No Finish Line
His heart once powered him to a world's best in the marathon. On June 30 it stopped for 14 minutes. Now Alberto Salazar knows that life is the only long run that really matters
Posted: Wednesday October 31, 2007 9:56AM; Updated: Wednesday October 31, 2007 10:01AM
Death is one of those things Alberto Salazar used to run into. He'd finish a race and all but perish, as likely from fire as from ice. In 1978, at the end of the 7.1-mile Falmouth (Mass.) Road Race, he was read the last rites after collapsing with a body temperature of 108°. After he won the 1982 Boston Marathon, paramedics had to give him six liters of saline solution in an IV drip when his temperature dropped to 88°.
Then, on a Saturday morning four months ago, death came up from behind and tapped Salazar on the shoulder. He was 48. He still logged 25 to 30 miles a week. He ate sensibly. He took medicine to control his hereditary high cholesterol and high blood pressure. But at one end of a long greensward on the Nike campus in Beaverton, Ore., as he ambled along before leading a workout with several young runners he coaches, pain clutched at the back of his neck. Dizzy, Salazar went down on one knee. A former world-record holder in the marathon, a man who once heard testers declare his cardio output to be the greatest they had ever measured, was suffering a heart attack.
"We backed up and gave him space," recalls Josh Rohatinsky, one of the athletes Salazar hopes will create a renaissance in U.S. distance running. "He started gasping, and his face began to turn blue." Rohatinsky ran to the Lance Armstrong building to look for a defibrillator. Josh's visiting brother, Jared, ran to the field where a football camp was taking place. Galen Rupp, another runner in Salazar's stable, called 911 on his cellphone. "Alberto was on his stomach with his face on the ground," Josh Rohatinsky continues. "I rolled him over, and the guys from the football field began giving him CPR."
Salazar's heart had stopped. Four minutes is thought to be the most that a human being can survive without a pulse; after six minutes, medical science considers a person to be dead. Salazar's heart did not beat for 14 minutes.
Members of the Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue squad arrived within four minutes of Rupp's call. They applied paddles to Salazar -- "Like they do on TV," Rupp says -- and three times tried to shock his heart into beating on its own. They finally succeeded on the fourth try, but in the ambulance his heart stopped again. The printout from the heart monitor, which Salazar has kept, reads like split times from the ultimate interval workout: Again on the way to the hospital his heart stopped, and then again, and again. In all it took eight shocks over 26 minutes for his heart to beat and blood to flow on their own without interruption. In a cast of heroes, the biggest turned out to be two men working at the football camp: Louis Barahona, a combat medic with the National Guard, and Doug Douglass, an emergency-room doctor who had played outside linebacker at Oregon. Because they immediately began administering CPR, Salazar's brain never went without oxygen. Thus he was spared any brain damage and able to stage an astonishingly quick recovery. From his hospital bed he discussed workouts with his runners, and nine days later he was back with them at the track.
If today Salazar doesn't walk around in a state of abiding wonder, it may be because he has experienced miracles before. In 1990, during a pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia, he awoke one morning to find that his set of rosary beads had turned from silver to gold. Months before his own heart attack he had given the wife of a neighbor in a coma a crucifix and rosary blessed, respectively, by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II. She put them on her husband's nightstand, and he recovered.