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  • Alberto Salazar: The Marathon Legend Talks About His Life
    by Walt Amacher for
        email this page to friend! !


    Albeto1.jpg (46486 bytes) 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 through '96."

    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 plans."

    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 Quarter."

    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 from Nike."

    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.

(43361 bytes) "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 about this. "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."

    Performance-Enhancing Drugs
    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.

(40598 bytes) "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


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