Monday, April 23, 2012

Salazar's 14 Minutes: A Contrast

If you are into various aspects of running lore, history, biography, autobiography then Alberto Salazar's new book "14 Minutes" is a good one. Very good. I like the way that the structure is almost a stream of consciousness through the highs lows an near misses in Salazar's life. I'm only about half way through now and so far--like many good books--it is interesting to read draw parallels to your own life. I was especially drawn in by some similarities and contrasts with my own life.

First thing, Salazar was also born in 1958 so we grew up at the same time. We also had a strong-willed, opinionated, foreign born parent. Salazar's father was from a prominent Cuban family that left the country after becoming disillusioned with Castro's communist regime. The elder Salazar was even involved with the planning of the Bay of Pigs. Okay, my Finnish born mom never was involved anything like that (although my dad a civil engineer helped design the blue-print for what became the Peace Corps), but she grew up in a single parent family--on the streets she likes to say--during the Depression in Finland. Their town was bombed mercilessly for five years by the Russians in World War II. Within five minutes of meeting my mom (and you will hardly get a word in for the next hour) you will learn all about this history and much much more.

So although the backgrounds are very different, I could totally relate to the younger Salazar's desire to get out of the house and away from that shadow.

The similarities that struck the closest were Salazar's formative years in Connecticut. The family lived near a lake, and life was this unfettered wildness in the woods and open space. We didn't trap an skin animals like the Salazars, but fishing, bow hunting for carp, catching crawdads and salamanders and war games with BB guns, firecrackers, dirt clods, rotten tomatoes, and bottle rockets. Whatever was available.

He had a close brushes with death, when his brother almost shot him (by accident) with a razor-tipped arrow and he watched a boy drown during his own birthday party. I came to within a minute of going underwater for good at age 6, when I fell into a lake--wearing a winter coat--diving after my older brother's fishing pole which had slipped in. I went under about three times before he and his friend heard the splashing and my gurggles and screams. They did pull me out, but the scars of that incident stuck with me for years and I couldn't swim in water over my head until I was 10 or 11.

By middle school Salazar was already gaining recognition for his running, winning school and local championships. I had an okay start in elementary school because even though I was always small and less developed I was one of the faster kids. However, I was held back by asthma and did not try much distance running and was more of a sprinter and jumper. Still his stories of using a stopwatch to set PRs in imaginary time trials were just like mine at the same age.

Salazar had an older brother to look up to, his brother Ricardo was a top high school runner in Massachusetts and ran a 4:07 mile at the US Naval Academy. Uhh, my brothers, roughly the same age differential as Salazar's with one five years older and the other two. Well my oldest brother started drinking heavily at 14 or 15 and threw these wild-crazy parties at our house while still in high school. And although he was always touted as the "smartest" in our family he barely graduated from high school. How and why my parents put up with his behavior I'll never know. And my other brother, while not such a party animal, was apathetic (or simply withdrawn) and unathletic. So usually I looked to my friends and their families for support--doses of normalcy. Not to say that there weren't some years (junior high school) of drifting off myself. Maybe I'll write a book about That someday.

Religion and faith has always been at the forefront with Salazar's persona, especially since his graduation from college. The similarity ends fairly quickly. My dad's WASP family can also be traced back 12 or 13 generations in North America, and from what I can tell they were all devout Christians. My grandfather was a prominent Episcopalian minister who presided over the marriage of President Wilson's daughter to my grandfather's brother, Francis Sayre. Even though my dad was religious, and we were required to go to church when we were young, after confirmation attendance was up to us. I went on and off to a Unitarian church with my friends in middle school but that was it. I think you can find spirituality without organized religion.

Back to running. Well Salazar obviously had knack for it and took off. I didn't hear much about him until his sophomore year in college. In the midwest, we had Craig Virgin and Rudy Chapa (who became Salazar's teammate at Oregon and who was actually better known for a few years). I was just getting into running, however casually, in the spring of 1975 when Bill Rodgers won Boston. That year the Big 10 championships were held in Iowa City and I hung around all weekend for the races: it was fun and I got to see many future stars compete. Virgin was injured but future Olympians Steve Lacy, Gary Bjorkland, and Mike Durkin were there, and future Boston winner Greg Meyer was a steeplechaser for Michigan. Even though I wasn't a big fan of distance running at the time, I was shocked-devestated when I read about Prefontaine's death in a short article in our local paper.

While Salazar was setting the world youth record for 5000 meters in Lincoln Nebraska that June I traveled to the East Coast with my parents to visit my ailing grandparents and to visit a few college. I was thrilled one day to run 5 miles non-stop, probably at about 7:30 to 8:30 a mile--not even warm up pace to Salazar. But I had the bug.

Our college careers couldn't have been more divergent. Salazar was recruited by every school in the US and went to the fabled University of Oregon program for the running where he was coached by the legendary Bill Dellinger, himself an Olympic Bronze medalist. And although there were a few downs, Salazar thrived there highlighted by winning NCAA team (1977) and individual championships in cross country (1978). It was on a snowy day in Madison the first time I saw him in person, the day he upset Henry Rono who the previous spring had set four world records.

As one who did not run in high school, I was recruited by no one. Well, not quite. I started running regularly only during the last half of my senior year. I trained a little for track, went out for one day but quit the team. I simply didn't think I could contribute much. Yes, I do have regrets about that. Had I started as a freshman or sophomore I easily could have set the school record for 2 miles. Just had no clue at 15 or 16 that such an endeavor was possible.

I felt guilty about quitting, and took up running three times a week for 20 to 30 minutes to contract out of my last term of gym class. Turns out I liked it, and by the end of the school year I was doing weekly track workouts at the university track. One day I was doing repeat 200s--having now idea what I was doing--probably in the 29-32 second range with a 1 or 2 min recovery. A guy came up to me and asked how old I was and what I was up to and he was surprised to hear that I was graduated and going off to college already (looked more like a 15 yr old at the time). He was coach at Luther College, a top Division III program, and said that I'd do better there as runner than at Grinnell where I was headed. I went to the college for the academics, where I was decent (barely).

Anyway, the three and a half years that I ran there were very very frustrataing. What I did get out of it was a PR of 9:43 for 2 miles, high 32s for 10K on the roads (during summer) and the knowledge that I could withstand high volume training, often 70-90 miles a week and it was also heavy--usually too heavy--on fast interval training. Back then I found I could get into good shape quickly on my own, and then once school started it was a process of attrition and being torn down. Often it was my own fault, not knowing when to push and when to ease up, but we also got little or no guidance on things like pacing or recovery.

Similar to the dramatic events at the 1978 Falmouth Road Race where Salazar fell off the lead pace with Bill Rogers and nearly succumbed to heat stroke, about two weeks later I ran a 4 mile cross country race--our season opener--at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was about 90 degrees and we started at 11 AM. Our coach tried to get the start moved back to at least 10 or so, but they'd hear none of that. I'd just had a breakthrough 10K road race a few weeks before and had great expections for the season. A Norwegian transfer from Coe took the early lead, and our hotshot freshman took off after him after about a mile. They were still in close sight at 2 miles but at 3 I started to fade. I hung with one of my teammates through 3.5 and after that it was fuzzy tunnel vision. I finished thinking it was a 4th place and wandered around the field for several minutes. I walked over to the host team--thinking they were my own teammates--plopped down and asked someone to take my shoes off; my feet were burning up. They just stared and it took a minute for me to realize that these were the wrong guys!

I didn't even remember being passed over the last quarter mile by another runner, so I was 5th. A far cry from a core temp of 107, being thrown into an ice bath, and read last rites--but nonetheless it was eerie weird. Only one other time in my career have I been so close to the edge: that was Equinox 2006.

Salazar's two greatest marathon victories (New York City 1980 and 1981) came at the low point of my running. I was beaten up and just going through the motions in my last semester of college running in 1980. Not eating well and perpetually overtrained. However I did have my best xc race as a collegian at a meaningless invitational that very weekend (last week of October in 1980)--after going out drinking the night before and barely making it to the start! Was our 2nd runner and was top 10 in an 8 or 10 team invitational. However, I faded at our conference and regional meets, and I wrapped up collge running hoping to continue, maybe even up to masters running (which back then was something of an oddity).

A year later, when Salazar set the world record at New York City, my dad had just died and I was in the deepest funk of my life. Working a thousand miles away from home, just trying to get by. I barely paid attention to the race and was only jogging a few times a week more or less to keep my head on.

However, the following spring after completing my year-long work detail with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Minnesota, I took off to the West to look at graduate schools and to decompress practically for the first time since high school (okay okay, 4 months ski bumming at Steamboat Springs in winter of 1979 was definitley a decompression phase!). I traveled to Moscow ID/Pullman WA, where the great Henry Rono and the first wave of great Kenyans had trained, and spent a weekend there visiting friends and the universities. On Monday, Patriots Day, I drove to Eugene, and heard about the epic "Duel in the Sun" at Boston on the radio. On the very next day, at Hayward field, a triumphant Salazar drove up in a nice red car. Everybody stopped and stared.

Little did anyone realize but that was kind of the beginning of the end already for Salazar who was just 23 old. For me, it was kind of the beginning. My training had been unfocused that first year out of college. I had some good months, which would be offset by off months. But finally I got into a rhythm by late winter of 1982 and was able to train consistently.

I also had a short marathoning career and it was just a flicker--if that--compared to Salazar's bright flame. But for a n'er do well former Division III walk-on, who didn't even run in high school, the two altitude marathons that I did do in 1983 were pretty stellar. And after that, I enjoyed another eight or nine years of competitive running, not a world beater but, good enough to have been near the top of our college conference, which is all I had wanted during those four long frustrating years there.

Salazar retired in his mid 30s and never tried masters running. I think it would be hard to compete at a lower level (and yes, even if you are setting age group world or national records, it IS at a lower level compared to winning NCAAs, a major marathon, or going to the Olympics). Through all sorts of injuries, grad school, and jobs I've kept at it and if anything have been relatively better as a masters athlete (but see above caveat: it's still at a lower level, i.e., I'd rather run a 32+/- min 10K at 27 than 36+/- at 54). Nevertheless, if I do have one "gift" as an aging runner it is that I've managed to age well so far in spite of the setbacks.

And now Salazar is a world renowned coach, working with some of the best in the world. He might even have a couple guys on the Olympic medal podium this time around with Mo Farrah and Galen Rupp mixing it up with the Kenyans and Ethiopians. I coach too. But without the support of a world conglomerate and the latest technology. More on the margins with a handful of adult competitive recreational runners and about as many youngsters. Salazar is known for being on the cutting edge. Me, definitely out in the margins. But it's still rewarding, incredibly so, to see these people young and middle aged to strive to set PRs and do things that they wouldn't have thought possible. They're all full of surprises too.

So, a small way, and even though we don't have much in common other than running, and he was a great runner and I am not, I too can relate a little my born in 1958 colleague Alberto Salazar. I have enjoyed his book.


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