Death is one of those things Alberto Salazar used to run into. He'd finish a race and all but perish, as likely from fire as from ice. In 1978, at the end of the 7.1-mile Falmouth (Mass.) Road Race, he was read the last rites after collapsing with a body temperature of 108°. After he won the 1982 Boston Marathon, paramedics had to give him six liters of saline solution in an IV drip when his temperature dropped to 88°.
Then, on a Saturday morning four months ago, death came up from behind and tapped Salazar on the shoulder. He was 48. He still logged 25 to 30 miles a week. He ate sensibly. He took medicine to control his hereditary high cholesterol and high blood pressure. But at one end of a long greensward on the Nike campus in Beaverton, Ore., as he ambled along before leading a workout with several young runners he coaches, pain clutched at the back of his neck. Dizzy, Salazar went down on one knee. A former world-record holder in the marathon, a man who once heard testers declare his cardio output to be the greatest they had ever measured, was suffering a heart attack.
"We backed up and gave him space," recalls Josh Rohatinsky, one of the athletes Salazar hopes will create a renaissance in U.S. distance running. "He started gasping, and his face began to turn blue." Rohatinsky ran to the Lance Armstrong building to look for a defibrillator. Josh's visiting brother, Jared, ran to the field where a football camp was taking place. Galen Rupp, another runner in Salazar's stable, called 911 on his cellphone. "Alberto was on his stomach with his face on the ground," Josh Rohatinsky continues. "I rolled him over, and the guys from the football field began giving him CPR."
Salazar's heart had stopped. Four minutes is thought to be the most that a human being can survive without a pulse; after six minutes, medical science considers a person to be dead. Salazar's heart did not beat for 14 minutes.
Members of the Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue squad arrived within four minutes of Rupp's call. They applied paddles to Salazar -- "Like they do on TV," Rupp says -- and three times tried to shock his heart into beating on its own. They finally succeeded on the fourth try, but in the ambulance his heart stopped again. The printout from the heart monitor, which Salazar has kept, reads like split times from the ultimate interval workout: Again on the way to the hospital his heart stopped, and then again, and again. In all it took eight shocks over 26 minutes for his heart to beat and blood to flow on their own without interruption. In a cast of heroes, the biggest turned out to be two men working at the football camp: Louis Barahona, a combat medic with the National Guard, and Doug Douglass, an emergency-room doctor who had played outside linebacker at Oregon. Because they immediately began administering CPR, Salazar's brain never went without oxygen. Thus he was spared any brain damage and able to stage an astonishingly quick recovery. From his hospital bed he discussed workouts with his runners, and nine days later he was back with them at the track.
If today Salazar doesn't walk around in a state of abiding wonder, it may be because he has experienced miracles before. In 1990, during a pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia, he awoke one morning to find that his set of rosary beads had turned from silver to gold. Months before his own heart attack he had given the wife of a neighbor in a coma a crucifix and rosary blessed, respectively, by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II. She put them on her husband's nightstand, and he recovered.
After Salazar suffered his heart attack, that woman placed the crucifix by his hospital bed and wrapped the rosary in his hand. They were the first things he saw when he came to. Upon hearing that another woman had survived a heart attack while out running on the day he suffered his, Salazar passed the objects on again. "I gave them to her parents while she was in a coma," he says. She too has recovered.
It's all enough to make one believe in a force greater even than that of the most strong-willed athlete. Which is saying a lot if you consider Salazar that benchmark. As obsessives go, few are more devoted than the anti-Castro Cuban émigré, and Salazar was raised by one. His father, José, had been a schoolmate of Fidel Castro's, serving first in the rebel forces that overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista, then as a civil engineer for the new regime. One day in 1960 Che Guevara ordered José to scrap plans for a chapel in a community-development project, and Castro upheld the decision, declaring that in the new Cuba there would be no place for religion. "That day my father joined the counterrevolution," Alberto says. "The secret police came for him an hour after he left for Miami."
With the family resettled in New England, Alberto soon threw himself into distance running, training and competing as if nothing less than the secret police were at his heels. For a spell he delivered results commensurate with his intensity. One of the leading high school runners in the country, he went on to Oregon, where he won the 1978 NCAA cross-country championship. Two years later, at age 22, he ran his first marathon, in New York City. In the space on the entry blank for predicted time Salazar put down two hours and 10 minutes -- a time faster than Bill Rodgers's course record -- and then went out and won the race, beating Rodgers, in 2:09:41. Back in town a year later he predicted a world record and delivered, Namath-like. In Boston the following spring he beat Dick Beardsley by 10 yards in their epic Duel in the Sun and the following fall won his third straight New York City Marathon. He once described the marathon as a chance to take another runner to "the point where he has to give up," and that's the way he ran -- as if he were engaging others to subdue them, in a kind of foot-to-foot combat. He spoke matter-of-factly about the heat of his Latin temperament and how he could turn it up to his advantage. To fellow marathoner Amby Burfoot, who gently suggested that he might be entering too many races, he snapped, "Well, I've been doing pretty well at all of them, wouldn't you say?" From his Catholic upbringing he seemed to take all the discipline and sacrifice, but none of the humility. "Running became important to me for its own sake," he says now. "I wanted to be the greatest distance runner in the world. I was 23 and a few seconds off the world record in the 5 and 10K and thought I could do it all. Faith definitely became secondary. On Sundays, I was always sure to get my 20 miles in, but I was too tired to go to Mass."
After one too many near-death experiences, his body began to push back. He suffered his first marathon loss in the spring of 1983, finishing fifth in Rotterdam. Three straight times that summer he lost races on his home track in Eugene, Ore., the high seat of American distance running. He came down with bronchitis before the Worlds in Helsinki that August and, entering the 10,000 meters anyway, finished last. The next summer he finished 15th in the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics. At one point he logged more than 100 miles a week with a stress fracture. Overtraining led to illness and injury and even, he believes, a suppressed endocrine system. He ran long races, but he wasn't running the long race. "I thought I was going to just push through it," he says, "that it was just a little slump."
Today Salazar the coach practices a restraint that Salazar the competitor never knew. "I needed someone to be strong and firm with me, to hold me back," he says. "Now I coach this young talent and sometimes say, 'You need to take a break.' Whereas Bill [Dellinger, his coach at Oregon] would say, 'Well, O.K., Alberto, you're a big boy,' and I'm thinking, He's not telling me no. Runners are so used to pushing through pain, it's very hard sometimes to make rational decisions."
In 2001, with several million dollars from Nike, Salazar launched the Oregon Project, a challenge to the African hegemony in distance running. The program brought to Beaverton a handful of promising U.S. runners and gave them every legal advantage extant, from space-age training aids to the amenities of the Nike campus, which include a fitness center, testing labs, a two-mile wood-chip trail and the soft grass field on which Salazar would eventually collapse. But four years later the Oregon Project had produced only one moderately successful runner, Dan Browne, a 2004 U.S. Olympian in the 10,000 meters and the marathon. The lesson, Salazar says, is that "you can't take mediocre runners and expect them to achieve world-class results."
Salazar has since reconstituted the group, but with a twist. He's trying to develop 5,000- and 10,000-meter runners, and if they happen to be well suited to the marathon, he'll urge them to build up to that distance -- but only gradually, at the proper juncture in their careers. Unless a male runner has near-27:30 speed at 10,000 meters, Salazar doesn't regard his potential as world-class and won't take him on.
After his fall from the top in 1983, Salazar explored virtually everything to resurrect his own career: a Finnish masseur; a training pilgrimage to Kenya; a psychologist who believed you could tap into cosmic energy by running with your palms up. Now he channels all his intensity into the hunt for an edge for his heirs. Refinements in form, newfangled treadmills, high-altitude simulators, advances in diet -- pick up a second or two per mile from each and, he believes, U.S. distance runners might overcome the disadvantages of affluent sea-level living enough to become competitive after two decades of essential irrelevance. "Any little thing he can find, he'll point out," says Rupp. "Any way he can get a competitive advantage, obviously within the rules, he's willing to do. You want to take advice from other people but at the same time always look for the cutting edge."
Salazar's current charges -- in addition to Rupp and Josh Rohatinsky, they include Amy Yoder-Begley and the husband-and-wife team of Kara and Adam Goucher -- share other characteristics. They all attend religious services or at least are spiritually inclined. And many have worked through some stretch of debilitating injury, which leads Salazar to believe that a lighter training touch will pay immediate dividends. "All the things that happened to me are a kind of blessing," he says. "People say, 'Salazar, he'll burn people out.' It's just the opposite: Because of what I've been through, [I won't do that]. I believe that if you have enough faith, you can achieve extraordinary things. They don't always come with a bolt out of the blue or some apparition.
"Those guys spent 26 minutes trying to get my heart started again. And I wonder, Why didn't they just give up?"
In the face of the depth and daunting results of their African counterparts, why don't U.S. distance runners just give up?
No sport renders judgments more ruthlessly than running. "It's your exact time on this exact track," Salazar says. "How you're improving and how you rank is based completely on that stopwatch, and anyone can get on the Internet and see exactly where everyone stands." The Internet tells a brutal truth: Last year more than 400 Kenyans broke two hours, 18 minutes in the marathon -- and only 31 U.S. runners did. Ethiopians, Kenyans and Moroccans won eight of the 12 medals in the men's distance events at the 2004 Olympics. Not since 1992 has a U.S. runner won an Olympic medal on the track at a distance longer than 800 meters.
Salazar ticks off the ironic circumstances that seem to cast the U.S. as a Third World country in distance running: "As big as we are, we have fewer people to draw on. In Kenya there are probably a million schoolboys 10 to 17 years old who run 10 to 12 miles a day. That's how they get to and from school. The average Kenyan 18-year-old has run 15,000 to 18,000 more miles in his life than the average American -- and a lot of that's at altitude. They're motivated because running is a way out. Plus they don't have a lot of other sports for kids to be drawn into. Numbers are what this is all about. In Kenya there are maybe 100 runners who have hit 2:11 in the marathon -- and in the U.S., maybe five."
With those figures, coaches in Kenya can train their athletes to the outer limits of endurance -- up to 150 miles a week -- without worrying that their pool of talent will be meaningfully depleted. Even if four out of every five runners break down, the fifth will convert that training into performance, at least over the short term. "You can't change where you were born or that you're only starting at 14," Salazar says. "But once you understand what you're up against, you can decide not to make it any worse. With the few athletes we get who show talent, we have to do everything right. We can't get impatient. We can't screw up like I did."
Salazar's brother Rick kiddingly offers a solution: Send school buses to Kenya. Instead, Alberto adds training volume, but with a built-in margin of safety. Thus his runners train up to 120 miles a week, but only 90 to 100 outside. They get in the other 25 or so on underwater and antigravity treadmills, to lessen the pounding and resultant stress on joints and bones. "Muscularly, very little good happens beyond 100 miles a week," Salazar says. "You actually lose strength at that point. By doing antigravity and underwater work, you can get the cardiovascular benefits of the extra mileage without the negative muscular effects. It's like lifting weights -- at some point you have to allow for recovery."
In addition to employing such Nike-underwritten gadgetry, he obsesses over form. Salazar himself was what's known among runners as a bumblebee, after the insect whose technique suggests that it shouldn't be able to fly. Instead of driving his body forward with every stride, Salazar was a "sitter" who "jammed the ground with each step," as he puts it. "I succeeded despite inefficient form. Eventually my bad mechanics caught up with me." The benefits of good form may seem infinitesimal, but over years, every properly executed footfall and arm pump will save time and reduce stress and ultimately provide a substantial advantage.
Yet even that's not enough. "Even if you have perfect form, you've got to do drills and exercises or you'll lose it," says Salazar, who admiringly watches older African runners follow programs dedicated to maintaining strength and flexibility. "Distance runners used to be known for not being good at other sports. We need to make them athletes. I think I could have run three minutes faster and had a longer career if I'd taken into account the importance of overall fitness. You watch the Ethiopians and Kenyans, and they do drills and drills. They don't just kick the door open and go out and run. Even a good energy drink could give you two or three minutes, and I never ate a good combination of protein and carbohydrates."
Finally, Team Salazar lives in airtight houses and apartments retrofitted with machines that thin the air to simulate the atmosphere at 12,000 feet. The goal is to fool the body into producing more red blood cells, those Sherpas of oxygen. "Some people say it's a lot of hocus-pocus," Salazar says. "But you know what? We're at sea level, and [Kenyans] are at 8,000 feet; without altitude simulation we'd have no chance to compete at the top level. And the treadmills are keeping our runners healthy. We're using science in an ethical, legal way to have a chance to be competitive."
Salazar draws two lines on a graph. The ascending one describes an athlete's aerobic capacity, which increases with training into one's 30s. (Portugal's Carlos Lopes and Kenya's Paul Tergat, who set world records in the marathon at ages 38 and 34, respectively, are advertisements for a mature cardiovascular system -- as was Salazar, who had an astonishing, drought-breaking victory at age 35 in the 53.75-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa in 1994.) The descending line describes speed and power over time -- the toll of the road. A runner's great opportunity lies where these two lines intersect.
Salazar sees his challenge as maximizing the aerobic fitness of his athletes while making sure their regimen doesn't so compromise muscular strength that they break down. Despite their history of injuries, none of the runners he has assembled in Oregon -- knock wood -- has had a lengthy period of debilitation since joining him. "They've all seen it: The program is working," Salazar says.
Indeed, Kara Goucher won a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at this summer's World Championships in Osaka -- the first time a U.S. woman had won a medal in a distance event on the track at the Worlds or Olympics in 15 years. Then, in late September, in the Great North Run in Newcastle, England, Goucher ran a U.S. best in the half-marathon, beating the women's marathon world-record holder, Britain's Paula Radcliffe, by nearly a minute. At the same event Rohatinsky, the 2006 NCAA cross-country champion (at Brigham Young), finished fifth, only 17 seconds behind Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa, the victor in the 2004 New York City Marathon. And Rohatinsky had never before competed at such a long distance. Salazar raves about Rohatinsky's potential in the marathon. "Josh has the perfect build and stride," says the coach, who's eager to see how the runner will fare in his first-ever marathon, at the Olympic trials this Saturday in Manhattan's Central Park. "He's not just a speed guy, he's a great hill runner."
Meanwhile Rupp, a junior at Oregon and far too young to be consigned to the marathon, is showing promise on the track. His personal best in the 10,000 meters -- 27:33.48 -- is the fastest ever run by a U.S.-born collegian. "Galen is only 21," Salazar says. "If he makes a one-minute improvement over the next five years, he can be right there."
Salazar was Rupp's confirmation sponsor. Rohatinsky is a devout Mormon. Amy Yoder-Begley and Kara Goucher were raised Methodists, and Goucher's husband, Adam, has passed along Salazar's talismanic crucifix and rosary to his Roman Catholic father, who's struggling with cancer. Salazar says chatboard charges that he "brainwashes" his athletes are "silly," pointing out that his runners' religious beliefs were formed before he took them on. Still, he does confess to a bias toward runners of religious faith. "Josh's Mormon background is such an important part of why he's so good," Salazar says. "He just does what he's told, completely on faith. Like a good Catholic, he believes that others are put in authority over you and you trust in them. He has stability and mental toughness, and his faith has a lot to do with it. And he's patient, which is what you need as a marathoner.
"Take it from someone who's been there: Running by itself isn't necessarily going to make you happy. Happiness has got to come from somewhere else."
Says Rupp, "Alberto and I have that faith that He has a plan for everything, and it helps. We don't ever get too worried that, 'Oh, man, it's going to take so long to catch up with those guys.' If it's His will not to catch them, so be it. It's almost easier for us, not to have to worry about that."
Salazar has a date this late-September afternoon with a team from Portland's Providence Heart and Vascular Institute, the program that treated him after his heart attack. Public-affairs officers want to devote several pages of a guide to heart-healthy living to Salazar's story. After an interview they fan out across the Nike campus, seeking backdrops for a photo of Salazar and the doctors who fixed him up a few months earlier. In whatever grand plan the Lord has for him, Salazar is comfortable with a place in the public square, where he can do for the fight against heart disease what Lance Armstrong is doing to battle cancer: raise awareness and save lives as an athlete turned survivor.
Back in the early 1980s, in the midst of winning race after race, Salazar accepted an invitation to visit the Australian Institute of Sport outside Canberra. It was there that testers measured his cardiac output and declared him to have the most prodigious heart of any elite athlete they had seen. I guess I'll never have heart trouble, Salazar told himself at the time.
Only a few years ago he reminded himself of that test Down Under and the longevity it seemed to promise, even though he had lost both grandfathers to heart disease, one at age 52; his father is a survivor of two heart attacks; and his late mother suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes. "I had one of the strongest hearts in the world," he says. "I was so naive to think that." The heart may be a muscle, but it doesn't lend itself to applications of Ben-Gay -- and there's all sorts of plumbing that goes with the pump.
After the photo shoot Salazar's cardiologist, Todd Caulfield, pulls him into an empty office for a quick checkup. Salazar peels off a long-sleeved tricot. A Nike swoosh tattoo graces his sleek upper torso, and a defibrillator, installed after the heart attack to treat arrhythmia, bulges like a pack of Luckys beneath the skin on his left breast. Caulfield listens with a stethoscope, then takes a marker to a white board and sketches welters of arteries. He points to the right coronary artery, from which in June he cleared the 70% to 80% blockage that had caused Salazar's heart attack. (The cardiologist had to custom-make the stent because of his patient's unusually wide-gauge arteries -- which may explain why Salazar had such extraordinary cardio output.) Then Caulfield indicates another obstruction, in the left anterior descending coronary artery, a blockage of 50% to 60%. He had left it alone, Caulfield says, because there was less risk in leaving the blockage than in going in to treat it. The best course, Caulfield says, is for Salazar to monitor his own symptoms and come in for "surveillance" stress tests every six months or so.
Caulfield had mentioned the second blockage in the early summer, but there had been so much for Salazar to process that he hadn't entirely grasped its implications. Today he's alarmed. How is he supposed to recognize an imminent heart attack? The onset of his episode in June had been marked not by sharp, anginalike pain but by a much vaguer discomfort. He almost went for a run on the morning he was stricken but didn't, as much because he was running late as because his primary-care physician had told him not to run until an echocardiogram could be taken for his neck pain.
"I'm just supposed to know?" he asks Caulfield.
He's just supposed to know.
The day after the consultation Salazar feels out of sorts. "Crappy," he says. He'd like to think it's because Caulfield dialed back his high-blood-pressure medication. He still feels headachy, and when he runs (with a heart monitor to make sure his pulse never exceeds 130 beats per minute), he feels discomfort again at the back of his neck -- the same place he felt it just before the heart attack. "He's not," his wife, Molly, says dryly, "one to call attention to his aches and pains."
The discomfort will persist over the next several weeks. Finally Caulfield schedules an angiogram for Oct. 16. By actually seeing inside the artery with ultrasound, an angiogram can provide the best possible read on the extent of blockage. In the meantime Salazar is on orders not to run at all.
On Oct. 11, in Eugene to meet with Rupp, Salazar parks his car a block and a half from Rupp's apartment and jogs over. "Right then it became apparent," he said later. "I had that uncomfortable feeling in the back of my neck again. Nothing should happen that fast just from a short jog. I knew it wasn't the high-blood-pressure medication." Rupp drives Salazar to Eugene's Sacred Heart Medical Center, where Alberto and Molly's three children -- Tony, 25; Alex, 23; and Maria, 16 -- were born. An emergency angiogram reveals that the 50% to 60% blockage is actually 90%. Doctors insert another stent and tell Salazar that, if not for this intervention, he probably would have suffered another heart attack within 24 hours.
So it turns out that there might be virtue not only in imposing one's will but also in submitting it to something else. "It's all reinforced by the events of the last few months," Salazar says. "When it's all over and I'm done coaching, I want my athletes to feel I've helped them runningwise, but lifewise, too. I still want them to run well, but not at all costs, where it overpowers everything else. If I were to question Josh's decision not to run on Sundays, I'd deserve to get another heart attack, on the spot."
Marathoning isn't life, as Alberto Salazar once believed. Rather, life is a marathon, and in at least one miraculous instance it ends and, after an interlude the length of a newscast, begins again. Out of respect for the grace of a second chance, you put one foot in front of the other, and by doing so, you signal to the hearts of millions, to say nothing of your own, that you're ready to run into whatever life has left for you