Ten miles into Saturday's Rotterdam Marathon, John Graham of Scotland, the race's 1981 champion in 2:09:28, began to edge away from the field. Normally that has a salubrious effect on a competitor. Not Graham. Not this time. He turned, saw the 15-meter margin he'd gained and spread his arms wide, palms up, as if to say, "What have I done wrong?" and let the pack catch up.
Marathoners are almost like milers now. Graham was in the race as a rabbit, to set a world-record pace for half the distance, then drop back and eventually out. The only trouble was that the rest of the pack knew it. They had followed him to a 10-kilometer split of 30:21, a second faster than Alberto Salazar of the U.S. had run to that point in his world-best 2:08:13 in New York in 1981. But a few kilometers later it seemed everyone started to think things over. The pack slowed and let Graham go. That was when he began his arm-waving. To be any help at all, he had no choice but to slow as well.
"The race changed," said Rob de Castella of Australia. "It went from fast to tactical. Everyone was conserving, setting himself up, concentrating only on waiting for the right time to make a break."
The runners' caution was a measure of the race's pressure. This is what often happens in Olympic track events. No one wants to exhaust himself by setting the pace, thus risking being outkicked at the end. It's an expression of the mutual respect of all the contenders and of how much each wants to win—purely win, and hang the final time. This wasn't the Olympics, but it was clearly a historic confrontation, being the first marathon involving Salazar, the record holder (insofar as there can be a true record in marathoning, where race courses vary as much as golf courses), undefeated in all four of his marathons (three New Yorks and one Boston), and de Castella, the second fastest ever with his 2:08:18 in Fukuoka, Japan, in late 1981. They weren't alone. Also in the first group of six or seven was Carlos Lopes of Portugal, the 1976 Olympic 10,000-meter silver medalist, who had been second in the World Cross-Country Championships three weeks before (Salazar had been fourth in that race and de Castella sixth). There, too, was Rodolfo Gomez of Mexico, the defending champion, who had driven Salazar to the final quarter mile in last October's New York City Marathon. In fact, of all the claimants to being the best marathoner going, only Toshihiko Seko of Japan, who had won in Tokyo in February with 2:08:38, was absent. "It's going to be the most competitive marathon ever run," de Castella had said.
While milers seem to rise in pairs, as did Bannister and Landy, Ryun and Liquori, Walker and Bayi, Coe and Ovett, the marathon has had a single line of succession, from Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, the 1960 and 1964 Olympic champion, on through Derek Clayton of Australia, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers of the U.S., Seko and Salazar. The spectacular rise of de Castella, who won the Commonwealth Games marathon in Brisbane last fall over a rough, hilly course, beating the formidable Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania in 2:09:18, meant that for the first time in 30 years the two fastest-ever marathoners were racing at their best at the same time.
Yet Salazar and de Castella had followed a serpentine road to Rotterdam. Both are represented in race dealings by the same agency, IMG, which you'd think would help them get together. But when IMG plotted a match race in Brisbane, the Australian Amateur Athletic Association and the International Amateur Athletic Federation quickly moved to squelch it, seeing the role of the agency as a fundamental threat to their control of the sport.
How can this be simply explained? First by noting the eternal weakness of runners, their passion for that ultimate competition, the Olympics. As with all surpassing loves, it has made them vulnerable. Amateur officials always have been able to say to runners, "Do as we wish, or we'll disqualify you from the Games." Runners always have been forced to hang there, between choosing the Olympics and progress.
Until lately. Recent relaxation of the rules on accepting money for performances, brought about by the amazing increase in mass road racing and a concomitant flood of corporate sponsorship, has given promoters and agents the opportunity to round up the best athletes and create profitable races for them that might eventually equal the Olympics in appeal. In any case, such races will not be the traditional national championships and international dual meets that the established authorities want the best athletes to run.
So, instead of saying you can't go to the Olympics if you take money for running, the IAAF has begun saying you can't go to the Olympics if you use an agent to get the money. Thus, IMG's planned Brisbane race was denied official sanction. Enter Rotterdam. Its energetic pursuer of athletes, Michel Lukkien, had been inviting and reinviting Salazar and de Castella since last summer. It's an established race, approved by the Dutch authorities, on a fast course. "I made four trips to the U.S.," said Lukkien. "I told IMG, 'Your image is terrible. Athletes want to run, not wait and wait.' "
Then de Castella committed himself to run, and the rest was easy.
Lukkien went to Salazar. "I told Alberto, 'You know if de Castella breaks your record here, you may not get a chance to attack it for two more years.' That got him."
If a nation is famed for its windmills, the implication is that there's usually wind. The week before the race was depressingly raw and filled with gales. Yet, miraculously, the race day arrived in calm and cool sun. Auspicious, too, were the preparations of the principals.
"Rob is at the top of his form," said de Castella's coach, Pat Clohessy. "And he's calm. He's without conflict. He's prepared to lose, too, if you can understand that in the right sense, how it can keep you balanced, let you make intelligent decisions."
Gomez, 32, had taken his loss to Salazar in New York hard. "The better man won," he said, although he felt he could have withstood Salazar's late-race surging had he specifically trained for it. So after running a personal-best 2:09:12 behind Seko in Tokyo, he had forsaken beer for the duration, left his wife in Mexico City and gone to prepare, "in seclusion. I need to express how seriously I am taking Rotterdam." The seclusion he picked was serious to the point of fanaticism. He trained outside of La Paz, Bolivia, at altitudes up to 13,200 feet. "Now I'm ready," he said when he reached Rotterdam, which is 12 feet above sea level. Indeed, at one point the course dipped to 20 feet below sea level. "If I don't do it this time, I don't know if I possibly can."
Salazar had strained a groin muscle in the cross-country championships, but in Holland he enjoyed the services of a ferocious Finnish masseur, Ilpo Nikkil√§. Soon the leg bothered him not at all. "I've never seen him so relaxed the day before a marathon," said New York City Marathon Director Fred Lebow.
And so they had begun, beside the Town Hall of Rotterdam, running on Coolsingel Street to the dike along the river Maas (which is what the Dutch call the last few miles of the Rhine that make Rotterdam the world's largest port) and turning north for three laps around the immense Kralingse Bos wood and lake. Daffodils lined the road. The crowds were excited and pushy, and that other Dutch staple, bicyclists, was always present. One man pedaled so menacingly near the runners that a Dutch Amateur Athletic Federation official, Wim Verhoorn, leaped from a car and shoved him into a canal.
The leaders ran on, and watched each other, and waited. At the halfway mark they were 18 seconds slower than world-record pace. Eight kilometers later they were a full minute off. "It felt slow to me," de Castella said later. "The plan was to wait until the last three or four miles. Then I wasn't going to surge, but run steadily faster to the end." De Castella, 26, a lab technician at Australia's Institute of Sport in Canberra, is 5'11" and carries most of his 155 pounds in his legs. He ran straight up, heavy on his heels, and often with his jaw cocked to one side, skewing his mustache.
Salazar's stride was changeless, his face controlled. At one point, after drinking from a plastic squeeze bottle, he offered it to Gomez, but Gomez already had one. Salazar looked through the whole pack, but no one needed water, so he let it drop. By these details it was clear that no one was in difficulty, though Armand Parmentier of Belgium seemed always on the verge of falling back. The sweetest mover was the 36-year-old Lopes, lighter and smoother than when he battled Lasse Viren in the Montreal Olympic 10,000. Gomez, on the other hand, seemed to lunge and bound, as if he were still running his Andean trails. In fact, he was making allowance for a large blood blister on his foot.
With a little more than five kilometers to go, de Castella made his move. Salazar had taken them through the last 5,000 in 15:48. De Castella would do the next in 14:47. Only Lopes could stay with him for long.
"I felt fine until he did that," said Salazar. "I held on for a half mile, but I knew I had to let him go. After he got away, all I could do was try to at least keep close, in case he slowed."
That was the one thing de Castella knew he could not do. "I expected them all to come right with me," he said. "I was surprised that only Carlos did. But I didn't know how far back the others were once they were hidden behind the press and TV trucks." Then he dismissed them. He had enough to deal with in Lopes.
With two miles to go, they ran on a cobblestone lane between a dike and gingerbread Dutch houses. De Castella quickened the pace a notch more on an uphill. Lopes went with him, and then drew abreast and took a look into de Castella's face. Side by side they raced. With 1,000 meters to go, de Castella was thrashing low with his arms, his head twisting with the effort. Lopes was feather-footed and efficient. His best 10,000 is almost 48 seconds faster than de Castella's (27:24.39 to 28:12.20). De Castella knew this full well.
"But I hadn't given up," he would say. "I knew I had strength. I knew he had little experience in marathons. [Lopes dropped out in New York last year at 20 miles in his only other try at the distance.] I hoped that the fatigue had built up in his legs more than in mine, that he couldn't go with me one last time."
De Castella was right, just barely. When he lifted into a full sprint with 300 meters to go, he opened a gap and hit the finish two seconds ahead, in 2:08:37. His remarkable charge had brought the time back down into near-record territory. Lopes was not disconsolate. "There was nothing different I could do," he said. "But it was enough, what I did do, for my first whole marathon."
Gomez was third in 2:09:25. "This is my last until the Olympics," he said, seeming bent on even more extreme self-hardening. Parmentier came on to pass the struggling Salazar for fourth, 2:09:57 to 2:10:08. It was Salazar's first marathon slower than 2:10, an indicator of his remarkable standard over the last 2½ years. His first words, to Lebow, were, "What was his time?" Then, even knowing his record was temporarily safe, he allowed himself a few minutes of foul temper, but recovered quickly. "When they got ahead, I just couldn't stay close," he said softly, abashed. "I know now I wasn't properly prepared mentally for this race. I started to believe a few of the things that have been written about me, like being unbeatable. I wasn't as hungry as I should have been. Now I feel humiliated in fifth, but I suddenly feel very hungry. And that's probably the best thing for the Olympics."
"Now do I feel that I am indisputably No. 1 in the world?" said de Castella. "Yes, I do." He looked it, being ushered into a maroon Rolls-Royce for the ride back to his hotel. Settled inside, he reflected once more on that last 1,000 meters of stretch run, how he had kept to his work so faithfully while knowing the other man was judged to be faster. "Reputations don't win races," he said. "Not even mine from now on."