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Salazar has since reconstituted the group, but with a twist. He's trying to develop 5,000- and 10,000-meter runners, and if they happen to be well suited to the marathon, he'll urge them to build up to that distance—but only gradually, at the proper juncture in their careers. Unless a male runner has near-27:30 speed at 10,000 meters, Salazar doesn't regard his potential as world-class and won't take him on.
After his fall from the top in 1983, Salazar explored virtually everything to resurrect his own career: a Finnish masseur; a training pilgrimage to Kenya; a psychologist who believed you could tap into cosmic energy by running with your palms up. Now he channels all his intensity into the hunt for an edge for his heirs. Refinements in form, newfangled treadmills, high-altitude simulators, advances in diet—pick up a second or two per mile from each and, he believes, U.S. distance runners might overcome the disadvantages of affluent sea-level living enough to become competitive after two decades of essential irrelevance. "Any little thing he can find, he'll point out," says Rupp. "Any way he can get a competitive advantage, obviously within the rules, he's willing to do. You want to take advice from other people but at the same time always look for the cutting edge."
Salazar's current charges—in addition to Rupp and Josh Rohatinsky, they include Amy Yoder-Begley and the husband-and-wife team of Kara and Adam Goucher—share other characteristics. They all attend religious services or at least are spiritually inclined. And many have worked through some stretch of debilitating injury, which leads Salazar to believe that a lighter training touch will pay immediate dividends. "All the things that happened to me are a kind of blessing," he says. "People say, 'Salazar, he'll burn people out.' It's just the opposite: Because of what I've been through, [I won't do that]. I believe that if you have enough faith, you can achieve extraordinary things. They don't always come with a bolt out of the blue or some apparition.
"Those guys spent 26 minutes trying to get my heart started again. And I wonder, Why didn't they just give up?"
IN THE FACE of the depth and daunting results of their African counterparts, why don't U.S. distance runners just give up?
No sport renders judgments more ruthlessly than running. "It's your exact time on this exact track," Salazar says. "How you're improving and how you rank is based completely on that stopwatch, and anyone can get on the Internet and see exactly where everyone stands." The Internet tells a brutal truth: Last year more than 400 Kenyans broke two hours, 18 minutes in the marathon—and only 31 U.S. runners did. Ethiopians, Kenyans and Moroccans won eight of the 12 medals in the men's distance events at the 2004 Olympics. Not since 1992 has a U.S. runner won an Olympic medal on the track at a distance longer than 800 meters.
Salazar ticks off the ironic circumstances that seem to cast the U.S. as a Third World country in distance running: "As big as we are, we have fewer people to draw on. In Kenya there are probably a million schoolboys 10 to 17 years old who run 10 to 12 miles a day. That's how they get to and from school. The average Kenyan 18-year-old has run 15,000 to 18,000 more miles in his life than the average American—and a lot of that's at altitude. They're motivated because running is a way out. Plus they don't have a lot of other sports for kids to be drawn into. Numbers are what this is all about. In Kenya there are maybe 100 runners who have hit 2:11 in the marathon—and in the U.S., maybe five."
With those figures, coaches in Kenya can train their athletes to the outer limits of endurance—up to 150 miles a week—without worrying that their pool of talent will be meaningfully depleted. Even if four out of every five runners break down, the fifth will convert that training into performance, at least over the short term. "You can't change where you were born or that you're only starting at 14," Salazar says. "But once you understand what you're up against, you can decide not to make it any worse. With the few athletes we get who show talent, we have to do everything right. We can't get impatient. We can't screw up like I did."
Salazar's brother Rick kiddingly offers a solution: Send school buses to Kenya. Instead, Alberto adds training volume, but with a built-in margin of safety. Thus his runners train up to 120 miles a week, but only 90 to 100 outside. They get in the other 25 or so on underwater and antigravity treadmills, to lessen the pounding and resultant stress on joints and bones. "Muscularly, very little good happens beyond 100 miles a week," Salazar says. "You actually lose strength at that point. By doing antigravity and underwater work, you can get the cardiovascular benefits of the extra mileage without the negative muscular effects. It's like lifting weights—at some point you have to allow for recovery."
In addition to employing such Nike-underwritten gadgetry, he obsesses over form. Salazar himself was what's known among runners as a bumblebee, after the insect whose technique suggests that it shouldn't be able to fly. Instead of driving his body forward with every stride, Salazar was a "sitter" who "jammed the ground with each step," as he puts it. "I succeeded despite inefficient form. Eventually my bad mechanics caught up with me." The benefits of good form may seem infinitesimal, but over years, every properly executed footfall and arm pump will save time and reduce stress and ultimately provide a substantial advantage.