Pfitz was pfirst to pfinish

Little-known Pete Pfitzinger was an upset winner at the Olympic trials
June 03, 1984

No matter what plans the country's best marathoners might have laid to secure one of the three spots on the U.S. Olympic team, when they rose from their beds in Buffalo last Saturday, they knew how the trials race must go. A warm, wet wind was blowing from the northwest. The course, after four miles through Buffalo neighborhoods, would cross the Niagara River into Canada and run northwest alongside the river, into the teeth of the wind for the last 22 miles to the finish at Niagara Falls.

"No one would run 2:09 today," said Alberto Salazar, who has the world's best time of 2:08:13, after the race. "It was a constant, the wind in our faces. It probably cost us four or five seconds a mile." To escape the wind, there was only one strategy: wait and hide. The impressively deep pack, containing virtually every American who has run with distinction in the '80s, except the injured Dick Beardsley, stumbled over itself. Each time a new leader seemed to assume command—such men as Kirk Pfeffer (second at New York in 1979), Duncan Macdonald (three-time Honolulu winner), Greg Meyer (victor at Boston in 1983, with a 2:09:00, making him the third-fastest American ever) and Bill Rodgers (four New York wins, four Bostons)—he would just as quickly let himself be swallowed up by the pack. "Once you felt how strong the wind was, you'd think, 'Whoa, I don't need to be doing all this work,' and back off," said Meyer.

The pace hovered at five minutes per mile. Salazar, under orders from his coach, Bill Dellinger, not to make any sort of move until after 20 miles, carefully kept in the lee of others. He knew he wasn't at his best. A month before, he had run second in the Mt. SAC Relays 10,000 meters in 27:45.5. It was a satisfying time, but the hard track sent him home with a sore left foot. His doctor ordered a bone scan. "There were big blotches on the X ray of one foot and none on the other. That didn't look good," he said. It was judged a stress reaction, "a hot spot," as Dellinger put it, and Salazar was warned that any more pounding for a while would produce a stress fracture. He took three days off, did light walking and jogging for the next five, then gradually resumed training. "In the last two weeks before the race, I never took a run over 10 miles," he said, "and it was only in the last four days that I could run without being conscious of the foot."

So, even as early as six miles, Salazar felt sluggish: "I was thinking, 'Gee, we're running slow, and I don't feel that good. I wonder if something is wrong with me?' It was a test of confidence." Yet, as he looked around he could see that almost everyone else was working equally hard.

The humidity drove the runners to drink as much as they could, for they could feel and see the sweat pouring out of them. And as they drew together to let those ahead break the wind, they collided with each other. "The guys were getting testy out there," said Meyer. "Lotta heels scraping. Al [Salazar] turned around a couple of times to say watch it." Near seven miles, Don Norman and another runner went down. Norman was up at once and charging to the front when his New Balance teammate, Pete Pfitzinger, put out a hand to restrain him. "Just be patient," said Pfitzinger.

Patience was the watchword, the mantra, for every favored runner. Garry Bjorklund was Salazar's shadow. Farther back—23rd at nine miles, though no more than 30 yards from the lead—was Dr. Anthony Sandoval of Los Alamos, N. Mex., who had been fourth in the '76 trials and had won in 1980, doing 2:10:19 on this course, but had been kept from Moscow by the Carter boycott. After that, he had continued medical school, foregoing lucrative road races, but now he was in his second year of residency and had time to train, and he burned to reverse his Olympic fortunes. He had finished only a second and a half behind Sa-lazar in that Mt. SAC 10.000. Now he ran softly, effortlessly.

"He's to draft behind the big guys," said his adviser, David Martin of Atlanta. "He's eight pounds over his normal racing weight of 112 because of all the glycogen stores that he's built up during this past week of tapering off training. Every gram of glycogen in the muscles takes 2.7 grams of water. So he's like an L-1011 jet today. He'll burn off some fuel before he goes to a higher altitude."

Keying on Sandoval was Pfitzinger. "If anyone knew what he was doing out there," Pfitzinger said, "it was obviously him."

Much of the time the pace was set by Dave Gordon, 24, of Eugene, Ore. who won the '82 Honolulu Marathon. "I had to run aggressively," he said. "I run best if I do, assuming that I don't run stupidly." But which was it this time? "Yeah, early on that little voice came and said, 'You shouldn't be up here. There are a lot of good guys behind.' But this was the Olympic trials. It wasn't the race to listen to that voice. It was the time to at least try to have a little courage."

Gordon and Macdonald took the race through halfway in 1:05:40. The road was flat, with marshy parkland and leafing apple, willow and maple trees to the left and the river to the right. The sun burned through high cloud. It had a halo around it.

Sandoval moved up as those ahead fell away. With him came Pfitzinger. Sandoval took up a position behind the leading group of 10. Pfitzinger kept right on going. "Moving up with Tony gave me the momentum to go into the lead," he said. "It wasn't planned. I meant not to until 18 miles." But once he was there, Pfitzinger never hesitated. He took his pace to 4:57s, and quickly was 40 yards out in front.

This forced a decision on everyone in the pack. "Who is that guy?" Salazar asked Meyer. Meyer told him. Pfitzinger is 26, ran for Cornell and now lives in West Newton, Mass., where he works 30-hour weeks for New Balance Athletic Shoes in marketing and product development. He had a best of only 2:12:34 (the 26th fastest in the race), but had won seven of the nine marathons he'd run, though he had never faced a field of this caliber. "He's good." Salazar thought. "We can't let him get too far away to catch."

But by 16 miles Pfitzinger had a lead of 16 seconds. And he had constant encouragement. He grew up in nearby Rochester, and his high school coach, Tom Cole, had distributed friends and former teammates throughout the course. "The sense was strong," Pfitzinger said, "of having to do it for them."

By 18 miles Pfitzinger had 30 seconds on the field. He was running away. "No one keyed on me," he said. "If Al or Greg had moved like I did, the rest would have gone. Mine was the advantage of not being known."

Behind him. the pack still seemed to drift, to wait. "The feeling of the race was not at all like a New York or Boston," said Rodgers. who remained in contention, though he felt he had no chance to make the team. He meant simply to run honorably in this, his 42nd marathon. "The guys weren't running to win," he said. "They were running to qualify. It was a strong pace, but they weren't going to show their cards yet."

Only Pfitzinger had done that. He was running with visible effort, his brow knitted, his arms driving. One hundred and fifty yards behind, the group of pursuers had been cut to seven. Rodgers seemed desperate, but he hung on, his right arm hooking wildly. Sandoval was composed but occasionally showed a little snarly grin, as if the adrenaline for a great finish were rising in him. Meyer's face was fixed in concentration. Salazar's elbows began to swing wider. Gordon showed a trace of amazement. He was still here. The only others were Dean Matthews, also of Eugene and running the race of his life, and the red-clad John Tuttle, the former Auburn miler who was born in nearby Alfred, N.Y. He had been fourth in the 1983 New York Marathon in 2:10:51. "Before New York, I thought I could run with the big guys," he had said. "After New York, I knew it."

He was doing it, and doing it with an amiable grin and small talk. Of all the contenders, he showed the most ease. "I kept wondering," he said afterward," 'Hey, when are we going to start racing?' "

Not yet. Up ahead, Pfitzinger looked to be crumbling. He slowed from his 4:57s to run the 20th mile in 5:09. "I worried then," he said. "I started to think about the pack, whether they were closing in. I was tempted to look, but I'm coached by Kevin Ryan [the Olympic marathoner from New Zealand] and he doesn't let you look back." This had all the marks of a runner's nightmare, the classic death with six miles to go. The night before, Pfitzinger had had several nightmares, "anxiety dreams," as he called them: "In one I finished fourth. In another, I showed up at the start with two left shoes. In the third I was far away from the start, and the gun went off, and I ran to get into the race, and someone tackled me."

But Pfitzinger had far greater control of his waking fate. "I started letting myself think of the finish," he said. "I knew there was a turn across a bridge with 1.7 miles to go. I made it my goal to be first across there."

Salazar set out to catch him. His surge dropped Rodgers and Meyer. "At 22 miles, I thought, 'Hey this is cake,' " said Meyer. "Then at 23 I got a kind of tingling up my right hamstring." It was the first, tiny harbinger of a fatal cramp. He would finish seventh in 2:13:29.

At 24 miles, Pfitzinger still had 15 seconds. Then the exuberant Tuttle finally cut loose. "I figured, 'Hey, I can make it in from here,' " he said. Salazar followed, and Sandoval, Gordon and Matthews strained to stay near. "God, it felt like a 5,000 meter pace," said Matthews.

Tuttle later would say, "I ran as I felt. I felt good-bad-good, so I ran erratically. I thought Pete was a sitting duck up there [Both Western New Yorkers, Pfitzinger and Tuttle had run against each other since high school]. But then at 25 my legs went bad."

Pfitzinger made his bridge still in front. Behind him, Salazar and Tuttle ("I saw my Dad and the mayor there. I couldn't let up") were coming hard. Behind them, Sandoval, Gordon and Matthews together faced their moment of loss. Gordon was the strongest. His would be the dreaded fourth place, the first non-qualifier. "Over that bridge, the 10 yards Al and John got seemed like a mile," he said. "I was overwhelmed with fatigue. Then it was over. It wasn't a question of trying to be third any more. It was trying not to be fifth." His time would be 2:11:59, nine seconds from the Olympic team. Sixty yards.

Matthews would finish fifth in 2:12:25 and say, "How would you like to come 25 miles before finding out?"

The last mile was along the cataracts, a great white mushroom of mist above the falls marking the finish. Tuttle and Salazar caught Pfitzinger with three-quarters of a mile to go. "John passed first," said Pfitzinger. "It was nice to see an old friend. Then Al went past, and I kind of panicked. I knew I better hang tight."

Salazar drew away from both and looked like he would sail to the win. At the 26 mile mark, with 385 yards to go, Pfitzinger repassed Tuttle and sprinted on. "This is Alberto Salazar I'm going for," he thought, "but I don't know who I am today, so here goes." He threw himself ahead no more than 50 yards from the line and won in 2:11:43. Salazar was one second back. Tuttle was third in 2:11:50.

Salazar was relieved. "Made it," he said. "I'm happy to qualify, though with 150 yards to go I was sprinting all out for the win. That's instinct. But after the terrible last year I had, and the foot problem, it's great to get this out of the way. Three weeks ago I was near the best shape of my life. Now I have 11 weeks to get back up there for L.A."

The feeling approaches conviction that these 1984 Olympians are three tough racers. And the conditions in Buffalo indicate that they can run well on a warm Los Angeles afternoon. "That Pfitzinger," said Salazar. "To lead all that way, and to be caught and fall back. Almost any other runner would lose heart. He comes back to win."

"I don't know where that kick came from," said Pfitzinger. "Out of my shorts somewhere."

Far outnumbering the three ecstatic new Olympians were those who had fallen short. Gordon, only 24, was already looking ahead to 1988. Rodgers came in an honorable eighth in 2:13:30. "I wanted to finish in the top 10," he said. "I'm happy."

Sandoval was sixth in 2:12:41. Then he sat with his wife, Mary, and their baby and couldn't stop deep, hot tears. "I felt good," he said, "but getting onto that bridge.... It's so hard, so hard to take when I knew I was better. With a few more races [he had only two this season], a little more time...." If anyone on earth deserves to stand at the start of an Olympic marathon, Anthony Sandoval does. Now he never will.

"There must have been six people who thought, who knew that they'd make it," said Pfitzinger, a mild and thoughtful man. He hadn't been able to bring himself to speak to Sandoval. "It's too bad. It is exactly what this race is about, but it's too bad."

PHOTOPfitzinger surrendered the lead to Salazar but grabbed it back in the final 50 yards. PHOTOPlaying follow the leader were (from left) Sandoval, Tuttle, Gordon, Salazar, Matthews, Meyer (1) and Rodgers (right). PHOTOPfitzinger had "the advantage of not being known." ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)