Safely inside the restaurant, El Guerrouj poses for pictures with the waiters. "I don't eat much for breakfast or lunch," he says, "but I make up for it at dinner." He seems to devour everything on the menu. His body is a furnace. Everything that passes through his cake-hole is consumed in the raging inferno of his hypermetabolism. Just before dinner, at dusk, he ran 2,000 meters five times, with three minutes' rest between runs, each run conducted at exactly a 4:20 mile pace, with different partners each time, the rabbits falling away from him like spent boosters from a rocket ship.
He has always run only because he wanted to. "As a child I ran to be the fastest in my class," he says over dinner. "Then I ran to be the fastest in my school. Then the fastest in my region." At 14 he was the national cross-country champion for his age group and a promising soccer goalkeeper. At 15 he began to run with the national team. "When I started, all this was beyond my dreams," he says. "I was too young to know such a dream was possible."
Such a dream: A small crowd still stands outside the restaurant when El Guerrouj departs two hours after entering. An autograph hound runs alongside with a pen and paper as the Honda drives off. It's near midnight. At an otherwise deserted red light, El Guerrouj pulls up next to a teenager on a moped—a Domino's Pizza delivery boy—and playfully asks for the pie on the back of the bike. The kid turns his head, sees who the speaker is and does a double take. He's prepared to surrender the pizza when the light turns green and El Guerrouj accelerates.
The streets are empty. El Guerrouj stops at a sidewalk newsstand, gets out of the car and, in this rare foray into the world at large, spends three minutes amassing a stack of newspapers and magazines to take back to his dorm room. The newsagent, a stooped old man, sits on a stool in apparent ignorance of his customer's identity, but when El Guerrouj goes to pay for his pile of publications, the old man insists that he accept them as a gift.
El Guerrouj pays anyway. Inside his wallet, among all the dirham notes, is a lone $1 bill, given to him six years ago by a friend returning from the U.S. "For luck," says El Guerrouj, in English, before letting Kada elaborate. "His friend told Hicham, 'With this one dollar you can become a rich man,' " says the coach, "and since then, all this has happened." El Guerrouj returns to his car and drives off into the North African night, the entire car vibrating to—what else?—Livin' la Vida Loca.
El Guerrouj is alive with a kind of music when he runs, as if his contracting muscles were firing electrical impulses to his brain. "The electrical rhythm produced there is a source of pleasure," Roger Bannister has written of this running high. "Like that caused by music, it has some interplay with the rhythms inherent in our nervous systems."
El Guerrouj runs beautifully, his upper body so still that he resembles a mechanized rabbit at a greyhound track or a man motionless on a moving sidewalk. As El Guerrouj ran the hills that surround the national team's complex in Rabat one recent morning, Kada blurted out of the blue, "He can run 3:40 for the mile and 3:24 for the 1,500." Later, at lunch, El Guerrouj looked up from his couscous and said, "I will try to run 3:41 this year." He too spoke unbidden, as if he wanted the figure on the record, in print, out there and irrevocable.
"One hundred years from now," says Ray Flynn of Ireland, a former 3:49 miler and now an agent representing runners, "the mile record will he two or three seconds lower than it is today. No more." El Guerrouj agrees. "Two or three seconds maximum," he says in French before repeating in English, "maximum." But, and here's the thing, he intends to lower it by those two seconds this summer.
"I think the ego of someone who even conceives of setting the world record in the mile doesn't allow for a sober look at things," says Masback. "Given what we know about people having a certain lung size, improvement would seem limited to five-plus seconds. But inevitably, with longer legs, stronger muscles, a larger lung capacity, a better ability to deliver oxygen to the bloodstream, there may be a 10-to 20-second improvement in the mile in the next 100 years. The record was roughly 4:12 at the turn of the last century. So it's improved almost 30 seconds in the last 100 years."
For the mile record holder, it seems, the handwriting is always on the wall. This is literally true for El Guerrouj, in whose dorm room hangs a framed piece of parchment signed by all 16 living mile record setters, from Sydney Wooderson to Morceli, each of whom appended his record time. The memento was presented to El Guerrouj by the now-defunct British Athletic Federation, which asked him to sign an identical souvenir to be given to the man who breaks his record.