As a competitor, Alberto Salazar pushed himself perhaps as hard as any runner who has stood on a starting line. The depth of his commitment to a race has now been translated into a similar commitment to the athletes whom he guides as a coach. But the man who ran so hard that he was twice administered last rites after races has added a more reasoned and careful approach, and he has now coached runners to accomplishments that have equaled or surpassed even his own.
Following a stellar high school running career in Wayland, MA, Salazar ran for the University of Oregon and won the individual NCAA cross country championship in 1978. He made the 1980 U.S. Olympic 10,000-meter team but was stymied by the United States’ Moscow boycott.
At age 22, Salazar entered the 1980 New York City Marathon—his first—and predicted a time under 2:10:00. Experts were skeptical: Only a handful of men had ever run that fast, and never in New York. Salazar won the race in 2:09:41, breaking Bill Rodgers’ course record.
The next year, after smashing American records for 5000 meters indoors at New York’s Millrose Games and for 8K on the road (his 22:04 has stood for 33 years), Salazar returned to the New York City Marathon to challenge Derek Clayton’s 12-year-old world record of 2:08:34. He won by a half-mile in 2:08:13. (Although the course was later found to be slightly short, it met the accuracy standards of the time.)
Only six months later, Salazar claimed the Boston Marathon course record as well—but in a much closer race. On a cloudless 80-degree afternoon, he waged a fierce battle with Minnesotan Dick Beardsley that was decided only in the final yards, with Salazar ahead by two seconds, 2:08:52 to 2:08:54. Near-incredibly, during the next three months Salazar broke the American track records for 10,000 meters (27:25.61 in June) and 5000 meters (13:11.93 in July).
Salazar’s fourth marathon, the 1982 New York race, was another mano-á-mano struggle. With a half-mile remaining, he and Mexico’s Rodolfo Gomez were deadlocked in the lead. After a vehicle raised a dust cloud in their path, Salazar emerged with a slight edge, which he held for his third straight New York victory and his fourth win in four marathons. Track & Field News magazine ranked him the world’s #1 marathoner. He was 24.
After a disappointing 15th-place finish in the 1984 Olympic Marathon, Salazar began to experience frequent fatigue and illness, which eventually curtailed his racing career. (He believes that his unrelenting training volume and intensity weakened his immune system.) Aside from a remarkable comeback at the prestigious 56-mile Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa, which he won against all odds in 1994, he has not run competitively since the 1980s.
In 2001, Salazar helped to found the Nike Oregon Project; he has been its coach for over 10 years. The project’s goal of producing Olympic-caliber athletes has been achieved, but Salazar almost didn’t live to see it. In 2007, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized for eight days. His memoir’s title, 14 Minutes, refers to the time during which his heart was stopped, rendering him clinically dead.
His recovery has let him watch his protégé Galen Rupp set American records at 10,000 meters and the indoor 2-mile. At the 2012 London Games, Rupp won the United States’ first men’s Olympic medal at 10,000 meters in 48 years when he took silver—behind his training partner, England’s Mo Farah, who then won the 5000 meters as well.
Salazar coaches these runners with the intensity that made him the consummate New York City marathoner. Eyes bright, gestures sharp, he exhorts his athletes as passionately as he fought off challengers and threw himself across finish lines. His induction into the NYRR Hall of Fame honors the indomitable will that won him three unforgettable New York City Marathons, and that continues to push him onward today.
American Road Records