Looking back on one of the best U.S. Olympic marathon trials ever
January 10, 2012
It was early 1984. The men's Olympic marathon trials, scheduled for May 26 in Buffalo, N.Y., approached.
Pete Pfitzinger, trying to adopt the "most simple and pure runner's lifestyle," was training at a career-high 143 miles a week in Auckland, New Zealand, on the terrain used by coach Arthur Lydiard's Olympic greats of the 1960s.
Alberto Salazar, the marathon world record-holder who'd won New York in 1980, '81 and '82, and Boston's "Duel in the Sun" in '82, was coming off fifths at the 1983 Fukuoka and Rotterdam marathons and nursing a foot injury incurred while running a 27:45 10,000m.
John Tuttle, who'd taken up the marathon in 1983, was living in a trailer in Auburn, Ala., for $50 a month and trying to pick up a few bucks on the road-racing circuit, where prize money was out in the open after elite runners finally achieved professional status.
Bill Rodgers, the King of the Roads, who'd won four New Yorks and four Bostons from 1975 to 1980, was past his prime with 41 marathons in his legs and giving way to younger men after his 10th at Boston in '83.
Greg Meyer, who'd won Boston in '83, was running up a storm on the roads and with cash in his pocket after his shoe company sponsor, Brooks, had paid him a "huge" Boston victory bonus of $10,000.
While the 1984 women's trials, in Olympia, Wash., would become a piece of running history for Joan Benoit Samuelson's remarkable recovery from pre-race knee surgery and subsequent Olympic gold medal run in Los Angeles, the men's Olympic selection race has somehow fallen to the stature of sideshow. Yet as the key players will tell you, it was a time that was never better, performance-wise, for American male marathoners. "It was the ultimate peak," says Bill Rodgers, now 64 and still racing every other weekend. "There's never been a marathon trial that could match 1984 for depth and quality."
At the time, during the qualifying period, the U.S. had four men under 2:10--Meyer (2:09:00), Salazar (2:09:21), Ron Tabb (2:09:32) and Benji Durden (2:09:58)--nine more under 2:12 and a total of 186 runners meeting the trials qualifying standard of 2:19:04. Salazar's world record, from New York '81, stood at 2:08:13. In 2010, 26 years later (you could say 26.2), only 38 Americans ran 2:19:01 or faster.
Open prize purses--growing out of the watershed 1981 Cascade Run Off, which broke down a Berlin Wall of "shamateurism"--were crumbs. But the money was still enough to entice runners living off meager incomes in regular jobs.
"As a distance runner back then," says Tuttle, 53, then a teacher, "if you knew you could get some prize money you were willing to train extremely hard. The running boom and the aura of it were something like a gold rush. Everyone was super-hungry and willing to train 130 miles a week."
The marathon, and marathoners, were hot. It was all about the race. Six-figure appearance fees were a long way off. Rodgers says that the most New York ever paid him to run was $20,000. And that wasn't bad. After all, a few years earlier, after Rodgers had won his first Boston, setting an American record and appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, not one but two shoe companies offered him a one-year contract for $500. "They were insulted when I didn't take it," Rodgers says.
When Tuttle collected $2,000 for winning his first marathon, Florida Festival, in 1983, he was ecstatic. "I've got three years' rent," he said to himself. "I'm set."
Pfitzinger could only imagine such riches. In 1981, he'd accepted $800 for placing seventh at the Cascade Run Off and was suspended for about a year by The Athletics Congress (TAC), then the sport's ruling body, until the controversy was smoothed out. Pfitzinger got his MBA and went to work for New Balance and at one point, as a Cornell graduate, jumped into a Heptagonal alumni cross country race at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Because of TAC's ban, the meet organizer had to announce, "Pete's running. You risk being 'contaminated.'"
That's how crazy distance running was then. It was crazy and boundless and pure and soulful. And American men, on the roads and in the non-smoked-filled back rooms, led the way. The U.S. boom had spread abroad and international stars like Toshihiko Seko (Japan), Rob de Castella (Australia), Carlos Lopes (Portugal), Juma Ikangaa (Tanzania) and 1983 New York City champion Rod Dixon (New Zealand) would be challenged in Los Angeles that summer by the U.S. runners grabbing the top three spots in Buffalo. While Carl Lewis was all the rage, and the Soviet bloc was boycotting the Olympic Games as payback for the U.S.-led boycott of Moscow in 1980, the 1984 men's Olympic marathon was shaping up as a race for all time.
In Buffalo, the excitement was palpable. In and around the
hotels, it felt like a celebration, a crowning of something glorious if not glamorous,
with everyone talking about Salazar, the favorite, and who else might make the
team. At the same time, it seemed very small-town, intimate--a bunch of guys
who knew one another and pursued the marathon's quest long before rock 'n' roll
bands would serenade them along the way.
Two homeboys from upstate New York, Pfitzinger and Tuttle, were in the field, bringing that much more closeness to the marathon family. They'd run against one another in high school, when Pfitzinger was a senior and Tuttle a sophomore. "I looked up to Pete," says Tuttle of his teen years. Tuttle's father, known as Doc Tuttle, had coached track at Alfred University, a small school near Rochester.
Not only was this Pfitzinger's crowd--carloads of friends held up "Go Pfitzy" banners during the race--but also his turf. The course was the same one used for the Skylon Marathon (now called Niagara Falls International), which Pfitzinger had won in 1980 in 2:17:10. The route (also the same one used for the 1980 men's trials) would take the field from Buffalo across the Peace Bridge into Canada at about 4 miles, then circle Fort Erie, and continue in a straight, flat pathway along the Niagara River to the finish near Niagara Falls, in Ontario.
When the race got underway with 92 percent humidity and a headwind slapping the field on the Canadian side, none of the favorites wanted to risk leading. A large pack stuck together as Tuttle held a nominal edge in 50:09 through 10 miles. Soon, an unknown, Matt Wilson, who owned a 2:12:57 PR, surged ahead, hitting the half in 1:05:35. (Yes, you could be an "unknown" with a 2:12 PR in 1984.) And soon after that, Pfitzinger, drawing away from the pack, moved to Wilson's shoulder, and then ahead, finding himself alone and pushing on the long, windswept line to the finish.
To put it mildly, it was a shock. Salazar sitting? Meyer sitting? And Pfitzinger going for it?
"I'd crushed him in a 10-miler three weeks before," says Meyer.
"We were all a bit stunned," says Rodgers.
I was editing The Runner at the time and had spoken with all the contenders and long shots--14 men in all--for a preview story. I'd never thought to speak with Pfitzinger. He was not even in my "best of the rest" category. A reader poll we'd conducted had drawn more than 4,300 votes, with Salazar selected as the heavy favorite, Meyer second and Tabb third. Pfitzinger was 19th. He got three votes, two for second and one for third.
Pfitzinger's daring emergence at the front was emblematic of the day, when marathoning had something of a pioneer spirit, a zest for experimentation and a deeply rooted amateur ideal that was at odds with the new professionalism and calculation that would come with it. As Frank Shorter once told me, in effect: He'd rather not have to race for money, but a man's got to train and eat.
Two rickety flatbed trucks had been designated as "press
trucks"--one for writers, the other for photographers--to take us along
the course. Early on, near the Peace Bridge, the writers' truck that I was on
broke down. The photo truck was farther up near the head of the field.
Reporters were stranded.
Carrying my reference material and other junk, I proceeded to haul ass after the photo truck. I know I ran my fastest mile that day because as I charged over the bridge I was passing runners in the field who were moving at about 5:20 pace. Finally I caught the photo truck. I was bathed in sweat with my heart racing. We all waited for the photo truck to hit the wall but it held on.
Pfitzinger would never hit the wall either. He continued clicking off miles between 4:58 and 5:02, never looking back. The others seemed to be running for second and third. "I could feel the tension," Tuttle said at the time. "No one wanted to risk anything. If it had been any other race, they wouldn't have sat around."
If they had known how fit Pfitzinger was, they probably wouldn't have given him such a long leash. But no one really knew that Pfitzinger, taking a leave of absence from New Balance the previous November, had been holed up in an Auckland crash pad arranged by his coach, Kevin Ryan of New Zealand, for the entire winter, sculpting himself into a marathon animal.
As soon as he got Down Under, Pfitzinger won the Winstone Auckland Marathon in 2:12:19. It was his third marathon success of the year, all on hilly courses. Previously, in July, he'd won San Francisco in 2:14:44; then, in September, he was second at Montreal in 2:12:33 behind the Ethiopian Kebede Balcha, the silver medalist in that summer's inaugural world championship marathon in Helsinki.
Three tough marathons in five months. Pfitzinger was either possessed of a certain madness or testing his limits. As an underdog all along, he took the position: "no fear of failure."
With nothing to lose, Pfitzinger trained twice a day in Auckland, over 140 miles a week, a career high. His weight dropped to 130. He was 5-foot-9. "Scrawny," he says. Every Sunday he ran a 22-miler in the famed Waitakere Ranges, breathtaking parkland where Peter Snell, John Walker, Murray Halberg and other Lydiard stars did their base work. "Sometimes we did the 27-mile version," says Pfitzinger. "We punished each other every Sunday."
Pfitzinger was a white-collar guy doing blue-collar work. He
did one of those hilly 22-milers in 2:06. The record was 2:05. Pfitzinger
didn't just train, he sought an education. What did Lydiard know that others did
not? He spoke with Lydiard. He also spent time with Arch Jelley, Walker's
coach, and Dick Quax. "The New Zealand approach," says Pfitzinger,
"was very much about getting a strong aerobic base."
That's it? Every high school coach knew that. But with Lydiard you didn't waste time with unnecessary racing or fancy stuff. You trained and trained and trained. And then you trained some more.
In Buffalo, at one point near halfway, Tony Sandoval, the defending trials champion, led the field. He'd had his own training Eden, in the Jemez Mountains of Los Alamos, N.M. He'd run at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet, passing columns of sandstone that the area's Native Americans considered sacred. An Olympic berth was considered sacred too. But after winning the '80 trials in 2:10:19, Sandoval, now a cardiologist, returned to his medical studies. Because of the boycott, he didn't get to go to Moscow.
"I think I would have been vying for the gold medal," Sandoval told me years later when I visited him in Los Alamos. "I wish I could have given my running the opportunity to completely blossom."
No one felt that urgency more profoundly than Rodgers, who skipped the '80 trials as a form of protest. Then at the top of his game, he was a gold medal contender himself. He says he'd gotten over his bitterness by '84 and that he was gratified to have run the Olympic marathon in '76, even though, injured, he placed 25th. After 1980, it was time to move on. "I won a lot of races," says Rodgers. "I was very lucky."
His luck ran out in '84. "I was psyched but I knew I
couldn't--shouldn't--make it," says Rodgers, referring to the team. Oh,
but for a moment of the old glory. At 21 miles, as Pfitzinger tired and started
to doubt himself, the field closed on him and Rodgers--at 36, the second-oldest
man in the race--slipped ahead, as though ordained by the marathon gods. He
squinted into the heavy air, then retreated to finish eighth in 2:13:30.
Rodgers crossed the line a stride behind Meyer, hobbling in seventh in 2:13:29. Meyer said that his hamstring gave way at about 21 miles, at just the point Pfitzinger was trying to gather himself.
After that, Meyer, considered a co-favorite with Salazar, didn't know what to do with himself. "I almost quit running," he says.
Bob Sevene, who'd coached Meyer previously (and coached a number of trials competitors, male and female, including Benoit Samuelson), was on a bus back to the hotel after the race when he spotted Meyer sitting alone on a park bench on the U.S. side of the course. Sevene got off the bus to console him. "Here's a guy sitting in the corner crying," says Sevene. "What could you say?"
With 4 miles to go, as one contender after another slipped farther away, the race for the Olympic team began to take shape. Pfitzinger held command. On the photo truck, we started to realize that this supposed journeyman from the Ivy League who couldn't hold Salazar's water bottle could win the darn thing. At 24 miles, coming off a short bridge across the Chippewa River, Pfitzinger led by 17 seconds. Tuttle and Salazar were running together in second and third and starting to close the gap.
As Tuttle chased Pfitzinger, he recalled his visit to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs the year before. Coach Bill Squires, the Joe Vigil of his day, had been enlisted to help American runners. From Squires, Tuttle learned about visualization techniques for the first time. As Tuttle explains it, "You start a year before the race and put yourself in a trance. Every day I went through the scenario in my mind. I pictured myself going over the bridge at 24 miles and making my move. And that's how it played out."
Tuttle caught Pfitzinger at 25 miles. "John did not intimidate me," says Pfitzinger. "We'd raced in high school." Tuttle, who had placed fourth at New York the previous fall in 2:10:51, had told me, "I knew then I could run with the big boys."
Then Salazar caught the pair. "He was intimidating," says Pfitzinger.
Salazar, competing for Nike-sponsored Athletics West, had passed on New York in the fall after his three straight victories to run Fukuoka, held in December, as further international grounding for Los Angeles. His fifth-place time was 2:09:21. Seko won in 2:08:52. Earlier, in the spring, in his fifth at Rotterdam, Salazar had run 2:10:08. De Castella won that one in 2:08:37. So Salazar had faced the two men considered Olympic favorites for LA.
Now, in Buffalo, he faced Pfitzinger. In the last mile, Salazar surged, gaining 30 yards on Pfitzinger. Tuttle moved into second, 15 yards ahead of Pfitzinger. Salazar and Tuttle had run 4:50 pace for their last 3 miles to forge ahead. Tuttle looked back, seeing Dave Gordon down the road in fourth. "Just hold it together," Tuttle told himself.
"I was running scared," says Pfitzinger. Was his gutsy strategy proving to be rash? Could he lose third? Would he prove to be the also-ran everyone had figured him to be? Gordon, coached by Sevene and also representing Athletics West, had won Honolulu in 1982 and run well at Boston and New York in '83. He'd trained at altitude in Alamosa, Colo. And, at 5-foot-9 and 125 pounds, he was even scrawnier than Pfitzinger.
But Pfitzinger had a secret weapon, what no one else in the field possessed--a Lydiard-inspired, broad-chested, beastly fitness. He thought back to his last serious workout in Boston three weeks before. With a friend, Tom Ratcliffe (also in the trials, now an agent), Pfitzinger had run 25 miles hard with tours of Heartbreak Hill. With about a quarter-mile left in the workout, a car had backfired next to him. The noise had scared him but, with adrenaline pumping, Pfitzinger had flown home in a sprint.
Nearing the trials finish, that image worked its magic. Renewed, he ran ahead of Tuttle and then, with less than 100 yards left, fought Salazar one-on-one as a Marine band played. Pfitzinger sprinted to victory in 2:11:43, a half-smile on his face. Salazar, his face anguished, crossed the line in 2:11:44. Tuttle held third in 2:11:50. Gordon was fourth in 2:11:59.
"I was surprised Pfitz could come back," Salazar said after the race. "Not many men can lead that long, lose the lead and then come on again. Most lose heart once they're passed like that."
Rounding out the top 10 were Dean Matthews (2:12:25), who'd won the 1979
Honolulu Marathon over Shorter; Sandoval (2:12:41); Meyer and Rodgers; Sal Vega
(2:14:18), a native Cuban (like Salazar) who would become mayor of West New
York, N. J., where he'd been a high school state champion; and Tom Raunig
(2:16:02), a former teammate of Gordon's at the University of Montana. With the
humidity, only 108 of the 159 starters finished.
There were only 11 weeks until the Olympics. Recover from a hard trials and take on the best in the world in less than three months? The tight schedule made athletes edgy. Pfitzinger was in demand. "People wanted to interview me. They wanted photo shoots," he says. For quiet, he got away to a friend's house in Gloucester, Mass. There was no phone. Less than a month after the trials, he ran 152 miles in a week.
In California before the games, Pfitzinger did his final training in Santa Barbara. He developed a back problem and received chiropractic treatment and acupuncture. When the Olympic marathon was run, Pfitzinger wasn't the same man as in Buffalo but still placed 11th, the first American, as the 37-year-old Lopes triumphed by 35 seconds in 2:09:21. Salazar, suffering in the heat, took 15th in 2:14:19, just behind Seko. De Castella was fifth, Ikangaa sixth and Dixon 10th.
Tuttle dropped out with leg cramps past the 20-mile point. He told me that he was in great shape after training with coach Bill Dellinger at the pre-Olympic camp, but that he had become dehydrated by consuming rice before the race. There had been rumors that Tuttle had a plantar fascia problem and might not be able to run. (Gordon was told by U.S. officials to stay in shape in case he was needed.) Not so, says Tuttle.
Meyer, still heartbroken, watched the Olympic marathon on television. He saw his frequent training partner, the unheralded Englishman Charlie Spedding, take the bronze medal in a shocker. "I'd never lost a race to him," says Meyer.
The Olympic year is known for its marathon surprises. Pfitzinger's moment in time will be remembered not only as a great triumph but a testament to ideas that speak a fundamental truth. When he trained in New Zealand, he said, "I would try to see how many days I could go without getting in a car. I was just trying to run."
WHERE THEY ARE NOW
Pete Pfitzinger went on to make the 1988 Olympic team in the marathon, placing third in the trials in Jersey City and then 14th in the marathon at Seoul, again the first American. He got an additional degree in exercise physiology and returned to New Zealand, where he is now chief executive of the New Zealand Academy of Sport North Island. He lives with his wife, Chrissy, a former New Zealand Olympian in the 1500m, and their two daughters. Now 54, Pfitzinger runs, bicycles and kayaks for fitness.
Alberto Salazar (above) experienced a series of illnesses and injuries related to a breakdown of his immune system as a result of hard training, but in a remarkable comeback in 1994 won the 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa. Now 54 and living in Portland, Ore., he is the long-time coach of the Nike Oregon Project working with, among others, Galen Rupp, who last summer set an American 10,000m record of 26:48.00.
John Tuttle, now 53 and living in the Atlanta suburbs, ran the 1988 and '92 marathon trials and continued racing in masters competition, setting a number of U.S. 40-plus road records. Tuttle won national age-group road titles into his 50s, stopping serious competition about a year ago.
Greg Meyer, now 56 and living in his native Michigan, retired from competition in the early '90s and is associate vice-president for advancement at Aquinas College.
Bill Rodgers, who turned 64 in December, has continued to compete and represent the innocent joy of running through the decades.