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Long-Distance Dream

One of those motivational stories that makes you want to strive for all that you’ve ever wished for.

Alberto Salazar

In April, on an old Massachusetts holiday called Patriot’s Day, they’ll run the Boston Marathon. Thousands of athletes from all over the world will gather just to compete in that one event. From the starting line in rural Hopkinton to the west, to the finish 26 miles, 385 yards later, downtown, at Boston Common, they’ll be retracing a route of tradition and history and a piece of road named Heartbreak Hill. It’s the one marathon that I, brought up in New England, dreamed of winning ever since childhood.

Last year, on an uncommonly hot spring day, I did win the Boston by just two hairbreadth seconds. It was only the third marathon I’d entered in my life. The first was that mammoth run through the five boroughs of New York City in October 1980. Before I ran in New York nobody paid much attention to me—my victory seemed to take the running world by surprise—but by Boston people were following me around and reporters were asking all sorts of questions and taking my picture, that kind of thing.

One of the questions people always seemed to ask me was, “Where do you get the talent for long-distance running?” Well, that’s hardly an easy question to answer—there are so many factors involved. But looking back over the 24 years of my life, I can see some important checkpoints along the way. They form an odd mixture in my mind: an older brother, an improvised cross, two broken headlights….

Ricardo, my older brother, was a cross-country star for our high school in Wayland, a little town just outside Boston. Ricardo was the one who got me interested in running. And by the time I reached high school, I was working out with the Greater Boston Track Club, running 80 or 90 miles a week.

But my brother isn’t the real reason for my making it as a long-distance runner. To know that, you’d have to look to my parents.

My mother and father, Marta and Jose Salazar, were raised in Cuba. While my father was studying engineering at the University of Havana, he met a law student named Fidel Castro. The two discovered they shared a common background—both had gone to Catholic high schools before coming to the university, and both had a powerful yearning to see their country free. They became close friends.

When Castro led the revolt in 1958 against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, my father was one of his lieutenants in the rebel army. And when Castro set up the new government in 1959, he assigned my father, as one of his top aides, to oversee all tourist construction on the island. In a year and a half, 49 projects were built—hotels, housing developments, national parks. My father was happy then, doing what he had been trained to do, and helping the people and the country he dearly loved.

One of his major efforts was a community development project—a model village—to be constructed in one of the provinces. By 1960 it was finished except for one building—the chapel. But then my father was told not to go ahead with that church, in fact, a government order forbade him to start construction. And that’s when he’s told me he realized that his friend Castro was becoming more and more a Communist, and turning Cuba into a Marxist state, a state without God.

In October 1960, my father resigned from the government and fled the country, and our family followed soon after. He’d given up the life he loved, and the job he’d always dreamed of. But it was the only thing he could do; he couldn’t allow his family to grow up where God and the Church weren’t allowed.

I was two years old when we came to America. We settled first in Connecticut and later in Wayland, and all that while, my mother and father were more involved in the church than any other parents I knew. They encouraged all five of us kids to do the same, too. Mass on Sunday was a regular occurrence, yes, but so were catechism classes once a week and the Boy Scouts.

It seemed then that my whole life was church—or running. From the time I won my first junior varsity race in eighth grade (Ricardo won the varsity race that day), I knew I wanted to be a champion runner, the best in the world, an Olympic gold medalist. That’s why after high school I went all the way across the continent to the University of Oregon—it was the best running school in the nation. I knew I could improve my skills there. What I didn’t know was that there was a lot more to being a champion runner than just putting one foot in front of the other better than anyone else. I had a couple of very important lessons to learn.

Eugene, Oregon, is a beautiful city, its weather tailor-made for running. But I ran into trouble there; worse, I guess, I didn’t run away from it. I did the whole college bit. I did things I wasn’t proud of—drinking, partying, staying out late. I was barely aware of how much it was affecting the faith that had been such a big part of my life until then.

In August, following my sophomore year at Oregon. I went back to Massachusetts to run in the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod, 7.1 miles against some of the best runners in the world. I wanted to win badly, and I drove myself through the heat and humidity of that summer afternoon. The pace was fast. As I crossed the finish line, I collapsed. I was rushed to a hospital and put in an ice bath as my temperature soared.

“It’s a hundred four and rising,” I remember hearing someone say. “A hundred five…now a hundred six…it’s a hundred eight, the thermometer doesn’t go any higher.” I was all but delirious, even cursing at the doctors. I was afraid I was dying.

At one moment as I was lying there in fright, I heard my father’s voice, “Alberto.” he was saying, “look at this. Look at this, Alberto.” When I opened my eyes I saw that my father was at my bedside trying to show me two pieces of wood he’d picked up. He’d put them together so that they formed a cross. The sight of my father holding that makeshift cross did incredible things to me. I began to pray with him, and gradually I calmed down and my temperature returned to normal.

That Falmouth race was a turning point for me, When I went back to Eugene, I took a new commitment with me. I knew I had to leave the partying behind. And I did, too—yet, even so, I still had another lesson to learn.

That fall. I won the 1978 NCAA crosscountry championship, and then began to focus on every runner’s dream—the Olympics. I even decided to take a year off from schoolwork just to train for the trials that would decide who would run for the U.S. in the 1980 Games in Moscow.

Three months before the scheduled trials, I was certain I could win a place on the team. I was better trained than ever. But one day I noticed a throbbing in my knee; it was nothing at first, but every day the pain seemed to get a little worse. One doctor prescribed one remedy, another a different one. But finally, when I could hardly run 10 steps without pain, I was told I had tendinitis of the knee, inflammation of the tendons.

There was only one cure: rest, weeks and weeks of rest.

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Every day, before I got up in the morning, I prayed to God that He would heal the tendinitis, Then I’d swim or bike instead of running, trying to rest the leg while keeping in condition. After a week of that, I’d try just a mile or two of running. But every time the pain would come back and I’d limp home. Finally I quit running and praying altogether. There’d been no answer to prayer.

Depressed, angry, I decided to get out of Eugene, to go home to Massachusetts and forget about running for a while.

My drive east lasted only 120 miles. At a stoplight on a hill in Bend, Oregon, a cowboy in a Chevy pickup couldn’t get his truck into gear fast enough. It rolled backward and smashed into my yellow Volkswagen, breaking both headlights. It was already past five o’clock, so I couldn’t find a repair shop open. In a few hours it would be dark. I had no choice but to return to Eugene.

That was quite a trip back. As I turned my car around and headed off through the twists and turns of Oregon’s Cascade Range, I couldn’t help but think about the oddness of the situation—just when I was about to quit for a while, two broken headlights wouldn’t let me. What curious timing. Why?

Soon I fell into a deep, philosophical mood and for 120 miles took a good introspective look at myself. I reexamined the dream of being a long-distance champion and it seemed to me that I myself had done everything possible to make it come true. After all, the tendinitis wasn’t my fault.

But then, as mile added upon mile. I began to sense something I’d never considered before—that in all my prayers, my pleadings with God, I’d been putting Him on my timetable, trying to get Him to heal me when I wanted. Now I found myself thinking, instead of trying to run the show myself, shouldn’t I simply pray for understanding? Shouldn’t I just wait and find out what He has in mind for me?

By the time I rolled into Eugene before dark, I had changed my mind about leaving. I was ready to stay and stick it out, tendinitis or no tendinitis. You see, during the trip back I’d also managed to put a few things together. The analog, was plain for me to see: The one thing a long-distance runner cannot afford to do, either in preparation for or during a race, is let up; if he does, he might never regain his lost rhythm. I knew I had to keep plugging away in Eugene. I knew that, through a pair of broken headlights, God had given me an extra chance; now I would make the most of it.

In time the tendinitis did go away, just as the doctor had said, and because I’d kept myself in good shape, with only light training, I placed third in the 10,000-meter-run trials and won a place on the Olympic team. And I was ready for a new challenge—my first marathon that fall, in New York.

I was saddened, of course, when the U.S. didn’t go to the Games, but by then I’d learned something about disappointments in this long-distance test called life. Constancy is a quality that the dictionary defines as “a steadfastness of mind under duress.” My father had shown that quality, when he opposed Castro (he was true to his faith); he had shown it to me dramatically when he put together that makeshift cross and caused me to summon again my faith; and I had discovered it for myself on the drive back to Eugene.

This April, when they run the Boston Marathon, I know what it’s going to be like. When after 17 miles, the runners come to that piece of road called Heartbreak Hill, they’ll know why it has that name. It’s because that steep grade is the ultimate test of everything a marathon is—preparation, determination, strategy, stamina, will. I can tell you now almost exactly how I myself feel when I get to Heartbreak Hill. I’m tired, hurting, wanting to ease up. But that’s the moment when something deep within, something stubborn, something dogged, keeps me going. How do I know this? I guess you could say it just runs in the family.

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