
Interview by: Matt Fitzgerald
I can think of no other elite runner whose career has combined such extreme highs and lows. The Moroccan-born American has soared as high as any runner in history, breaking the marathon world record twice and the 20K world record once, and winning the Chicago Marathon four times and the London Marathon in 2002. But he has been cursed with injuries. Problems with his feet, hamstrings, groin and low back have taken him out of competition and serious training for a cumulative six years, or nearly half his total career span.
Now 39 years old, Khannouchi is rehabilitating from a foot surgery and slowly working his way back into competitive running form. Based in Ossining, New York, he is currently training in Mexico, where I reached him for the following interview.
Competitor: It’s 8:30 at night. Your wife and agent, Sandra, told me you couldn’t speak to me any earlier because you had a very full day of training. What did you do?
I did some fartlek. I’m working on getting some confidence on my foot. Everything is falling into place. I’m able to run. I’m increasing my miles little by little, which is very important before you start to think about racing again.
How long have you been able to run without pain?
The discomfort is still there, but I’m managing to find a way to still run fast. The surgery I had limited the flexibility of my big toe. It was impossible at first to feel comfortable—to feel that my stride was normal. Now I’m getting to the point where I’m feeling confident; I’m feeling that my stride is getting back to normal. I feel like I can be comfortable running fast a little bit uphill. So things are looking better now.
The surgery was several months ago. Have you had any setbacks since then?
Right after the surgery I didn’t run for almost two months. With the rehab I had to start walking, then jogging slowly and then work on running more miles. After we broke up all the scar tissue my foot got more mobility and now things are a lot better. I lost almost a year but I think it was worthwhile to do the surgery.
Assuming you continue to make steady progress, what will your racing plans be?
My big plan is to try to do a marathon in the fall. I’m not in a rush. I’m trying to make smart decisions. I’ll start with some short races maybe sometime in May. I have to race because the training is a good confidence booster, but I have to race to really test out the foot. I have confidence, though, because I’ve done some short track workouts and built a good base. But I still have to race. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m motivated, which is a good sign. But the big goal is running a marathon in the fall. If I can manage that I will be very happy.
How would you rate your current fitness level?
I’m not 100 percent, for sure. I’m about 75, but I still have a lot to do. I’m not ready to go to a big race like Peachtree [the Peachtree Road Race, a 10K held on July 4 in Atlanta], where they’re going to be running in the low 27’s. I need to build a rhythm and a routine, then start racing and build confidence about the foot. If I can do that by May, then by August or September I’ll be in very good shape.
You’ve had more than your share of injuries in your career. Do you know why? Are many of them connected somehow?
A lot of my problems have come from the leg [length] discrepancy that I have. There is a centimeter [of difference] between my right leg and my left leg. So that was a factor, of course. That’s why I wear orthotics now. I train with them. But I’ve always run hard, harder then normal, I think, just to secure victories and break records. When you work on that edge you’re always going to get injured.
But like you said, I’ve had more than my share of injuries, and it’s been very frustrating. I don’t know, maybe my body is weaker than others’.
Jason Lehmkuhle has said he doesn’t bother to figure out what causes his injuries because all it does is drives him crazy. He just accepts the occasional injury as part of the sport. What is your feeling?
Well, it is part of the sport. Like I said, if you push your body to the limit you will get injured. I work hard, and for two or three years I did about 20 races a year. But you do want to know what’s the cause of them. I try to sacrifice, to be smarter, to do the best I can to avoid injuries, but sometimes you just can’t.
I remember I had a back injury before London in 2000. I was in good shape and I twisted my ankle on a run. That is something you can’t avoid. It’s just your good or your bad luck.
I try to work with different physios, learn from them, and follow their advice. I do weight training. I really try to do my best. I’m more disciplined than before, because I have more challenges in front of me and more obstacles in front of me.
Have your injuries enhanced your appreciation for running?
Yeah, right now I am so happy because a year ago I wasn’t able to run more than 15 minutes. I was doing that for the love of the sport, but I was finishing with a lot of pain and I couldn’t walk. I told me doctor, John Connors, “Listen, I don’t care if I go back and compete. If I can, it would be nice, but if I can’t it’s not the end of the world.” Now I can appreciate running more. I can run easy with no pain and that’s a great feeling.
How do you deal with the awful emotional side of being injured?
Well, I have a lot of good people around me. My wife is a great mentor, a great believer, and a great motivator, and she was always with me in these difficult times. It is frustrating when you want to go and compete and improve, but your body doesn’t allow you to. But I’m always a true believer that whatever is there for you, you will get. No panic whatsoever. If something is there for me, it’s going to wait for me. That’s why I’m motivated now and trying to work harder, put in more energy and more focus, more sacrifice and more dedication, and I’m hoping for the best.
You’re one of the most successful marathon runners of all time, but looking back on your career you probably feel you could have done so much more, if not for all the injuries you’ve had. When you do look back, do you accept all the bad that came with the good, or do you have regrets?
I do accept everything that happened. I’m happy with what I’ve done, no question about that. Like you said, I’m one of the most successful marathon runners in the world. I got my share of victories and world records, so I’m very happy with what I’ve done. But I’m still hungry for more if it’s possible. So that’s why I invest my time, my money, work with a lot of doctors and search for answers and I try to be very dedicated and disciplined. I love the fact that I’m a runner, that I can be my own boss. I still want to do that if I can. But if I can’t, at least I can jog and go do races at a slower pace and have fun with people.
You are 39 years old now. Apart from your injuries, is age affecting your ability to perform at the level you have in the past?
I don’t feel that I am very old, because I can still race and train with young people. I still feel young, believe it or not. One good thing on my side is that I had an almost six-year layoff. I didn’t do much training and racing. That will probably help me run better later on, when I’m in my 40’s, hopefully. I still feel young, and if I can train healthy I feel I can run with a lot of good people out there.