Alberto Salazar knew he was there—he had been there a long time—trailing behind him like a cape. But there was nothing more for Salazar to do now but push on, as fast as he prudently could. Pitched slightly forward in full flight, staring fixedly ahead, his face expressionless, Salazar had set a blistering pace in the 5,000-meter run at last Friday's Mill-rose Games. Rushing through the first mile in 4:13.8, a split suggesting a world indoor record in the making, the 22-year-old winner of the 1980 New York City Marathon had the Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,211 shifting in the seats. But more than the splits were stirring them now.
Directly behind Salazar, not more than two yards back as they raced into the final six of the 34-plus laps, was Suleiman Nyambui, a spindly-legged Tanzanian who was running 12 miles a day, back and forth to school, when he was all of eight years old. He has since developed into one of the world's leading distance runners. Nyambui (pronounced ny-ahm-boo-ee), a junior at the University of Texas at El Paso, won both the 5,000 and 10,000 runs at last year's NCAA outdoor championships. And, coming off that, the silver medal in the 5,000 at the Olympics in Moscow. Now Nyambui was waiting to kick for the world record.
It seemed particularly fitting that the final minutes of this 74th Wanamaker Millrose Games should have found Nyambui tracking Salazar so swiftly. It had been a night of superior performances achieved with memorably dramatic effect. Winging off the pace in a surpassing display of strength and speed, Don Paige had raced to a world indoor record in the 1,000-yard run with a clocking of 2:04.9—two-tenths faster than Mark Winzenried's record of 2:05.1, set on an eight-lap track in Louisville nine years before. And Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan, also rousing himself off the lead, had swept past countryman Ray Flynn and won the mile in 3:53.0, by two full seconds the fastest Wanamaker Mile in history and equal to the third-fastest indoor clocking of all time. And while the men were running in circles, Joni Huntley was soaring. Coming off surgery to repair a torn muscle in her right foot, the 24-year-old assistant women's track coach at Oregon State set an American indoor record of 6'4¾" in the high jump, surpassing by half an inch her own mark set at the Millrose Games last year. And as an early-evening fillip, the fans got a look at Georgia's Herschel Walker performing creditably as a sprinter. The 18-year-old tailback ran a 6.25 in his heat of the 60-yard dash before finishing last in the finals.
But it was the 5,000 that stirred the most anticipation, for the field was perhaps the finest ever assembled at the distance indoors. The presence of Salazar, the engaging young marketing student from the University of Oregon by way of Wayland, Mass., made it doubly attractive. Salazar arrived at the New York City Marathon last fall announcing that he felt capable of running 2:10 in that, his very first, marathon. "I'd like to—I intend to—beat Billy Rodgers at his own game," he had said. And he stunned everyone by not only beating Rodgers at his own game but by also going the distance in 2:09.41, a New York record.
February 16, 1981
So here he was, back in the Big Apple and ready to make a run at another of the world's premier distance men. Salazar didn't boast that he would beat Nyambui. Neither did he say he made the trip to run second to him. Salazar had raced only twice since the marathon—he set a U.S. road record of 22:04 for five miles on Jan. 4 and then won a two-mile indoor race in Portland, Ore. the week before the Millrose. But he sensed he was ready to run fast enough to beat the American indoor record of 13:40.6 easily and even to threaten the world indoor mark of 13:20.8, set five years ago by Emiel Puttemans in Paris.
"I have to go out and break Nyambui early," Salazar said the night before the race. "I'd like it if someone else picked up the pace, but I can't count on that. I'll probably have to do it myself. If it comes down to a kick, I'll be dead."
Some view Salazar as a boastful, even cocky, competitor, but they are in error. If he sounds rash, he says, it is only because he knows his own capabilities and simply wishes to assess his chances intelligently. "I'm worried about Nyambui first," he said. "If I beat him, I'll beat everybody. I am less confident than I was before the marathon. They're saying I'm the favorite, and that's ridiculous. Suleiman has to be the favorite."
The 27-year-old Nyambui understood just how mentally and physically unyielding Salazar can be. But Nyambui himself was steeled young as a competitor. He was born in the town of Muriti, on an island along the southern coast of Lake Victoria, the son of a farmer. At the age of eight he began to run to school every day, carrying his books and lunch—sweet potatoes, bananas and slices of sugarcane. "Other children would join us along the way," Nyambui says. "We had fun. Later, when I was 12, I went to another school farther away and I had to run seven miles up there and seven back."
"Running in this unstructured fashion, you build a lot of strength," says Frank Shorter. "You don't burn out mentally." As a teen-ager, Nyambui eventually got involved in soccer as well as track. "I was very ambitious for sports," he says. "But my government told me I could not do soccer. Too many injuries. So I did only track." There is a kind of unbridled joy about Nyambui. "Nyambui loves to laugh," says Salazar's teammate at Oregon, Rudy Chapa. "Tell him the dumbest joke and he'll roll on the ground."
But Nyambui stepped to the line for the 5,000 as grimly as the hunter leaving for the chase. And that was exactly what he was. Just as Salazar knew what he had to do, so did the Tanzanian. "Before I came here, I was reading newspapers about this race and I was getting many calls from my friends on how the race would be," Nyambui said. "They say, 'Make sure you're close to this guy. Stay with him.' "
It only sounded easy. Salazar took the lead and went through the first quarter in 62.4, the half in 2:05.7 and opened 20 yards on the field. Nyambui hung back. "It was too fast," he said later. "I took back a little bit." He was looking for 65-second quarters, but Salazar did the third quarter in 63.7, the fourth in 64.4. By then he was 30 yards ahead of the field. Now Nyambui began thinking of narrowing the gap. But Salazar moved even farther ahead.
Salazar appeared to be running easily, despite the pace. As he began the second mile, he slowed, and the margin slowly decreased. As they neared the mile-and-a-half mark, Nyambui pulled away from the pack and set out after Salazar. The crowd buzzed. Salazar knew Nyambui was coming.
From the edge of the track on the first turn, Shorter yelled at Salazar, "Twenty yards! He's coming!" The next time around, with 18 laps to go, Shorter yelled again, "Fifteen, but he's working hard!" And Nyambui was. He stretched out in his distinctive, rocking gait, picking it up like a trotting horse that has found his stride. Beads of sweat gathered on his forehead and he looked vaguely worried. With 17 laps to run, Nyambui was only three yards behind. Shorter called his final warning above the din: "Here he comes!" Now Nyambui was right behind Salazar. There was nothing Alberto could do now. Together, in Indian file, the two pressed on. With 6½ laps to go, Salazar tried to rally, surging forward, but Nyambui clung to him.
"I knew I had to get rid of him," said Salazar afterward. "I tried, but it was already a pretty fast pace. It was going to be hard enough to keep that pace. It was a matter of whether he'd be able to hold that pace or not." They were running at a world-record clip, and Nyambui could feel it. He had wanted to make his move with four laps to go, to give himself plenty of time to break clear, but he changed his mind, fearing he couldn't sustain it if he went then.
They were a picture, the two of them out there on the lead—the young American looking grimly determined, as if fleeing for his life, the Tanzanian rocking along behind him, measuring him, looking ready to pounce. Salazar couldn't shake him. "You never really lose hope," Alberto said, "but I knew I was in trouble."
And then, like that, it was over. Stepping to the outside with some two laps to go, Nyambui made his rush, blowing past Salazar in two or three bounds and setting sail on the lead. A roar went up, and the Garden crowd came to its feet. Salazar struggled to stay in touch, but Nyambui was sprinting now and Alberto couldn't keep up. Through the final straightaway, Nyambui sensed the record and strained to the finish, winning by 20 yards in 13:20.3, half a second faster than Puttemans' mark. Salazar finished in 13:23.1, shattering Greg Meyer's American indoor record by 17.5 seconds.
It was Nyambui's first world record, and he knew that Salazar was responsible for it. "I thank Salazar, because without him I couldn't have run this time," he said. "I like somebody who is ambitious, like he is. I was never sure I would win, even when I caught him. It was a tough race."
What Salazar did for Nyambui, Mark Belger had done earlier in the evening for his former Villanova teammate, Don Paige, in the 1,000. But here there was little reason to expect that a world record would be set. Belger had been training only lightly of late, after catching the flu and tearing a muscle in his left buttock, while Paige came to the event off hardly any recent training. Two weeks before the Millrose, while working out at Villanova, he strained the tendons on the inside of his left ankle. He strained them further in the Sunkist meet in Los Angeles and did nothing at all the week before the Millrose. "I've rested totally," he said. "Haven't jogged a step."
Nevertheless, he would run one of the most brilliant races of his illustrious career. Trying to "dissolve the potential" of Paige's kick, Belger sprinted to the lead and smoked through the quarter in 53.6. The tactic pleased Paige. Two years before, when Paige set the Millrose record in this same race, Belger had done the same thing. And Paige had taken advantage of it, roaring off the pace to win. "I was glad to see him take it out so fast," Paige said. "I thought he might take it out for two laps, then hang for four." But at two laps Belger was still widening his advantage on the field. So Paige took out after him. He was still 15 yards behind with four laps to go, but with two laps left he had Belger in his sights. Paige kicked and at the start of the gun lap, catching the smoke from the pistol in his ear, fled past Belger, winning by 15 yards for his world record.
"You owe me one," Belger said to Paige. It was, after all, Paige's second Millrose record off Belger's early foot and at Belger's expense.
The Wanamaker Mile was supposed to belong to Steve Scott, who won at the Sunkist the week before and has been dominant in the event this indoor season. But it was Coghlan who found his old self. He had won three of the last four Millrose miles, but he came to the 1981 season about 10 pounds overweight. Just a month ago, in Johnson City, Tenn., Scott and Flynn beat him by nearly five seconds. "I remember down in Tennessee they all ragged me about how I was getting fat," Coghlan said. "I said, 'You wait. I'll be there at Millrose.' " He was almost there at the Sunkist, where Scott beat him by only .6 second.
As they say about race horses, Coghlan was returning to form. Craig Masback went to the front, as Flynn had hoped he would, and made the pace almost to the final quarter. Then Flynn sprinted past him, opening up a five-yard lead, with Coghlan and Scott in pursuit. With two laps to go, Flynn sensed victory. "I thought I had everybody broken," he said. "With two to go they weren't coming. One and a half to go, they still weren't there. Before these indoor meets, I was sort of a no-name. Now, I thought, 'This must be it!' " In the final lap, though, Coghlan set out for Flynn. Down the back side, Coghlan came to him in a full sprint. "I didn't expect him to go by at all. I expected Scott," said Flynn. He yielded at once, and Coghlan sailed home alone. Scott, coming up fiat, finished fourth. (The next night in Louisville he would catch fire again, setting a world indoor mark of 4:58.6 for 2,000 meters.)
"The zip was back," an ecstatic Coghlan said. "There was something about coming here that made a difference."
Nyambui sensed it, too. He could hear the thunder of the crowd as he overtook Salazar, and it urged him on. At the end of the night he talked about going after Henry Rono's world outdoor record of 13:08.4 in the 5,000. He was fairly striding about the arena, full of himself and looking for someone to whip. Seeing Coghlan at the edge of the track, Nyambui approached him, wound up one arm like a windmill and slapped Coghlan's outstretched hand.
"Next, I race you!" cried Nyambui.
"Three miles," said Coghlan.
"No, no! Mile!"