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Behind, that great field stretched back for miles, filling the street to the horizon. It was an arresting vision, this moving city of 14,000 running souls, and it couldn't help but provoke a stream of thoughts. First, one simply marveled at the raw figures, the 20,000 entrants turned away to wait for another year; the 1,142 lawyers and 546 doctors running; the 2,000 foreign entries representing 43 countries; the 2,500 volunteers who readied 450,000 drinking cups and who had used 130 gallons of blue paint to put down the line that drew the throng through the five boroughs.
A New York Telephone Company computer revealed that there were 168 company presidents competing, but only 166 construction workers; that 300 intersections were closed; that its own printout of the results would be 70 yards long. It showed that as the mass of the field has grown, the percentage of finishers hasn't suffered, going from 71% of 1976's 2,090 starters to 91% of last year's 11,405 (90% of this year's starters would hang in to the end). It reminded us that in 1970 but one woman ran, Nina Kuscsik, though she didn't finish. This year there were 2,465, of whom only 10 asked for extra-large T shirts.
The conductor of this vast symphony, as ever, was Fred Lebow of the New York Road Runners Club, who had easily disposed of all the usual problems in the weeks leading up to the race, and some not so usual. When Jordache jeans offered to put up $250,000 in prize money, with $100,000 for the winner, Lebow sought approval from The Athletics Congress, which told him that if the athletes' amateur standing was to be preserved, the money would have to be awarded to (read funneled through) their clubs. The freshly formed Association of Road Racing Athletes then protested that arrangement as perpetuating the hypocrisy of under-the-table payments and said its members, including Rodgers, would boycott if such a plan were put into practice. So Lebow decided there would be no prize money. "We just didn't have enough time to create a plan that all the sides could live with," he said, firmly implying that next year would be different.
A far more elemental crisis blew out of the Atlantic on the day before the race. A storm dropped 1.54 inches of rain on New York City, and winds up to 50 mph blew down a tent in the starting area. Lebow fretted about the three-quarter mile carpet that crews were about to lay across the open grating of the Queensboro Bridge at the 15-mile point. "We don't know what's worse, running in high winds on soaked carpet or on slick grating," he said. Finally he judged the carpet was such an unknown variable that it might be dangerous and vetoed it.
But the sight of the 14,000 as they passed through a dismal industrial district in Queens toward what turned out to be a perfectly dry bridge inspired more than interest in the logistics of their welfare. Watchers were struck again with the satisfyingly democratic observation that in a marathon the weak and faint and lame get right out on the same road with the species' finest runners, and in New York they do it with the vocal help of about two million curbside assistants. "We're all devout marathoners here," said Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, "even those of us who don't run a step." Since most viewers only got to see the runners once, they howled as if it were the homestretch, even if 20 miles remained. "This would be a hell of a spectator sport," said Jim Dunaway of Tenafly, N.J. as he labored toward his goal of completing the race in four hours, "if somebody invented a truck that would carry 60,000 people."
Yet for all their sharing of the asphalt, the runners soon divided themselves. Up front, nearest Rodgers and Salazar and Waitz and Catalano, were athletes born to run long distances. Behind came those persuaded in more complicated fashions. Few humans need run more than six miles at a time for the optimum health benefit, but marathoning in this country has little to do with health. Rather it has become a very literal rite of passage. Through this test the determined thousands seem to stride their way to what some know as therapy and others as chemical release (running has been shown to increase pain-blocking hormones in the brain), and still others as an enduring sense of worth that comes from keeping a promise to oneself and mastering this brute, daunting distance.
Powerful forces can be set loose in these people, and no one knows that better than New York officials. "One woman told me, 'My life is nothing, the marathon is all I'm living for,' " said Gloria Averbuch of the Road Runners Club. "Another said finishing was 'more gratifying than the births of my three children.' " Lebow has had threats of suicide if he will not accept an entry, and last year received a note from a woman who said she had a brain tumor and only a few months to live. Lebow let her in. Her name was Rosie Ruiz.
Waitz had smiled at the carnival attending the race. "In New York you can go out in the street and watch the people and be wonderfully entertained," she said. All through Manhattan she returned the favor. "It only looked easy," she said later. "I was suffering. I felt a cramp coming in my left thigh with six miles to go. I just said, 'Now forget about the time, just be first woman.' " Even so, she barely slowed. "It has to do with your will, and how much pain you put in your running," she said, seeming the stern schoolteacher she is. "At 23 miles I saw the time of 2:08 and I knew I had a chance to break the record."
Salazar had known his chances to win were very good as the leaders leaned through two lefts off the Queensboro Bridge and headed up First Avenue in Manhattan, Steve Floto of Boulder, Colo. had led strongly by 40 yards at the halfway point, in a rapid 1:04:42. Salazar and Jeff Wells of Dallas had led the pack of close contenders, now down to 20.
Then at 14 miles, Dick Beardsley of Excelsior, Minn. stumbled on a Queens pothole and went down, tripping Rodgers. Beardsley was up quickly, but Rodgers stayed on the road long enough to lose 80 yards. He finally rose with skinned knees and resumed, but off the bridge was still back in 10th. Across the grating, watching the wind-scoured water hundreds of feet below, the pack drastically rearranged itself. With 10 miles to go, the three front-runners were John Graham, 24, of Birmingham, England, running his third marathon; Rodolfo Gomez, 30, of Mexico, who had led the Moscow Olympic marathon until the final five miles and had finished second to Waldemar Cierpinski; and Salazar. The crowds were thick outside the East Side singles bars, and Salazar felt a rush. "I was tempted to take off right then," he said. "I had to hold myself back." He carefully placed himself behind the other two and settled down to wait, his dark eyes hooded.