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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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No matter what plans the country's best marathoners might have laid to secure one of the three spots on the U.S. Olympic team, when they rose from their beds in Buffalo last Saturday, they knew how the trials race must go. A warm, wet wind was blowing from the northwest. The course, after four miles through Buffalo neighborhoods, would cross the Niagara River into Canada and run northwest alongside the river, into the teeth of the wind for the last 22 miles to the finish at Niagara Falls.

"No one would run 2:09 today," said Alberto Salazar, who has the world's best time of 2:08:13, after the race. "It was a constant, the wind in our faces. It probably cost us four or five seconds a mile." To escape the wind, there was only one strategy: wait and hide. The impressively deep pack, containing virtually every American who has run with distinction in the '80s, except the injured Dick Beardsley, stumbled over itself. Each time a new leader seemed to assume command—such men as Kirk Pfeffer (second at New York in 1979), Duncan Macdonald (three-time Honolulu winner), Greg Meyer (victor at Boston in 1983, with a 2:09:00, making him the third-fastest American ever) and Bill Rodgers (four New York wins, four Bostons)—he would just as quickly let himself be swallowed up by the pack. "Once you felt how strong the wind was, you'd think, 'Whoa, I don't need to be doing all this work,' and back off," said Meyer.

The pace hovered at five minutes per mile. Salazar, under orders from his coach, Bill Dellinger, not to make any sort of move until after 20 miles, carefully kept in the lee of others. He knew he wasn't at his best. A month before, he had run second in the Mt. SAC Relays 10,000 meters in 27:45.5. It was a satisfying time, but the hard track sent him home with a sore left foot. His doctor ordered a bone scan. "There were big blotches on the X ray of one foot and none on the other. That didn't look good," he said. It was judged a stress reaction, "a hot spot," as Dellinger put it, and Salazar was warned that any more pounding for a while would produce a stress fracture. He took three days off, did light walking and jogging for the next five, then gradually resumed training. "In the last two weeks before the race, I never took a run over 10 miles," he said, "and it was only in the last four days that I could run without being conscious of the foot."

So, even as early as six miles, Salazar felt sluggish: "I was thinking, 'Gee, we're running slow, and I don't feel that good. I wonder if something is wrong with me?' It was a test of confidence." Yet, as he looked around he could see that almost everyone else was working equally hard.

The humidity drove the runners to drink as much as they could, for they could feel and see the sweat pouring out of them. And as they drew together to let those ahead break the wind, they collided with each other. "The guys were getting testy out there," said Meyer. "Lotta heels scraping. Al [ Salazar] turned around a couple of times to say watch it." Near seven miles, Don Norman and another runner went down. Norman was up at once and charging to the front when his New Balance teammate, Pete Pfitzinger, put out a hand to restrain him. "Just be patient," said Pfitzinger.

Patience was the watchword, the mantra, for every favored runner. Garry Bjorklund was Salazar's shadow. Farther back—23rd at nine miles, though no more than 30 yards from the lead—was Dr. Anthony Sandoval of Los Alamos, N. Mex., who had been fourth in the '76 trials and had won in 1980, doing 2:10:19 on this course, but had been kept from Moscow by the Carter boycott. After that, he had continued medical school, foregoing lucrative road races, but now he was in his second year of residency and had time to train, and he burned to reverse his Olympic fortunes. He had finished only a second and a half behind Sa-lazar in that Mt. SAC 10.000. Now he ran softly, effortlessly.

"He's to draft behind the big guys," said his adviser, David Martin of Atlanta. "He's eight pounds over his normal racing weight of 112 because of all the glycogen stores that he's built up during this past week of tapering off training. Every gram of glycogen in the muscles takes 2.7 grams of water. So he's like an L-1011 jet today. He'll burn off some fuel before he goes to a higher altitude."

Keying on Sandoval was Pfitzinger. "If anyone knew what he was doing out there," Pfitzinger said, "it was obviously him."

Much of the time the pace was set by Dave Gordon, 24, of Eugene, Ore. who won the '82 Honolulu Marathon. "I had to run aggressively," he said. "I run best if I do, assuming that I don't run stupidly." But which was it this time? "Yeah, early on that little voice came and said, 'You shouldn't be up here. There are a lot of good guys behind.' But this was the Olympic trials. It wasn't the race to listen to that voice. It was the time to at least try to have a little courage."

Gordon and Macdonald took the race through halfway in 1:05:40. The road was flat, with marshy parkland and leafing apple, willow and maple trees to the left and the river to the right. The sun burned through high cloud. It had a halo around it.

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