Four days before last Wednesday's international track meet in Berlin, Henry Marsh sat in a Helsinki hotel room and displayed the injuries left by his dramatic fall over the last hurdle of the World Championship steeplechase. His right knee was so swollen after striking the barrier that it looked like a stockingful of tangerines. His left side ached where he had landed on his elbow, bruising ribs and, as he would later learn, tearing ligaments.
He couldn't run. He could barely get out of the wing chair in which he'd been squirming, trying to find a comfortable position. Yet he burned for retribution. He had been second and charging when he went down, concentrating on eventual victor Patriz Ilg (8:15.06) of West Germany. The championship and a sure improvement of his American record of 8:15.68 had been ripped away in that shocking and disorienting instant. The internal Marsh still seethed, loath to accept the loss.
"Berlin," he said solemnly. "If my knee comes around, I want to go for the American record in Berlin."
Friends were silent. Last week's meet in Berlin was only four recovery days from the accident. And because of heats and semis, Marsh had already run three hard steeples in four days at the Worlds. Everyone knew he was as game as men are made, but clearly it was hopeless.
August 28, 1983
The next day, Sunday, Aug. 14, he jogged twice, in wincing discomfort. On Monday he flew to Berlin. When he tried to run there, he said, "I couldn't make 100 yards. The knee was better, but the ribs were a lot worse." X rays were taken. "The doctor said it didn't matter whether a rib was cracked or not, there was nothing to do. If I ran, there would be pain, but no further damage. So I figured, O.K., if it's just pain...." Monday afternoon he managed 400 meters, then had to walk. He steeled himself and did 800, then had to walk. He kept on. His total when he quit was 3½ miles.
Tuesday evening, the day before the race, he went to the Berlin Olympic Stadium track, ran two miles slowly and, as a test, did a hard 200 meters in 26.8. Then he walked to his sponsor's meet coordinator, Pete Petersons, and said, "Pete, if it hurts that much tomorrow, I'm out of the race."
The next evening, Marsh warmed up under a turbulent purple and lavender sky, and it hurt just the same. "I am 50-50 whether to even run," he said. He put Petersons at the starting line to give lap times. He decided to go as far as he could. "I just was in such great shape before the accident," he said. "I can't stand the thought of all that preparation being wasted."
The 56,500 Berliners, who probably had seen his Helsinki fall on television, who knew him from his win in 8:18.58 here in 1981, gave him an ovation.
Rainer Schwarz of West Germany led. Marsh settled into second-from-last, his thoughts focused on the alarming pain below and to the left of his heart. "I didn't know what to do," he would say later. "No matter what the doctor said, it seemed like I was causing fresh damage, not just feeling hurt ligaments rubbing my ribs."
Petersons watched him intently and shook his head. "I don't think he's going to go very far," he said. Yet Marsh ran and hurdled on, wondering what kind of nightmare his competitive instincts had gotten him into.
It had not been the best of nights for athletes fresh from Helsinki triumphs. West Germany's 800-meter champion, Willi W√ºlbeck, faded in the stretch. David Mack of the U.S. did what he couldn't do in his semifinal in Helsinki. He escaped a box with 150 meters to go and won going away in 1:44.43. "I didn't really think of it as revenge against W√ºlbeck," said Mack, who nonetheless ran so hard that these remarks were delivered in spurts, along with portions of his lunch. "It was just to let people know I should have been in the Helsinki finals."
That compensatory urge was clear in many events. Calvin Smith, who had lost the Helsinki 100 meters to Carl Lewis by two yards, lost by only five inches in Berlin, 10.07 to 10.09. Smith was off to a clearly superior start. "But I wasn't used to being ahead at 75 meters," Smith said. "I relaxed a little, and he caught me."
Lewis was happy with a win by any margin. He had run through clouds of rumor since an Oslo newspaper had reported three days earlier that his testosterone test in Helsinki had been positive. "The writer was just a kid, it seemed to me," said Lewis. "He had absolutely no basis for it, just his feeling that nobody could do what I've done without artificial aid. Basically it was a guess. A destructive guess."
To counter the spread of the tale, the IAAF medical chairman, Dr. Arne Ljunqvist of Sweden, released Lewis' test, which showed his testosterone level to be in perfectly normal proportion to his other hormone levels.
Nonetheless, the story had given Lewis three long days. "If that had kept on, the suspicion," he said after the 100, "I'd have gone home."
As it was, relieved after his win, he playfully leaned near a German reporter's microphone and, exhibiting his schooling in television, gave a creditable call of the mile. "Brian Theriot of the U.S. takes the early lead," he said, "followed by Mike Boit of Kenya, Sydney Maree and, back in fifth, Steve Scott. The first quarter is 56.38, good pace, but they're slowing a little on the second backstretch. That's letting Scott and John Walker [of New Zealand] improve their positions.
"The half is in 1:54.50, which anyone who can add knows is 3:49 pace. Theriot is probably a rabbit, but he's a good one because he didn't drop out at the half. Whoops, he dropped out about a hundred yards later. But Boit takes over without a letdown. Maree is after him, and the roar you hear is for West Germany's Thomas Wessinghage in third. Scott and Walker are still fourth and fifth.
"The three-quarter is 2:53.60. Boit still leads, but now [with 300 to run] Maree moves out. Scott isn't going to let him get away. He kicks with 200 left. Off the last turn, it's Scott going wide into the lead and Walker going wider to chase him. He can't catch him, and Scott wins it in 3:49.21, which I believe is the fastest time in the world this year."
He believed right, though the time might have been even faster. "I could have taken off with a full lap to go and maybe cut one more second off," said Scott, "but I was conservative. I was flat emotionally. I went into it almost like a workout."
This, of course, was the not unnatural residue of his disappointment three days before, when he had been second to Britain's Steve Cram in the slow-paced, tactical World Championship 1,500 meters, 3:41.59 to 3:41.87. (By contrast, he passed 1,500 in the Berlin mile in 3:35.36.)
"This is the way the final should have been in Helsinki," said Walker, who had run his last 800 there in 1:50.6, but was only ninth in 3:44.24. In Berlin, the 31-year-old Walker broke 3:50 for the fourth time in his career with 3:49.73. Wessinghage did it for the first time, scraping under with 3:49.98, a German national record.
"We should have made a pact, a Helsinki accord," said Scott to Walker. By that he meant a pact to share the pace, to make it hard all the way, instead of the last 600. "That was your best chance...and it would have saved me."
Now they must prowl the tracks of Europe in hope of snagging another shot at Cram. This they mean to do. Walker's sheaf of plane tickets is as thick as a James Clavell novel. And he has another reason for all those races. The Berlin mile was his 85th under four minutes, more than anyone else had done.
"I want to do 100," he said. "I could have been a lot closer by now if I hadn't gotten sick last summer and run seven miles over four."
Walker's quest calls to mind that of Edwin Moses, who won his 82nd straight 400-meter hurdle race in Berlin, in 48.48. That tied the alltime record for such streaks, held by Harrison Dillard in the high and low hurdles; Dillard did that between July 1947 and June 1948.
"Glad to get that one out of the way," said Moses, who is married to a Berliner, the former Myrella Bordt, whom he coaxed from a successful career in costume and set design. It was here in the Olympic Stadium six years ago that he last lost, to West Germany's Harald Schmid. Since then Moses had run near-world-record times of 47.17 and 47.27 in Berlin, his own way of making amends.
Tyke Peacock seemed a variation on that theme. He had been second in the World Championship high jump, though both he and winner Gennadi Avdeyenko of the Soviet Union cleared 2.32 meters (7'7¼,"). The difference was that Avdeyenko made it on his first try, while Peacock took three. "But I wasn't upset to get second," he said in Berlin. "The thing that left me hungry was that I'd just tied the American record [set by Dwight Stones in 1976 and tied by Del Davis last year]. I wanted to break it."
Only Peacock and Switzerland's Roland Dalhauser were left jumping at 2.33 (7'7¾"). Both missed twice. Then Dalhauser failed a third time and was out. "All right now, come on," U.S. Coach Russ Rogers called to Peacock, who is also a basketball player. "Dunk the ball, now. Dunk the ball."
Peacock went through his mesmerizing prejump routine, in which he squats, facing away from the bar for its calming effect, then turns, rises and performs a funny little massage on the insides of his knees and on his sternum. After long moments standing and contemplating the bar—with surprise, with resentment—he rocked back, walked four steps, began to run, curled, jumped and cleared—by an inch.
"Knew I could. Knew I could," shouted Peacock, who was hugged by most of the jumpers and half the U.S. contingent. His tries at 7'8" were not heartbreakingly close, but that glorious one at 7'7¾" would have done it. Every year he gets better. "And there's another year to go," he said, with the ring of an Olympian promise.
Henry Marsh, three laps into the steeplechase, felt anything but promising. Graeme Fell of Great Britain had taken the lead and was driving the pace. "I don't mind losing, but I wanted a fast time," Fell would say later. Marsh told himself that was what he wanted, too. "But all I could feel was my left side. I almost dropped out."
He heard Petersons calling lap times. Since the water jump was outside the track, the race was barely more than seven circuits. Marsh had figured 70 seconds per lap would yield an 8:15. Now Fell had taken them from 71s to 69s. Gradually, Marsh's pain became less controlling. This being steeplechase, the discomfort of his building fatigue began to match it.
"I got into it after the mile," Marsh said later. His hurdling, always crisp, became even more precise. He was working low over the barriers, keeping good momentum over the water jump. Still, he was ninth. After five laps, which Fell completed in 5:50 and Marsh in 5:52, the pack began to string out. Marsh, moving on the inside as he often does, began to work his way up. Over the penultimate water jump, he reached third. With a lap to go, the clock read 7:08. Marsh thought, "If I can do a 68, I've got a shot."
The lead had just been seized by Boguslaw Maminski of Poland, who had been second in Helsinki. Marsh went right with him down the backstretch. Both seemed to be running as fast as the milers. Neither faltered over the last water jump. As the crowd screamed them toward the last hurdle, the Helsinki fall was on everyone's mind, including Marsh's. "I was careful," he would say. "I slowed down for it."
Which meant that once he was safely over, he still had to catch Maminski. Marsh did that, but hung there beside him for a few strides, both runners straining to summon everything. Then Marsh powered irresistibly past. He won by a yard, in an American-record 8:12.37. Maminski was clocked in 8:12.62.
Marsh had done it. And now the pain returned. He walked his victory lap. When teammate Doug Padilla ran to embrace him, Marsh moved away. "The ribs, the ribs," he said.
On the victory stand, he only raised one hand to the crowd. "Even though it didn't feel like it, it was perfect for me the way Fell and Maminski kept the pace hard," he said. "They were moving so fast I never could relax."
As he spoke, javelin world-record holder Tom Petranoff ran up and pumped his hand. "Great bleeping race!" he said.
"Hey, you did all right yourself," said Marsh. "What was it, 88 meters?"
"No, 93.54 [306'11"], during your last lap."
"Gee," said Marsh. "I missed it."
"I get done with my throw, I'm happy, I'm dancing," said Petranoff, "and I look over at that great bleeping race, and now I think I'll remember that longer than what I did."
Maminski, too, appeared before Marsh. "Hey," said Marsh, "I thought you said you were tired."
Maminski averted his eyes in the shyest of gestures. Later he would say, "Maybe I can run 8:10. Maybe that wouldn't be enough."
Viewing all this were Howard and Virginia Marsh, Henry's parents. They had never seen him run in Europe. But it was Virginia who surely came closest to explaining this astonishing performance. "We've gotten the feeling before that Henry only lets out what is necessary to win," she said. "But I believe he'll show us all he has someday. Maybe even next year."