Thursday, August 18, 2016

When a Catholic Gutted it Out to Win the Most Exciting Boston Marathon in History

Alberto Salazar after winning the 1982 Boston Marathon

The first time I was ever exposed to the term "last rites" was at the age of 14. At the 1978 Falmouth Road Race (7 miles), a 20-year-old runner I had never heard of named Alberto Salazar finished the race with a body temperature of 107 degrees. He was put in a bathtub of ice and given last rites by a Catholic priest.

It was premature.

Salazar's superhuman effort that day, pushing his body to almost the point of death (though he only finished tenth), would be emblematic of his running career. For the next few years he would be one of the top marathon runners in the world, winning three New York City Marathons and one Boston Marathon. He set an apparent world record at New York in 1981, though it was later reversed, as the course was found to be 148 meters off.

Salazar's marathon career was short. He was competitive for a few years in the early 1980's, and then made a brief comeback in 1994, winning the "uphill" version of the 56 mile South African Comrades ultramarathon.

The common wisdom is that Salazar's career was short because he pushed himself so hard. I think the common wisdom is correct. Among runners, the V02 max number - how fast oxygen can be converted into blood and pumped back into the muscles - is one of the primary determinants of success. Salazar had only an average V02 max score, at least relative to other elite runners. Other factors are body efficiency - form and muscle-to-weight distribution - and sheer guts.

Salazar had sheer guts.

In 1982, Salazar won the Boston Marathon in one of the closest finishes up to that time. He and fellow American Dick Beardsley ran together for most of the race. Or rather, for most of the race, Beardsley was a few steps ahead, with Salazar acting as his unshakable shadow. With less than a mile to go, Salazar moved into the lead, and since he was the favorite, people thought the race was over. But Beardsley hadn't given up. With only a few hundred yards to go, he dodged the close crowds and accompanying motorcycles to try to overtake Salazar.
But watch Beardsley! Beardsley is making a move! It's come down to this! Beardsley and Salazar! The motorcycle's got to get out of the way! Here comes Beardsley! He's gonna make a move on Salazar! It is neck and neck! One of the closet finishes ever! Here comes Beardsley! Beardsley on the left! There's Salazar! Beardsley, can he have enough? . . .

Salazar, the winner, embraced Beardsley at the end. Their exhausted bodies were swept through to the winners stand by what looked like a million helpful Boston cops.

The video below, from a local Boston TV station, is notable for a number of things. First, there are the strong Boston accents. But what would you expect? Also, notice all the people and vehicles on the course. Surrounding the two leaders there is a bus, a car, numerous motorcycles and a herd of bicycling spectators who in those days were allowed to ride along with the runners. The crowd presses in, narrowing the running corridor to what looks like only a few body lengths in places.

Then of course there is the unbelievable finish. Last minute sprints in marathons are more common these days, but in that era they were unusual. Generally someone would take a larger lead much earlier. If someone caught up, they would take a large lead in turn. As a kid watching that race, it was the first marathon I'd ever seen where it really mattered what you did in the last one-hundred yards. I couldn't imagine what that would be like.

Earlier I said that the common wisdom was that Salazar's career was cut short because he generally pushed so hard. But some people think that his career (and Beardsley's) was cut short simply by that one race.

Salazar was a Cuban-American Catholic. Like many Catholics he drew away from his faith as a younger man, but his struggles as a runner, among other things, brought him back to the Church. A few years ago, at a comparatively young age, he had a heart attack that stopped his heart for fourteen minutes. His autobiography, 14 Minutes: A Running Legend's Life and Death and Life chronicles his relationship with Christ and His Church, among other things.

As an athlete, would you want to burn twice as bright but only half as long? What would Christ want for you?

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