In the last few New York City Marathons, elite runners have headed for the finish like characters assembling for the finale in 42nd Street. We all knew the plot, and the principals looked vaguely familiar, though we couldn't quite recall their names.
But Sunday's production in the Big Apple featured bankable stars, a cast of 23,463 and a rival producer who doubled in the role of out-of-town critic. The stars with the most marquee value, Steve Jones, a Welshman who three years ago ran the best time ever on U.S. soil, and Joan Benoit Samuelson, the American who won the 1984 Olympic gold medal, had never run New York before. Jones was triumphant in his debut, winning the men's title in a virtuoso 2:08:20, just seven seconds shy of Alberto Salazar's '81 course record. But Samuelson was upstaged by Norway's remarkable Grete Waitz, who won her ninth New York marathon—a record number of victories by a runner in the same marathon—and hinted it may have been her final curtain call in New York.
"No one doubted this was the strongest field in our 19-year history," said New York marathon director Fred Lebow. That was because New York reportedly had lured the top runners with whopping guarantees.
Most of the appearance money came from sponsor John Hancock Financial Services, which also revived the Boston Marathon in 1986 with an infusion of cash. Hancock had contracts with Jones, Samuelson and Mark Nenow, the U.S. record holder at 10,000 meters, whose eighth-place finish on Sunday was the best by an American man.
Estimates of Hancock's prerace payout went as high as $500,000, the figure bandied about by Bob Bright, promoter of the Chicago Marathon, which had been run the previous week. The disgruntled Bright claims Hancock is out to bludgeon the Windy City's race, which offers more prize money and a faster course but lower appearance fees than the New York marathon does. "Hancock has paid out all that appearance money solely to keep those runners out of Chicago," Bright insisted on Saturday. "It uses Mafia-style tactics. It makes runners offers they can't refuse."
Bright said he offered Samuelson an $80,000 appearance fee, with incentives that could have earned her up to $350,000. But he says Hancock doubled the guarantee for her to run in New York.
Hancock's sports marketing consultant, Jack Mahoney, called Bright's figures "outlandish." And Lebow predictably downplayed the bidding war. "It's a healthy competition," he says. "Gimbels was good for Macy's."
But Gimbels went out of business.
"So did the Chicago Marathon," said Lebow.
That race folded in 1986 after its main sponsor, Beatrice, dropped out. It was back in business two weeks ago with a new benefactor, Heileman's Old Style Beer, and a less stellar field. Alejandro Cruz of Mexico won the men's title in a startling 2:08:57 and Lisa Weidenbach of the U.S. won the women's in 2:29:17.
Jones, 33, got his first marathon victory, in Chicago in 1984, in a then world-best 2:08:05. His reputation is that of an impetuous, impatient frontrunner, notorious for his suicidal pace. His second win in Chicago, in 1985, is regarded as one of the guttiest runs ever. It was also one of the most reckless. Whizzing by his paid early-race pacesetter after the first mile, Jones passed the halfway point in 1:01:42, well ahead of the record pace. He missed setting another world standard by one second.
Then his career hit the wall. He seemed to run out of luck—or common sense. He was on record pace again in the first half of the 1986 European Championships marathon in Stuttgart, West Germany, only to sputter home 20th in 2:22:12. When he didn't qualify for this year's British Olympic team, Jones decided to make some drastic changes. He quit the Royal Air Force, in which he had served for 14 years as a mechanic, training on his lunch breaks.
He went to New York after several weeks of altitude training in Boulder, Colo. "I consciously planned to run a cautious first half," he said. "I figured I'd test my strength in the second half. It's a measure of my restraint. I suppose."
The plan worked. At 14 miles he broke clear of a lead pack that included Gidamis Shahanga of Tanzania, who has a marathon best of 2:09:39, and Wodajo Bulti of Ethiopia, whose 2:08:44 in Rotterdam last spring was a record for a first marathon. "The two Africans surged ahead, then eased back, and I just kept going," Jones said afterward.
"He was just gone then," said John Treacy of Ireland, who would finish third in 2:13:18. Jones's closest pursuer, Salvatore Bettiol of Italy, seemed to be a borough behind. In fact, Jones finished 3:21 ahead of Bettiol.
But if the men's competition lacked drama, that was O.K., because the real showdown was supposed to come between Samuelson and Waitz. The two women had competed in the same marathon only once before—at the Los Angeles Olympics, when Samuelson got the gold and Waitz the silver.
Samuelson, 31, hadn't lost a marathon in seven years. But then she hadn't raced in one since 1985, having undergone foot surgery in late '85, given birth to a daughter, Abigail, in '87 and had back and hip ailments in '88.
Waitz, 35, also had been hurting. She suffered a stress fracture in her right foot last summer, which caused her to miss last year's New York race. In June she qualified for the Norwegian Olympic team by winning the Stockholm Marathon on an ailing right knee. Just six weeks before the marathon in Seoul, she had arthroscopic surgery to repair the injury. She phoned an old friend for some advice.
"Hello, Joan, this is Grete calling from Oslo."
"Hey, how are you doing?"
"Pretty well. I had surgery on my knee two days ago."
Samuelson had won the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials less than three weeks after a similar operation. Waitz followed Samuelson's training routine, but unfortunately didn't obtain the same results. She failed to finish the Olympic marathon, which was won by Rosa Mota of Portugal.
But Waitz came to New York ready to go. For the first 13 miles, she ran with Samuelson and Laura Fogli of Italy. Then, as the three crossed the Pulaski Bridge into Queens, Waitz gradually pulled away. A mile later Samuelson made a pit stop between two parked cars to relieve stomach distress.
When Samuelson returned to the course, she had lost some 30 seconds to Waitz and Fogli, the eventual second-place finisher. Samuelson seemed within striking distance of Fogli at Mile 21 when she collided with a child trying to give water to another runner and crashed to the pavement. "I was stunned more than anything," she said after finishing third. "I never would have caught Grete anyway."
Waitz cruised for the final 10 miles, covering the course in 2:28:07 for her 13th win in 18 marathons. She hedged, though, when asked about plans to return for a 10th crown. "I don't know if I will," she said. "Last year Fred [Lebow] told me if I won 10, he was going to retire. I don't want to make him quit."
"Make me, Grete," pleaded Lebow, who was standing nearby. "Make me."
STEVEN E. SUTTON/DUOMO
As Jones, who ran with rare restraint,...neared the Manhattan end of the bridge, his closest pursuers were still in Queens.
With her ninth New York win, Waitz now has the most victories in the same marathon.