With two days to go before the New York City Marathon, Sports Illustrated caught up with Alberto Salazar, winner of three straight NYC Marathons from 1980-82, and coach of Dathan Ritzenhein. Ritzenhein had a breakout year, setting the American 5k record -- (since broken) -- in August, and is now one of the top competitors in this year's marathon.
SI: Dathan mentioned that one of the big changes when he came to you was that running became a full- time, 9-5 job, with plyometrics, biomechanic work, cryotherapy, video analysis, etc.
Alberto Salazar: I think in running, to be honest, that even though athletes are very dedicated and are willing to train and do whatever they need to do to prepare, more often than not they're not in a very professional environment where you've got a high performance director and a coach that are really monitoring your daily activities. In what other professional sport does an athlete decide, 'Well, maybe I'll just do these or that exercise today, or maybe I'll do therapy today or maybe I won't. Maybe I'll look at game film today or maybe I won't.' What we tried to set up in the Oregon Project is a very professional atmosphere where we're not leaving any stone unturned and treating these athletes -- they may not be making $5 million a year like some baseball player or basketball player -- but there's no reason they shouldn't be in as professional an environment as them, and that means that you're guiding them and giving them the best that sports science, medicine and technology can give.
SI: In talking to Dathan, it seemed like part of what helped him buy in to your program was your honesty with him when trying to change his form. For example -- as he talked a lot about this week -- you said that you didn't know if it would work perfectly, but you'd get a data point and learn something and move forward.
Salazar: You have to change things in order to get to where you want to go. And things might get worse. But if you're not getting where you want to be, already, in a sense, it's as bad as it can get. If you're fourth or fifth, what does it matter if you end up seventh or eighth? But if it gives you a chance to try and be first or second, you go for it. Dathan had the guts to try something. If he kept doing what he was doing ... he was a guy who was injured a lot. It was Russian roulette whether he's ever going to be on the starting line healthy or not. I told him 'Look, you can either keep doing that and then it's luck of the draw on that day whether you're ready or not, but even if you are ready on that day I don't think you'll ever be as good as you could've been biomechanically.' There's no way Dathan Ritzenhein is going to look like [Kenenisa] Bekele. That isn't going to happen. But there are fundamental things that Bekele does that sort of give us an idea of what would work. There are certain ways to swing a baseball bat. If you take a guy out of college, he could be the best hitter in the NCAA World Series in Omaha and have a .450 average, and he may have a particular swing. Does anybody think that when a major league team drafts him, if he doesn't have a swing the way they want it that they're going to say, 'well, we're not going to change it because he was already hitting .450?' No, they know that with that swing he's not going to be able to get around fast enough on a fastball, or to get to a curveball, and they change it ... In running, often what happens, unfortunately, there's few of these really good runners in America, and there are very few coaches out there and I think sometimes the coaches are scared to try anything different because if they hurt the guy he may be gone in a second. And now all of the sudden they've lost their star runner, and maybe they've lost their income from that. I don't get a cent from Dathan. I get paid by Nike, so I don't have to worry about that. But in my case I have to be honest with him and say,' Dathan, look, you want to talk about Olympic medals, great, I'm all for it, but I gotta be honest with you. I don't think you're going to get it if you look like this. You've got to change. And there's a risk in doing it.'
SI: So you're taking risks because you and he aren't content to stay conservative and go for the "best American" title, but rather you want lay it on the line to really achieve bigger things.
Salazar: The dynamic has really changed in the U.S. Americans believe they can be competitive, that they can win medals. Obviously, Meb and Deena won medals in 2004 [in the Olympic marathon], but since then we've had Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan win medals at Worlds and the Olympics [in the 10k], Dathan won the bronze medal in the World Half Marathon Championships, if you count that. We've had guys like Chris Solinsky, Matt Tegenkamp, Galen Rupp run much faster than Americans have run for a long time. So, are we there with the men on the podium in the major track championships? Not yet. We're getting very close. Definitely it's been a huge jump from six or seven years ago. And a lot of that, I think, is just the psychology of it. When the first four-minute mile was broken, nobody could do it, then all of the sudden everybody could do it. And I think the same thing is happening right now in American distance running. Your peers are doing it, you believe you can do it, you ramp up your workouts, and to some extent it all entails greater risk. To run certain times that are faster than you've ever run before, unless it was completely psychological and you just didn't believe you could do it, you're probably running harder and faster workouts and doing more mileage. You're taking more risks. So it's always, 'How much do I dare to try and match them in training without getting hurt?' Gebrselassie runs 160 [miles] in training a week. Do I try and ramp Dathan up to 160 a week? No, I'm really happy I got him up to 120 a week. He's never even done 115 a week before while staying healthy for a long period of time. So we got him to 120 a week, and so that was a step forward. I just have to bring him up gradually, otherwise it's just reckless.
SI: Winning times in the New York City Marathon have not dropped all that much over the years, but rather U.S. runners went backward. In 1983, there were 267 U.S. men who broke 2:20 in a marathon, and by 2000 that number was down to 27.
Salazar: The gap widened because the rest of the world got better and we got significantly worse. Probably half of the gap is from us getting worse.
SI: And some European countries fell off the map completely. In 2000, when the U.S. qualified only one man for the Olympic marathon, Finland, once a top distance running nation in the world, had no men in any distance event.
Salazar: I was approached by about six different national European federations last year asking me to come and present on what we're doing here in the U.S. You know, they've really sort of lost confidence and hope that they can produce, and I just told them it can be done, and it's a long process. ... And overall it's a numbers game. We've just got to get a lot of these groups going because we're going against hundreds of athletes in camps [in Africa] that are training unbelievably hard and at high volumes. We don't have those numbers. I believe we've got to do it by training smarter and more scientifically.
SI: An advantage in the Kenyan training camps is that there are so many people, you can have a ton of runners train really hard, and if a particular person falls off, no big deal. Like you said with football or baseball, you can train everyone hard and just pick whoever survives.
Salazar: Yeah, I've got friends who go over to those camps, and they tell me that in a day at a particular camp at a track there may be 300 distance runners from various groups. There may be 40 or 50 at a time doing a workout, and guys just show up training unbelievably hard. You can be a sub-13 5k runner and you're running in groups where you may be the 10th guy in the pack. It would be like if you sent Dathan out to run at Randall's Island on the [Icahn Stadium] track at four in the afternoon to go and run a workout and what if 30 guys showed up and ran the exact same workout as him? It is like that over there.
SI: Why do you think American runners got away from training groups? It seemed to coincide with more money coming to the sport.
Salazar: I think that was part of it, as money came in, basically what the groups had provided before in terms of coaching and resources, athletes were able to afford on their own. They didn't have to move somewhere. Whereas before a lot of those group athletes would get part-time jobs that were somehow provided by the club or a benefactor of the club. A little more money came into the sport, and, you know, if I'm making this amount of money, I don't need to go live in Boston or wherever, I'll just train from my hometown where my family is and so forth. I think that's what caused that.
SI: I interviewed Kara Goucher for SI for Kids and she was really open about the psychological work and mental preparation for pain and how you're big on sport psychology. You were known for toughness and taking pain, so did you use sport psychology back when you raced?
Salazar: I don't believe that I necessarily had any higher pain threshold than anyone else. I mean, I don't think I could hold my hand in a fire any longer than any other average top runner. I think pain and discomfort and fear and anxiety are really what you should be looking at. Anybody can take pain and discomfort when you're succeeding. It's really your ability to deal with that pain, discomfort and fear and not have it negatively affect your running. It's not like you ever give up and say, 'Well I can't take this pain, I've got to back off.' It's the negative thoughts that creep in -- I'm not doing well, I'm not handling this well -- that make you back off. And I think -- and again this is something we know from other sports -- often runners will think, 'I have these negative thoughts, I'm a wimp, I'm not tough' and stuff. And the more that you sort of, I don't want to say embrace it like you have to be some sort of masochistic person, but the more you expect it, that this is natural when you're going all out and you're on the edge that the doubts will come. And learning to deal with that in a scientific way, and through sports psychology and learn that you can deal with that and perform even better. The whole sports psychology part, there always used to be a stigma attached to it. I remember back when I was running I would get these things from the USOC: Did I want to take part in a psychological study, and they had resources available, and I would never send those back. I would sneer at them, 'Oh those are for weak people. I'm tough as hell. What could they tell me?' Now I look back and see how much of an error that was on my part. Your mental readiness and psychological state are as important as anything else in your weaponry.
SI: Dathan said that you told him he's in better shape than you ever were when you won the New York City Marathon. What makes you say that?
Salazar: Strength-wise, I believe he's stronger than I ever was. He's running the same mileage: I did 130 [per week], he did 120, very similar. His strength in terms of his tempo runs has been remarkable. Three weeks ago he did a 20-mile run at like 4:51.8 pace, which is about 2:07 marathon pace. He was going hard, but not a race effort by any means, and he wasn't tapered. He did 10x1-mile at 4:32 at altitude [in Albuquerque] on a real windy cold day, with two minutes rest. My hands were so cold I could barely operate the stopwatch. I say you probably take off six to seven seconds because of the altitude, and the wind is probably another four or five seconds. So that probably would've been around 4:22 at sea level. So he's stronger than I've ever been, his speed is better than I ever was. His biomechanics are better than mine, by far. He's got the altitude down. We were in Albuquerque before [New York] and tested him and his red blood cells are the highest they've ever been. We do a new thing, this cryosauna, that helps recovery. We've done a lot of things I didn't have. We've figured out his nutrition, his drinking stuff. We're working with [Dr.] Krista Austin, so she's done a great job. She does the sports drinks with Dathan. He had had a lot of problems in the past with his drinks, and with cramping and she came up with some formula for him that has worked really well on these long runs. He's had no problem. The stuff tastes terrible, I've tried it, but it seems to work.
SI: In running terms, it seemed like Dathan dropped from 13:16.06 in the 5k to 12:56.27 almost overnight when he came to you. What could change that quickly?
Salazar: Two things, really simple. One, in terms of form and biomechanics, just changing his arms. Did nothing with his legs. Dathan was running with his arms down here [by his waist]. You want your arms to be propelling your body in the direction you want it to go; 45-degree upward angle, like that. Not down here [waist high]. That's straight-jacketing your arms. I talk to a lot of guys and they say our coach tells us to run with our arms down here because it's efficient. And I say, all right let's straight jacket your arms to your side. It's going to be efficient, but you're not going to get any power out of it.
SI: Efficient, as in your arms won't waste oxygen because you can't move them?
Salazar: Yeah, right, you're arms won't use any oxygen, but your legs will use 100 percent more. This is crazy. Get your arms up! So that helped. The other thing was just faster speed work. I always say, it's very simple, if you want to run this pace in the marathon or the 10k or the 5k, you can't just come from the top down where you just try to do stronger stuff. It's like trying to say, I want to run 26 miles at 5-minute pace, so I'm just going to keep running 30 miles a day at 6-minute pace, then 5:50, then 5:40, 5:30, you know, from the top down. I'm just going to get so strong doing all these pace runs closer and closer to marathon pace, or maybe a little faster than marathon pace or 5k pace. The key is sometimes you've got to attack from the bottom, and do stuff so much frickin' faster that that pace is a jog, and so it costs you less energy. It's like, you know what, lets go redo the alignment or the chassis or whatever on this car and pump up the wheels so that it puts so much less stress on the engine. It's like having a car with flat tires. That exact mix, how much speed or how much faster, that's what everybody will argue until the end of the Earth. But, any top 5k or 10k coach will tell you this stuff coming up, is very important, as important as [strength work].
SI: And Dathan wasn't doing it at all?
Salazar: Dathan wasn't doing anything faster than 5k pace. And that's basically the same thing with Alan Webb with the 1,500, he came from the top down all the time. Nothing faster.
SI: But Webb ran 1:43.84 for the 800. With no faster work?
Salazar: To me it's a mystery that he ran that fast. His engine is so big.
SI: So what did Dathan do for speed before the 12:56?
Salazar: Three to four times a 600 breakdown where he went 1:28 for the 600, 57 for the 400, 41 to 42 [for the 300], and then 27 [for the 200]. And I don't think he'd ever even done one set that fast
SI: So having been a big part of the U.S. climbing up to the third best distance-running nation in the world, what's the long-term goal?
Salazar: We're definitely going in the right direction. Not just the right direction, you can be going the right direction and be at the bottom of the barrel still, but we're getting real close to being competitive. I don't think we're ever going to be dominant like we were before, to some extent. But there's no reason that we shouldn't be in there for our fair share of medals. Compared to the Africans, if we can get one out of four, and they've got the other three out of four, that'll be pretty damn good.