When it was all over in Eugene, Ore. last Saturday and the three-man U.S. Olympic marathon team for Montreal had been decided, Frank Shorter, the winner, said he had never had an easier race; Bill Rodgers, who finished second, said he had thought about retiring from the sport at 24 miles; and Don Kardong, the third man, jumped into the steeplechase pit because he couldn't think of anything to say.
Shorter's time for his trouble-free, relatively effortless run on a cool, windless afternoon was 2 hours, 11 minutes, 51 seconds, which was less than one minute slower than the Olympic marathon he won in Munich in 1972 and more than four minutes faster than his time for the 1972 Trial over the same Eugene course. Alongside Shorter nearly every step of the way for 26 miles 385 yards through the flowering Willamette River valley was Rodgers, the late-blooming distance runner from Melrose, Mass. who won the 1975 Boston Marathon in 2:09:55, less time than it had ever taken an American to do what legend tells us Phidippides did in 490 B.C. But Phidippides, who had never heard of splay-heeled Nikes or ERG (electrolyte replacement and glucose) or expense-paid trips to Olympia, died at the end of his run, whereas Rodgers survived to race again, though a little the worse for wear. As he limped off the University of Oregon's Hayward Field track and into an office under the grandstand where USOC drug testers waited for urine samples, his eyes were bloodshot, his bony shoulders were hunched and his system was so dehydrated that an hour and a quarter later it had still not produced a testworthy sample.
Nevertheless, the first meeting at the distance of the country's two best marathoners was what the crowd of 11,000 knowledgeable Eugene track fans had come to see, and Rodgers had held his own. The order of the finish was as predicted; its closeness, however, was not. Shorter, who is also a very good 10,000-meter runner (27:46), is noted for being able to throw a 4:38 mile at his pursuers about the middle of a race and letting them decide what they are going to do about it—not an easy matter after, say, 18 miles. Said Kenny Moore, Shorter's teammate at Munich and a late scratch at the Trials because of pneumonia, "He makes you pay for staying with him. He has the physical ability to run a burst and the emotional stability to hold the lead. For a lot of them, being in the lead is a great ordeal."
As it turned out this time there was no need for Shorter's midrace burst. Shorter and Rodgers had the race under control by the 15-mile mark and neither ever tried to break away. Their times at each of the five-mile checkpoints from 10 to 25 were identical.
May 30, 1976
"Our unspoken plan," said Shorter, sitting on the infield grass after the race, "was to run hard through the first 20 and ease off for the last six. The last six is what rips you up, and if it is bad it can take you two or three months to get it back. This wasn't that tough." Despite the ease of his victory, Shorter seemed curiously pessimistic about his Olympic chances. "I'm only the third or fourth fastest in the world," he said.
It was not until, shoulder to shoulder, they came off the foot bridge that crosses the Willamette River, with less than a mile to go, and with a two- or three-minute lead over Don Kardong and Tony Sandoval, who had been battling it out for third, that Rodgers began to drop off sharply with leg cramps. Going up Agate Street toward Hayward Field and the finish, Shorter, thinking that Rodgers was immediately behind him, was startled when he looked around to find his running mate had dropped 20 yards back. Shorter considered slowing up to encourage Rodgers but chose not to for fear that cramps might set in. "He suddenly found himself alone on the track and almost embarrassed," said Moore. "He looked like he might stop and urge Rodgers to hurry up. But Rodgers was by then beyond accelerating."
Rodgers' left leg was flailing sideways as he came onto the track. After one lap he reached the finish line in 2:11:58, seven seconds behind Shorter.
Lest anyone think that the Trial was the piece of cake Shorter made it look, it should be noted that of the 71 starters, each of whom had qualified with a 2:23 marathon or better within the last 13 months, only 49 finished. And of those, 28 had times higher than the qualifying standard, even though the course was nearly level and the weather was perfect. In some cases good runners who could have been contenders showed up in spite of illnesses and training-induced injuries, hoping for miraculous remission or merely loth to let thousands of miles of training go to waste. Gary Tuttle, for instance, one of the favorites for the third spot on the team, had been running 120 miles a week since December. On the Tuesday before the Trial, while he was jogging to work at his father's sporting goods store in Ventura, Calif., he suddenly pulled up with severe pain in his left ankle. The foot doctor who treated him said he may have torn the scar tissue from an earlier injury. "I think stress makes things happen that might not happen ordinarily," said Tuttle. "You get pneumonia like Kenny or tear things like me." Though he hobbled to Eugene anyway and was in 13th place after 10 miles, Tuttle was soon forced out. The same was true of Steve Hoag of Minneapolis, who ran a 2:11:54 at Boston last year but had been having sciatic nerve problems this year. He started, but could not finish.
A larger factor, though, in the high mortality rate en route, was the early pace. The leaders, Shorter bunched among them, reached the five-mile point in 24:41. At 10 miles the bunch had shrunk to three—Shorter, Rodgers and Barry Brown—and they were clocked in 49:35. "They're burning it up!" said Sam Bell of Indiana University, one of the assistant track and field coaches for Montreal, as he watched the leaders pass the Oregon football stadium on the first of the 11½-mile loops. At 15 miles Shorter and Rodgers passed the clocker in tandem at 1:14:26. The leaders had averaged sub five-minute miles for 15 miles.
Brown, 32, hung on to third place for more than 20 miles but finally had to quit. Ed Mendoza, 22, of Arizona State, who ran the fastest 10,000 of the year at last month's Drake Relays, gave up at around 17 miles. Charlie McGuire of Penn State, another 10,000-meter man, ran the fastest 10 miles of his life but dropped out at 20 to save his shins for the 10,000 at the track and field Trials next month. "This will be my second and last marathon," he said. "I think marathoners are crazy."
Kardong, a former Stanford runner, the longest and lankiest of the starters at 6'3" and 150 pounds, and his friend, Tony Sandoval, a 22-year-old senior at Stanford, plotted their survival in the early going, laying back for the first 10 miles, running easily, keeping each other's spirits up, waving to friends, Kardong ebullient, Sandoval smiling diffidently.
As they passed the 10-mile mark Kardong was 26th and Sandoval was right behind him. They were still together at 15 but they had moved up some—Sandoval to 11th, Kardong to 12th. By 20 they were sixth and seventh. In the next mile, with a tremendous effort, Sandoval took third and Kardong moved into fourth. Their strategy had worked. They had beaten everybody else; now it was time to race each other.
It was between the 22nd and 23rd mile that Kardong caught Sandoval and passed him, finishing in 2:13:54. Later, his green eyes filled with tears, Sandoval said, "He's really a good friend. I didn't chase him."
Nor did Kardong entirely relish the moment. "It was horrible when it finally came down to leaving him. I was just hoping we could catch Rodgers or Shorter."
Sandoval will continue running when he goes to medical school and in 1980 he will be 26. For Shorter and Rodgers, who are 28, and Kardong, 27, now is the time. "Tomorrow I'll jog 10 miles or so," said Shorter. "In four days I should be up to 20. In about five days I'll be able to do light intervals and in 10 days I should be back to the kind of workouts I was doing a week ago."
Rodgers hugged Jackie Hansen, the women's world-record holder, and postponed his retirement. Kardong, dripping steeplechase water, said, "I wanted to yell something at the end and I thought about what it would be for miles, but I couldn't think of anything, so I just threw up my hands."