Alberto Salazar: The Marathon Legend Talks About His Life
by Walt Amacher for
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In the early 1980s, Alberto Salazar was burning up the roads, winning
three consecutive New York Marathons. He also won the Boston Marathon in
1982, and qualified for the US Olympic team in both 1980 and 1984. He set
US track records in the 5k, 10k and five-mile run, and his 1981 marathon
time of 2:08:13 was a milestone for US runners at that time.
In the '90s, he proved his champion status once more by winning the
South African Comrades 54-mile ultramarathon in 1994. If that wasn't
enough, he also lead a Nike team of world-class athletes who defeated an
Adidas team to set a Hood To Coast Relay record that will undoubtedly
stand for many years.
So what ever happened to this champion? I decided to track him down
and find out. After several calls to his answering machine, I finally
caught him at his desk at Nike. Here's what he had to say.
"I'm a consultant for Nike now," said Salazar. "This is what I've been
doing for the last four or five years or so. I was [an employee] from '92
I asked him if there were any more races in his future.
"I'm completely retired now from running," said Salazar. "I don't have any
He also does occasional public appearances at races and events.
"I know that they're running a public service announcement about this
Earth Day run on the 22nd. I'm promoting the race; Nike actually is a
sponsor of the event. The Earth Day Run. It's at 7:30 AM over at the Rose
At 41, with a busy schedule both at work and at home, he still finds time
to work out daily. He said he does a combination of running and spinning
on a stationary bike. "I do an hour a day of cardio work. I usually do a
combination, a half-hour of each."
Salazar is a family man, with wife Molly and the three kids: the oldest
boy, Tony, is seventeen, Alex is sixteen, and Maria is nine.
The Job at Nike
Since 1992, Salazar has worked for Nike, currently as a sports marketing
consultant. He helps coordinate sponsorship and endorsement programs for
professional track and field athletes and events worldwide. He described
his job this way:
"All the departments in sports marketing, of which running is just one of
them, are given the goals of identifying Nike with contract elite
athletes, teams, and events, elite events. So those three things are used
to promote the brand. That's basically the job of sports marketing."
The World Record That Wasn't
Many people remember the1981 New York Marathon, where Alberto's
world record time was contested because a subsequent remeasurement
of the course came up 148 yards short. That measuring difference robbed
Salazar of that record. I asked him how he felt now:
"It depends on what list you look at. For instance, my disputed world
record, even with the change in measuring systems, I was unlucky to be
holding a record when they decided to change the measuring system. All of
a sudden it comes out a little short. Even if you added on, using their
new measuring system, if you added on the 150 yards or whatever that it
came out short, if you added on that time to my time, it would still come
out to a 2:08:35 or something like that. I've seen some lists which have
that down with a little asterisk next to it that's to say it was
converted. Other lists don't show it. I had a 2:09:21 in the Fukuoka
Marathon, and that course isn't shown. The bottom line: the way they pick
their American records, some show Bob Kempainen's Boston [2:08:47] as the
record, which is a few seconds faster than I ran there, and others don't
even show him, they go back to David Morris, with a 2:09:30 [at Chicago].
It's confusing, but I don't really think about it. I figure that however
you measure it, I at least ran a 2:08:30."
Finishing With the Last Rites
At his heyday, Salazar was known for giving everything he had when he ran.
On more than one occasion, he collapsed at the finish and was rushed to
the medical tent to be revived. I reminded him that in 1978, as a college
runner competing against Bill Rodgers in heat and high humidity at the
Falmouth 7.1-mile race, he collapsed at the finish, and his condition was
so severe, he was given the last rites in the medical tent. When asked
about this, he answered in his usual modest way:
"Well, I don't know, near death. There's a lot of exaggeration. Go to any
hot weather race, and you'll see two hundred people in the medical area
afterwards, and it's just because one of your top finishers ends up there
that it gets a lot of press."
In the End, Asthma Defeats the Champion
"I look back and I feel that I ran pretty hard, pretty tough. So I had no
regrets from that standpoint. Do I think that had anything to do with my
early fall from the sport? No I don't think that had anything to do with
it to be honest. The human body can recover pretty much from anything, you
know, over time. I think now in hindsight, looking back, probably what
ended my running was the onset of asthma, which wasn't caught. They didn't
know it. Now, it's gotten worse over the years to where I have about 60
percent of the lung function that I used to have. And it's enough for
everyday stuff, I have 80 percent of the normal person's. But top distance
runners usually have 125 to 140 percent of the normal person's. I never
got tested before, so it's hard to say. I mean, conservatively, I'm
somewhere around 60 percent of what I used to be. And my belief is that
the asthma started in the early '80s. It just got a little worse, and a
little worse, and a little worse, and finally, in the mid- '90s, I got to
the point where I was wheezing, and I got tested, and they found it. I'd
lost a lot of function."
As far as asthma's effect on him, he said, "Yea, I can really feel it
walking around. It's allergy induced by dust mites and cats, and we had
about four cats at one point. Those are gone, but the dust is really
something that is everywhere. After allergy shots, I really haven't had
any relief. I haven't gotten any worse in five years, which is good. But I
haven't gotten any better at all. They have some pretty sensitive tests
that measure how much oxygen you're getting in, and I just haven't
improved at all. That's really been the thing that's kept me from ever
thinking of doing any more ultras."
Nike's Alberto Salazar Building
If you've ever visited the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon, you know that
they name the buildings after famous athletes. One of the first buildings
you encounter as you enter the headquarters is the Alberto Salazar
building. It's an impressive sight, and I asked him how it felt:
"It's an honor. Obviously, the number one honor is the other athletes that
have the buildings named after them. To be at all associated with them is
truly an honor. I take it all with a grain of salt, though, and I
certainly don't put myself in the same, no pun intended, ballpark as Ken
Griffey, Jr. or Pete Sampras or anything like that in terms of what
they've accomplished. But yeah, I'm thankful and appreciative of the honor
What's in the Future For Running
No one can dispute that Salazar has been closely associated with
running for the past couple of decades. So I asked what trends he sees in
the future for the sport.
"I think there'll be a gradual, slight growth. I don't think we're going
to have any sort of huge running boom again, per se. Pretty much the word
about running has been out now for a long time. I don't think that, all of
a sudden, there's going to be anything new to spur huge numbers coming
out. It's achieved. Among the general population, it has a certain
attraction to a certain percentage of the people, and if that population
was to happen to change dramatically in terms of wanting to be more
healthy and fit, I don't see a bunch more people starting to run again.
Before when it first started, you had less people, and it caught on. All
of a sudden it was a fad, something new. And we had some success: guys
like Frank Shorter and Bill Rogers and so forth. And it was like a stock
market taking off, a speculative thing, and it just really exploded. Now
all that information has been out for so long, there's really nothing most
people are going to hear about running that they haven't heard before."
The Kenyan Runners Domination of Running
Since Salazar's time, US athletes and most of those from other countries
have been edged out of the top spots by Kenyans. These lean, fast Kenyan
men and women athletes have been on a winning spree for many years,
capturing most of the prize money in world marathons. I asked Salazar
"The Kenyans still dominate. The next top country in terms of putting out
a large share of great runners is Morocco. They would be number two. And
you still have some Ethiopians up there and a smattering of Europeans and
Japanese, in the marathon particularly. In terms of Americans, anything
can happen; you can always get that one in ten million that is an anomaly.
I'm a little worried about it because I just think that, even though
overall we may see a slight rise in the number of runners, I think we've
seen a tremendous decrease in the talent that's going into the sport in
terms of kids at junior and high school age."
Why Young People Aren't Going into Running:
"Because I think the other sports have marketed themselves so well," he
answered. "They're on TV all the time. Kids, by the time they get into
junior high, are already sold on these other sports: baseball, basketball,
football. They already have heroes there that they're inspiring to
emulate. So maybe, just guessing, we used to get in to track and field and
running out of the all-around athletic kids in a school, let's say among
the top ten boys or girls, maybe we'd get two of the ten; two would go
into running. Now I bet it's maybe one or two out of the top fifty. We're
getting much fewer of them. I use my own kids as an example. My success in
running and having been brought up around a lot of runners and so forth,
they, both of them, were exposed to other sports early and were very
successful in those sports. One's a baseball/football player, and the
other one is a soccer player year-round. They have never given running a
chance. Kind of lured away at early ages. And that's all right from my
standpoint, personally. They're doing their own thing. But, unfortunately,
that is the problem. Even kids you think would be more apt to go into
running because of their father have gone elsewhere, and again, because
those sports have marketed themselves so well, and they get so many
opportunities. How many running track clubs do you see for kids when they
are in fourth, fifth grade, or sixth grade to start competing in? But
there's tons of baseball, and soccer and football opportunities for kids
that age. There's very little in track."
The 1994 Nike Hood To Coast Champion Team
Nike's corporate team ran a very tough race in the 1994 Hood To Coast
Relay, battling an Adidas team to set a new record for the event. Salazar
was captain of that team and ran as well. Although still a sponsor of the
event, Nike no longer fields such an elite men's team, but over fifty
other teams participate under the Nike corporate banner. Salazar had this
to say about those Nike dream-teams:
"The last few years we decided to drop our elite [men's] teams; the
reason being it seemed like the race was going more in that direction.
Without a really top team from Adidas being fielded, I felt that it was
unnecessary to field a professional Nike team that was going to beat all
the other teams by 20 minutes. I think it's better for the race to have a
good competitive race and have it strictly among amateurs than have one
team using its corporate might and connections to dominate the race. And
we have about 50 teams from Nike that run, overall, so for us, Hood To
Coast is a huge event. It's bigger than ever and it gets bigger every
year. But we don't feel that we need to show off by winning the elite team
with top runners. We'd rather be there in a participatory manner."
Drug use among athletes has become a major problem in world
competition, and Salazar has been quoted as a spokesperson for the
athletes who are now facing a new world where performance-enhancing
drugs are common and often go undetected in elite competition. He has
strong feelings about this problem:
"I spoke at a drug forum at Duke University where they had people from all
the different sport agencies, sports federations in the US, doctors. I
spoke to give an athlete's perspective about the confusion about what's
legal, what isn't legal, you know, the supplement industry."
"It's very confusing for athletes. There're drugs out there that are being
used, which there are no test for, which blood testing would provide an
answer for, but which the IAAF has been very slow in moving to do that. So
thereíre these drugs that are like nuclear bombs, in terms of their
effectiveness. They give you such an unbelievable superiority over the
athlete that's clean, that it's kind of ridiculous if you don't crack down
on that. Then, when athletes that are trying to stay clean, but find any
clean, healthy, legal way to enhance their performance through natural
supplements and so forth, that they can't even get an answer [as to if the
supplements are legal]. So here they are trying to stay clean by doing it
the healthy way, and these organizations just leave everything very gray,
a murky area. So you have athletes that are kind of caught between a rock
and a hard place. There's no way they can compete."
"It's for that reason that athletes are so frustrated with the fact that
there are drugs out there that they know their competitors are using and
there's no effort being made to come up with tests to stop it. So they're
getting desperate, feeling all right, here's this new supplement that's
healthy and legal and I'm going to try this. But when they want to check
to find out for sure if it's fine, they can't get an answer. So they have
to worry that, in other words, what they're telling us is if you don't
cheat, you can't compete, because we are not going after those people and
we're not going to even give you an answer as to the legal stuff you can
take. It's a bad situation."
"They're not supplements, they are hard core drugs. There are two drugs in
particular. Human growth hormone, which is non-detectable, there's no way
to detect it, right now, from a urine test. The other is a substance
called EPO, which increases blood cells content very quickly, you know,
the old blood doping. Well, this does it about twice as well, and all you
have to do is take a pill or an injection. Those two things are both
non-testable; there are no tests for them. By Sidney, there are some
organizations that have supposedly come up with blood tests for them, and
the IAAF and the IOC are dragging their feet saying, 'Well, we don't know
if politically and legally we can institute it.í And so once again,
they're throwing up all their reasons why they can't test for it instead
of finding a way to do it."
Mary Slaney's Drug Testing Ordeal
Mary Slaney was accused of illegal use of performance enhancing drugs a
couple of years ago. It took over a year for the sanctioning bodies to
clear her name and readmit her to competition.
"Mary had a case where she had this ratio which they look at, which is
supposed to only be used as an initial, sort of red flag to get you to go
and look for more information. Kind of like maybe the IRS: they see that
you have too much; percentage wise, your deductions are too great compared
to your gross income. The computer will then spit it out, so then they'll
go and look and check to see what this person is doing in terms of their
taxes. They don't throw you in jail right away, although I know the IRS
has done stuff like that. The bottom line is it's supposed to be just an
initial thing. But what happened in her case, that ratio came out
cockeyed. And even though all the other information and all her other test
results showed that she couldn't have taken any testosterone, somebody
leaked it to the press. We know who it was, it was a former competitor
probably, that was on one of these boards. We believe it was a spiteful
thing, and once that got out there, because there were a couple of other
athletes that were in the process of getting tested as well, it ended up
being something the IAAF found out about it, and it had to go through this
whole rigmarole. But the final thing is that US Track and Field did the
right thing; they reinstituted Mary, and they stood up before the IOC and
IAAF and she's finally been cleared to run again. She's hoping to compete
in the [Olympic] trials."
Reflecting Back on His Running Career
After a brilliant career in the sport of running, I asked if he had any
regrets about the way it turned out for him.
"There's not really any regrets. You can always look back and say well if
I had done this or that differently, maybe things would have been
different. But in my case, I think that I was as smart as I could be at
the time. At times I may have over trained, but I truly don't believe my
career was ended by over training; Iím quite certain of that. You know I
didn't just go from breathing perfectly to all of a sudden, in '95,
finding out that I'd lost 40 percent of what I had. The doctors say it
doesn't usually happen that way, it's a more gradual thing. You start to
become allergic to something for whatever reason, and the first year
you're down a couple of percentage points, the next year another few, and
gradually it keeps building up. When it's only five or 10 percentage
points, you don't really notice it in terms of your breathing, but in
terms of your performance, that's enough to start slowing you down a bit.
Then all of a sudden, when you get to the point where I got to where
running a 7:30 mile, I was just panting, I knew that something was wrong.
The bottom line is when you know you really didn't have any control over
it. And I don't know if they found it early if they really could have done
anything because I had been on these injections, and those hadn't helped.
It would have helped psychologically to know exactly what it was; perhaps
I would have quit trying a little bit sooner; I beat my head against the
wall. But I don't think it really would have changed much."
Few would disagree that Alberto Salazar was one of the last, great US
runners. Like Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter before him, Salazar proved
himself a champion and raised the bar for everyone that followed. His all-
out pursuit of victory was an inspiration to everyone who watched him run.
And, although his running career was cut short by asthma, Salazar
continued his career in the sport through his job at Nike. Through it all,
he has remained a very friendly, down-to-earth guy. I guess that's what
champions are made of.
Special thanks to Walt Amacher and Alberto Salazar for
providing this great article to ontherunevents.com
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