From the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of New England Runner magazine
I Run the Line
by Tom Derderian
In the 1980s while I lived in Oregon and worked for Nike, I one day ran on Pre’s Trail in Eugene. In the distance I saw a runner coming toward me. I recognized his gangly running style. It was a guy I knew from Boston. I wanted to say hello.
But as he ran closer I could not see his face. He wanted to say hello too, but he could not speak clearly. He wore an apparatus covering his mouth and nose, with tubes connecting to a tank on his back. He could only grunt through the gagging mouthpiece.
That was Alberto Salazar. The scuba-like apparatus he wore was designed to pull ambient air through chemicals in the tank that would extract oxygen and simulate running at high altitude. Alberto had once said that he would do whatever it took to win. That’s what he was doing. He looked like a space alien who had just landed on earth. He could not say hello to an old friend. To me there was a limit. Looking like a strange visitor from another planet passed that limit for me. Running well was not worth that, but it was to Alberto.
I first became aware of Alberto who, as a HS student in Wayland, MA, precociously ran in the top-10 in a 10-miler that I had won. Later he came to Greater Boston Track Club practices and Coach Squires told him not to run 100-mile weeks. Regardless, he did.
I knew Alberto’s older brother, Ricardo, much better than Alberto (I am 9-years older than Alberto). I have had dinner in the family home when their father talked vigorously about Cuban politics. He wanted to go to Cuba and drag Castro kicking and screaming into the ocean and hold him under water until he stopped wiggling. During summers when Al was back from the University of Oregon, he came to run repeat miles with us on the BC track. He would run them much faster than Bill Rodgers and suffer much more than Bill when doing so. I always thought he did not have the talent of his older brother or his smooth running style, but he made up for both with a rabid obsessiveness.
Alberto became a professional runner. He ran for Nike’s Athletics West team. Nike marketed a line of clothing based on Alberto. I was brand manager for that line. So the special view I have is both personal and corporate. And yes, I am a Nike shareholder.
Shareholders in a corporation expect the management of the corporation to maximize profit and return on investment. That is the deal: invest, get a return on that investment. Corporations have done much good and some harm since the first Dutch and English trading companies in the 1600s. They are founded to make a profit.
That is the law binding corporations to act only in the interest of shareholders. Individuals working for publicly traded companies shall work in the interest of shareholders. Brigades of lawyers help corporations stay just barely on the legal side of the line, using every advantage and loophole to be profitable. Risk is a cost of doing business.
The line is fine. It must not be crossed, but it can be massaged, stretched, or trampled to maximize profit. Sports have rules, but they are not generally supported by criminal statues. Employees in companies that market through sports promotions have two sets of rules, those governing corporations such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the International Association of Athletics Federations. If you have come to win in business you must operate with as much or more edge than your competition. That gets mixed up when the profitability of corporations and sport mingle.
In this era of Trump ‘anything goes,’ unfavorable news is fake and the media is the enemy of the people. All that counts is winning. We have become a society in which politics is war. So why are we surprised that such corporate ruthlessness spills into professional sport?
Professional running melds into corporate values and tactics. It may be running with an oxygen-sucking apparatus on your head or it may be other things. It is the professional athlete and coach’s obligation to take every legal advantage. There is no choice—you must do what it takes to win.
In college Alberto ran against Africans who were older than he was and born at altitude.
He couldn’t become older or change that he was born at sea level in Cuba, so he had to do other things. He trained harder. The Nike Corporation gave him resources for more “other” things. In my Nike days we did a study to see if Alberto, wearing elastic tights for warmth, would incur an oxygen-use cost from pushing against the elasticity. We tested Alberto in the Nike lab on a treadmill with and without tights. Since then, there has been much more science applied to evaluating ways to enhance performance. Alberto and I have moved on to coaching, but in very different worlds.
Alberto coaches highly paid corporate-contracted athletes who are the best in the world. I coach our old club, the Greater Boston Track Club, whose athletes are not paid and, in fact, pay to be coached. It is the opposite, amateur world. Maybe professional running—racing against an absolute standard, the world record—is impossible without manipulating the human body. How do you run from the starting line to the finish line to win without crossing any lines?
I tell my Greater Boston athletes that are working full time or are grad students, that to be successful at running they must make training and racing #3 in their lives after work and family. No other recreational activity can come before running, and thus you will race well in a balanced life. But if you make training and racing your profession, then it must be #1, and you must run dangerously close to the line or lose.
Tom Derderian is watching the line at email@example.com