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WITH A LOT OF HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS
William Nack
February 16, 1981
A couple of determined front-runners enabled Suleiman Nyambui and Don Paige to establish indoor world records at the Millrose Games
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February 16, 1981

With A Lot Of Help From Their Friends

A couple of determined front-runners enabled Suleiman Nyambui and Don Paige to establish indoor world records at the Millrose Games

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Alberto Salazar knew he was there—he had been there a long time—trailing behind him like a cape. But there was nothing more for Salazar to do now but push on, as fast as he prudently could. Pitched slightly forward in full flight, staring fixedly ahead, his face expressionless, Salazar had set a blistering pace in the 5,000-meter run at last Friday's Mill-rose Games. Rushing through the first mile in 4:13.8, a split suggesting a world indoor record in the making, the 22-year-old winner of the 1980 New York City Marathon had the Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,211 shifting in the seats. But more than the splits were stirring them now.

Directly behind Salazar, not more than two yards back as they raced into the final six of the 34-plus laps, was Suleiman Nyambui, a spindly-legged Tanzanian who was running 12 miles a day, back and forth to school, when he was all of eight years old. He has since developed into one of the world's leading distance runners. Nyambui (pronounced ny-ahm-boo-ee), a junior at the University of Texas at El Paso, won both the 5,000 and 10,000 runs at last year's NCAA outdoor championships. And, coming off that, the silver medal in the 5,000 at the Olympics in Moscow. Now Nyambui was waiting to kick for the world record.

It seemed particularly fitting that the final minutes of this 74th Wanamaker Millrose Games should have found Nyambui tracking Salazar so swiftly. It had been a night of superior performances achieved with memorably dramatic effect. Winging off the pace in a surpassing display of strength and speed, Don Paige had raced to a world indoor record in the 1,000-yard run with a clocking of 2:04.9—two-tenths faster than Mark Winzenried's record of 2:05.1, set on an eight-lap track in Louisville nine years before. And Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan, also rousing himself off the lead, had swept past countryman Ray Flynn and won the mile in 3:53.0, by two full seconds the fastest Wanamaker Mile in history and equal to the third-fastest indoor clocking of all time. And while the men were running in circles, Joni Huntley was soaring. Coming off surgery to repair a torn muscle in her right foot, the 24-year-old assistant women's track coach at Oregon State set an American indoor record of 6'4¾" in the high jump, surpassing by half an inch her own mark set at the Millrose Games last year. And as an early-evening fillip, the fans got a look at Georgia's Herschel Walker performing creditably as a sprinter. The 18-year-old tailback ran a 6.25 in his heat of the 60-yard dash before finishing last in the finals.

But it was the 5,000 that stirred the most anticipation, for the field was perhaps the finest ever assembled at the distance indoors. The presence of Salazar, the engaging young marketing student from the University of Oregon by way of Wayland, Mass., made it doubly attractive. Salazar arrived at the New York City Marathon last fall announcing that he felt capable of running 2:10 in that, his very first, marathon. "I'd like to—I intend to—beat Billy Rodgers at his own game," he had said. And he stunned everyone by not only beating Rodgers at his own game but by also going the distance in 2:09.41, a New York record.

So here he was, back in the Big Apple and ready to make a run at another of the world's premier distance men. Salazar didn't boast that he would beat Nyambui. Neither did he say he made the trip to run second to him. Salazar had raced only twice since the marathon—he set a U.S. road record of 22:04 for five miles on Jan. 4 and then won a two-mile indoor race in Portland, Ore. the week before the Millrose. But he sensed he was ready to run fast enough to beat the American indoor record of 13:40.6 easily and even to threaten the world indoor mark of 13:20.8, set five years ago by Emiel Puttemans in Paris.

"I have to go out and break Nyambui early," Salazar said the night before the race. "I'd like it if someone else picked up the pace, but I can't count on that. I'll probably have to do it myself. If it comes down to a kick, I'll be dead."

Some view Salazar as a boastful, even cocky, competitor, but they are in error. If he sounds rash, he says, it is only because he knows his own capabilities and simply wishes to assess his chances intelligently. "I'm worried about Nyambui first," he said. "If I beat him, I'll beat everybody. I am less confident than I was before the marathon. They're saying I'm the favorite, and that's ridiculous. Suleiman has to be the favorite."

The 27-year-old Nyambui understood just how mentally and physically unyielding Salazar can be. But Nyambui himself was steeled young as a competitor. He was born in the town of Muriti, on an island along the southern coast of Lake Victoria, the son of a farmer. At the age of eight he began to run to school every day, carrying his books and lunch—sweet potatoes, bananas and slices of sugarcane. "Other children would join us along the way," Nyambui says. "We had fun. Later, when I was 12, I went to another school farther away and I had to run seven miles up there and seven back."

"Running in this unstructured fashion, you build a lot of strength," says Frank Shorter. "You don't burn out mentally." As a teen-ager, Nyambui eventually got involved in soccer as well as track. "I was very ambitious for sports," he says. "But my government told me I could not do soccer. Too many injuries. So I did only track." There is a kind of unbridled joy about Nyambui. "Nyambui loves to laugh," says Salazar's teammate at Oregon, Rudy Chapa. "Tell him the dumbest joke and he'll roll on the ground."

But Nyambui stepped to the line for the 5,000 as grimly as the hunter leaving for the chase. And that was exactly what he was. Just as Salazar knew what he had to do, so did the Tanzanian. "Before I came here, I was reading newspapers about this race and I was getting many calls from my friends on how the race would be," Nyambui said. "They say, 'Make sure you're close to this guy. Stay with him.' "

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