The New York City Marathon got under way last Sunday eight seconds before the starting cannon was fired. As the countdown to the gun began, an uncontrollable flood of humanity surged over the starting line on the Staten Island end of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, leaving four runners standing in place like rocks in the torrent—Bill Rodgers, Ron Hill, Jon Anderson and Kenny Moore. Friends on the sideline called to Anderson to begin, but he shook his head. Moore thought to himself, "Damn it, call them back." Hill said later, "I simply was going to start my run at the appointed time and had anyone who had sprinted out won, I would have protested."
When the cannon did go off and the race officially began, Rodgers, intent on the job at hand, began to pick his way through the huge, wobbling, lurching field from 150 yards back, demonstrating to every gun jumper he passed that, though bad sports may not finish last, they sure as hell were not going to finish first, not in this race.
The vehicles carrying representatives of the press and race officials, which preceded the runners, had been caught off guard by the surge and within seconds were engulfed and virtually immobilized. Frank Shorter, running between two of the vans, came perilously close to being crushed as harried drivers tried to maneuver through the mob.
No one in the mass of 11,553 runners, the largest field in the history of the race, bothered to look left for the view of the Manhattan skyline across New York Harbor that is supposed to make all those months of training worthwhile. Survival was the issue.
By the two-mile mark, where the bridge disgorges its traffic onto the streets of Brooklyn, the fearful starting mess had finally sorted itself out, miraculously with no injuries to show for the confusion, and everyone settled down to running for the finish, not their lives. Kevin Shaw of South Africa took the lead soon after the bridge. Behind him was a small pack, led by Benji Durden of Atlanta, that included Kirk Pfeffer and Steve Floto, both from Colorado, Zakaria Barie from Tanzania and Shorter, the 1972 Olympic champion, again in racing shape after a long, difficult recovery from surgery performed on his left foot in 1978.
If ever the long-awaited head-to-head marathon battle between Shorter and Rodgers was going to happen, this year's New York race seemed the time and the place. Shorter was apparently close to his old form, which enabled him to win nine of 10 marathons he entered during one stretch in the early 1970s, and Rodgers seemed somewhat less invincible than he had been for the past three years. After his 2:09:27 triumph in Boston in April, Rodgers went into what looked suspiciously like a slump that reached its nadir when he finished 15th at the World Cup Marathon in Montreal in August. "Just wait till the fall," said Rodgers then. "The fall is when I get serious." Still, some folks thought his nearly weekly schedule of races may have taken too great a toll.
Also favoring a close Rodgers-Shorter battle was the weather. Rodgers hates heat; Shorter hates cold. Rodgers sweats like a skinny pig if the temperature is over 60�; Shorter cannot get warmed up if it is below that. Weather that is right for one is usually entirely wrong for the other. But Sunday in New York dawned cool and foggy, and at 10:30 a.m., race time, the temperature was still only 64�.
As events in Brooklyn started to take shape, however, it appeared the match race would be postponed again. Shaw was still leading after six miles, having run that distance in 28:52, but his sub-five-minute pace was not one he could maintain. At slightly less than eight miles, as the blue line guiding the runners crossed Flatbush Avenue and started up the long Lafayette Avenue hill under an arch of autumn-leafed trees, Pfeffer, a lanky 21-year-old graduate of the University of Colorado, took over.
Cryptic messages on homemade banners spanned Bedford Avenue as the leaders passed through Bedford-Stuyvesant. FIRE FIGHTERS RUN IN HEAT said one of them. At 10 miles Pfeffer was still extending his lead. His time as he entered Williamsburgh was 48:21, but the pious Hasidim on the sidewalks, somber of dress and demeanor, only stared as the tall, thin blond streaked through their latter-day shtetl.
As he ran through Greenpoint, where signs in Polish shop windows still welcomed Pope John Paul II, and over the Pulaski Bridge into Queens, Pfeffer looked ever the more uncatchable. At the halfway point his time was 1:03:51, a course-record pace, and his lead was more than 400 yards. When he reached the Queensboro Bridge, which spans the East River between the industrial grit of Long Island City on the Queens side and Oz on the other, he had built himself a 1�-minute edge.