More Than A Passing Fancy

Maricica Puic«é, overshadowed at the Olympics, won twice in Europe as U.S. men excelled, too
July 14, 1985

The Olympics, it seems, are still with us, riling us, shaping the new track season. Of the 15 Olympic medals awarded last year for distances of 1,500 meters and longer, only one went to an American man. That was Brian Diemer's bronze in the steeplechase. Europeans, by pointed contrast, won 11. But last week at IAAF Mobil Grand Prix meets in Stockholm on July 2 and Helsinki two nights later, some balance was restored. In a surprising showing, U.S. men won five distance races against the Continent's best, and then nearly were upstaged by another L.A. Olympic presence. That was Romania's Maricica Puic«é, who just goes on doing what she did in Los Angeles, beating Zola Budd and haunting Mary Decker Slaney.

But the athlete running through the richest context of Olympic associations was Henry Marsh. A third of the way through the steeplechase at the Helsinki World Games, Marsh was a yawning 10 seconds behind the leader, Peter Koech of Kenya, and his left shoelace was untied. "On the first turn, with 24 guys scrambling for position, somebody's spike just caught my lace," Marsh would say, "and I ran the whole race with it whipping my shin, or stepping on it, worrying about whether the shoe would come off."

Worrying, too, about Koech's pace, which was 2:38 at 1,000 meters. If he kept it up, he would break eight minutes, well below his Kenyan countryman Henry Rono's world record of 8:05.4. Marsh, in sixth place at that point, was 70 yards behind. "I was looking at the scoreboard to get his lap times," Marsh said, "and I knew he was either going to run a fast, fast race. Or die."

With four laps to go, Marsh had moved up to fourth, but was still nine seconds back. Then Koech began to look less nimble over the hurdles. Once he took a quick look back. Everyone in the field knew what that meant. Marsh began to close in. With two laps to go, he was second, only 15 yards behind Koech. He passed him off the next-to-last water jump, with 550 meters remaining.

Now all he had to deal with was his own star-crossed past. Marsh, arguably, has been the best steeplechaser in the world for as many as six years, but something always seems to happen. In 1979 it was mononucleosis. In 1980 it was the United States boycott of the Moscow Olympics. In 1981 he was forced around a water jump in the World Cup, finished first, then was disqualified for committing a foul. In 1983, in this same Helsinki Olympic Stadium—and this was looming large in his mind last week as he headed into the last lap—he fell as he went over the last barrier to lose at the World Championships. And in 1984, the year that all the frustration was supposed to be vaporized in the L.A. Olympics, the year he had planned to retire to give more time to his family and law practice, Marsh was sick all season and could barely train. Even so, he was third coming into the stretch of the Olympic final, but lost the bronze to the kick of teammate Diemer.

And now, in Helsinki, he was coming off the last turn and staring at the one remaining hurdle, a three-foot-high, sharp-cornered rail on steel posts, which weighs 200 pounds. He knew from bitter experience that if struck, the barrier would not yield. "I said to myself, 'You can't hit this one two races in a row.' " When hurdling, Marsh prefers to lead with his right leg. But his steps were such that he had to use his left. "I took it a little higher than usual," he said. But he took it. And he sprinted the stretch with teeth bared to win in 8:16.62. Koech held second in 8:21.52. Afterward, he went to Marsh and said, "Uh, I guess I went out too fast."

Marsh will race the best he can find in Europe, but selectively, to save something for the World Cup in Canberra, Australia, in early October. A big championship is what drives him. Even after such a stirring race as Helsinki's, he was subdued. "I would trade all these victories," Marsh said, with some poignance, "for Diemer's bronze medal."

Steve Scott, whose Olympic performance was also quite disappointing personally—he finished 10th—took the 1,500 in Stockholm with a sparklingly light-footed kick over the last 300 meters. His 3:37.30 was a couple of steps ahead of Britain's newly healthy Steve Ovett, who has recovered from a heart infection that caused his collapse at the Olympics and lasted until January.

But the gaudiest feather in any cap belonged to Denton, Maine's Bruce Bick-ford. In the Stockholm 10,000, Bickford ran away from both the world-record holder, Portugal's Fernando Mamede, and the Olympic champion, Italy's Alberto Cova. With true Maine candor, he at once said, "They're not in great shape right now."

Bickford may be right about that, but if he had let them get near enough to use their redoubtable kicks, they would have killed him. Instead, after passing 5,000 meters in a solid 13:54, he and Mark Nenow, of Lexington, Ky., began alternating the lead every 400 meters and took the lap times from 68s to 64s. "Mark and I planned to swap off after 6,000," said Bickford. "It worked out some." With six laps left they had built a 60-yard lead over Cova and Mamede in fifth and sixth. But with a mile to go, Nenow slipped back, and Bickford had to hang on alone.

Bickford, 28, for years has shown wondrous promise, but little fulfillment. A graduate of Northeastern who now lives in Wellesley Hills, Mass., he set an indoor American record at three miles in 1980, but didn't do very much after that. "I was erratic," he said. "I was too unfocused. I ran too many seasons, going right from track to cross-country to road racing to track, then mixing them all up." Two years ago he got married and that seems to have made all the difference.

"I've gotten more consistent in training, and I've made up my mind that I'm a track racer," he said. Bickford is especially vehement about resisting the temptation of the road-racing boom, meaning money, which lures many good runners off the track. "It's different in Europe," he said. "You can make some money over here on the track. In the U.S. you can only do that on the roads. But,"—and here his tone became icy—"you can't finish your career and say I was a good road racer."

This career has some way to go before it is finished. In Oslo, five days before Stockholm, Bickford had run 5,000 in 13:13.49, 1.56 seconds from Alberto Salazar's American record. Indeed, throughout the Stockholm 10,000 his legs still felt tight from that race.

And now he was in the last mile. "I felt like I was disintegrating," he said. His laps slowed to 67s. Marathoners Toshihiko Seko and Steve Jones crept near Nenow in second, but he held them off. In the last lap, it was clear that Bickford was safe. He finished in 27:37.17, his best by almost 11 seconds. Behind him, Mamede, gaunt and dark and possessed of haunting Goya eyes, sprinted furiously from fifth and almost caught Nenow for second. Their times were 27:40.85 and 27:41.09.

At 5'8", 143 pounds, Doug Padilla is frail. He's inoffensive. He kind of moped around Scandinavia last week, missing his wife, Lynnette, and 2-month-old daughter Janae. And it was with growing apprehension that he followed what went on before the Helsinki 5,000 meters. Pat Porter of Alamosa, Colo., the TAC cross-country champion, was designated pacemaker. A fee figured in this. Porter's instructions were to hit the 3,000-meter point in eight minutes flat. That is 64 seconds a lap, a pace that, if sustained, would bring a time of 13:20. Classy, but not great.

News of the plan reached Sydney Maree, who said no, let's have him run the first 3,000 in 7:48. That's faster than Dave Moorcroft ran in his world-record 13:00.4 of 1982. Though Maree was booed by the other runners, Porter's orders were indeed changed, to 7:48. Porter wondered whether he could even run that fast.

Meanwhile Padilla, the TAC champion, was wondering whether he should run at all. "I was tired from two races this week," he said. He had won the 3,000 in Stockholm earlier, in 7:47.41, and here he was being expected to do that again and keep on for another mile and a quarter. "Ten minutes before the race I saw Henry [Marsh, a fellow BYU alum]. He said, 'You don't have to go in there tired.' Jogging around before the start, I saw Thomas Wessinghage [the 1982 European champion]. He said, 'To run something great, you must go through difficult times.' That's poetic Thomas."

Padilla was moved. So he ran.

And at once found the pace absurdly fast. Porter, churning along with 62s and 63s, was 5:16 at 2,000 meters. Maree stayed second. Padilla was close for a while, but had to gradually drop back. "I was kicking myself to keep in contact," he said.

But Porter, who had run the 10,000 in Stockholm, was tired. He dropped out after five laps, his head thrown back in relief.

Maree, who had asked for this pace, then took over, but let it slow to 68s. Porter groaned to see that after all his hard work, it was now a tactical race. "It was a recovery period is what it was," said Padilla, who used it well. With a lap to go he was a close, rejuvenated third. He was briefly boxed as Markus Ryffel of Switzerland, the Olympic silver medalist, shot past. He reacted, and both Ryffel and Padilla roared past Maree, whose pacemaking had made him vulnerable to kickers such as these.

Padilla kept right on going, sprinting to the line in 13:15.44, a personal best by nearly a second. He can obviously run faster, given a sensibly smooth pace. "I'm tempted to call it a miracle," he said, shaking his head, having returned to the sweet, astonished youth he is between races. "I almost didn't run it."

Maree, third in 13:17.61, was far from unhappy. His purpose at this stage of the season is to give himself hard races. He thrives on them. They're part of his preparation for 1,500s later. "I'd rather run a race like today and lose in 13:17 than sit back and have it go in 13:44," said Maree. "I'm just waiting for a race when everyone is in a better frame of mind, ready to go hard the whole way."

Romania's 34-year-old Puic«é, she of the matted golden tresses and stinging kick, runs just as hard as she has to. In the Helsinki women's 5,000, she kind of clunked along behind Budd of England via South Africa, who was upset that Puic«é was even in Finland. Puic«é is the Olympic 3,000-meter champion whom no one remembers because she won the race that Slaney made historic with a fall. Budd didn't learn of Puic«é's presence in Helsinki until the day before, when she read a newspaper on the plane from England.

"She is disappointed," said Budd's coach, Pieter Labuschagne. "We were planning a fast time, but not in a tactical way, just even pace." This would set up Budd perfectly for Puic«é's kick, and that's how it was working out, though several others were staying close.

Two days before, Puic«é had been asked how she felt about not being invited to the rematch between Budd and Slaney, which will finally take place on July 20, in London. It appeared to some people that ABC television wanted only the two principals in the Olympic Collision to satisfy American audiences, but if they raced alone it wouldn't allow an answer to the other question that was left hanging by Slaney's fall. Namely, could she have beaten Puic«é?

Puic«é says no way. In fact, she told reporters in Stockholm that she believed that Slaney was at fault in the Olympic 3,000—"Decker disturbed Budd," she said, "not the other way around." New York City Marathon director Fred Lebow says Puic«é told him that she thought Slaney had lost her confidence and simply given up in Los Angeles when she realized she might not win. (Let us avert our imaginations from what Slaney will say when she hears about that.) Puic«é admitted she was disappointed that the London race wasn't planned to be a regathering of the Olympic final.

In Helsinki, she poured some of her vexation into her sprint, as she moved around Budd at will with 250 meters left, and kicked home in 15:06.04, winning by eight meters from Aurora Cunha of Portugal. A flood of runners passed the exhausted Budd, whose last lap was no faster than she had begun, a 71. She was sixth in 15:13.07.

Puic«é came down the stretch open-mouthed, her head rolling back, seemingly in agony, yet pulling away. It developed that she has seldom raced this far; in fact, this was only her second 5,000 meters. "Perhaps the third or fourth time," said her husband and coach, Ion, "she will try for the world record."-That belongs to Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen, whom Puic«é also outkicked, in the Stockholm 3,000.

When the British press carried Puic«é's remarks about the July 20th race back to London, an invitation to join the battle with Slaney and Budd was issued. "It's up to the Romanian federation," said Ion Puic«é. "We are waiting for a phone call." But that seemed a formality. The Romanian federation takes a hefty portion of what Puic«é wins. (Budd and Slaney are reported to be receiving $25,000 apiece from ABC-TV, which is showing the race in the U.S.) Beyond that, London looms as a chance for Puic«é to be the ultimate spoiler, a role she relishes.

"Budd," she said, evaluating her foes, "has only an even pace. But Decker is another story. From Mary Decker there will be more speed, more sprinting."

And for everyone, Lord willing, a finishing on their feet.

TWO PHOTOSMICHAEL KING/ALL-SPORTContent to lay back, Puic«é (2) let Budd (1) lead, then took over with 250 meters left. TWO PHOTOSMICHAEL KING/ALL-SPORTBudd and Labuschagne had planned an even pace, but they couldn't wave off Puic«é (top). TWO PHOTOSMICHAEL KING/ALL-SPORTTo win the steeplechase, Marsh (far left) overcame worries about losing a shoe and fears of tripping. PHOTOGERARD VANDYSTADT/VANDYSTADTBickford (55) won after dueling with Nenow (top right). PHOTOMICHAEL KING/ALL-SPORT[See caption above.] PHOTOMICHAEL KING/ALL-SPORTPadilla's double began in Stockholm, in the 3,000. PHOTOMICHAEL KING/ALL-SPORTWillie Banks was sitting pretty after winning the triple jump in Helsinki.

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)