Marathon: Chicago - Khannouchi's kind of town

Last year's victor has a marathon record in his sights.
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WHEN KHALID Khannouchi watched the Chicago Bulls play the Toronto Raptors in February a familiar figure caught up with him. Michael Jordan, it transpired, wanted to meet the marathon man who blasted through the streets of the Windy City in October last year. "Make sure you break the world record when you come back," Jordan told him. The world record has moved on since then. But Khannouchi is back in Chicago and, it would seem, in shape to break it.

Khannouchi missed the old record by a tantalising 20 seconds when he won the Chicago marathon 12 months ago. His time, 2hr 7min 10sec, remains the fastest ever by a marathon debutant. But the world record now stands at 2:06.05, 45 seconds quicker than the time the Ethiopian Belanyeh Dinsamo held from April 1988 until the Berlin marathon three weeks ago. Ronaldo da Costa, by all accounts, is still struggling to come to terms with his new status as holder of the world marathon record. He might not have to for much longer.

For 12 months now the running world has been eagerly awaiting Khannouchi's second shot at 26 miles and 385 yards. It promises to be another quick one in Chicago today. An unknown quantity a year ago, Khannouchi lines up this time with the burden of expectation upon his shoulders.

LaSalle Banks, sponsors of the Chicago Marathon, have offered a $100,000 incentive for him to better Ronaldo's Berlin time. The organisers have assembled a field capable of pushing him harder than last year. Indeed, as sub-2hr 8min marathon runners themselves, the Kenyans Moses Tanui and Elijah Lagat and the South African Gert Thys will have their own eyes on the record and the jackpot prize. The race director, Carey Pinkowski, has even eliminated three sharp turns along the ultra-flat route to make the course even quicker this year.

Most significantly of all, Khannouchi is in record- breaking form. Five weeks ago, on the roads of New Haven, he clocked 57min 37 sec for 20km - 43 seconds inside the world best set four years ago by Salah Hissou. Like Hissou, who broke the 10,000m world record in 1996, Khannouchi happens to be a product of the Moroccan distance running development programme. He was nurtured at the national training camp with Hissou and another future world-record beater, Hicham El Guerrouj, before moving to the US after his 5,000m victory at the World Student Games in Buffalo four years ago.

He started his American life in Brooklyn, training on the streets at midnight after working as an odd-job man in a restaurant. Thanks to the financial fruits of his road racing successes, though, he now enjoys a more comfortable lifestyle at Ossining, north of New York City in the Hudson River Valley. He lives there with his wife Sandra, a former runner who acts as his agent and coach, and has applied for US citizenship. "This is my home," he said on Thursday. "I want to run for America. God willing, I'll be able to do that in the 2000 Olympics."

Americans, too, are rather hoping Khannouchi will be able to do that. Not since Frank Shorter's victory in Munich in 1972 has a US marathon man struck Olympic gold. Hence the endorsement of Khannouchi's application from the governing body of athletics in the United States. "I've told Khalid we'll help him in any way we can," Craig Masback, the chief executive of US Track and Field, said. "We're virtually all children, grandchildren or great grandchildren of immigrants."

Nothing, though, would rubber-stamp Khannouchi's claim more than a world record run on American soil - or, rather, Tarmacadam. Not that the self-effacing 27-year-old, a devout Muslim, has been spouting hot air in the Windy City. "My goal is to defend my title," he said. "I am not thinking about the world record."

US marathon running has been down a similar way before. Mark Plaatjes won the 1993 world championship in Stuttgart under the star-spangled banner after gaining political asylum from his native South Africa. Plaatjes will be one of the 17,999 runners lining up with Khannouchi in Grant Park today. He will not, however, be racing. He has been signed as a "pacer," to help runners down the field achieve target times such as breaking the three- and four-hour barriers.

Steve Jones has agreed to assist in a similar capacity - 14 years after the Welshman broke the world record with a 2:08.05 run in Chicago. There will be British interest also, with Marian Sutton chasing a third successive women's victory, but the global spotlight will be trained on Khannouchi and the clock.