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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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Alberto Salazar's first clear decision came five miles into the New York City Marathon. The leaders had remained closely bunched as they advanced through a perfect morning for distance running, 50° and overcast, with a moderate, fitful wind. Said Salazar, "I got out there and thought, 'Well, Alberto, the weather isn't going to be an excuse. You had to open your big mouth, so now you're going to have to deliver.' "

Salazar's promise had seemed impossibly rash. He had said as early as last August that in New York he would attempt to break Derek Clayton's world-best time of 2:08:34 in the marathon. Clayton, an Australian, had run that on a still night in Antwerp, Belgium on May 30. 1969 over a smooth and level course that many experts suspect was short. Construction soon after the race changed the course, so those suspicions can never be confirmed. The fastest universally recognized performance was a 2:09:01 by Holland's Gerard Nijboer in 1980 in Amsterdam, but Salazar had said, "If I don't get under 2:08:33, I won't feel I have the record." To do that, he had to average 4:54 per mile for the 26 miles, 385 yards.

The time for five miles was 24:15, a 4:51 average. But Louis Kenny, Ireland's national record holder at 2:12:19, was surging ahead. Salazar had to decide whether to go with him. "Who is he?" Salazar asked John Graham of Scotland, who was the fastest entrant in the race with his 2:09:28 last May in Rotterdam. Graham, running shoulder to shoulder with Salazar, replied that Kenny had run a marathon only two weeks before. "I didn't think he'd hold that pace," Salazar said later. "So I relaxed and let him go."

There were more than 14,000 souls stampeding behind the leaders. Indeed, it had taken more than four minutes for the field to cross the starting line, but for all the leaders cared, the masses might still have been home in their beds. In front it was a traditional race, no different in appearance from those at Boston or Fukuoka, Japan or in the Olympics that have always decided the very best, and in none of these had anyone remotely threatened Clayton's legendary time. A few men, 30 at first, then a steadily dwindling number, clustered in a kind of unspoken unity and sought that arrangement of carriage and arm and head and mood that makes for economy. "My calves felt tight in the first five miles," said Salazar. "Then they didn't exactly get better, but they didn't get worse."

The women's race was led, strongly, by Julie Brown of Santa Monica, Calif., a 1980 Olympian at 800 and 1,500 meters. At seven miles she had a 200-yard lead on Allison Roe of New Zealand, this year's Boston winner, as well as the world-record holder and defending New York champion, Grete Waitz of Norway. Waitz had severely aggravated a case of shin splints during a cross-country race two weeks earlier in Sweden. Two days before the marathon she didn't expect to start. Still, she ran. "She is far from well," said her husband, Jack.

This was the first time that the New York Marathon was covered live on major network television, and an ABC camera truck closely preceded the leaders. That seemed an irresistible magnet for the exposure-hungry in the crowd who darted out for a moment's ignominy. Even on the downslopes of the well-protected Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, fat kids on bikes and roller skates had darted into the runners' path, and motorcycle police had trouble heading them off without themselves endangering the athletes. It brought into frightening clarity what an enormous act of trust a major marathon is. Runners and sponsors and police must assume that all of the two million or more observers who can reach out and touch the leaders will remain benign. Some didn't. At eight miles, Brown was tripped by a spectator who jumped out to be on TV. She barely kept her feet.

A crucial split in Salazar's plan was the time for 10 miles. "Forty-nine minutes would have been perfect," he said. "Much faster than that would mean we'd run too hard too early." His time was 49:05. Salazar's precision and his imperviousness to the antics of this most worrisome of marathon crowds were functions of his profound stability. His judgment is unimpaired by media pressure or competitors' moves or the lashings of howling spectators who want him to replace his measured calm with mad effort despite there being 20 miles to go. Even Salazar's prediction of a 2:08 world record, given so mildly, was an indicator of aloofness from the timid concerns of others. Somebody asked him, and he couldn't be bothered to be secretive, so he answered. "It's nothing virtuous," he said a week before the race, "but I believe in saying what you believe. I feel stupid when people ask me what I'm going to do and I don't tell them."

"But how can you know?" asked the reporters, strangely inflamed. In fact, such predictions are much easier for runners in general and Salazar in particular than, say, calling the round in boxing or the score in football. Salazar predicted 2:08 on the basis of irrefutable numbers. He had won last year in 2:09:41 in his first marathon after having had five weeks of training uninterrupted by injury. This year he had 17. Last year he did five interval miles on a wood-chip trail in 4:42. This year he did six in 4:30. And he had run a personal best—and second-best ever by an American—with his 27:40.69 for the 10,000 in the World Cup at Rome in September. Those close to him were equally confident. Rich Phaigh, his masseur at Athletics West in Eugene, Ore., was taking $100 bets that Salazar would break Clayton's record.

Yet all the measurements of fitness in the world won't win the New York Marathon for you. That's where stability comes in. "I've never had a bad race when my training has gone well," said Salazar, and as long as that connection held, he saw no reason to fret.

"This morning I was so nervous I started to stutter," said Molly Morton, once the University of Oregon women's 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 record holder, who will marry Salazar on Dec. 21. "He said, 'Don't worry. It's going to turn out just as we've planned.' He said he had the best night's sleep since he came to New York."

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