Here's a classic Said Aouita story, meaning that he has to tell it himself: "Once upon a time," Aouita begins, referring to an occasion three weeks earlier, "I was just looking at TV, and I heard that my time for 5,000 meters was only fifth fastest of the year." That was clearly unbearable, but was this not the world-record holder at 1,500 and 5,000 meters who was still recovering from two injuries, a spiking in Oslo in July and a recurrent upper-leg pain? Yes, yes, but these are trifles to an Aouita seized with the need to prove something.
"I had to choose between running in London and La Coru�a," he says. What he meant was that he had contracted to run in London on Aug. 8, but the promoter of the meet in La Coru�a, Spain, on Aug. 6 was an old friend. Aouita hopped into the Spanish race on short notice and ran a 5,000 in 13:00.86, only .46 of a second slower than his record. Then he had his agent, Enrico Dionisi, call the London promoter, former 10,000 world-record holder Dave Bedford, and tell him Aouita was canceling out.
"But why?" asked Bedford.
Dionisi said Aouita was injured. "But he can run a 13-minute 5,000," said Bedford.
"I was afraid to get more injured if I had to sprint the last 200 of a tactical race in London," said Aouita later. "But I'm going for the 3,000 record in Zurich."
Consider what Aouita does with a single, simple word. His use of injury frees him to run where his whim takes him, lets him demonstrate his courage in every race, excuses him if he misses a record and permits him to bewail his accursed fate. The perfect life.
The 3,000-meter record of 7:32.1, set by Henry Rono in 1978, has lasted because it's the equal of running a 4:02-per-mile pace for almost two miles. Last year Aouita missed by .84 in Brussels when his rabbits set out too cautiously. That wasn't about to happen in Zurich last Wednesday.
Carry Nelson of Canada and Han Kulker of the Netherlands led Aouita and Sydney Maree of the U.S. through the first 1,000 meters in a furious 2:27.34. That was a 3:57-mile pace, an impressive 6.6 seconds faster than Rono had run for his first kilometer. But Rono had started slowly and gone faster every lap.
By 2,000, Aouita was leading but was only two seconds ahead of record pace. "I don't know what happened to me," he would say later, unwilling to believe that the brutal early speed could have had any effect on him.
With 400 to go, the time was 6:37.1. Aouita needed a 55-second lap. It seemed impossible. His previous one had been 63, and he was swaying out from the rail on the turns—usually a sign of exhaustion. What's more, Maree was poised just behind, looking capable.