Monday, October 6, 2008

A Hero's Perspective

Alberto Salazar talks with the Pioneer Press October 5, 2008. Running legend Alberto Salazar slows his pace after heart attack: Since heart attack, he's a fast jogger

When one of the greatest distance runners in American history suffers a heart attack and nearly dies at age 48, it gets people's attention. But not to worry: Alberto Salazar beat death. Again. And today, 15 months after his heart stopped beating for 14 minutes, Salazar will serve as honorary captain of the Medtronic Global Heroes when he participates in the TC 10-mile road race, which is held in conjunction with the 27th annual Twin Cities Marathon. Salazar, who turned 50 on Aug. 7, is a legendary runner turned running coach who oversees the Nike Project in Portland, Ore. He still runs every day but declines invitations to almost all races. "Doctors have told me they want me to be a jogger, not a runner," he says. Even that is relative. Salazar, who received last rites of the Catholic Church after his body temperature skyrocketed to 108 degrees after the Falmouth (Mass.) 7.1-mile road race in 1978, still jogs faster than many people run. He expects his pace today to be a hair faster than 7 minutes a mile. More important in his mind than his time, however, is his presence in an event that has Medtronic as the title sponsor. He had a stent and a Medtronic defibrillator implanted into his chest after his heart attack, and he's reminded of it when he sees the device's bulge "every day when I look in the mirror," he says. It's a change; before the heart attack, "I don't think I even knew what Medtronic was," he says. That's not all that has changed. The heart attack, Salazar says, "was the best thing that ever could have happened to me. How often do you get a warning shot across the bow? That teaches you that you had better get your life in order." Most would say Salazar's life already was pretty much "in order." His longtime affiliation with Nike led him to become one of the country's most recognized running coaches, even though anyone with an awareness of the sport's history knows his name and some of his feats. Talk to him, however, and his several sterling marathon races - even the two-second victory over Minnesotan Dick Beardsley at Boston in 1982 - hardly merit a mention. Former Minnesotan Kara Goucher, one of his prized running students, recounts with a laugh how a cab driver in Europe turned around last summer and asked Salazar for an autograph. "He's so modest," she says. "I kind of forget what a 'rock star' he is." After arriving in the Twin Cities the other day, among the first things on Salazar's agenda was a speech to 200 Medtronic employees. He told them how fortunate he has been to suffer no long-term problems from his heart attack. "I thank God every day," he says. Death has been in Salazar's consciousness for nearly 40 years.

A native of Cuba who moved to the United States when he was 2, he still remembers when he was at a birthday party at age 10 and a boy who was not attending the party drowned in a neighborhood pond near the celebration. He watched wide-eyed as the body was pulled from the pond, the first time he had "seen death up close," he recalls. After that, he prayed every night that if he died, he would be taken straight to heaven. At Falmouth, he remembers a vague feeling of doctors working on him, and thinking, " 'I'm dying now.' I accepted it and said, 'Lord, here I come.' I wasn't scared." He has no real memories of the heart attack that interrupted a coaching session in Portland on June 30, 2007, but said there is no amount of money that would lure him away from his home and his wife, Molly, to give a speech or appear at a race. It's another change; in the 1980s he went anywhere for a good race. Salazar hopes his new perspective rubs off on the athletes he coaches. Coaching, he says, is "more fulfilling" than competing because it's an unselfish pastime, and he loves to watch his athletes improve. "But the main thing to me," he says, "is that they have a good experience, and have happy lives, somehow. I try to get across to them, 'Hey, this is just an inconsequential little hobby. Some day your running career is going to be over.' " This is no longer the Alberto Salazar who drove himself to the limit, and the difference is more than the 10 pounds he has added since his prime. He says he's wiser now. "I look at it that I was certainly somebody who pushed himself hard," he explains. "It's a good talent to have, but a good race horse can run himself into the ground and kill himself." Since his heart attack, he says, he has become extra careful to not allow the runners he coaches to repeat his mistakes. Goucher says Salazar, once sometimes known to have a prickly temperament, is truly "fun to be around. I ran 23 miles on Monday and he biked with me the whole way. We just talked." With a wife and three grown children, life is good for Salazar. He runs easily, four or five miles a day, and keeps his heart rate at 140 or below because "I don't care what the pace is, I love it and enjoy it," he says. Death is also no longer a fear. "I can honestly say, when it's my time, I don't think I'm going to be scared," he says. "I've kind of been there twice now, and I feel that God will be there for me. I want to hang around for my kids and my wife, but you know, I'm ready."