Bill Rodgers is 32 years old and has won the Boston and New York marathons four times apiece. Alberto Salazar is 22 years old, and before last Sunday and the 11th running of the New York race he had never entered a marathon, though he was the second-fastest American at 10,000 meters this year, at 27:49.3. Both are from Massachusetts, and both are exceedingly confident men, which led to a most spirited prerace exchange for usually mild marathoners.
"I feel capable of a 2:10," Salazar had said, a pointed remark because Rodgers' New York record, set in 1976, was 2:10:09, "and I'd like to—I intend to—beat Billy Rodgers at his own game."
"There are 20 miles out there after Alberto is used to stopping. He's going to learn something in them," Rodgers said after hearing of Salazar's remarks. "And I'm firm on one point: no rookie is going to beat me."
It is more normal to hear marathoners sounding like Norway's Grete Waitz, who, though she had set world records in the last two New York marathons, rejected any attempt at clairvoyance. "You can't predict a record," she said before the start. "I'm running for the victory. It's hard enough to predict that."
In New York it was hard for the top contenders just to get through the welter of press conferences and expositions and corporate receptions that comes so easily to the media capital when it has a movement on the rise thrust at it. Thus there was a sublime relief in the hearts of many of the 14,000 runners as they took off at the toll plaza of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and climbed the first mile to the span's summit with the chill (45°) wind, which gusted to 35 mph, at their backs, a crystalline view of the Manhattan skyline to their left, rainbows beneath them from fire boats spraying water in celebration of their passage, and all the film crews and meet promoters left blissfully behind with the "world's longest urinal" at the marshaling area. Two hundred feet must not have been quite long enough. Several men stepped to the railing in midspan and created the world's highest—228 feet.
Fank Nenshun of the Peoples Republic of China led for the first three miles, while Rodgers and Salazar stayed in a huge pack. "My plan was just to keep close," said Salazar. "I hoped to have something left for the last six miles." The pace was fast, but easy. "The wind just threw you along," said Rodgers, "but it scared me a little. I was afraid we'd get lulled into battle too early."
That appeared to be a possibility as Filbert Bayi, the former mile world-record holder, led two fellow Tanzanians quickly up to Nenshun as they ran past over-coated spectators in Brooklyn. Salazar alertly kept close, having tossed aside the T shirt he had worn over his University of Oregon singlet at the start. Salazar has one track season of eligibility left at Oregon, but none for fall cross-country, "so I thought this would be a perfect time to try the marathon."
Despite doing no training run longer than 20 miles, Salazar had to be taken seriously, for he sets himself no task lightly. "He will win," said his father, Jose, who brought the Salazar family to Wayland, Mass. from Havana in 1960, when Alberto was two. "He has always called the outcome, and he has always done it."
Waitz had led all women from the gun, the wind blowing her pigtails around into her eyes. Patti Catalano, who holds all American records from five miles to the marathon, drew up beside her. "I thought, I'm not here to be intimidated by her," said Catalano, "so I went by. But at five miles I heard my time of 27:03—awfully fast. I was afraid of blowing up at the end." Catalano eased, and Waitz went on, never to be headed again. She hit halfway at 1:12:30, world-record pace, looking serene. "I wasn't calmer, I was cooler," she said later. "The last two years have been hot."
After seven miles the lead pack was down to perhaps 30 men, 10 of whom led at one time or another. Rodgers was easily identifiable by his fluffy lemon-and-green stocking cap. He was relieved that there seemed plenty of elbow room because with the wind behind, there was no need for runners to draft along on someone else's back.