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Alone amid the throng

There were two great world records set in 1981. Sebastian Coe ran 1:41.72 for 800 meters and Alberto Salazar did 2:08:13 for the marathon. Coe ran over the smooth synthetic track in Florence, Italy, and his record, which was a full .68 faster than the previous mark, astonished even him. Salazar ran over the cracked and buckled streets of New York City, after predicting that he would break Derek Clayton's 12-year-old standard of 2:08:34. This observer gaped at Coe's prodigious performance. But at the end of Salazar's he cried.

Being so moved means that the event has touched something acutely personal: one's own struggle, or loves or hates, or irrationality. As Salazar moved away from his closest challengers on First Avenue, with nine miles to go, I was just ahead, wedged among photographers in a truck. As I had been twice an Olympian at this distance, it was natural that I felt a powerful identity with Salazar's attempt. Moreover, we both live in the same town, Eugene, Ore. I had watched Salazar progress, inexorably, intelligently, from an awkward, promising college freshman to a supreme craftsman, and I knew him to be unspoiled by his success, a good man.

The crowds were deep and volatile, shoving to see. People with flags or cans of beer ran out for an instant's exposure on television, perhaps exposing more than they knew. Several were startled to find that they couldn't stay with Salazar even by sprinting. Motorcycle police tried to keep the crowds at bay. Their machines' thick blue exhaust rolled over Salazar, causing him occasionally to wince and hold his breath, his cheeks puffed for a stride or two.

Never in an Olympic or Fukuoka or Boston or even in a New York Marathon of previous years had the leader run through such infuriating distractions. Morbid thoughts came to the observer, about how the pressure of numbers and massed attention had deformed and demeaned many other things, among them the Olympics themselves. And now this simple, elemental pursuit had been made fashionable, and so was in danger. It was hardly fanciful to see in the rutted streets and unruly crowd an extension of the scarred soul of the modern city, its selfishness, its absence of community, its people always pushing, pushing.

Salazar ignored all of that. Instead, he spent his energy on keeping his promise. "It's hard to describe the tiredness," he would say later. "It's an invading kind of pain, gradually taking over your body. Your will to continue driving yourself keeps seeping away."

Against this he thought of his origins, his family, his coaches, all those who had given him quiet words of encouragement in the weeks before the race. His run became an assertion of the strength of community. "Had it not been for them," he would say, "there's a good chance I'd have eased off, just gone for the win."

What he in fact did went far beyond winning, beyond any demonstration of mastery. It was an act of unstinting discovery, and it stung the observer's conscience. The fundamental significance of this world record, it seemed then, is that we watchers were all inferior, not because we haven't run as fast, but because we haven't tried as hard, been as loyal.

Alberto finished with consummate relief. That was when I wept, out of some personal understanding of what he had willed himself to, and out of a clear sense that it was wrong for me, a runner, to be there on a truck of quarrelsome photographers, watching. I saw that while it might sometimes be good to contribute one's experience and eye and language toward making Salazar's achievement understandable to a wide audience, for this runner that must inevitably be a frustrating, contradictory undertaking. The audience is so wide now that it threatens to choke the race. I found myself choosing sides, torn between serving Salazar or the watching throng.

Two weeks later, Paul Olum, the president of the University of Oregon, in welcoming Salazar back to Eugene, said, "We can do him no honor. Instead, by Alberto's presence, we are honored." And, he might have added, humbled.

I, for one, won't be watching next year's New York Marathon. I probably will be on a long run in a forest in Oregon, away from the crowd.