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A Man Who Is As Good As His Word
Kenny Moore
November 02, 1981
Alberto Salazar delivered on his bold promise to set a marathon mark in New York City with a glittering time of 2:08:13
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November 02, 1981

A Man Who Is As Good As His Word

Alberto Salazar delivered on his bold promise to set a marathon mark in New York City with a glittering time of 2:08:13

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At 12 miles, Waitz and Roe had cut Brown's lead in the women's race to two seconds. Roe seemed at ease, contained. Just before 13, Waitz mysteriously turned into a side street. "But in a little while she was back with me," said Roe. Brown had built her lead again to 10 seconds. Waitz understood that Roe was keying on her, as the world-record holder. "Why don't you go ahead," she told Roe. "I probably have to pull out." Roe did, and caught Brown at 15 miles, at which point Waitz withdrew. "I wasn't going for a specific time," Roe said. "I was running only to win." Though she was holding a pace that gave her a chance at Waitz's world record, Roe wouldn't know this until 20 miles.

On the approach to the Pulaski Bridge, which carries the runners into Queens and is the halfway point, another crazed spectator ran out, after the unfortunate Graham. "He grabbed him by the shirt," said Salazar, who moved to help Graham, "and seemed to be trying to stuff a dollar bill down the back of his shorts." Graham broke free and was at Salazar's shoulder again as the pack, now down to eight, passed the half-marathon in 1:04:10, perfect pace if the record were to be broken. Salazar must have mistaken the actual midpoint, however, for he understood the split to be 1:04:30. "I felt good," he said. "I knew I'd win at that point, but I also knew that to get the record needed more hard work." He put some in, with miles of 4:59 and 5:02.

The only wrenching test on New York's course similar to the decisive heartbreak hills of Boston is the Queensboro Bridge over the East River into Manhattan between miles 15 and 16. Four men were in contention at its start: Salazar, Rodolfo Gomez of Mexico, Poland's Ryszard Marczak and Mexico's 10,000-meter record holder, José Gomez, running his first marathon. "I really felt the wind there," said Salazar. "And the carpet they put down over the sharp grating was really spongy and dead. I felt like I was walking."

José Gomez, a short, powerful man, pulled even with Salazar, his face a ceaseless grimace. Salazar again went ahead on the downhill, and as they swung off the ramp and onto First Avenue, the first and only real racing of the day took place. "Gomez didn't look that smooth," said Salazar. "I thought he'd drop back." Salazar hastened Gomez's surrender by averaging 4:43 per mile from 16 to 19. At 86th Street Salazar pulled away. Still the crowd clutched at him. "There were people who got overexcited," he said, "but overall they were terrific. They shouted at me to go on for the record. Once I broke away from Gomez I had to worry about not easing off and just settling for the victory."

This was the stage he had known was coming, when he would have to take the weight of the race alone. He reached 20 miles in 1:37:29. "I knew I had it then," he said. "I felt that if I was near 1:38 I'd have a good shot." The wind was behind him now, and all his opponents far out of sight. There were stretches there, in Harlem at 21 and 22 miles, when he was almost alone with his task. "The last six are hard," he would say, and he showed it then, driving his arms lower, to keep the power in his stride. The early softness of his footfall had become a more wooden placement.

He slowed slightly from his remarkable charge up First Avenue. The 22nd mile was 4:55; the 23rd, 5:02; the 24th, 5:06. "I was running to conserve the record there," he said. "I knew I had it. If someone had been there to force me to race, I think I could have cut another 20 seconds or so." As proof, he ran his 25th in 4:52 as he began to understand it was a certainty. His 26th was a 4:58.

He crossed the finish line in Central Park in 2:08:13, ending all speculation in this, his second attempt, as to who is the greatest marathoner who ever lived. He arrived fists raised, his expression a mixture of relief and joyous vindication. His father, José, was waiting for him just beyond the line. As father and son moved to embrace, a coterie of New York policemen leaped between them and threw aside the elder Salazar, the one man among the millions they protected Alberto against, slamming him into a fence. But this is a forceful family. José shook them off, shouting, with a splendid indignance, and reached his son. The family gathered as Alberto nearly was sick all over sportscaster Jim Lampley's network blazer. "No sweat," said Molly Morton to a tearful friend, but her eyes were wide with the memory of Alberto's mastery.

Another indicator of that was the fate of all those who had tried to stay with him. José Gomez would finish 36th in 2:18:10. Graham would end up 44th in 2:19:13. Jukka Toivola of Oulu, Finland came from far back to place second, having stepped over the corpses of Salazar's challengers. His time was 2:10:52, and he finished more than half a mile behind.

Now it was left to Roe to make it two world records. "The men running around me were wonderful," she said. "They called and cheered and wouldn't let me slow. I realized there was a chance, but my legs were tight. I felt I was going slower and slower." She is a fine miler and ran the final few hundred yards with a loose, long stride that showed that, like Salazar, she hadn't completely destroyed herself in the effort. She finished in 2:25:29 to slice 13 seconds from Waitz's record and called it "a wonderful bonus. I never thought this was a fast enough course for the world record." Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway was second in 2:30:08, and Julie Shea of Raleigh, N.C. third in 2:30:12. Brown faded to ninth.

Because Roe had run still feeling a recent hamstring injury and tendinitis in her right ankle and because she is only 24, it seems certain she will cut the record far more deeply. But that's a hard thing to think about at the end of a marathon. New York Mayor Ed Koch, who seemed curiously giggly about performances that most onlookers regarded with awe and gratitude, said to Salazar, "Well, now we have a new record for you to break next year," and Salazar returned a look that seemed to say, "If I choose to accept the invitation."

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