It was only as the race was upon him that Alberto Salazar felt things coming together. Despite a steady rain last Saturday afternoon in Eugene, Ore., the newness of the outdoor season and the weeks of frantic effort he'd put into assembling a marvelous field for this invitational 10,000 meters in his hometown, there were uplifting signs.
Minutes before, in the final individual race of an Oregon-LSU dual meet, for example, Oregon junior Jim Hill had broken out alone through the rain in the 5,000 and cut almost 18 seconds from his lifetime best with a clocking of 13:30.52, the fastest in the world so far this year. Afterward, Hill ducked into the little metal storage shed at the top of the back-stretch. "Nasty out there," he said.
Salazar was changing into his racing shirt. "You psyched me up by running that," he said to Hill. And as they spoke, the announcement came that the Oregon women's team had beaten UCLA in Los Angeles 69-58 on the strength of Leann Warren's victories in the 800, 1,500 and 3,000 meters. And now 5,868 jubilant, demanding spectators were calling from beneath the roofed stands of Hayward Field for Salazar to bring out his field and defeat it.
The 14 runners began at a deliberate speed, feeling out the track and the others and themselves. José Gomez of Mexico, who had been the last man to fall away from Salazar in Salazar's world-record New York Marathon last October, led at the 440 in 65.7. Salazar took over before the end of a half mile, looking smooth and light. Still the field was a cluster behind him, two and three wide. Then Adrian Royle took the lead, passing the ¾ mile in 3:19.9, and the race fell into single file.
Royle, 23, from Grimsby on the east coast of England and a history major at Nevada-Reno, was running his first 10,000 meters on the track, but he had been invited by Salazar because the last time they had raced, in the TAC National Cross-Country race in November, Royle had not only won, he had crowed. "I knew I had it won the whole way," he'd said. When asked if he was worried about a vengeful Salazar in this race, Royle said, "I don't care about him. The only one I care about is Henry Rono." Even with all his organizing duties, Salazar was well aware of Royle's statement. Yet the outspoken Royle admitted a grudging admiration for Salazar's courage. "If I were putting on a race," he said, "I wouldn't invite any guys who can kick like these Africans."
Salazar would, and did, and thus in fifth ran Suleiman Nyambui of Tanzania and UTEP, who has won a full dozen NCAA track titles at distances from the mile to 10,000 and possesses the silver medal from the 5,000 in the Moscow Olympics. In fourth was Michael Musyoki of Kenya, also a student at UTEP, who six days earlier had set a world best for 10,000 meters on the road, running 27:48 in New Orleans. Before the race Nyambui and Musyoki had waited in their shared motel room as long as possible. "We watched out the window," said Musyoki, "and said, 'Oh, it's raining, let's wait,' and 'Oh, it's still raining...' " They got to the track as the 10,000 field was being called.
"For a mile I felt as fresh as anything," said Musyoki, "but after five laps I didn't know what was happening. It was as if someone were pulling backward on me." The two starkly lean Africans, so splendid at heat dissipation on hot days, couldn't retain enough warmth in the rainy, 50° weather to keep running freely and soon fell back.
Yet Henry Rono, also Kenyan, led past the mile in 4:27.1. Stockier than Nyambui and Musyoki, he seemed better insulated. When Salazar again led at five and six laps, beginning to apply serious pressure, Rono hung close. He's the world-record holder at this distance, with his 27:22.4 run in Vienna in 1978, and he has had many stirring races against Salazar because he ran for Washington State during the span that Salazar ran for Oregon (1976-1981). Rono had beaten Salazar every time. Getting him into this special race had become Salazar's main project.
"Sure, Henry said he'd like to run in Eugene," Salazar had said the day before the race, "but there were all these conditions, little favors. I practically became his agent for two weeks. 'Get me into that race in California the week before, and call me up when you have it arranged,' he told me." Salazar obeyed, and Rono finished second in the Martin Luther King Games 5,000 at Stanford. That race, too, had been in the rain. "It didn't help my confidence," said Rono.
When Salazar went out to meet Rono's plane in Eugene on Monday, Rono wasn't on it. "Thursday night he still wasn't here," said Salazar. For four hours Salazar phoned runners around the country, and at midnight located Rono in Provo, Utah, where he'd gone for altitude training. "He said he wanted a 5,000" said Salazar. "He wasn't ready for a 10,000. I felt he was being irresponsible. It's the result of years of appeasement by meet directors." Salazar told Rono that he expected him to live up to his promise, and that the race would remain 10,000 meters. Rono was in Eugene the next morning.
And he was there at three miles. Only he and Royle had been able to withstand Salazar's relentless pressure. Salazar had run each of the last five laps in 66 seconds, and he had done it by throwing in 20-yard surges on the backstretches, a softening-up tactic he had learned from one Henry Rono.
"I'd have had to really work to get back with Salazar and Rono every time he did that," said Royle. "And the crowd was bloody fantastic, stamping and shouting in unison. And not a partisan crowd just for Al. They were roaring for all of us, for the race itself."
"It's the best crowd in the U.S.," said Rono, and he admitted he needed everything it could give him. "Alberto's pace was too fast to do anything but stay behind and wait. It was very hard." This was vividly apparent. As he cut down the yard or two that Salazar gained with every surge, Rono's face was creased with the effort. "What I was doing was only trying to keep contact," Rono said. "I thought to myself, 'I will go another mile, if I can, and then see.' It was that way to the last mile. I couldn't believe I was going to get him."
Salazar took his two pursuers through quarters of 66, 65.8 and 66.6 seconds, now lapping the tail of the field. At 3¾ miles, the pace was too much for Royle. Sensing him drop behind, Salazar knew one score was settled, but he was in the heart of his race now. The nine laps left to go seemed impossibly far. His face and posture showed it, his shoulders coming forward, his mouth rolling open as if he were carrying a great weight. At the same time, Rono seemed to develop a little rolling hitch in his stride and to toe out more. The crowd stood as they began the last two miles, Salazar surging once more. "I was saying to myself, 'If I let this guy go,' " said Rono, " 'I will be done. If I let go, I will be lost.' "
Both runners were desperately tired. But both have one dominant instinct, which is to win. With three laps to go, Rono seemed the fresher of the two. "Yes," he would say, "I thought then that it was over. It didn't matter if he took off hard then. I knew I could hold him."
Salazar, never a kicker, and obviously having poured himself into the pace without reserve, seemed doomed. And sure enough, down the homestretch, with 500 meters to go, Rono bolted in front. Yet Salazar had the strength to react and hung a yard back. Around the first turn of the last lap he waited, and with 300 yards to go, Salazar put his head down and drove for the lead. Rono held him off as they hit the last turn, the crowd in hysterics. With 150 to go, Salazar attacked with everything he had. Into the stretch they were dead even. For 50 yards Salazar inched to a tiny lead. Rono reached as deep as he could and drew even; then he was in front once more. Five yards from the finish he threw up a hand to signal his victory—and almost lost the race to the indomitable, unbending Salazar. Rono's time was 27:29.90, 8.5 seconds from his world record, and the second fastest of his life. Salazar was timed in 27:30.0, less than a second shy of Craig Virgin's American record of 27:29.16 and a 10-second improvement on his previous best. Royle was third in 27:47.16. It was the greatest 10,000 duel ever fought in this country, and Rono and Salazar were so tired that during their slow victory jog, each was tripping over his short spikes.
Each said he could have run no faster. "I am not close to world-record shape now," said Rono, "but soon I will be. I know the reason my legs felt stiff and heavy was the pace Alberto set. At times I couldn't imagine winning." As he spoke, in the same shed where Salazar had changed, steam rose steadily from his body. Salazar by contrast was shivering even in his sweats.
"I'm recovering quickly," Salazar said. "Happy? Sure, it's my best ever, and it was run mainly on the strength I've built in the last two years, because I haven't done real speed work yet." The margin of his improvement at once plunged him into reassessment of his season's plans. "I had figured to run the Boston Marathon on April 19. That would be a test of the double in the '84 Olympics. If I couldn't do a hard 10,000 and a marathon nine days apart, I sure couldn't do it with four days rest in the Olympics. But suddenly I'm only eight seconds from Henry's 10,000 record." Now Salazar was being tempted to skip Boston, and the month or more of recovery and gradual resumption of training that must follow any hard marathon, in favor of staying with his track racing so he could attempt breaking Rono's record in May or June.
"But the marathon is your best event," said a spectator.
"But I love the 10,000," said Salazar.
"I don't know if I do or not," said Rono, still embarrassed at his early reluctance, "but I'm certainly surprised and satisfied. I'm glad I came."