A Man Who Is As Good As His Word

Alberto Salazar delivered on his bold promise to set a marathon mark in New York City with a glittering time of 2:08:13
November 02, 1981

Alberto Salazar's first clear decision came five miles into the New York City Marathon. The leaders had remained closely bunched as they advanced through a perfect morning for distance running, 50° and overcast, with a moderate, fitful wind. Said Salazar, "I got out there and thought, 'Well, Alberto, the weather isn't going to be an excuse. You had to open your big mouth, so now you're going to have to deliver.' "

Salazar's promise had seemed impossibly rash. He had said as early as last August that in New York he would attempt to break Derek Clayton's world-best time of 2:08:34 in the marathon. Clayton, an Australian, had run that on a still night in Antwerp, Belgium on May 30. 1969 over a smooth and level course that many experts suspect was short. Construction soon after the race changed the course, so those suspicions can never be confirmed. The fastest universally recognized performance was a 2:09:01 by Holland's Gerard Nijboer in 1980 in Amsterdam, but Salazar had said, "If I don't get under 2:08:33, I won't feel I have the record." To do that, he had to average 4:54 per mile for the 26 miles, 385 yards.

The time for five miles was 24:15, a 4:51 average. But Louis Kenny, Ireland's national record holder at 2:12:19, was surging ahead. Salazar had to decide whether to go with him. "Who is he?" Salazar asked John Graham of Scotland, who was the fastest entrant in the race with his 2:09:28 last May in Rotterdam. Graham, running shoulder to shoulder with Salazar, replied that Kenny had run a marathon only two weeks before. "I didn't think he'd hold that pace," Salazar said later. "So I relaxed and let him go."

There were more than 14,000 souls stampeding behind the leaders. Indeed, it had taken more than four minutes for the field to cross the starting line, but for all the leaders cared, the masses might still have been home in their beds. In front it was a traditional race, no different in appearance from those at Boston or Fukuoka, Japan or in the Olympics that have always decided the very best, and in none of these had anyone remotely threatened Clayton's legendary time. A few men, 30 at first, then a steadily dwindling number, clustered in a kind of unspoken unity and sought that arrangement of carriage and arm and head and mood that makes for economy. "My calves felt tight in the first five miles," said Salazar. "Then they didn't exactly get better, but they didn't get worse."

The women's race was led, strongly, by Julie Brown of Santa Monica, Calif., a 1980 Olympian at 800 and 1,500 meters. At seven miles she had a 200-yard lead on Allison Roe of New Zealand, this year's Boston winner, as well as the world-record holder and defending New York champion, Grete Waitz of Norway. Waitz had severely aggravated a case of shin splints during a cross-country race two weeks earlier in Sweden. Two days before the marathon she didn't expect to start. Still, she ran. "She is far from well," said her husband, Jack.

This was the first time that the New York Marathon was covered live on major network television, and an ABC camera truck closely preceded the leaders. That seemed an irresistible magnet for the exposure-hungry in the crowd who darted out for a moment's ignominy. Even on the downslopes of the well-protected Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, fat kids on bikes and roller skates had darted into the runners' path, and motorcycle police had trouble heading them off without themselves endangering the athletes. It brought into frightening clarity what an enormous act of trust a major marathon is. Runners and sponsors and police must assume that all of the two million or more observers who can reach out and touch the leaders will remain benign. Some didn't. At eight miles, Brown was tripped by a spectator who jumped out to be on TV. She barely kept her feet.

A crucial split in Salazar's plan was the time for 10 miles. "Forty-nine minutes would have been perfect," he said. "Much faster than that would mean we'd run too hard too early." His time was 49:05. Salazar's precision and his imperviousness to the antics of this most worrisome of marathon crowds were functions of his profound stability. His judgment is unimpaired by media pressure or competitors' moves or the lashings of howling spectators who want him to replace his measured calm with mad effort despite there being 20 miles to go. Even Salazar's prediction of a 2:08 world record, given so mildly, was an indicator of aloofness from the timid concerns of others. Somebody asked him, and he couldn't be bothered to be secretive, so he answered. "It's nothing virtuous," he said a week before the race, "but I believe in saying what you believe. I feel stupid when people ask me what I'm going to do and I don't tell them."

"But how can you know?" asked the reporters, strangely inflamed. In fact, such predictions are much easier for runners in general and Salazar in particular than, say, calling the round in boxing or the score in football. Salazar predicted 2:08 on the basis of irrefutable numbers. He had won last year in 2:09:41 in his first marathon after having had five weeks of training uninterrupted by injury. This year he had 17. Last year he did five interval miles on a wood-chip trail in 4:42. This year he did six in 4:30. And he had run a personal best—and second-best ever by an American—with his 27:40.69 for the 10,000 in the World Cup at Rome in September. Those close to him were equally confident. Rich Phaigh, his masseur at Athletics West in Eugene, Ore., was taking $100 bets that Salazar would break Clayton's record.

Yet all the measurements of fitness in the world won't win the New York Marathon for you. That's where stability comes in. "I've never had a bad race when my training has gone well," said Salazar, and as long as that connection held, he saw no reason to fret.

"This morning I was so nervous I started to stutter," said Molly Morton, once the University of Oregon women's 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 record holder, who will marry Salazar on Dec. 21. "He said, 'Don't worry. It's going to turn out just as we've planned.' He said he had the best night's sleep since he came to New York."

At 12 miles, Waitz and Roe had cut Brown's lead in the women's race to two seconds. Roe seemed at ease, contained. Just before 13, Waitz mysteriously turned into a side street. "But in a little while she was back with me," said Roe. Brown had built her lead again to 10 seconds. Waitz understood that Roe was keying on her, as the world-record holder. "Why don't you go ahead," she told Roe. "I probably have to pull out." Roe did, and caught Brown at 15 miles, at which point Waitz withdrew. "I wasn't going for a specific time," Roe said. "I was running only to win." Though she was holding a pace that gave her a chance at Waitz's world record, Roe wouldn't know this until 20 miles.

On the approach to the Pulaski Bridge, which carries the runners into Queens and is the halfway point, another crazed spectator ran out, after the unfortunate Graham. "He grabbed him by the shirt," said Salazar, who moved to help Graham, "and seemed to be trying to stuff a dollar bill down the back of his shorts." Graham broke free and was at Salazar's shoulder again as the pack, now down to eight, passed the half-marathon in 1:04:10, perfect pace if the record were to be broken. Salazar must have mistaken the actual midpoint, however, for he understood the split to be 1:04:30. "I felt good," he said. "I knew I'd win at that point, but I also knew that to get the record needed more hard work." He put some in, with miles of 4:59 and 5:02.

The only wrenching test on New York's course similar to the decisive heartbreak hills of Boston is the Queensboro Bridge over the East River into Manhattan between miles 15 and 16. Four men were in contention at its start: Salazar, Rodolfo Gomez of Mexico, Poland's Ryszard Marczak and Mexico's 10,000-meter record holder, Josè Gomez, running his first marathon. "I really felt the wind there," said Salazar. "And the carpet they put down over the sharp grating was really spongy and dead. I felt like I was walking."

Josè Gomez, a short, powerful man, pulled even with Salazar, his face a ceaseless grimace. Salazar again went ahead on the downhill, and as they swung off the ramp and onto First Avenue, the first and only real racing of the day took place. "Gomez didn't look that smooth," said Salazar. "I thought he'd drop back." Salazar hastened Gomez's surrender by averaging 4:43 per mile from 16 to 19. At 86th Street Salazar pulled away. Still the crowd clutched at him. "There were people who got overexcited," he said, "but overall they were terrific. They shouted at me to go on for the record. Once I broke away from Gomez I had to worry about not easing off and just settling for the victory."

This was the stage he had known was coming, when he would have to take the weight of the race alone. He reached 20 miles in 1:37:29. "I knew I had it then," he said. "I felt that if I was near 1:38 I'd have a good shot." The wind was behind him now, and all his opponents far out of sight. There were stretches there, in Harlem at 21 and 22 miles, when he was almost alone with his task. "The last six are hard," he would say, and he showed it then, driving his arms lower, to keep the power in his stride. The early softness of his footfall had become a more wooden placement.

He slowed slightly from his remarkable charge up First Avenue. The 22nd mile was 4:55; the 23rd, 5:02; the 24th, 5:06. "I was running to conserve the record there," he said. "I knew I had it. If someone had been there to force me to race, I think I could have cut another 20 seconds or so." As proof, he ran his 25th in 4:52 as he began to understand it was a certainty. His 26th was a 4:58.

He crossed the finish line in Central Park in 2:08:13, ending all speculation in this, his second attempt, as to who is the greatest marathoner who ever lived. He arrived fists raised, his expression a mixture of relief and joyous vindication. His father, Josè, was waiting for him just beyond the line. As father and son moved to embrace, a coterie of New York policemen leaped between them and threw aside the elder Salazar, the one man among the millions they protected Alberto against, slamming him into a fence. But this is a forceful family. Josè shook them off, shouting, with a splendid indignance, and reached his son. The family gathered as Alberto nearly was sick all over sportscaster Jim Lampley's network blazer. "No sweat," said Molly Morton to a tearful friend, but her eyes were wide with the memory of Alberto's mastery.

Another indicator of that was the fate of all those who had tried to stay with him. Josè Gomez would finish 36th in 2:18:10. Graham would end up 44th in 2:19:13. Jukka Toivola of Oulu, Finland came from far back to place second, having stepped over the corpses of Salazar's challengers. His time was 2:10:52, and he finished more than half a mile behind.

Now it was left to Roe to make it two world records. "The men running around me were wonderful," she said. "They called and cheered and wouldn't let me slow. I realized there was a chance, but my legs were tight. I felt I was going slower and slower." She is a fine miler and ran the final few hundred yards with a loose, long stride that showed that, like Salazar, she hadn't completely destroyed herself in the effort. She finished in 2:25:29 to slice 13 seconds from Waitz's record and called it "a wonderful bonus. I never thought this was a fast enough course for the world record." Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway was second in 2:30:08, and Julie Shea of Raleigh, N.C. third in 2:30:12. Brown faded to ninth.

Because Roe had run still feeling a recent hamstring injury and tendinitis in her right ankle and because she is only 24, it seems certain she will cut the record far more deeply. But that's a hard thing to think about at the end of a marathon. New York Mayor Ed Koch, who seemed curiously giggly about performances that most onlookers regarded with awe and gratitude, said to Salazar, "Well, now we have a new record for you to break next year," and Salazar returned a look that seemed to say, "If I choose to accept the invitation."

"Eventually I think the potential is there to go two or three minutes faster," said Salazar. "I'm only 23. I've got five or six years to improve in the marathon, and there are faster courses, so 2:05-something is possible." But Salazar wished not to look ahead to specific attempts. He will continue to hone his track racing speed. Indeed, he has said, "I'd take Liquori's American record in the 5,000 over winning New York—if I got the chance to call and tell Marty I did it." He will enjoy the great family convocation of his wedding. He will plan systematically to reach new peaks. And from now on he will be sport's foremost man of his word.

PHOTOAt the finish, the fierceness of Salazar's effort matched the accuracy of his prediction. PHOTOWithout Waitz, Roe ran unchallenged, but still lowered the women's mark to 2:25:29. PHOTOFirst to be called on the carpet: Salazar, Josè Gomez, Rodolfo Gomez and Marczak. PHOTOPlagued by shin splints, Waitz (F1) started in the front before succumbing midway. PHOTOAt 13 miles a menacing spectator inexplicably shoved money at the startled Graham. PHOTOA glance askance for the giggling mayor.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)