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No Finish Line
November 05, 2007
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
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November 05, 2007

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

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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.

After Salazar suffered his heart attack, that woman placed the crucifix by his hospital bed and wrapped the rosary in his hand. They were the first things he saw when he came to. Upon hearing that another woman had survived a heart attack while out running on the day he suffered his, Salazar passed the objects on again. "I gave them to her parents while she was in a coma," he says. She too has recovered.

It's all enough to make one believe in a force greater even than that of the most strong-willed athlete. Which is saying a lot if you consider Salazar that benchmark. As obsessives go, few are more devoted than the anti-Castro Cuban émigré, and Salazar was raised by one. His father, José, had been a schoolmate of Fidel Castro's, serving first in the rebel forces that overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista, then as a civil engineer for the new regime. One day in 1960 Che Guevara ordered José to scrap plans for a chapel in a community-development project, and Castro upheld the decision, declaring that in the new Cuba there would be no place for religion. "That day my father joined the counterrevolution," Alberto says. "The secret police came for him an hour after he left for Miami."

With the family resettled in New England, Alberto soon threw himself into distance running, training and competing as if nothing less than the secret police were at his heels. For a spell he delivered results commensurate with his intensity. One of the leading high school runners in the country, he went on to Oregon, where he won the 1978 NCAA cross-country championship. Two years later, at age 22, he ran his first marathon, in New York City. In the space on the entry blank for predicted time Salazar put down two hours and 10 minutes—a time faster than Bill Rodgers's course record—and then went out and won the race, beating Rodgers, in 2:09:41. Back in town a year later he predicted a world record and delivered, Namath-like. In Boston the following spring he beat Dick Beardsley by 10 yards in their epic Duel in the Sun and the following fall won his third straight New York City Marathon. He once described the marathon as a chance to take another runner to "the point where he has to give up," and that's the way he ran—as if he were engaging others to subdue them, in a kind of foot-to-foot combat. He spoke matter-of-factly about the heat of his Latin temperament and how he could turn it up to his advantage. To fellow marathoner Amby Burfoot, who gently suggested that he might be entering too many races, he snapped, "Well, I've been doing pretty well at all of them, wouldn't you say?" From his Catholic upbringing he seemed to take all the discipline and sacrifice, but none of the humility. "Running became important to me for its own sake," he says now. "I wanted to be the greatest distance runner in the world. I was 23 and a few seconds off the world record in the 5 and 10K and thought I could do it all. Faith definitely became secondary. On Sundays, I was always sure to get my 20 miles in, but I was too tired to go to Mass."

After one too many near-death experiences, his body began to push back. He suffered his first marathon loss in the spring of 1983, finishing fifth in Rotterdam. Three straight times that summer he lost races on his home track in Eugene, Ore., the high seat of American distance running. He came down with bronchitis before the Worlds in Helsinki that August and, entering the 10,000 meters anyway, finished last. The next summer he finished 15th in the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics. At one point he logged more than 100 miles a week with a stress fracture. Overtraining led to illness and injury and even, he believes, a suppressed endocrine system. He ran long races, but he wasn't running the long race. "I thought I was going to just push through it," he says, "that it was just a little slump."

Today Salazar the coach practices a restraint that Salazar the competitor never knew. "I needed someone to be strong and firm with me, to hold me back," he says. "Now I coach this young talent and sometimes say, 'You need to take a break.' Whereas Bill [Dellinger, his coach at Oregon] would say, 'Well, O.K., Alberto, you're a big boy,' and I'm thinking, He's not telling me no. Runners are so used to pushing through pain, it's very hard sometimes to make rational decisions."

In 2001, with several million dollars from Nike, Salazar launched the Oregon Project, a challenge to the African hegemony in distance running. The program brought to Beaverton a handful of promising U.S. runners and gave them every legal advantage extant, from space-age training aids to the amenities of the Nike campus, which include a fitness center, testing labs, a two-mile wood-chip trail and the soft grass field on which Salazar would eventually collapse. But four years later the Oregon Project had produced only one moderately successful runner, Dan Browne, a 2004 U.S. Olympian in the 10,000 meters and the marathon. The lesson, Salazar says, is that "you can't take mediocre runners and expect them to achieve world-class results."

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