Everyone knew, even while stumbling over the first few hundred yards of cinders and weeds in Liberty State Park in Jersey City that the crucial element in the U.S. Men's Olympic Marathon Trials on Sunday would be wind. It was gusting from the west, a cold and indifferent 15 knots. Writhe as the course did through Hoboken, Union City and Weehawken, nobody would be selling any protection this day. "The wind came head on and slowed us or from the side and unbalanced us," said Pete Pfitzinger, the 1984 trials victor. "We were always chopping and changing."
No matter what plans had been sealed into contenders' heads or how dementedly anyone had trained for the mid-race hills of the New Jersey Waterfront Marathon, which served as the Olympic trials, the wind changed everything. The responses to it in the first few miles determined which three men would represent the U.S. in the Olympic marathon and, by the way, who would win the top prizes of $50,000, $25,000 and $20,000.
Pfitzinger, 30, the soul of adaptability, knew at once he had to conserve. He started slowly, using others as windbreaks when he could. Similarly, Ed Eyestone, a seasoned 10,000-meter runner of 26 who had sworn to master the marathon, glided along in the pack. But with some men, character determines tactics, and thus their fate. Pat Petersen, 28, the top-ranked American marathoner last year, must lead. So he ran up in the wind and was visibly buffeted about.
Also up front, his arms betraying all the work he was doing, was Paul Gompers, a prodigy in many respects. At 24, Gompers was the youngest competitor in the trials. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard last year with a degree in biology and is in his first year of a Marshall scholarship at Oxford, where he is studying economics. Gompers runs a staggering 150 to 170 miles per week, sometimes 35 miles at a time. "I doubt if anyone does more," he says. He has been a trumpeter, a debater, a math whiz. He reads works on Zen as part of his mental preparation.
"I've always looked at myself as a calculating person," Gompers has said, but his calculations on Sunday left him pushing the pace up the hills. Driven and impatient, he doesn't harbor his reserves. "It's just the way I run, aggressively," he would say after the race. So he found himself with Petersen at the point of the wedge, parting the wind for others. Spending.
It wasn't lonely at the top. This marathon had more leaders than any in memory, with the pacesetter changing four times between the eight-and 15-mile marks. Eyestone, a superb downhill runner, surged at 16½ miles. Then Mark Curp, 29, the U.S. record holder in the half-marathon, took the lead. Gompers was on his heels, feisty as ever. Pfitzinger, clawing at a stitch in his side, had not inspired a lot of confidence, but he was within 20 yards. Then there was the man from San Luis Obispo, Calif., in the colors of the Reebok racing club: Mark Conover.
Upright, with a swift, short stride, Conover, who is 27, seemed made for the uphill parts. That he was also running freely downhill seemed remarkable. His best previous marathon—indeed, his only marathon—was a humble 2:18:03, more than nine minutes slower than the best time represented in the trials field. Turns out, Conover, the 1981 NCAA Division II cross-country champion while at Humboldt State in Arcata, Calif., had run that time in a gale-force rainstorm in Sacramento. He was the best-kept secret in the trials. "In the marathon, lack of experience can be beneficial," he said rather jauntily afterward. "The more marathons you run, the more your body starts rebelling on itself."
Conover earned a master's in city and regional planning from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo last month but hasn't taken a job yet. He was asked what he has been living on of late. "Credit cards," he said. He had logged only about two thirds the weekly mileage put in by Gompers. "I just tried to keep my head on straight and stay rested," he said.
When Conover took the lead at the 17-mile mark, Eyestone, his Reebok teammate, sensed Conover wouldn't fade and moved to catch him before it was too late. Running 4:53 miles, the two men pulled away to a 100-yard lead. This was, naturally, an unspeakable joy to both. "My confidence was zero going into this," Eyestone said. "Shaving last night I cut my lip and lost about a liter of blood that I was going to need. Then I got no more than an hour's sleep."
"When I realized that we had a shot at taking this thing, I started glancing back, seeing who was where," said Conover. "And I shared that information with Ed."
"I was afraid to look," said Eyestone.
Taking turns in the lead, they stretched their margin. Barring catastrophe, they were Olympians. That left one spot. At 21 miles Curp appeared to have secured it. Pfitzinger was in fourth place, while Gompers, who seemed to have finally burned out, was fifth and fading. But over the next two miles Gompers somehow revived, passed Pfitzinger and caught Curp. For 500 yards Curp stayed with the nailing Gompers, while Pfitzinger watched them from behind. Finally Curp surrendered and fell away. Gompers was on the team if he could hold third.
But he had to hold it against the old fox, Pfitzinger, who still seemed to be restraining himself, letting Gompers pay for his early charges. Slowly Pfitzinger crept up to Gompers's shoulder. Getting no response to his threat, Pfitzinger hung there.
Gompers knew who stalked him. Pfitzinger lives in Wellesley, Mass., not far from Harvard, and his canniness is legend. He stole the 1984 trials by bolting out early and outkicking Alberto Salazar for the win. Now all his craft was devoted to coming in third. Pfitzinger began stoking his emotions for the battle, but it never materialized. Gompers was so exhausted that at 23¼ miles he swung wide around a turn, sagged and slowed. Pfitzinger, almost before he realized it, had 15 yards on Gompers.
About 150 yards ahead, Eyestone and Conover were still together, and observers' thoughts turned to how they would divide the prize money. "The money didn't enter my mind," said Eyestone afterward, happily insistent on the primacy of his Olympic motives. Nonetheless, he's a strong kicker.
"But with two miles to go," said Eyestone, "right when I began thinking about a move in the last half mile, a pain speared up my left hamstring into my butt." He slowed to ward off a killing cramp, and Conover romped to victory in 2:12:26. Eyestone was 23 seconds back in second. Pfitzinger crossed the line next. He was in tears because he had added a second Olympic berth to his storied career.
Finishing fourth was Gompers, the man upon whom the suffering descends. "When Pfitzinger went by, it was everything tightening, it was realizing you're not going to be there, it was the ultimate depression," he said. Yet he was unbowed. "One of these days," he added, with a front-runner's eternal defiance, "I'll get out front and I won't come back."
Conover, Eyestone and Pfitzinger. They are the three men the U.S. will send to Seoul in five months. Their wind-slowed times will make them underdogs to splendid Japanese and African marathoners, but they pledged to use their prize money to assist in their preparations. Here's to hearing of them again. After all, as Conover said, "Maybe my lack of experience will come through once more."