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Pfitz was pfirst to pfinish
Kenny Moore
June 04, 1984
Little-known Pete Pfitzinger was an upset winner at the Olympic trials
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June 04, 1984

Pfitz Was Pfirst To Pfinish

Little-known Pete Pfitzinger was an upset winner at the Olympic trials

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Sandoval moved up as those ahead fell away. With him came Pfitzinger. Sandoval took up a position behind the leading group of 10. Pfitzinger kept right on going. "Moving up with Tony gave me the momentum to go into the lead," he said. "It wasn't planned. I meant not to until 18 miles." But once he was there, Pfitzinger never hesitated. He took his pace to 4:57s, and quickly was 40 yards out in front.

This forced a decision on everyone in the pack. "Who is that guy?" Salazar asked Meyer. Meyer told him. Pfitzinger is 26, ran for Cornell and now lives in West Newton, Mass., where he works 30-hour weeks for New Balance Athletic Shoes in marketing and product development. He had a best of only 2:12:34 (the 26th fastest in the race), but had won seven of the nine marathons he'd run, though he had never faced a field of this caliber. "He's good." Salazar thought. "We can't let him get too far away to catch."

But by 16 miles Pfitzinger had a lead of 16 seconds. And he had constant encouragement. He grew up in nearby Rochester, and his high school coach, Tom Cole, had distributed friends and former teammates throughout the course. "The sense was strong," Pfitzinger said, "of having to do it for them."

By 18 miles Pfitzinger had 30 seconds on the field. He was running away. "No one keyed on me," he said. "If Al or Greg had moved like I did, the rest would have gone. Mine was the advantage of not being known."

Behind him. the pack still seemed to drift, to wait. "The feeling of the race was not at all like a New York or Boston," said Rodgers. who remained in contention, though he felt he had no chance to make the team. He meant simply to run honorably in this, his 42nd marathon. "The guys weren't running to win," he said. "They were running to qualify. It was a strong pace, but they weren't going to show their cards yet."

Only Pfitzinger had done that. He was running with visible effort, his brow knitted, his arms driving. One hundred and fifty yards behind, the group of pursuers had been cut to seven. Rodgers seemed desperate, but he hung on, his right arm hooking wildly. Sandoval was composed but occasionally showed a little snarly grin, as if the adrenaline for a great finish were rising in him. Meyer's face was fixed in concentration. Salazar's elbows began to swing wider. Gordon showed a trace of amazement. He was still here. The only others were Dean Matthews, also of Eugene and running the race of his life, and the red-clad John Tuttle, the former Auburn miler who was born in nearby Alfred, N.Y. He had been fourth in the 1983 New York Marathon in 2:10:51. "Before New York, I thought I could run with the big guys," he had said. "After New York, I knew it."

He was doing it, and doing it with an amiable grin and small talk. Of all the contenders, he showed the most ease. "I kept wondering," he said afterward," 'Hey, when are we going to start racing?' "

Not yet. Up ahead, Pfitzinger looked to be crumbling. He slowed from his 4:57s to run the 20th mile in 5:09. "I worried then," he said. "I started to think about the pack, whether they were closing in. I was tempted to look, but I'm coached by Kevin Ryan [the Olympic marathoner from New Zealand] and he doesn't let you look back." This had all the marks of a runner's nightmare, the classic death with six miles to go. The night before, Pfitzinger had had several nightmares, "anxiety dreams," as he called them: "In one I finished fourth. In another, I showed up at the start with two left shoes. In the third I was far away from the start, and the gun went off, and I ran to get into the race, and someone tackled me."

But Pfitzinger had far greater control of his waking fate. "I started letting myself think of the finish," he said. "I knew there was a turn across a bridge with 1.7 miles to go. I made it my goal to be first across there."

Salazar set out to catch him. His surge dropped Rodgers and Meyer. "At 22 miles, I thought, 'Hey this is cake,' " said Meyer. "Then at 23 I got a kind of tingling up my right hamstring." It was the first, tiny harbinger of a fatal cramp. He would finish seventh in 2:13:29.

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