From NAIA to Beating Kipchoge: The Zouhair Talbi Story

This past April on the streets of Boston, a marathon debutant defeated the GOAT of the marathon, Eliud Kipchoge. Of course, Kipchoge had a poor race in Boston, running the slowest time of his career and losing for only the third time ever in a marathon. That being said, only 12 men in the history of marathon running can say they have beaten Kipchoge. More specifically, only one man in history can say he beat Kipchoge in his own debut marathon. That man is a Moroccan by the name of Zouhair Talbi.

Talbi traveled an unconventional path to the finish line on Boylston Street, from Morocco to the backwaters of the American collegiate system to signing a professional contract with ASICS. International students are a normal part of the American collegiate system, especially in athletics. However, Talbi never ran in the NCAA, the top caliber of American collegiate athletics which produces world-class talent year-in and year-out. He took the long road to 5th place in the Boston Marathon.

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Moroccan Beginnings

Growing up in the town of Tighassaline, 180 miles southeast of the Moroccan capital of Rabat, Talbi played soccer from the age of 6 to 14, never really focusing on distance running. In high school, he transitioned to running, citing soccer as “the perfect base training” to become a good runner. This proved an inspired decision as Talbi was a natural talent and excelled from the moment he started. He left high school with PBs of 13:50 for 5,000m and 8:11 for 3,000m.

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Academically, Talbi said the Moroccan high school system is very rigorous, with only 45% of Moroccans passing high school and earning a degree. The final exam in high school accounts for 50% of your entire high school grade. Talbi said his focus was not on going to college in America, rather it was to be part of the percentage of Moroccans who passed the final exam and graduated, which he did.

After high school, his fast PBs earned him a spot on the Moroccan national team. The team is based in Rabat, but also goes up to altitude camps in Ifrane (5,500 feet). The team has camps throughout the year and houses all of the athletes together, whether it is in Rabat or Ifrane. Being part of the national team in Morocco is the equivalent of being a professional runner. Talbi is friends with Olympic steeplechase champion Soufiane El Bakkali, who is on the national team, knows El Bakkali’s parents, and has even been invited into their home on several occasions.

In Tabli’s first season with the national team, at the age of 18, he competed in the U20 race at the 2013 World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, and placed 14th overall. Talbi competed for the Moroccan national team for five years total, from age 18 until 22. In his earlier years with the squad, he would mostly compete in Morocco before slowly expanding to different European races as he got older and faster. In his final year with the national team, in 2018, he competed in the Oslo Diamond League 10,000m, running 28:31 to place 4th.

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Time For a Change

As a 20-year-old on the national team, Talbi had no thoughts of coming to America to join the collegiate ranks. But then he began to feel the need to expand his education, and the American collegiate system, with the opportunity to both run and pursue a bachelor’s degree while on an athletic scholarship, was appealing.

There was one problem. His English needed to get better.

Talbi’s first language is Arabic, his second language is French, and his third language is one only spoken in his village in Morocco. Talbi dedicated a year to learning English so he could communicate with the collegiate coaches in America.

When he applied for the US collegiate system in 2018 for matriculation in January 2019, he had PBs of 13:29 in the 5,000m, 28:22 in the 10,000m, and 8:01 in the 3,000m. Talbi said he did not accept any prize money during his time with the national team of Morocco, which allowed him to still be eligible to participate in collegiate athletics.

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Collegiate coaches had been contacting him through Facebook but Talbi still had to clear a couple of barriers. At 23 years old, Talbi asked the coaches if he was still able to run for their programs with his higher than normal age. Plus, Talbi would have to pass an English test that would signify that he was ready and able to take classes in English.

Getting Settled

Florida State University expressed the most interest in him, but Talbi’s stint in Tallahassee would prove short-lived. Upon receiving his academic documents from Morocco, the admissions team at Florida State realized that some of them had been falsified by a placement service that is now out of business — something that has happened to other international athletes in the past.

Upon hearing this news, Talbi said he immediately told Florida State he did not know what was going on. Florida State cross country/track & field coach Bob Braman told LRC that “Zouhair was a good guy [and] well-liked.” Talbi expressed remorse about the situation, citing that he had no personal involvement in any academic placement or admissions matters.

Talbi came to Tallahassee in January 2019, and thus was in a sticky situation because almost all schools had already begun their spring semester once he was denied admission to Florida State. Talbi was intrigued by the concept of community colleges which operated at a lower academic level and were better suited to someone of his English proficiency and academic credentials. He found Northwest Kansas Technical College, which had a February start to their spring semester along with a cross country and track & field team.

Zouhair and Coach Mike Anderson (Courtesy of Zouhair Talbi’s Instagram)

In his first season as a Maverick, Talbi set a PB of 28:02 over 10,000m at the Portland Track Festival. Talbi was satisfied with his situation in Kansas because he was able to coach himself, and was helped with the logistics of planning a season by coach Mike Anderson, whom he described as a sprints coach.

Coming from running at the Oslo Diamond League to a junior college in America may seem like a huge decrease in competition for someone like Talbi, but he did not think so as future NCAA champion and current HOKA NAZ Elite athlete Wesley Kiptoo was in the same conference. Kiptoo and Talbi would race each other frequently and held each other accountable for training, making sure that the two of them would come into their races in prime shape. In 2019-20, Talbi finished second in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) cross country championships, won the NJCAA half marathon championships, and finished second in the 5,000m indoors. Kiptoo beat Talbi in both of the races where he finished second. While Talbi enjoyed success, there was an obvious lack of resources and he wanted to graduate as soon as possible.

Talbi was able to graduate from Northwest Kansas in 1.5 years in the spring of 2020 by oversubscribing on classes in each semester, graduating with an associate’s degree in business and computer graphic design.

Although he was able to graduate, the COVID-19 pandemic took away the end of his indoor track season in 2020 and the entirety of his outdoor track season with NKTC. Once the pandemic lockdowns were in effect and schools were closed, Talbi lived with his Moroccan friend, Ayman Zahafi, brother of 2022 NCAA 800m champion Moad Zahafi, in an apartment in Corpus Christi, Tex., until the new school year began.

Oklahoma City University

Talbi needed two more years of school to earn his bachelor’s degree and planned his next move in the spring of 2020 while sidelined by the pandemic. While he dreamt of a NCAA D1 program, Talbi was ineligible to run D1 because at this point he was over five years removed from graduating high school. Ultimately, Talbi landed at NAIA school Oklahoma City University (OCU) under coach Matt Aguero.

Aguero knew of Talbi since his days at NKTC because the two schools would race at cross country invitationals, and Talbi knew Aguero and OCU because they had won cross country titles the previous two years. Talbi was happy to land in Oklahoma City because of its urban presence in the Midwest. Coming from Rabat (population 578,000) and living in Goodland, Kans., (population 4,450) for a year and a half was quite a shock. Talbi struggled to find things to do and being a newcomer to America, it was not the easiest of transitions. However, Oklahoma City (population 688,000) was even bigger than Rabat and up to speed with Talbi’s interests.

The summer of 2020 is when everything changed for Talbi. He took training more seriously, focusing on the little things such as diet, recovery, and sleep. He increased his mileage and wanted to make the most out of his next few years at the NAIA level. Arriving on campus for the fall semester, Talbi was blown away. First and foremost, he had a real distance running coach who would be there at the workouts with him. Second, he had a full team of 15-20 guys who would go on runs together. Finally, OCU had more resources than Northwest Kansas.

Talbi after 13:44 NAIA 5,000m Title (Courtesy of OCU XC/T&F)

Zouhair found immediate success under Aguero, whom Zouhair said had “the same training principles” as himself and when they would disagree over training he was open to Talbi’s new ideas. He won the 2020 NAIA XC championship with a time of 23:45 over 8k. Indoors, Talbi broke the NAIA record over 5,000m, running 13:44 as well as anchoring his team to a win in the distance medley relay.

Qualifying but not being able to run the Tokyo Olympics

Talbi really improved under Aguero, not only winning titles but improving his PBs as well. So much so that in May 2021, he ran 27:20.61 over 10,000m at the Sound Running meet in Irvine, Calif., to hit the Olympic standard of 27:28.00.

Talbi ran this time towards the end of the qualifying window. This usually is not a problem for athletes. However, due to Morocco’s history of doping problems, the country is on the “Category A” list of federations which have stricter doping protocols. One of the requirements in Category A is that any athlete from one of those countries competing at a World Championship or Olympic Games must be drug-tested with no notice a minimum of three times in the 10 months leading up to the championship with a minimum of three weeks between each test. Because Talbi had been training in the US and only hit the Olympic standard with six weeks remaining in the qualifying window, he was not on the radar of Moroccans that he needed to be tested, and had not signed up for random drug testing. Talbi said the Moroccan federation applied for an exemption because he was a student in America. Talbi also flew back to Morocco and was placed into the national testing pool.

He arrived in Rabat at the end of May with the Olympic 10,000m final set to take place on July 30. Once he arrived in Morocco, it took two weeks for him to receive his first doping test, already bleeding into June. According to Talbi, he took “6 or 7 tests beforehand in Morocco,” but the three tests he was required in order to compete were not separated by the 3 weeks needed in order to be eligible.

Talbi got accredited for the Olympics and flew to Tokyo thinking he would be eligible to run the 10,000m. But the day before the 10,000m he was told he was not eligible to compete in the 10,000m.

Talbi and his Moroccan teammates in Tokyo (Courtesy of Talbi’s Instagram)

Despite the hopes of the Moroccan federation, the AIU told LetsRun that “there was no exemption given to [Talbi] at any stage. He did not meet the testing requirements under Rule 15 [three out of competition tests at least three weeks apart] for competing in the 10,000m in Tokyo. The Moroccan Federation could have still met the testing requirements for the 5,000m (scheduled after the 10,000m) but the Moroccan Olympic Committee forgot to enter him on the 5,000m as well.”

Talbi had barely qualified for the Olympics in the 5,000m via the world rankings, and the 5 days separating the 10,000m final and the first heat of the 5,000m was enough to have allowed Talbi to get the third out-of-completion test, but Morocco had not entered him in the 5,000m. His Olympic dream would have to wait.

Return to OCU & World Indoors

Now 26 and back to college for his senior season (there are no age restrictions in the NAIA), OCU had switched coaches to former Under Armour athlete and Oklahoma Sooner Frezer Legesse. Legesse was more of a middle distance-minded coach, which helped Talbi with his speed. Talbi dropped his 3,000m PB to 7:40 and was able to continue his success in the NAIA ranks, winning the 2021 NAIA XC title as well as the indoor mile, 3,000m, and 5,000m.

The 2022 NAIA indoor track and field championships were the end of Talbi’s NAIA career. With his 7:40 indoor 3,000m in Arkansas, Talbi had qualified for the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade to represent Morocco. Still training under Legesse, Talbi flew out to Serbia to meet the rest of his Moroccan teammates.

Talbi made the 3,000m final and finished sixth but was disappointed in his performance as he was in the lead with 200m to go but could not hold on for a medal.

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Road to Eugene

While Talbi returned to OCU after his performance in Serbia, he was there to finish up his degree and continue to train with the OCU men. Athletically, his sights were set on making the Moroccan team for the 2022 World Championships in Eugene. Talbi was now part of the WADA and AIU random drug testing pool and eligible for world competitions.

After the semester was over, Talbi temporarily moved to Colorado Springs in order to train with coach Scott Simmons and his American Distance Project team. Legesse had trained under Simmons for a little bit and Aguero had been an assistant coach to Simmons in the past, so Talbi was well connected to the group.

Talbi qualified for Worlds in the 10,000m but had an extremely rough race and finished 21st in 28:28.

“I knew from 3k onwards it was going to be a long race,” Talbi said.

Although he was not sick during the actual competition, Talbi believed there was something wrong with him because he was sick in bed for a week after the race.

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Finally “Pro”

Talbi signed a shoe deal with ASICS in August 2022 after the World Championships. He was guided through the contract negotiation process by the same agent as 2021 NYC Marathon 2nd place finisher Mohamed El Aaraby. El Aaraby is also sponsored by ASICS and had been a close friend of Talbi for years, a man who Talbi calls his best friend. Talbi was excited to sign with ASICS, especially because they had the same vision as him for the future: the marathon. Talbi had always wanted to be a marathon runner, running half marathons during his time with NKTC and the Houston Half while at OCU in January 2022.

Talbi training with WCAP men (Courtesy of Talbi’s Instagram and Nate Castner | Mountain Techne)

Talbi was still based in Oklahoma City, training for road races, because he had two more classes to take in the 2022 fall semester in order to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Talbi coached himself primarily for his beginnings on the road, with input from Simmons and El Aaraby. His first race as a professional was the BAA Half Marathon, where he placed 3rd in a time of 62:15. After graduating from OCU in December 2022 with a bachelor’s in human performance, he had his sights set on a faster course, returning to Houston in January to set a PB of 61:08 and place 5th.

Come February, Talbi was informed of his acceptance to the elite field of the Boston Marathon. He knew he needed to get in one more half marathon before Boston, and he opted for the 2023 NYC Half. Talbi placed 3rd behind 5,000m/10,000m world record holder Joshua Cheptegei and half marathon world record holder Jacob Kiplimo. Up until this point, Talbi called this “the race of [my] life.”

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Boston Marathon Debut

Talbi wanted to make his marathon debut at a platinum level race. Luckily for him, he was a later than usual addition to the Boston marathon. There was no place better than Boston in the spring of 2023, as that’s where Kipchoge was running and making his Boston debut.

Talbi did not surprise himself in Boston, citing that he knew was fit and the risk that he took going with the first pack early on paid off in the end. Although he went with the front in the beginning, he was still running smart as he went through the half in 62:15 and backed off the pace slightly after halfway. Once he realized he had more left in him, he went for it and slowly started picking off runners. In response to picking off Kipchoge, Talbi said he “felt bad” and clearly saw that “he was struggling.” While passing the GOAT of marathoning may have made Talbi feel a little uneasy, it was crucial as he placed 5th in 2:08:35 (one spot ahead of Kipchoge in 6th in 2:09:23), earning himself an automatic Olympic standard for the 2024 Olympic marathon.

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2024 & Beyond

While Talbi now has the Olympic standard, he is far from assured a spot on the Moroccan team. Morocco is one of the strongest countries in the marathon, and currently have eight athletes with the Olympic standard in the marathon. There likely will be more after the 2023 fall marathon season.

The Olympic marathon process for Morocco is a big unknown and a sore point for Talbi. He expressed his frustration as he does not know how to qualify because the Moroccan federation has not outlined what they are basing their selection on. The possibilities include the fastest three times (which they have done in the past), the top three in either the Marrakech Marathon in January or the Rabat Marathon in April (which they did this year for the 2023 World Championships marathon selection), or selecting based off of unknown criteria. Talbi was frustrated because he needs to plan out his marathon schedule now in order to be ready to place top 3 at a marathon trials if the Moroccan federation were to host one. In addition, he would be passing up on appearance fees if he needs to run Rabat in April or skip a marathon this fall in order to prepare for Marrakech in January. Talbi thinks he has a great case to be selected as he placed 5th in Boston on a hilly course and the Paris Olympic marathon is a hilly course as well.

For now, Talbi will continue to live in America with his fiancée, Elizabeth Heffernan, whom he met at OCU. The two will be moving to Colorado Springs full-time to work with Simmons and the WCAP men to do “whatever it takes” to chase the Olympic dream that was taken away from him in 2021.

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