Great marathons are mosaics of contrasting strategy, of truth and bluff. Runners surge and relax; they test and probe, and often, by race's end, they discover that the true subject of their probing has not been their rivals at all, but themselves. By those standards, Sunday's New York City Marathon was a mild disappointment. Despite the presence of some of the world's leading marathoners, the times were slow, and the men's and women's races were each settled with a single, decisive move far from the finish line in Central Park.
The problem was the unseasonably warm weather. In the week leading up to the marathon, race director Fred Lebow devoted part of each day's press conference to a grim forecast. "The weather is supposed to be worse than in 1984," he said. "Not only warm, but humid."
Lebow had good reason to fear the heat. In 1984, when temperatures soared to 79°, men's winner Orlando Pizzolato had to stop repeatedly to massage a cramping hamstring, and Jacques Bussereau, a 48-year-old Frenchman, collapsed and died. This year Lebow spent most of Saturday reviewing safety measures with the heads of the course's 30 water stations, and he ordered the number of paper cups on hand to be increased from 1¼ to 1½ million. "Better to have a few thousand left over than be one short," Lebow said. At 10:48 a.m., when the field of 25,012 runners poured across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at the start of the race, the temperature had already climbed to 69°. Caution weighed heavily in everyone's calculations. The leading men passed five miles in 24:34, a pace of 4:55 per mile, pedestrian by world-class marathon standards. But among them, Douglas Wakiihuri, the world champion, looked serene and comfortable.
Wakiihuri is a man of intriguing depths. Or so it seems. "Is he a wiseguy?" someone asked warily after a prerace press conference. "Or is he on another plane?"
November 12, 1990
Good questions. Certainly he is one of the few people in the world who are fluent in English, Swahili and Japanese. Wakiihuri, 27, grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, where he showed good but not exceptional promise as a middle-distance runner. He believed that to improve, he would have to leave his homeland.
The obvious path lay to the west, in the U.S., where fine Kenyan runners like Henry Rono, Mike Boit and Wakiihuri's uncle, Wilson Waigwa, had attended college. But at age 16, Wakiihuri met Shunichi Kobayashi, a Japanese writer, in Nairobi, and his course turned toward the east. Kobayashi told him about Kiyoshi Nakamura, coach of the great Japanese marathoner Toshihiko Seko. "I sensed there was another way of training in Japan," Wakiihuri has said. "It was not only physical, but mental and spiritual."
He expressed his ambitions in a letter to Nakamura, who invited him to attend a training camp in New Zealand in 1983. Wakiihuri passed the audition and, at 19, moved to a strange land. "From that day," he says, "everything started. I would go dining with [Nakamura]. He would talk about a lot of things. It was all a matter of whether you were listening. Are you patient enough to listen?" Wakiihuri was. He studied Japanese in order to understand his coach. Nakamura died in 1985, so he never saw his disciple win the gold medal at the 1987 World Championships in Rome or the silver medal at the Olympics in Seoul. At times Wakiihuri, who is now coached by another Nakamura pupil, Shinetsu Murao, can sound either cryptic or arrogant. "You are just looking from the outside," he told reporters last Thursday. "You are not inside, so you will never understand. The only time people can understand is if they are in the circle and can experience it for themselves."
By 16 miles, as Wakiihuri swept down off the Queensboro Bridge and started up the deafening gantlet of First Avenue, that circle had closed considerably. It included just three others: Salvador Garcia, a 30-year-old Mexican army sergeant; Steve Brace, 29, a gutsy Welshman whose marathon best is only 2:11:50; and the defending champion, Juma Ikangaa, 30, who had broken 2:09 six times. Wakiihuri's best was 2:09:03. Yet Wakiihuri claimed he could feel Ikangaa's vulnerability from the start. How? "It is something you just understand," he said later.
Up First Avenue, Wakiihuri turned to examine the faces around him. He saw discomfort and doubt. At 20 miles, he made his move. "I watched them reacting," he said later. "They couldn't come with me, so I decided to go." He covered that mile, the 21st, in 4:56. On any other day it would not have been a killing surge, yet Wakiihuri was suddenly alone.
South through Harlem, Wakiihuri flowed along magnificently. In a sport filled with tiny men like Ikangaa. Wakiihuri is a muscular giant. At 6'1½", 143 pounds, he has powerful shoulders and quads that swell like a soccer player's.
After Wakiihuri crossed the finish in 2:12:39, he turned and seemed to bow at the course behind him. Behind him came Garcia, in 2:13:19, and Brace, in 2:13:32. Ikangaa finished fourth in 2:14:32.
Garcia is a member of Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari's military escort. Nicknamed el Falcon, he wears a golden earring shaped like a falcon in his left ear and does most of his training in the mountains south of Mexico City, in the company of a Doberman named la Mafia. Garcia ran with bleeding blisters for the second half of the race. "Everybody thinks the African runners are the best," he said. "People don't realize the Mexicans are the strongest. I wanted to prove it here, and the only reason I didn't was the blisters. All I had on my mind was fighting for Mexico."
Wanda Panfil, 31, developed her allegiance to Mexico more recently. She was born in Poland, but two years ago she married a Mexican, Mauricio Gonzalez, who finished 11th in the 10,000 at the Seoul Olympics. Running for Poland, Panfil was 22nd in the Seoul marathon. But with Gonzalez coaching her, she has become one of the world's top distance runners. This year she won the Nagoya and London marathons.
Panfil started cautiously on Sunday, catching Kim Jones of Spokane at nine miles. In the 12th mile, Panfil surged, I started to go with her but felt my right quad tighten," Jones said later. "So I backed off and was fine." Panfil's lead would grow to almost a minute at 20 miles and, as late as 23 miles, it was still a seemingly unassailable 48 seconds.
But by then Panfil had reached the tough, rolling hills of Central Park, She ran clutching her right side. Frequently, Panfil twisted uncomfortably to look behind her. Later, she would say she saw no one coming. That was only because she chose not to look back during the final half mile. If she had, she might have spotted Jones, hiding behind a pair of blue sunglasses, gaining ground mightily.
But Jones was too late. Panfil dragged herself across the line in 2:30:45, while Jones finished just 25 yards and five seconds behind her. Katrin Dorre, of what used to be East Germany, came in third, in 2:33:21, and Grete Waitz, who had hoped at 37 to win her 10th New York title, was fourth, in 2:34:34.
Oddly, her near-miss didn't seem to bother Jones. "I tried to catch her," she said. "She slowed a bit, but I couldn't make up any more. I gave it my best."
Wakiihuri would never accept defeat so cheerfully. "You can't give back a chance," he said of the debt he owes Nakamura. "I feel guilty that I can't give it back. All I can do is do my best and respect the sport and the special chance I was given as an athlete. So that, wherever he is, he will be happy and he will say, 'The chance I gave him was not for nothing. It was worth it.' "