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Q&A With Alberto Salazar

Alberto Salazar made his marathon debut at the 1980 New York Marathon. He won the race again in 1981 and 1982 but his ’82 race at the Boston Marathon where he defeated Dick Beardsley in the race dubbed, “The Duel in the Sun,” was his introduction to legendary status in New England.  Born in Cuba, reared in Wayland, Massachusetts, Salazar currently lives in Oregon.

The new book, 14 Minutes,  is the memoir of Alberto Salazar, the most accomplished, charismatic, and controversial marathoner in history. The narrative is framed in the 14 minutes in which Salazar was clinically dead after his sudden heart attack in 2007. The story describes his tempestuous relationship with his father, Jose Salazar, who was a close ally of Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution. The narrative follows Alberto’s boyhood in New England, his rise to stardom at the University of Oregon, his dramatic victories in the New York City and Boston Marathons, his long malaise due to injuries, which resulted in a near-suicidal depression; his resurgence due to intense spiritual experiences and discipline; his close alliance with Phil Knight and the Nike corporation; and describes his numerous near-death experiences.

With the Boston Marathon this Monday, we caught up with Salazar for his thoughts on the race, running, the Olympics and more…

1. It is now 20 years since “The Duel In The Sun” With Salazar, how has marathoning changed since that great race?

In the 30 years since my Duel in the Sun with Dick Beardsley, the marathon has undergone explosive growth and radical change. The ’82 Boston represented the height of the first running boom, but the marathon then was still a relatively fringe event that only the most serious and dedicated runners considered. Today, the marathon is a mass event. Last year there were more than 500, 000 marathon finishing times recorded in the U.S., and charity groups like Team in Training specialize in taking sedentary people from the couch to a marathon in just 6 months. On the other end of the spectrum, the elite, professional level of marathons has gotten phenomenally more competitive. Last year worldwide there  were 183 sub-2:10 performances. My winning time at the ’82 Boston was 2:08.52. In 2011, Geoffrey Mutai  of Kenya won in 2:03.02. That means that, if I’d run the same time last year, I would’ve finished more than a mile behind Geoffrey.

2. With Marathon running now being a circuit, why does Boston still stand out so much?

Boston will always stand out because of its mystique and tradition, but its continuing fame is also due to the fact that organizers have adapted so successfully to changing times. They’ve been flexible about things like prize money, starting time, and the inclusion of charity participants. But they’ve held on to what makes Boston unique: the qualifying time. You have to earn Boston. Running the Boston Marathon is every runner’s badge of honor.

3. Meb Keflezighi was number one in the US trials and will be going back to the Olympics again, how do you like his chances? Same question regarding women’s OLY qualifier Shalane Flanagan – a New Englander now in Port, Ore?

Meb and Shalane are both incredibly tough, smart, talented, savvy athletes with a ton of of international experience.  They know themselves so well, and understand exactly how to peak for a major marathon like the one at the Olympics. They won’t get rattled by the pressure. The fact that the Olympic marathon is usually a slower, tactical race will also work to their advantage. They’re both consummate pros and competitors. You can’t count them out of any marathon.

4. Do you think Ironman has helped or hurt the Marathon circuit?

I don’t think there’s a zero-sum game between the marathon and the Ironman triathlon. Both events are booming on both the elite and citizen-athlete levels.

As I point out in my book, by the time he or she is 14, the average Kenyan or Ethiopian kid will have already run and walked thousands of miles, grooving the act of running into their brain and nervous system and muscle memory. There’s no way an American kid can match that, so she or he has to compensate by other means. To compete with the East Africans you have to be impeccable in terms of training, diet, rest, form, thinking–everything. It’s a great challenge, but it’s also great fun. The impeccable approach is the one we strive for at the Nike Oregon Project.

5. What are your favorite memories of Boston?

The ’82 Boston, my battle with Dick Beardsley, was incredibly intense for an incredibly long time. For the last 9 miles of that race, over Heartbreak Hill and beyond, we duked it out one-on-one. No other race in my career unfolded like that. Not to over-dramatize it, but it was like Dick and I were caught up in this contest that exposed our souls. I think that’s why the Duel in the Sun still resonates with so many people.

6. What will it take for American to again be consistent top finishers in Marathons again?

As I point out in my book, by the time he or she is 14, the average Kenyan or Ethiopian kid will have already run and walked thousands of miles, grooving the act of running into their brain and nervous system and muscle memory. There’s no way an American kid can match that, so she or he has to compensate by other means. To compete with the East Africans you have to be impeccable in terms of training, diet, rest, form, thinking–everything. It’s a great challenge, but it’s also great fun. The impeccable approach is the one we strive for at the Nike Oregon Project.

7. Are there some events that are your favorites outside of the bigger names like Boston, Chicago and New York?

Unfortunately, the rising popularity of the marathon over the last few decades has coincided with the dramatic decline in the popularity of U.S. track and field. That’s a tragedy, in my opinion. There’s no better show in sports than the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.

8. What should people watch for in Boston this year?

Watch out for the heat that’s predicted for race day. Funny how the circle closes. The 2012 Boston Marathon may be remembered as Duel in the Sun II.

 

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