Race for a lifetime

Salazar, Beardsley dueled in ’82, but share tales of survival

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 12, 2012
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Three decades later, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley still are linked, just as they were for the final 9 miles of the most unforgettable of the 115 Boston Marathons. “It’s probably one of the few sporting events where people know who was second as much as who was first,’’ Beardsley says. “Pretty crazy.’’

Not before or since have two men battled step for step for so long on the fabled Hopkinton-to-Boston layout and finished so close as did the Wayland native and the Minnesota dairy farmer in 1982 in what became known as the Duel in the Sun.

“The story of that race isn’t that Alberto Salazar got first and Dick Beardsley got second,’’ says Salazar, who held off his pursuer in what still equals the event’s third-closest finish. “It’s that these two guys fought it out the whole way and finished within two seconds of each other. That’s what people remember.’’

Yet the more compelling story is what the two rivals have survived since. The 56-year-old Beardsley was battered by a series of physical torments that led to drug addiction and five years’ probation for prescription forging and possession. And the 53-year-old Salazar was brought back from the dead five years ago after a heart attack deprived his brain of oxygen for 14 minutes.

“There’s probably hardly a day when I don’t remember that I’m lucky to be alive,’’ says Salazar, whose reflective book, “14 Minutes’’ has just been published and who’ll be joined by Beardsley on Sunday afternoon for a discussion and signing at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.

Thirty years ago, both of them were in their prime. Salazar, who’d qualified for the 1980 Olympic team that was kept home because of the Moscow boycott, already had won two New York City marathons by age 23 and Beardsley had dead-heated with Inge Simonsen in the inaugural London race a year earlier. Yet few if any observers predicted they’d be alone at the front in Boston that day. “I had high expectations for myself,’’ says Beardsley, who was ranked fifth in the world. “But nobody else did.’’

The story line anticipated a showdown between Bill Rodgers, the four-time champion, and Salazar, his former Greater Boston clubmate. But Rodgers, who was running his fourth 26-miler in as many months, blistered early and faded on a 68-degree afternoon made much warmer by bright sunshine. “It was the classic dying of a marathoner,’’ he said that day.

Once they hit the Newton hills, Salazar and Beardsley were alone. Though both were making their Boston debuts, they knew the ups and downs by heart from training on them. “Run the uphills hard and the downhills harder,’’ Bill Squires, who’d mentored Salazar during his GBTC days, told Beardsley, whom he’d prepped for the race.

Beardsley, so closely stalked by Salazar that he could see his shadow, had hoped to shake him coming off Heartbreak but couldn’t. “We were like Siamese twins,’’ he recalls. As they came down Beacon Street for the final 4 miles, both men were cramping yet kept pushing. Salazar, who’d reckoned that his track speed would be decisive along the flats, couldn’t overtake Beardsley and Beardsley couldn’t drop him.

It was an epic toe-to-toe as the crowds jamming the sidewalk shouted their encouragement. “They weren’t cheering for Alberto,’’ says Beardsley. “They weren’t cheering for me. They were cheering for both of us.’’

Just before Kenmore Square, Beardsley was sideswiped by the press bus. Then, as his right hamstring seized up, Salazar went by him. Stepping into a serendipitous pothole allowed Beardsley to straighten the leg, though, and he gave chase.

But just as he was catching up to Salazar before the final dash down Ring Road to the Prudential Center, Beardsley was blocked by a police motorcycle. “I never used [the mishaps] as an excuse,’’ he says. “I caught up to Alberto and I just got outkicked.’’

Salazar finished in 2 hours 8 minutes 52 seconds, shattering the course mark of 2:09:26 that Japan’s Toshihiko Seko had set a year earlier, with Beardsley timed at 2:08:54. “I saw the clock reading 2:08-something and I heard Dick-Beardsley-second-place,’’ Beardsley recalls, “and I thought, ‘Am I having a nightmare here?’ ’’

To the limit

It was the first time in history that two men had run under 2:09 and their marks still rank as the fourth and fifth fastest by Americans at Boston, following Ryan Hall (2:04:58 last year and 2:08:41 in 2010) and Bob Kempainen (2:08.47 in 1994). “What could I have done differently?’’ says Beardsley, who ran Boston a decade ago to mark the race’s 20th anniversary. “Nothing I could have done differently.’’

He had forced the victor to deplete himself utterly. “You pushed me harder than anybody’s ever pushed me in my life,’’ said Salazar, who had Beardsley join him on the award stand before he went to the medical tent, where six bags of saline fluids were pumped into a desiccated body that the attending physician likened to a potato chip.

Beardsley didn’t join Salazar in the tent but later thought he should have. “I don’t know what it’s like to go through a hamburger grinder,’’ he says, “but it’s got to be pretty close after going through that race.’’

The two men met again that fall in New York for a rematch that wasn’t. Just two months after Boston, Beardsley had run Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, where he’d set the course mark a year earlier. This time the race organizers, hoping for a world record, brought in a rabbit.

“Probably the biggest mistake I made was running Grandma’s,’’ says Beardsley. “I’ve never been so mentally and physically beat up as I was in Boston. But I had made a commitment and I wasn’t going to back out. Mentally, it was the hardest race I’ve ever run.’’

Achilles’ tendon problems followed, along with a 30th-place showing in New York, where Salazar out-sprinted Mexico’s Rodolfo Gomez for his third consecutive crown. He was America’s undisputed king of the road, inheriting the mantle worn by Frank Shorter and Rodgers. “I wanted to be the best,’’ Salazar says. “I wanted to win a gold medal. I wanted to set world records.’’

So with the Los Angeles Olympics on the horizon, he pushed himself relentlessly, training through pain and fatigue. “I was so driven to succeed,’’ he muses. “It was more like a calling in that I had to do it, I wanted to do it, I was driven to do it.’’

That drive became nearly a narcotic obsession, Salazar later admitted. “I lived a life of extreme athletic excess, as far gone, in my way, as a drug addict or alcoholic,’’ he wrote in “14 Minutes’’ with co-author John Brant.

Despite bronchitis, Salazar ran in the inaugural world championships in Helsinki in 1983 and finished last in the 10,000 meters. After recovering from a stress-fractured foot to make the Olympic marathon team behind Pete Pfitzinger, he slogged in 15th on a hot day at the Games.

“You could say that I choked at the Olympics but I never quit,’’ Salazar recounted to Brant in “Duel in the Sun.’’ From there, though, his career was sabotaged by what Salazar now believes was exercise-induced asthma. “It was a lot more fun at the beginning of my career,’’ he says. “At the end it wasn’t fun at all. It was agonizingly frustrating.’’

Happy to be alive

He made one more bid for the Games in 1992 but dropped out of the trials after 7 miles with a sore Achilles. “It was obvious to me, you’re done,’’ said Salazar, who went to work full time for Nike. By then, Beardsley already was retired and had been undergoing his personal ordeal for several years. It began with a 1989 farm accident, when he was mangled by a tractor’s power takeoff shaft while loading corn and ended up with torn leg ligaments and tendons, five broken ribs, and a fractured wrist.

Between the summer of 1992 and the following winter, Beardsley was hit by a truck while training in the snow, was involved in two car accidents and fell down a flight of stairs. Multiple back and knee operations led to his becoming hooked on painkillers. “As bad as the farm accident was, it was a walk in the park compared to that,’’ says Beardsley, whose foundation assists addicts who can’t afford 12-step treatment programs. “I would never want to go through it again. My biggest regret was what I put my family through.’’

Salazar’s near-death experience seemed to come out of nowhere. One moment he was walking with his athletes across the Nike campus in Oregon, discussing lunch options. When he came to, he was in the hospital after having been clinically dead.

Timely CPR at the scene, defibrillation en route and his own exceptional conditioning helped Salazar miraculously emerge without brain damage. “Five days a week I’ll walk by that spot,’’ says Salazar, who’d been given the last rites in 1978 after he’d collapsed at the Falmouth Road Race. “And 90 percent of the time I’ll say thank you, God, for keeping me around. I look at every day as gravy.’’

The man who says he never has been one to look over his shoulder doesn’t dwell on the one race he ran that everyone remembers. “I’m here now,’’ says Salazar, who has coached top domestic distance runners such as Kara Goucher, Dathan Ritzenhein and Galen Rupp. “Whatever time I have left, it doesn’t really matter what I did 30 years ago.’’

After his years of addiction, Beardsley, who does motivational speaking, also savors living in the moment. “When I close my talks I always tell the audience to do four things every day,’’ he says. “Wake up with a smiling face, enthusiasm in your voice, joy in your heart, and faith in your soul.’’

He and Salazar each has run a far more demanding marathon since their unforgettable meeting in 1982 and have come to have an even deeper appreciation for each other. “It doesn’t matter who was first or second,’’ concludes Salazar. “Who cares? It’s, what can we do with the rest of our lives?’’

John Powers can be reached at

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