A visitor is running with a bunch of strange men through a strange forest. His impressions are of modest effort beneath pines, over sandy, moist ground. There are few complete sentences, many knowing looks, mild insults. The air carries grass perfume and the sweetness of flowering trees. Everything seems relaxed, but then the green needles overhead erupt with raucous hoots that let the visitor know he's not in Marin County. "Magpies and kookaburras," someone says. There's a sense of the sun working steadily northward, toward noon.
The runners talk of movies, coming races, babies, electronics. The trail takes them along the edge of an immense field of tall green oats. From among them, a shadow leaps up; my God, it's a kangaroo, six feet high, and another smaller one, both hopping around on legs like truck springs, mashing down the grain, watching the runners until they're well away. "Wild pig off here to the left sometimes," says John Gilbert, a 2:27 marathoner, peering idly into dark, dry thickets.
A crimson and violet parrot comes clumsily to rest in a pine. The other runners take no notice of the bird, but they do of the visitor's exclamations. "Just a rosella," says one. "Don't you have birds in the States?"
This is Stromlo Forest, rolling away over the hills southwest of Canberra, Australia's capital city. It's possible to become so caught up in the forest's unexpected exotic touches while padding along some of its 30 miles of cushiony paths that at first the visitor doesn't give much thought to the true rarity—the runner who happens to be just ahead, name of Rob de Castella.
But eventually it penetrates that here is a remarkably formed beast. He seems out of proportion, with heavily muscled legs supporting a taut, wiry upper body, as if halves of two different men have been joined at the waist. The recipient of the leftover pieces would have to totter through life with a weightlifter's torso supported by bandy little lower limbs. De Castella, in violation of all fairness, gets to run with those great muscles, and all he has to carry is the upper body of a hollow-boned bird. The image comes of a griffin, mythical composite of a lion's body and the head and wings of an eagle, but that seems too warlike to apply here.
For de Castella is a creature of these temperate, entertaining woods. The bulk of his 135 miles per week is done in them. He never finds it too muddy or too hot or cold or hilly. Twice a week, when he needs to run hard, he will leave his training companions and storm away over the last hour of 18-and 22-mile efforts. But more often he is content to run and chat and let the time pass, the sweat flow, the miles mount.
Now, those miles have brought de Castella, at 27, surpassing strength. In his last four marathons he has won four times against the best in the world, over four different courses, in races of drastically different tactics. In so doing, he has made himself the clear favorite for the gold medal in whatever conditions August in Los Angeles brings.
In 1981 de Castella showed he could run fast. That was when, five weeks after Alberto Salazar had set the world best in the marathon with a 2:08:13 in New York, de Castella won in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2:08:18. Because the Fukuoka race finished in the stadium where it began, but New York's went from one end of the city to another (making possible a net assistance from a tail wind for Salazar), de Castella is recognized as the record holder for loop, or out-and-back, courses. Marathon purists feel this to be the more legitimate mark.
Then in 1982, de Castella showed he could control himself and run in the heat. During the British Commonwealth Games marathon in Brisbane, Lieut. Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania set a killing pace, a world-record pace, on a hot October day. De Castella was a full minute behind with nine miles to run. Then he charged. He caught and passed Ikangaa with 2½ miles to go. But Ikangaa's pace hadn't been suicidal. He had energy enough to fling himself back into the lead. De Castella passed him a second time. Again, Ikangaa drove to the front. Implacable, de Castella came on once more and powered away to win, by 12 seconds, in 2:09:18. Those final miles on Coronation Drive were heralded as the most fiercely competitive in marathon history.
Until, that is, the spring of 1983, in Rotterdam. There, de Castella raced Salazar for the first time. After a fast start and a tactical, wait-and-conserve middle, de Castella launched his drive for the finish with four miles to go. Salazar, tired from travel and slightly injured, with a strained groin muscle, couldn't hang on and faded to fifth. But Carlos Lopes of Portugal, the 1976 Olympic silver medalist at 10,000 meters, went right with de Castella. With 1,000 meters to go, de Castella was thrashing low with his arms, his head twisting with the strain. Lopes seemed far more efficient. But de Castella lifted into a full sprint with 300 yards left. "I hoped that the fatigue had built up in Lopes's legs more than in mine," he would say, gasping, later. "That he couldn't go with me one last time." De Castella won by two seconds, in 2:08:37. This was happy proof, he said, that the marathon, despite the entry of accomplished track runners such as Salazar and Lopes, was still a race that could be dominated by raw stamina.