The Duel in the Sun

All athletes need to prepare for their sport. A basketball player practices jump shots and a quarterback practices throwing while both spend significant time on strength and conditioning. Successful athletes study up on their opponents; learning tendencies and inclinations which can then be exploited. Champion athletes work on their mental approach, always searching for tidbits to motivate and help them “dig a little deeper” when they most need it. Distance running is basically the same, with the only difference being that it requires a greater emphasis on the mental approach.

We practice by running different distances and speeds which are vital to our conditioning. Most of us also engage in some sort of strength program in addition to working on flexibility, but conditioning remains at the heart of all our training.

The “opponent” is a little different in most sports than it is in running, but the principles are the same. While we do compete against others in a race, our opponents are primarily the course itself and our own tired bodies. We study up on the course ahead of time, memorizing hills, turns and areas of shade. On race day, we factor in wind direction and speed, temperature, humidity, and how we are feeling on that particular day before deciding on our final race plan. We know from our own experiences how our bodies react to running, and attempt to plan out a few things in advance. Are you going to drink fluids during the race? Are we going to stop and walk for a few seconds while drinking? Are you going to eat food along the way? When and how much? Will you ease up on the pace while going up hills? Are we going to listen to music? What are our plans for clothes?

Why does a runner need to be prepared mentally for a race? From the time a runner takes those first few steps, their brain begins telling them to stop it! The brain is right, of course; why do we continue running if we aren’t in danger? From that point forward, runners have to continue finding things that will keep them going and motivated, and it isn’t easy. Your brain wants to quit, and its arguments become more convincing with each passing mile. At some point many runners need to dig really deep inside their souls and pull something out that is simply dripping with raw emotion. Most runners have such items they can pull out when needed, but they usually won’t share the details because they are just too personal. For the most part, we are able to return the item to the depths of our mind once we cross the finish line, but sometimes the emotions are too great and they keeps flowing out of us. We’ve all seen it happen. A camera zooms in on a winner who explains between gut wrenching sobs that they ran the race for their recently deceased loved one!

Last week I got to meet and run with Dick Beardsley, the world famous marathon runner from Detroit Lakes Minnesota. He won several marathons in the early 1980′s, but is perhaps best known for his finish in the 1982 Boston Marathon. That particular race became known as the “Duel in the Sun,” and still lives on as perhaps the most dramatic Boston Marathon finish ever.

Mr. Beardsley ran with Grand Forks runners last Wednesday evening, and then spoke to a room full of his excited fans, sharing many of the details from that April day in 1982, telling us that he “remembers it like it just happened yesterday!” He started out talking about the training he went through preparing for the race; running every day, logging well over 100 miles a week. He recalled running in a blizzard just a few weeks before the race!

Beardsley knew he was an underdog going into that year’s Boston Marathon, with the favorite being Alberto Salazar, the local hero who was the current world record holder. Salazar had yet to lose a marathon! Ever! Salazar, however, was not known as a strong finisher: He usually crushed the competition during the middle miles, and then coasted down the stretch to an easy win. Beardsley wasn’t a fast finisher either, so he planned on hanging with Salazar through his middle burst, then passing him on the Newton Hills, the most challenging portion of the course. The Newton Hills, which consisted of four hills in five miles, would, according to his trainer, put a little distance between him and Salazar, hopefully leading to a victory for Beardsley down the stretch.

The day of the race came, and the weatherman said it was going to be sunny and warm by noon, when the Boston Marathon started in those days. Beardsley hadn’t expected the sun, so he picked up a paper painter’s hat to wear in the race from a street vender, and proceeded to cut a few slits in the top, allowing heat to escape.

Beardsley said he felt extremely intimidated at the starting line while rubbing elbows with all of his running idols. When the starting gun sounded, Salazar broke out in a blistering pace, attempting to use the heat to beat the field of runners into an early submission. Beardsley struggled early on, starting to believe that perhaps the press had been right, and that he didn’t really belong on the same road as Salazar after all. The initial pace was brutal; at 4:30 per mile, but Beardsley stayed with the world champ through the early stretch, and began to gain some confidence. After six miles, Salazar led the race but slowed to a more sustainable pace while Beardsley remained right behind him in a close second. He had survived the first challenge!

The two leaders entered the Newton hills at mile 16, with Beardsley still right behind Salazar. Beardsley followed his trainer’s advice and pushed as hard as he could, and eventually passed Salazar while going up the final Newton hill at a 5 minute mile pace. This hill is known as “Heartbreak Hill” for a reason; many a lead has been lost over the years by runners who started out too fast. Beardsley now had the lead, but Salazar wouldn’t give up, remaining 1 step directly behind for the next five miles. Even though it was sunny and hot, they were both on pace to run the fastest Boston Marathon ever. Beardsley and Salazar were running their hearts out; neither the Boston favorite nor the Minnesota farm boy was willing to give up!

With about a half mile to go, Salazar made his move, and passed Beardsley. Beardsley had nothing left, and watched in vain as Salazar slowly pulled away. With about 200 yards remaining, Beardsley dug deep inside, remembering the high school graduation gift his father had given him; money to save in case he someday qualified for the Boston Marathon and wanted to go and run in it! He remembered his father’s humble beginnings, and thought about he was now in position to actually win the Boston Marathon! Beardsley quickly closed the distance to pull back even with Salazar and was ready to challenge the champion until the very end.
Salazar eventually surged back ahead and won the race by 1.6 seconds. Both runners smashed the Boston Marathon record that day, but obviously Salazar’s time was the only one that counted and his became the new course record. Here is a link to the footage for those of you who have not seen it!

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