Marathoner Alberto Salazar Looks Back On Brush With Death

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Alberto Salazar will be taking note of Monday's top marathon runners. Salazar grew up in a demanding family. His Cuban father was a close ally of Fidel Castro, who became so disillusioned with the Cuban leader. He trained for, but did not participate in the failed U.S. attempt to oust Castro, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

Eventually, the Salazar family settled in Wayland, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, where the young Alberto turned to running, and set out on what would be a brief but brilliant marathon career.

Between 1980 and 1984, he won three straight New York City marathons, Boston once, set a world record, and competed in the Olympic marathon.

But then it was over. Salazar suffered a series of health problems, severe depression, and finally in 2007 a heart attack that left him technically dead for 14 minutes.

"I'm lucky to still be alive. I wonder if I'm really a cat," he told Here & Now's Alex Ashlock.

Salazar's new book, written with John Brant is called "14 minutes: A Running Legend's Life And Death And Life."

Book Excerpt: '14 Minutes: A Running Legend's Life And Death And Life'

By: Alberto Salazar and John Brant

It turns out that the white-tunnel stuff is overrated.

Scientists in the Netherlands recently conducted a study of people who’d been resuscitated from clinical death—meaning that their hearts had stopped beating—and only 18 percent reported any sort of mystical experience during the moments they were deceased. On June 30, 2007, the day when I died, I joined the majority. I wasn’t transported through a blazing white tunnel, my soul didn’t drift out of my body, and I didn’t look down at myself sprawled on the thick grass outside the Lance Armstrong Sports and Fitness Center on the campus of Nike headquarters near Beaverton, Oregon. My death, in fact, was pretty straightforward.

One moment I was walking along with my runners, talking about where to go for lunch, and the next I was in a hospital room, clutching a chain of rosary beads. Between those two moments I knew only blackness and oblivion. That’s sort of surprising, actually. Given my extensive near-death résumé and familiarity with miracles, you’d think I would’ve landed among the 18 percent of the subjects of the study who, at the moment of their seeming end, knew a sense of serene oneness or witnessed their entire lives flashing in front of them.

Maybe I failed to see the white light because I was dead a whole lot longer than the people in that study. Most of the body’s organs can survive the loss of circulating blood for up to 30 minutes, and detached limbs can be successfully reattached for up to 6 hours following the dismembering injury. After more than 5 minutes without a pulse, however, full recovery of the brain becomes extremely unlikely. Three hundred thousand Americans die every year from cardiac events, but strictly speaking, they don’t perish from blocked arteries or a stilled heart. After a very few minutes—10 at the most—without a fresh supply of blood, your brain starves of oxygen, and that’s what really kills you.

I was clinically dead for 14 minutes.

Fourteen minutes is a long time. Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in much less than 14 minutes. In my competitive prime, I could easily run 3 miles in 14 minutes. You can watch half of a TV sitcom episode, commercials included, in 14 minutes. None of the doctors who treated me, and none of the experts I’ve consulted since the day I collapsed, have ever heard of anybody being gone for that long and coming back to full health. By all rights, I should’ve been DOA at the emergency room of Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. At best (or at worst, depending on your viewpoint), I might have hung on for a few days or weeks in a brain-dead coma until Molly, my wife, made the agonizing decision to unhook me from the respirator. If I were really lucky (or, again, if my family was especially cursed), perhaps I’d have survived as a brain-damaged shell of a human being. But instead, on the day after my clinical death, I was chatting to visitors in my hospital room, and 9 days later, with my body whole and my faculties intact, I was back coaching at the same spot where I’d collapsed.

In October 1981, I set a world record (or WR, in runners’ parlance) at the New York City Marathon, covering the 26.2-mile distance in 2 hours, 8 minutes, and 13 seconds. That performance sealed my standing as the greatest distance runner of my era. I lived a life of extreme athletic excess, as far gone, in my way, as a drug addict or alcoholic. I was famous—or many would say, notorious—for my obsession to outwork any rival and for my absolute refusal to lose. I would later pay a harrowing, decade-long penance for that excess, but at the time, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the height of the first running boom, my obsessiveness put me on top of the world. My photo appeared on the cover of national magazines, I shook hands with President Ronald Reagan at a ceremony at the White House, and Nike named an apparel line after me.

Now, 25 years later, here I was racking up a second, albeit unofficial, WR: 14 minutes.

We were in a loose, celebratory mood on that summer Saturday morning in 2007 at the Nike campus. My Nike Oregon Project team had just returned from the US national track-and-field championships in Indianapolis, where three of our athletes, Kara Goucher, Adam Goucher (Kara’s husband), and Galen Rupp, had all placed in the top three in their respective races and thus earned spots at the world championships in Japan later that summer. In a non-Olympic year, this was the professional distance-running equivalent of making it to the Super Bowl, and we were elated.
It had been 6 years since I started coaching the Nike-sponsored Oregon Project. With the full backing of the company’s founder, Phil Knight, and then-president Tom Clarke, I was on a mission to develop an American-bred champion of one of the world’s major marathons.

Amazingly, only one male American distance runner had won one of the top-tier races since I won New York in 1982 (in 1983, Greg Meyer won the Boston Marathon), and Phil—along with the entire US sports establishment—was hungry for a homegrown hero to challenge the dominance of the Kenyans and Ethiopians. No one knew better than I did what it took to reach this level, and no one knew better the hazards: the various physical, psychological, and spiritual disasters that a runner potentially encountered as he or she approached the edge separating supremely difficult training from self-immolating excess. My job was to drive a handful of elite young American runners to that edge but keep them from tipping over.

On that morning, it seemed like I had struck the winning balance. We had successfully endured the crucible of the nationals. The pressure was off, and I was giving my runners some semi downtime. Kara and Adam weren’t running at all for a few days, and Galen was scheduled for a relatively easy workout consisting of a moderately paced 5-mile run followed by a round of quickness- and strength-training drills that he’d go through with Josh Rohatinsky, a promising young runner from Brigham Young University with whom I’d just started to work. Jared, Josh’s younger brother, was in town visiting. Jared, Josh, Galen, and I were walking from the parking lot toward the Lance Armstrong Center.

It was a soft, beautiful summer morning, the kind that only seems to occur in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Warm sunshine was burning off the light morning overcast, and the air was so clear that the world seemed to glisten. Days like this are our payoff for the 8 months of gloom. People complain about the infamous Oregon rain, but in general it doesn’t bother me that much. A persistent, mild drizzle seems a small inconvenience compared to the blasting winter winds that I grew up with in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

We were headed for the central green to do the plyometric drills, and we were talking about where to go for lunch. I was 48 years old, on top of my profession, and blessed with a happy, healthy family. I was cutting across the gleaming campus of a mighty multinational corporation whose resources lay at my disposal. Nike had even named one of the office buildings after me; you could see the roof of the Alberto Salazar Building from where we were walking. I was with people I cared about, doing the work that I loved. Everything seemed about perfect, and yet I was moments away from dying.

The perfection of that morning was marred by a barely conscious worry about my health. During the previous week in Indianapolis, I had suffered transient stabs of pain in my back and neck and a general feeling of exhaustion. But I was too busy to worry much about these symptoms. I attributed the pain to sleeping in an awkward position on the long flight from Oregon and the weariness to the accumulated stress of preparing my athletes for this meet. Although I’d retired from competition 13 years earlier, I kept myself in excellent condition. I ran 5 miles a day at 7-minute-a-mile pace, lifted weights, never smoked, drank alcohol moderately, followed a healthy diet, and controlled hereditary high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol with medication. Like most fit people my age, I felt invincible.

Still, when I returned home to Portland after the nationals, I reported the symptoms to my family physician. She gave me a thorough exam and couldn’t find anything wrong. She then referred me to a cardiologist, who ordered a treadmill stress test, which I was scheduled to undergo the following week. So, healthwise, I had all my bases covered. According to statistics cited by the American Heart Association, 50 percent of fatal heart attacks in men, and 64 percent in women, occur without warning. I had plenty of warning. I was the last person in the world you’d expect to suffer even the mildest cardiac event. I know that middle-aged people who’ve had heart attacks are always saying that, but in my case the evidence seemed unassailable: I was Alberto Salazar, among the most famous distance runners America had yet produced. The chances of my suffering a massive heart attack seemed as remote as Bill Gates declaring bankruptcy.

But as we made that short walk, the pain that had started in Indianapolis returned, stronger and more urgent than ever. It felt like a blade turning in the middle of my neck. On the heels of that pain, I felt an overwhelming wave of fatigue; suddenly, I could barely lift my feet. The guys were walking in front of me and didn’t notice my distress. Galen was explaining to the brothers that the cafeteria at the Mia Hamm Building was closed on Saturdays, so we’d have to go off campus for lunch.

“I know this terrific deli in Southeast Portland,” Galen said. “They pile the turkey 3 inches thick in a sandwich.”

The wave of pain subsided a notch, enough for me to gather myself and take a breath. I noticed that on the far end of the field, a summer football camp was taking place. I thought again about all the good things happening in my life. I thought about my daughter, Maria, 16 at the time. She was in Texas that week at an equestrian competition, and Molly was with her. I thought about how proud I was of Galen, who was more like a son to me than an athlete. I had discovered Galen 7 years earlier, when he was playing soccer for a high school in Portland. I had carefully nurtured his enormous talent, keeping him from overreaching, refusing to let him make the same mistakes that I’d committed over and over as a young runner, and now he was on the edge of realizing his gift. Finally—funny how the mind works, even at the most desperate moments—I thought about where we should go for lunch.

“Geraldi’s,” I said, referring to my favorite deli, which was only a 5-minute drive from campus. “They have the best sandwiches in town.”

The pain exploded up from my back, filling everything, too overwhelming for me to hide or deny. “Galen, I’m getting dizzy,” I said. “I better take a knee.” I sank deliberately to one knee, so that if I fainted—when I fainted—I wouldn’t hurt my head. I was still thinking at that point, still processing the sensory river. Josh, Jared, and Galen had turned to me, shocked by my transformation. Galen would later tell reporters that my face had turned purple.
“I knew Alberto was in trouble,” he would say. “It was terrible. It was like watching your father die.”

Reprinted from "14 Minutes" by Alberto Salazar and John Brant. Copyright (c) 2012 by Alberto Salazar and John Brant. By permission of Rodale, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.

This segment aired on April 16, 2012.


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