Francie Larrieu Smith was edgy before the start. She had come to New York to compete in the 10,000-meter L'eggs Mini Marathon, one of her very few top-class road races in 19 seasons of running, and now she was struggling to move through 7,800 women runners to reach her position in the front row. "I was trying to be serious," she said later, "but the noise and the spectacle were distracting. And it seemed crazy to me. Every woman had a balloon''
When the gun sounded, the balloons rose in a festive cloud over Central Park West. Aurora Cunha of Portugal sprinted to the lead, followed by Norway's Grete Waitz and Maine's Joan Benoit, with Larrieu Smith of Denton, Texas back in the pack. This was the first meeting of Benoit and Waitz since they took the gold and silver medals in the L.A. Olympic marathon.
Waitz ripped through the first mile in about 4:51, nine seconds faster than world-record pace. Waitz's world best, set in 1980 in this race, is 30:59.8, but Fred Lebow, president of the host New York Road Runners Club, concedes that the '80 course was "a couple of blocks short." Now, Jack Waitz, Grete's husband and coach, who was watching from the press truck, looked solemn. "It's too hot and humid for that pace," he said as the temperature rose to 80°.
For Benoit it was the pace that was too hot. She had been pleased with her recent 20-mile training runs, but having battled a cold for three weeks, she had not yet done any speed work on the track. "I thought I could get away with racing on strength alone," she said. The breakneck opening mile had sealed her fate. When Anne Audain, the New Zealander who won the race in 1983, charged up a hill a half mile later, Benoit slipped back. She would finish 11th, in 33:53. "I wish it was a marathon," she said.
Fourteen years ago, when they named this race a mini marathon, they did so for purely promotional reasons, that is, to impress, to glorify, to mislead. It's nothing like 26 miles. Ten thousand meters is six miles, 376 yards and five inches, one grand lap of Central Park, and if there's anything that Waitz and Benoit and especially Larrieu Smith proved last Saturday, it's that 10,000 meters is closer to a mile than a marathon.
Waitz, 31, became a road racer only after a rich career as a middle-distance runner on the track. She was a semifinalist in the 1,500 meters in the Montreal Olympics. She went to the roads because that was where the longer races were, and women's marathoning was revolutionized in 1978 when she won her first New York City Marathon, in 2:32:30. The fundamental import of her subsequent performances, including two more marathon world bests and a total of six New York wins, was that the race is to the swift. Never again would raw stamina win a major women's marathon.
Larrieu Smith, 32, was also a 1,500 runner, also a Montreal semifinalist, and seven times the national 1,500-meter champion. Unlike Waitz, however, she had never devoted a season to the roads. Her previous road experience had come mostly in fall races. She had been invited to the L'eggs race in each of its 14 years and had always declined. "It was in the middle of track season," she said, with an appeal for some understanding in her voice. "You have to follow your heart. My heart has always been on the track."
But women's road racing grew and grew. "I first realized how big it was when Grete won that New York marathon in 1978," said Larrieu Smith. "After a terrible Olympic year [she was fifth in the '84 3,000-meter Olympic trials, so did not make the team], I finally decided it was time. I want to run all the big-name, women-only races, only on certified courses, to see what I can do to get some respect."
A crafty miler like Larrieu Smith knows that you get respect by winning the last part of a race, not the first. She lay back, using the downhills as freewheeling rests. Audain led much of the second mile, her crimson lipstick gleaming in the morning sun. But she drove too hard too early. "I don't want to admit I was too aggressive," Audain said later. "I'm just that way. I'm hungry out there." She hung on to finish fourth, in 33:19.
From then on, Waitz led. On a downhill, her pace shook off Maricica Puic«é of Romania, the Olympic 3,000-meter gold medalist and a fine kicker, who was exploring a new distance.
Waitz herself seemed to be exploring strange parts of the road. She ran near the white center line, not always taking the shortest route through the incessant turns. "She knows to use the whole road," said Jack Waitz, mystified. Often Larrieu Smith and Cunha, the only contenders left, would be yards to her flank, hugging the rail, while Waitz ran in solitary, wasteful splendor on the crown of the road. "I think she just doesn't care," said Jack Waitz. "She's been too much alone in races."
"I think Grete ran twice as far as I did," said Larrieu Smith, exaggerating, delighted to accept this gift. The weather, too, worked in her favor. "The heat was good for me," she said. "It's been in the 80s the last month in Texas." She knew that the longer she stayed at Waitz's elbow, the more sure she could be of kicking past for the victory. Indeed, she had outsprinted Waitz in a 3,000-meter race on the track a week earlier, at the Bruce Jenner meet in San Jose.
Cunha grudgingly fell back 20 yards at five miles. She would be third in 32:45. So now it was just Waitz and Larrieu Smith, fighting it out under the maples. "I love the park," said Larrieu Smith. "And the crowd was important, even if they were all cheering for Grete."
Waitz's arms showed her strain. Larrieu Smith, tan and taut, was nostalgically light-footed. With a half mile to go, she found herself in front by 10 yards. "I didn't speed up. I just cut a corner better," she said. Waitz was awkward with fatigue, but she forced herself back up to Larrieu Smith with 100 yards to go. Then Larrieu Smith exploded.
"You get me within sight of a finish line, and I'll find something in the legs," she said. She won, arms upraised, by 15 yards in 32:23. Waitz followed in 32:26, and after a few minutes' recovery seemed relieved. "Francie ran smarter than I did," Waitz said. "I'm only human."
Larrieu Smith had clung to just that thought. "Nobody is superhuman, no matter how many times they beat you," she said.
Larrieu Smith took in the spectacle at the end more patiently than the one before the start. She watched some of the 5,542 finishers pound wetly across the line to receive 5,542 medals. In the Sheep Meadow, she saw hundreds of men with baby strollers and hundreds of small children asking where their mothers were. Later, those same children would scatter about New York, like balloons throughout a geometric sky, all wearing medals on bright ribbons.
"This is wonderful," said Larrieu Smith. "I wonder if I shouldn't have come over to this whole new world a long time ago." It was idle speculation, for her race had shown that there is world enough, and time.