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Comandante García

Salvador García of Mexico has some grandiose ideas—one of which is that he'll win at the Olympics

"If for any reason somebody tried to attack me, my dogs will not let me die alone"—the interpreter hesitates, then continues—"and also, my castle is built of very strong materials that will repel any attack."

Salvador García raises his chin slightly, waiting for the next question. He is preternaturally calm, in the disciplined way of military men. He looks as if he could take a bullet without flinching. His narrow eyes sweep the hotel cafè from time to time, but he shows no signs of impatience. Behind him, a late-afternoon shower pelts the mezzanine windows and sends pedestrians scurrying across the 18 traffic lanes of Mexico City's Paseo de la Reforma.

What is the next question? García insists that the castle he is building in a mountain village 40 minutes away is not whimsy, but a practical deterrent. He will be safe in his castle. But if not, if the walls should fail him—and he has built them strong, with stones trucked many miles—he still has seven Dobermans.

My dogs will not let me die alone.

Are these paranoid ramblings, or does Salvador García fear for his life? And what does the Olympic marathon represent to this 29-year-old Mexican army lieutenant? A path to power? Escape?

This morning, the 5'8", 140-pound García was up at dawn for a 50-mile drive to the Toluca volcano; he parked his Ford pickup at about 9,000 feet. Thirty minutes later, having run out of the pines on a dirt road that winds up the mountainside, he hurdled a chain roadblock and cruised up toward the crater rim, lost in clouds 12,000 feet above sea level. His breath came as easily as if he were reading in his library, and he seemed more a creature of the wild than someone spoiling for a fight. Surely a man who can run in the clouds is better suited for flight.

"When I was five or six years old, I had a dream," García says through the interpreter. "Someone was going to beat me up, and I was running between mountains, running very fast, but he was catching up. In the middle of the valley, there were two castles. I ran toward the castles, and right in front of the castles was a train. And when I got there, the train was crossing so I couldn't...."

He pauses. "And then I woke up. I decided then, if I ever had a house, it was going to be like those castles."

Last year García made a sketch of one of the castles from his dream: a round tower with parapets; a shorter tower with a pointed roof; a back wall atop a grassy berm; a front wall to enclose his flower garden and give his dogs room to play.

He summoned an architect and showed him the site, a hillside overlooking Chimalpa, a village outside Mexico City, and just a short jog from Desierto de los Leones (Desert of the Lions), the pine forest in which many of the world's top distance runners gather to train at altitude.

Did the architect shrug? The vista from García's castle is impressive, but the hills around him are dotted with tumbledown houses, dirt roads and small groves of spiny maguey plants. Even now, with the finish work underway, the structure itself resembles a pair of silos more than a castle. The rooms are cramped, the windows are small, and the circular staircase to the second floor is so narrow that the top steps are as perilous as a mountaineer's foothold.

The one flight of fancy is a red-tiled gazebo atop the taller tower.

"I can go up with somebody to chat or play chess," says García, a bachelor. "Or if I'm having a party, right in the middle will be the mariachis."

Yes, the mind's eye can feast on that—the gazebo in the moonlight, the strummed chords of the sombreroed mariachis carrying down the valley, dancers swirling along the parapets. One just has to get past the unfinished concrete and jobsite clutter; by summer's end the castle steps will be marble, the floors will be elegantly tiled, and books and trophies will line the walls. One also has to assume that the outer walls will be joined by a ponderous gate, behind which the snarling dogs will patrol.

The interpreter turns to ask the soldier what style of furniture he has ordered.

García says, "In the style of Napoleon."

"Salvador García is a very difficult personality, very strange," says national distance-running coach Pedro Martínez, probably thinking of García's castle and his Dobermans, named La Mafia, Gaddafi, Che, Bloody, Napoleon, Hitler and Camellia.

"He's not easy to get along with; he's different," says marathoner and Olympic teammate Isidro Rico, probably thinking of García's penchant for solitary training and his clash with the Mexican track federation over his failure to finish the marathon at last summer's Pan American Games in Havana.

"People think he's loco," says road-running coach Rodolfo Gómez, probably thinking of García's fascination with Jesus Christ, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler.

When García first started running in big races a few years back, he showed up in a beaded Indian outfit with his nickname, El Halcón Tarasco (the Falcon of Tarasco), sewed on the back. He wore sandals when he wasn't running, to the dismay of his shoe-company sponsor. And he was loud; heads turned when he shouted across hotel lobbies.

"He came from the boondocks; he wasn't used to big hotels and luxury," says Luis Felipe Posso, García's manager and interpreter. "He won cars in two races, and he crashed both of them." Posso shrugs. "He has his way. You have to accommodate to his way."

These days García sometimes dresses up in traditional Mexican clothes—silver-trimmed charro outfit complete with sombrero, string tie and boots. More often, though, you'll see him in his army uniform in the guard battalion at Los Pinos, the presidential mansion in Mexico City, or in one of the sharp European-style suits he has bought with his race earnings. "Most people don't realize that he averages more than $100,000 per marathon," says Posso, a 30-year-old Colombian who represents a stable of runners from his office in Tampa. "Living in Mexico, he's going to be a wealthy guy."

Actually, García is Mexico's No. 2 marathoner on what many observers rate as the strongest marathon team headed for Barcelona. Dionicio Cerón ran 2:08:36 at the Beppu-Oita race in Japan in February; in April in Rotterdam García won in 2:09:16 and Rico was second in 2:09:28. García also won last November's New York City Marathon in 2:09:28. In all, García has won eight of the 16 marathons he has entered and three of his last four. What's more, he predicted he would win in New York, boasting afterward that the Mexicans, and not the Africans, were now the dominant marathoners. "Wait until the Olympics," he said.

The irony is that the Mexican federation tried to keep García off its Olympic team, going so far as to bar him from competition in the wake of last year's Pan Am Games. The federation (García calls it la autoridad falsa, "the false authority") claimed that García wanted to bypass Havana for the more lucrative Tokyo Marathon, and when it insisted he run for his country, he said, in effect, "I may run, but I won't finish." Sure enough, García failed to finish in Havana, and the federation disciplined him: He could not use federation facilities and he was not allowed to run outside the country. García tells it differently, of course. He says he didn't want to run in Havana only because he hadn't recovered fully from an injury to an Achilles tendon. Once there, he wanted to win. "I had the Mexican flag in my heart," he says, "but at the 30th kilometer I reinjured myself. I had no choice but to abandon the race."

The federation didn't buy his explanation, and García was left to stew for several months while Posso, Mexican army officials and U.S. race organizers lobbied for his reinstatement. Finally, three days before the New York Marathon, García got the O.K. to run.

The result was sweet vindication for the intrepid warrior. With 2.2 million spectators lining the course on a crisp autumn day, García ran with the pack for 16 miles. Once into Manhattan, though, he surged past two-time Boston Marathon champ Ibrahim Hussein of Kenya and raced up First Avenue. The startled Hussein, thinking García was merely responding to the cheers of Mexican-Americans lining the street, let him go—and García ran off to a 32-second victory over countryman Andrès Espinoza.

"I was wrong," a rueful Hussein said after finishing third. "It was a very good move."

García dedicated the victory to his bosses: Mexico's president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and the defense minister, General Antonio Riviello Bazàn. Posso, for one, was not surprised: "He uses military expressions when he runs. He says, 'I plan to attack after the bridge.' He says, 'I'm going to break them, I'm going to kill them, hammer them into the ground.' "

"I think of the race as a war," says García, who was promoted from sergeant to second lieutenant for his heroism in the five boroughs of New York City. "I'm like a comandante who tells his men, 'Be prepared to die in battle.' "

That may sound overdramatic, but the New York Marathon practically was do or die for García, who was threatening to become a pain in the Achilles to the federation. "If I didn't win in New York," he concedes, "I was going to be eliminated by la autoridad falsa."

Mexico's sports authorities may resent García's insolence, but his recent successes have forced them to seethe privately. García is a celebrity now in his home country, and Mexico's loneliest long-distance runner is given a good shot at a medal in Barcelona. The question is, Will he medal, or just be meddlesome? His passion for historical tyrants and sinister accoutrements could prove embarrassing in Spain, where memories of strongman Francisco Franco are relatively fresh. And is the world ready for an Olympic hero with a Hitler complex?

"I don't want to offend anybody," says García, a devout Catholic. He characterizes his fascination with Hitler as strictly academic, the product of some reading of history and philosophy. "Last year I had an Achilles-tendon injury, and all I could do was read, so I thought it would help me psychologically if I read about powerful men. It's not political. I think they were sent by God to set an example."

Hitler, sent by God? Hitler and Napoleon in the same breath with Jesus Christ?

García shrugs. "Every human being has virtues and faults."

The common denominator, if one presses García, is that these men made their mark on history; they shaped the world they lived in, for better or for worse. "The last time we talked about this," says Posso, "he told me he was amazed that one man could get away with so much."

The tendency, of course, is to overlook the middle man in García's odd triumvirate: Napoleon. The marathoner is short, like Napoleon, and he talks freely about the "humiliations" he has endured in life. One senses that his complex, if he has one, is Napoleonic. Throw in the castle walls, the soldier gear, the dogs....

A thought: What is this man afraid of?

The answer may lie in his childhood. Salvador is the sixth of 11 children born to humble campesinos in the western state of Michoacàn. As a youngster Salvador walked, or ran, five kilometers over a hill to the primary school at Aquiles Serdàn. At home he planted trees and tended cattle, but his goal was always to be a soldier.

"At that time, there were a lot of murderers who terrorized whole families," he says. "There was a man in my town who was guilty of 50 killings and another who was guilty of 33, and one of them was bothering my parents. Even as a child, I was thinking I had to be a soldier to protect my family from the murderers, who were very powerful."

Asked where the killers of his childhood are today, he quickly answers, "They're in jail." But he seems to have never outgrown the fear and insecurity of his youth. "Always," he says. "Always I was thinking about that."

Another phrase that peppers García's speech is la sociedad falsa—"the false society"—toward which he expresses disdain and defiance. He describes himself as having been an outcast in high school, laughed at for his country ways and denied the opportunity to play soccer or basketball. He sold Popsicles from a pushcart to support himself and took up solitary jogging as a pastime.

"There is so much social injustice," he says. "I'm against la sociedad falsa, I don't like self-important people. I believe everybody should be equal, and I'm against people who try to dominate the world."

"He contradicts himself sometimes," Posso interjects. "I've translated for him many times, and it's difficult because he will say something and then say something that contradicts it, and it looks like I'm not interpreting correctly."

Upon graduation from high school, García was rejected by the air force—"I didn't get in because I didn't have any political influence"—but he entered local road races, and by age 21 he was one of the top runners in Michoacàn. He then moved to Mexico City "because I wanted to know if I could be a good runner." Three months later he joined the army, and thus his two careers, as soldier and world-class runner, were launched.

"He's a good runner, very strong," says Gómez, who along with a national team coach Tadeusz Kepka, a Polish expatriate, is credited with developing the rich roster of Mexican distance runners. "Maybe he was not very disciplined in the beginning, but now he seems to be getting serious."

That Gómez needs to hedge, even after García's recent triumphs, speaks volumes about the lieutenant's remoteness from the world-class runners with whom he shares the trails at Desierto de los Leones. Few of them understand why García left Kepka, his former coach; or why he calls everybody Secre (for "secretary"); or why other runners run by him when he trains. "He trains very slowly," says two-time Olympic marathoner Jesús Herrera. "Even when he walks, he walks slowly." in a dream? Five days before the New York Marathon, when he feared he would not run, García says he had a vision.

"I was lying down," he says, "praying to God to help me, and suddenly I saw myself walking in a place where there were no mountains, a flat plain. Something told me to look to the side, and I saw a palace. I entered the palace to see who lived there, and I saw a king on a gold throne. He had a white beard and wine-colored clothing, and he said, 'Son, what are you here for?'

"I said, 'Lord, I'm asking for help. The mafia of sports won't let me run in the New York Marathon, and I need to win this money so I can help my parents and give food to my dogs.'

"His answer was, 'Don't worry, my son, your problem has already been solved. You're going to win the marathon, and with me you will have power and glory. But defy me and I will punish you, and no one will be able to save you.' "

That, says García, is when he woke up. And now he hopes to build a palace like the one in this dream. "This place will be specifically for Down's syndrome patients," he says. "And for stray dogs."

For that to happen, García will probably have to win the gold in Barcelona. He left for Bolivia in early June, taking along his dog Napoleon, a trainer and a masseuse. After a few weeks of training at 12,000 to 15,000 feet, he plans to tune up with a 15-km race in Utica, N.Y., on July 12 and then spend time in Cuba preparing for the hot, sea-level conditions of Barcelona. He continues to shun coaching but has agreed to follow certain training guidelines through the Olympics.

Judging by his record in marathons (eight wins, two seconds and six DNFs), García will either burst into the Olympic Stadium at the head of the pack, his white-gloved hands raised—or he will not turn up at all. "He's either very good or very bad," says Posso, "but the trend is up. He's run his best in his last two races."

As García sees it, his "personal best" may have little to do with running. "I feel I am more a soldier than an athlete, and after my running career is over I want to be a true military man."

A comandante?


The rain has slackened, and García looks tired. His day has been filled with distractions: a visit to the cement warehouse to pay for materials, a business session with Posso, a stop at his favorite cantina for a lunch of steamed trout.

One last question: Could his crusade against la sociedad falsa lead him into politics? Can he see himself one day living not in his castle, but in a grand mansion with iron gates and more than dogs to protect him—say, an army battalion?

García averts his eyes, but he smiles. "I have always had the conviction," he says, "that I am going to be a strong leader."




Almost everywhere he runs in Mexico, the proud García encounters reminders of his own humble origins.



As a boy García dreamed of far-off castles. Now he has his own, guarded by seven dogs.



Not only did García run in New York City, as his bumper sticker says, but he also won.



García is a member of Mexico's elite presidential guard.



Although Mexico has many top runners, García trains alone.