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 16� 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."