Together they ran south through Harlem, to the ringing of church bells and the plink of metal drums. Together and alone. Twenty-one miles into Sunday's New York City Marathon, defending champion and world-record holder Alberto Salazar of the U.S. was matching Rodolfo Gomez of Mexico stride for stride down upper Fifth Avenue, while none of the other 14,306 runners had yet left the South Bronx. "What I would like to see is a battle, a competition to the finish," Race Director Fred Lebow had said earlier, and for the first time in the 13-year history of its marathon, New York was seeing just that. Indeed, rarely had two marathoners dueled this fiercely anywhere.
And they weren't fighting merely each other. Stiff head winds and crosswinds had been buffeting the runners since the 10:40 a.m. start on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, slowing them enough so that Salazar's year-old world record of 2:08:13 was well out of reach. "To get the world record today I would have had to run a 2:07 equivalent," Salazar said later. Running even a 2:10 would be difficult for him because of a nagging pain in his side; he had developed a stitch at 13 miles that would stay with him to the finish line. Gomez, meanwhile, was bothered by a stomachache.
Through the 22nd and 23rd miles, the two stayed no more than a stride apart. Gomez, 31, a two-time Olympian from Mexico City, had moved ahead of Salazar and a pack of six others at 17 miles and had not yielded the lead since. If he seemed to be struggling slightly, with his fists punching the air in front of him and his shoulders working, it was only his natural style. As he would say, "Except for Salazar, who was fighting me hard, it was casual, just casual."
At 23 miles Salazar pulled alongside Gomez, and the pair made a sharp right into Central Park. Now nothing would be casual. Gomez planned—or hoped—to remain close to Salazar and then to outkick him in the final 200 meters. Salazar, however, had worked for months on his "surges"—brief bursts of speed used to break the body and spirit of an opponent—and his intention was to throw a series of them at Gomez. "I was worried," Salazar said. "I knew he had more speed in the last quarter mile."
Salazar, 24, had worked on his surging with a different opponent in mind: Dick Beardsley, the Minnesota farm boy who nearly defeated him last April in the Boston Marathon. There, Salazar out-sprinted Beardsley in the last half mile to win by a scant two seconds, 2:08:51 to 2:08:53. All week long in New York, attention had focused on Sunday's rematch. Would Salazar, unbeaten in the three marathons he had run, finally lose one? Or would he take revenge on Beardsley, whose postrace comments at Boston—he had said that a motorcycle and press bus had come too close to him near the finish; Salazar thought it was excuse making—had slightly soured Salazar's victory?
Neither one, actually, for Beardsley was never a factor in New York. His right thigh cramped up early in the race, and his calves gradually tightened. He cut from one side of the pack to the other for the first 10 miles, weaving across the road in a vain attempt, he said, "to find my little groove. I never got comfortable. It was like tossing and turning in bed." Beardsley faded back after 13 miles and finished a dismal 30th in 2:18:12. "I'd like to say I'm sorry to Al for not giving him a better race," he said.
But as Gomez and Salazar cruised along the curving, undulating Central Park roadway, Salazar clearly had all the race he could handle. The two were still together, much like any two weekend jogging buddies, except that thousands of people were standing, sitting on rocks and hanging from trees watching them. The pair even tried to shorten their run—at the minimum, they would race the regulation distance of 26 miles, 385 yards plus a safety factor of 26 yards—by cutting across the road at every turn. Hey, these were a couple of guys New Yorkers could relate to.
And when Salazar put on his first surge with 1½ miles to go, the crowd loved it. Gomez was less thrilled, but he quickly pulled back up to Salazar. Salazar surged again. Gomez caught up, not so quickly. After a third surge, Salazar was encouraged. "I noticed he wouldn't come back to me for 100 yards or so," he said later. "I knew he was starting to break." Salazar surged again.
He also picked up the race tempo; after each surge, he decelerated only slightly. "I didn't want to give him time to rest," Salazar would say. Yet with 600 yards to go, he hadn't shaken free from Gomez. But then came The Cloud.
When several motorcycles veered off the paved roadway onto a dirt patch toward the finishing area, a storm of dust swirled, swallowing up both Gomez and Salazar. So thick was the dust that some bystanders thought a smoke bomb had exploded. "I wasn't worried about it," said Salazar. "At that point I could have held my breath and finished." But Gomez, who had entered the cloud a step behind Salazar, seemed to get lost in it. He came out almost 10 yards behind Salazar, who had thrown in another surge to coincide with the unexpected smoke screen. The race was over. Gomez had no strength left for sprinting, and Salazar beat him to the tape by 35 yards, finishing in 2:09:29 to Gomez' 2:09:33. The times were, respectively, the 13th- and 15th-fastest ever.
Meanwhile, the women's race had become almost no race at all. After leading a small pack for 10 miles, Norway's Grete Waitz pulled far ahead through Brooklyn and Queens. "It's two years since she finished her last marathon and that scares you," said her husband, Jack, alluding to Waitz's recent succession of leg injuries. "Last year [when Grete dropped out of the New York race at 15 miles] I waited at the Queensboro Bridge and Grete never came. I went to the finish but couldn't find her. So I went to the hotel. She was in the room watching television." This time Jack saw his wife not only leave the Queensboro Bridge, the 16-mile mark, with a 50-second lead, but also watched her finish in 2:27:14. Waitz might have come closer to Allison Roe's world record of 2:25:29, set in New York last year, had it not been for the 14 mph wind. "There were no gentlemen out there who wanted to protect us," she explained. Nevertheless, Waitz won her fourth New York title in five years and did so without even taking off her dainty white gloves.
Salazar, while saying he could probably run a 2:05 someday, wasn't doing any boasting. After four victories in as many marathons, all under 2:10, one of them a world record, he wouldn't even suggest that he was unbeatable. "Not ever being beaten doesn't mean that someone is invincible," said Salazar. "It means he played his cards right and was always ready at the right time." As usual, Alberto was the ace.