At 24 miles, Pfitzinger still had 15 seconds. Then the exuberant Tuttle finally cut loose. "I figured, 'Hey, I can make it in from here,' " he said. Salazar followed, and Sandoval, Gordon and Matthews strained to stay near. "God, it felt like a 5,000 meter pace," said Matthews.
Tuttle later would say, "I ran as I felt. I felt good-bad-good, so I ran erratically. I thought Pete was a sitting duck up there [Both Western New Yorkers, Pfitzinger and Tuttle had run against each other since high school]. But then at 25 my legs went bad."
Pfitzinger made his bridge still in front. Behind him, Salazar and Tuttle ("I saw my Dad and the mayor there. I couldn't let up") were coming hard. Behind them, Sandoval, Gordon and Matthews together faced their moment of loss. Gordon was the strongest. His would be the dreaded fourth place, the first non-qualifier. "Over that bridge, the 10 yards Al and John got seemed like a mile," he said. "I was overwhelmed with fatigue. Then it was over. It wasn't a question of trying to be third any more. It was trying not to be fifth." His time would be 2:11:59, nine seconds from the Olympic team. Sixty yards.
Matthews would finish fifth in 2:12:25 and say, "How would you like to come 25 miles before finding out?"
The last mile was along the cataracts, a great white mushroom of mist above the falls marking the finish. Tuttle and Salazar caught Pfitzinger with three-quarters of a mile to go. "John passed first," said Pfitzinger. "It was nice to see an old friend. Then Al went past, and I kind of panicked. I knew I better hang tight."
Salazar drew away from both and looked like he would sail to the win. At the 26 mile mark, with 385 yards to go, Pfitzinger repassed Tuttle and sprinted on. "This is Alberto Salazar I'm going for," he thought, "but I don't know who I am today, so here goes." He threw himself ahead no more than 50 yards from the line and won in 2:11:43. Salazar was one second back. Tuttle was third in 2:11:50.
Salazar was relieved. "Made it," he said. "I'm happy to qualify, though with 150 yards to go I was sprinting all out for the win. That's instinct. But after the terrible last year I had, and the foot problem, it's great to get this out of the way. Three weeks ago I was near the best shape of my life. Now I have 11 weeks to get back up there for L.A."
The feeling approaches conviction that these 1984 Olympians are three tough racers. And the conditions in Buffalo indicate that they can run well on a warm Los Angeles afternoon. "That Pfitzinger," said Salazar. "To lead all that way, and to be caught and fall back. Almost any other runner would lose heart. He comes back to win."
"I don't know where that kick came from," said Pfitzinger. "Out of my shorts somewhere."
Far outnumbering the three ecstatic new Olympians were those who had fallen short. Gordon, only 24, was already looking ahead to 1988. Rodgers came in an honorable eighth in 2:13:30. "I wanted to finish in the top 10," he said. "I'm happy."