Victors go long way to answer skeptics NEW YORK CITY MARATHON

Phil Jackman

November 02, 1992|By Phil Jackman

The year was 1986, a time when men were winning the New York City Marathon in the low 2:11 range, when Willie Mtolo ran a scalding 2:08:15 at a race in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The accomplishment of the 22-year-old Zulu tribesman was met with great skepticism, if not outright disbelief.

It had been so many years since South Africans had been allowed to compete internationally due to the Union's apartheid policy, the track world figured there was no way the country's athletes could keep up, competing only occasionally and in small meets at home. Must have been a short, downhill course.

Mtolo lived with that skepticism and the pin money he could pick up for a victory on the track or on the roads, always hopeful of someday getting a chance to compete against the world's best.

Last year, visiting the United States for the first time, Willie still was banned from competing, but it almost didn't matter. He was deliriously happy just being on hand and feeling the excitement of Central Park and the finish area of this madcap event.

"I will run this," he said to himself, his coach, South African Ray de Vries, and a couple of guys standing nearby. It proved no idle boast.

For years they said there were no tactics in the marathon, the race coming down to a battle of attrition (i.e., survival of the fittest). But yesterday, Mtolo once again proved the folly of this myth.

In a wide-open race where perhaps as many as 10 men were given a solid chance of winning, the one with the least experience in "big-time" racing won in a breeze.

Immediately after his victory, in 2:09:29, Willie said, "I think I made a mistake breaking too early." Considering he prevailed over Mexico's Andres Espinosa, the man who had controlled the race almost from the outset, by nearly a quarter-mile, Mtolo's assessment was absurdly conservative.

His effort was a masterpiece of knowing what to do and when. Conversely, on the women's side, Lisa Ondieki stepped away from her adversaries after the first mile and never bothered to look back. Her clocking of 2:24:40 broke the race record by 49 seconds. To gain perspective, recall the names of the all-time great women who have run here: Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen, Joan Benoit, Rosa Mota, Wanda Panfil, etc.

As usual, ABC's coverage of the extravaganza was strong, particularly when it came time for the experts -- Marty Liquori, Larry Rawson and Benoit-Samuelson -- to provide the whys and wherefores.

When Espinosa broke with Kenyan Lameck Aguta as the leading six-pack turned up Manhattan's First Avenue shortly after 15 miles, neither Rawson nor Liquori saw it as a definitive move. And later, when Espinosa shook Aguta as they entered the Bronx, both men seemed to sense that the Mexican, who had finished second last year, was a sitting duck for either Mtolo or Kim Wan Ki of South Korea.

They hit it perfectly, Mtolo biding his time until the race was in Central Park at the 23-mile mark. Something Benoit-Samuelson said at the beginning -- "talent and conditioning will not be as important as tactics today" -- came home to roost.

"When they broke, I didn't go with them, knowing of the hills at the end," said Mtolo. "Then, when I pushed going into the park, he [Espinosa] couldn't go with me. I knew I had him at the hills."

It's hard to imagine anyone sticking with Willie over those last few miles, maybe Rod Dixon the year he ran down Geoff Smith (1983) or Alberto Salazar when he owned the race in the early '80s.

Salazar joined the television commentators, too, and his brief remarks were right on the mark. "You never know how you're going to feel in the late miles, so you have to take a chance and go for it," he said of Mtolo's bid as it was in progress.

Mtolo picked up $2,400 for winning a marathon in the Netherlands four months ago, about one-20th of the value of his victory yesterday, when the price of the Mercedes-Benz is figured in with the prize money of $20,000. Not bad for a guy drawing $400 a month working in a bank back home.

Every year, without fail, at least one of the NYC winners sees their success as vindication. While Mtolo was proving that his 2:08:15 effort of six years ago was no apparition, Ondieki felt her victory has at long last elevated her out of the "bridesmaid" category. Second twice in New York, at the 1988 Olympics and at the Boston Marathon, Ondieki said, "I won by smashing the course record, so just don't tell me I'm not that good."

No chance of that, Lisa.



1. Willie Mtolo, South Africa, 2 hours, 9 minutes, 29 seconds. 2. Andres Espinosa, Mexico, 2:10:53. 3. Wan-ki Kim, South Korea, 2:10:54. 4. Osmiro Silva, Brazil, 2:12:50. 5. Antoni Niemczak, Poland, 2:13:00. 6. Walter Durbano, Italy, 2:13:24. 7. Luca Barzaghi, Italy, 2:13:24. 8. Driss Dacha, Morocco, 2:13:35. 9. David Lewis, Britain, 2:13:49. 10. Steve Brace, Britain, 2:14:10.

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