Four days before last Wednesday's international track meet in Berlin, Henry Marsh sat in a Helsinki hotel room and displayed the injuries left by his dramatic fall over the last hurdle of the World Championship steeplechase. His right knee was so swollen after striking the barrier that it looked like a stockingful of tangerines. His left side ached where he had landed on his elbow, bruising ribs and, as he would later learn, tearing ligaments.
He couldn't run. He could barely get out of the wing chair in which he'd been squirming, trying to find a comfortable position. Yet he burned for retribution. He had been second and charging when he went down, concentrating on eventual victor Patriz Ilg (8:15.06) of West Germany. The championship and a sure improvement of his American record of 8:15.68 had been ripped away in that shocking and disorienting instant. The internal Marsh still seethed, loath to accept the loss.
"Berlin," he said solemnly. "If my knee comes around, I want to go for the American record in Berlin."
Friends were silent. Last week's meet in Berlin was only four recovery days from the accident. And because of heats and semis, Marsh had already run three hard steeples in four days at the Worlds. Everyone knew he was as game as men are made, but clearly it was hopeless.
The next day, Sunday, Aug. 14, he jogged twice, in wincing discomfort. On Monday he flew to Berlin. When he tried to run there, he said, "I couldn't make 100 yards. The knee was better, but the ribs were a lot worse." X rays were taken. "The doctor said it didn't matter whether a rib was cracked or not, there was nothing to do. If I ran, there would be pain, but no further damage. So I figured, O.K., if it's just pain...." Monday afternoon he managed 400 meters, then had to walk. He steeled himself and did 800, then had to walk. He kept on. His total when he quit was 3½ miles.
Tuesday evening, the day before the race, he went to the Berlin Olympic Stadium track, ran two miles slowly and, as a test, did a hard 200 meters in 26.8. Then he walked to his sponsor's meet coordinator, Pete Petersons, and said, "Pete, if it hurts that much tomorrow, I'm out of the race."
The next evening, Marsh warmed up under a turbulent purple and lavender sky, and it hurt just the same. "I am 50-50 whether to even run," he said. He put Petersons at the starting line to give lap times. He decided to go as far as he could. "I just was in such great shape before the accident," he said. "I can't stand the thought of all that preparation being wasted."
The 56,500 Berliners, who probably had seen his Helsinki fall on television, who knew him from his win in 8:18.58 here in 1981, gave him an ovation.
Rainer Schwarz of West Germany led. Marsh settled into second-from-last, his thoughts focused on the alarming pain below and to the left of his heart. "I didn't know what to do," he would say later. "No matter what the doctor said, it seemed like I was causing fresh damage, not just feeling hurt ligaments rubbing my ribs."
Petersons watched him intently and shook his head. "I don't think he's going to go very far," he said. Yet Marsh ran and hurdled on, wondering what kind of nightmare his competitive instincts had gotten him into.