Alberto Salazar sat on a cot, hollow-eyed and weary, unable to explain. "Toward the end I just started to feel the pounding," he said quietly. "I really don't have the answer."
Like other elite runners who had come to the Japanese island of Kyushu for last Sunday's Fukuoka International marathon—among them two-time Olympic gold medalist Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany; lethally swift front-runner Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania; and Japan's gangly Soh twins, Shigeru and Takeshi—Salazar had watched helplessly as the masterful, sometimes mysterious, Toshihiko Seko dashed off with his fourth Fukuoka title in six years. Seko, 27, a squarishly built 5'6½" 140-pounder from Tokyo, used his redoubtable kick to blow past Ikangaa on the final stretch inside Heiwadai Stadium and win by 18 yards, 2:08:52 to 2:08:55. Meanwhile, Salazar, who, after months of physical breakdowns and emotional stress, had worked himself into the best shape of his life, had faded from contention a mile and a half outside the stadium and finished fifth, in 2:09:21. 'Before I can even think of winning next year [at the Los Angeles Olympics]," Fie said dejectedly, "I have to get better."
Salazar intended to make this a run at his own world record of 2:08:13, which he set two years ago in New York. "If someone goes 2:07 I'll be ready to go with him," Salazar had said on Saturday, and indeed, all the ingredients seemed right: a select field of 168 runners, all of whom had sub-2:27 personal bests or the equivalent; a flat, quick, out:-and-back course on which one world record had already been set (2:09:36 by Australia's Derek Clayton in 1967) and another nearly so (2:08:18 by Clayton's countryman and current world champion, Rob de Castella, in 1981); Salazar's own condition; and even Sunday's cool, moderately breezy weather. Perhaps even more important was the fact that though the city of Fukuoka (pop. one million) may be no more than a drowsy industrial seaport, its marathon is one of the world's most prestigious. More than 100,000 people were along the course Sunday, with an additional 30 million—more than a quarter of Japan's population—watching on TV.
But what they saw for 24 miles was a static test pattern. Ikangaa led the race out of Heiwadai Stadium and onto Route 3, followed closely by Salazar and the pack. Up Route 3 they ran, against two lanes of traffic, passing Isuzu dealership after Esso station after Oh! fast-food restaurant. Still Ikangaa led, with Salazar at his side and the mob in tow. On past Toyota dealership after Stork gas station after McDonald's: Still Ikangaa carried Salazar and the horde. Finally, they left behind the last Honda dealer, Dairy Queen and 7-Eleven and veered left onto the more serene Umino nakamichi ("road between the seas"), which brought them out along a narrow peninsula to the course's littoral—and literal—halfway point. Cierpinski made a brief dash to the front; otherwise, it was still Ikangaa, Salazar and a pack that had shrunk to a mere 21. Amid the sand dunes, beach grass and pines with Fukuoka now visible across Hakata Bay, the runners made a U-turn and retraced their route.
No one surged or jockeyed, nor would anyone help Ikangaa carry the pace: It lagged more than a minute behind record clip. Ikangaa, a slightly built 26-year-old Tanzanian army lieutenant, had decided before the race to eschew his usual suicidal pace in favor of a more prudent one. When the pack did finally thin to a core of six at 18 miles (Cierpinski being the most notable dropout: he ended up 15th), Ikangaa still led Salazar, who still led Seko, who still led Japan's Kunimitsu Itoh and the Soh brothers.
Six miles later Seko and Ikangaa took off, leaving Salazar and the others to languish. Thus did Salazar's disappointing year suddenly become bleak. Consider that just last fall Salazar, then 24 and fresh off his third straight New York City victory, was marathoning's biggest name, its undefeated (4-0) and seemingly unconquerable hero. But the pressure was becoming unbearable. As 1983 arrived Salazar grew irritable and edgy. He actually worried himself sick. He couldn't sleep. In April, he went to the Rotterdam marathon and finally lost, finishing fifth, a minute and a half behind winner de Castella (2:08:37). It was almost a relief.
But then Salazar suffered a series of colds and a bout of bronchitis, and ran poorly in summer track races. At the World Championships in Helsinki he was dead last in the 10,000. That wasn't relief, it was humiliation. Not even his 1983 training experiments—three-a-day workouts, going to Kenya to run, consulting a sports psychologist—seemed to be a way to end the slump. Proud, and unstinting in his workouts, Salazar hoped to come back strong at Fukuoka. Instead he only acquired more doubts. And doubters. When Seko glanced at Salazar just before the 24-mile mark, he said later, "I knew he was less than usual. His face was pain."
Seko's face, however, was composed. He, too, has been through difficult times—he missed 22 months of competition because of leg injuries after winning the 1981 Boston Marathon, and was unable to compete in last summer's World Championships because of hepatitis—but he is a student of Zen, and he believes his greatest strength is his peace of mind.
Seko's superior track speed didn't hurt, either. When he entered the stadium on Ikangaa's tail with 500 meters to go on Sunday, the disappointed Tanzanian would later recall, "I know already that he will be by me. I know he passes me in the last 50 meters."
Actually, Seko shot by Ikangaa with 100 meters to go, setting off a tremendous roar and fireworks and the vigorous waving of tiny red-and-white flags. Only Frank Shorter—a somewhat lesser Japanese hero—had ever won Fukuoka four times. In previous days, typically, Seko had said that he was not in shape even to be a factor in the race, a suspicious claim coming from a runner whose major problem has always been overtraining (reportedly 25 miles a day, with individual runs of as long as 50). Here he was, still closed-lipped about his workouts, though he did admit he'd finally given up what seemed to be the only indulgence in an otherwise ascetic life-style: beer. A Soh-Soh finish behind Seko and Ikangaa—Shigeru third in 2:09:11 and Takeshi fourth in 2:09:17, plus Itoh's sixth-place clocking of 2:09:35 gave the race the fastest set of times in marathoning history. The next assembly of such a field will probably be at the '84 Games.
Said Ikangaa, "If Seko runs with these tactics in Los Angeles, I'm sure he can get a medal. I don't know what medal. He can get a medal, I can get a medal and someone else can get a medal." With the absent de Castella prominent in the picture, that may not leave much room for anyone else. Perhaps not even a world-record holder.