Long distance racing has tended to be an insulated sport, one that appeals intensely to an ever larger constituency but is seldom understood much beyond it. Moving clearly into the picture, though, is a runner even the public as a whole can appreciate.
Alberto Salazar, who joined female winner Charlotte Teske in wearing the Boston Marathon's laurel wreaths Monday, has a knack for the spectacular. He's a ''money'' runner at the dawn of long distance running's new, big-money age.
A track and cross-country man in college, he has entered only three marathons in his life and won each of them. These were no Rocket City or Ocean State Marathons, either, but the two biggest in this country--New York and Boston.
He twice played beat the clock through the boroughs of New York, making the fastest debut in marathon history two years ago, then setting a world record of 2 hours, eight minutes, and 13 seconds last fall. On Monday, he made his belated debut in the Boston Marathon as the prohibitive favorite.
It was a pressure-filled occasion for the Oregon resident, who grew up not far from the Hopkinton-to-Boston race route in Wayland and once trained with the prestigious Greater Boston Track Club. As a precocious teen he was known as The Rookie to older club members, but now, having reached running manhood, he returned as The Great Salazar.
His chief challenger was expected to be four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers, the sport's reigning superstar during the latter half of the 1970s.
Rodgers kept pace until the Heartbreak Hill section of the 26.2-mile course, then fell behind, leaving Minnesotan Dick Beardsley to battle Salazar to the tape.
The son of Jose Salazar, a one-time Cuban freedom fighter turned Castro opponent, proved equal to the challenge, using his track man's kick to outsprint Beardsley the last hundred yards to the finish line.
Marathons, which are characterized by well-distanced leaders, seldom end with such drama. In this case, only two seconds separated the first- and second-place runners, the same hair's breadth margin that Rodgers used in 1978 to beat Jeff Wells in the Boston Marathon's other closest finish.
Totally spent by the effort required on this taxingly warm, sunny day, Salazar missed the traditional post-race press conference. In his stead, Beardsley - the new kid on the block with the amazing recovery time--did double duty in the interview area.
''Al was sitting off my shoulder for about the last 10 miles,'' the product of tiny Rush City, Minn., said. ''I could see his shadow on the pavement, and every time I saw him start to make a move, I made a surge of my own.''
In the last mile or so, Salazar took the lead, but couldn't shake Beardsley, who stepped in a pothole and was brushed by an officials' bus and motorcyle patrolman in his tenacious pursuit. The two runners were almost neck and neck as they came to the slight incline leading toward the Prudential Center finish line and large digital clock overhead.
'' 'Holy smoke!,' I said to myself, 'one of us is going to come in second with a 2:08,'' Beardsley related.''As far as I'm concerned we both came out winners.''
In a very real sense they did, too. For in becoming the first pair to break the 2 hour, 9 minute mark in the same marathon, they ran at a clip many Boston commuters would envy. Salazar broke Toshihiko Seko's year-old Boston record by 35 seconds with a clocking of 2:08.51.
To a degree, Alberto's participation here was an experiment to see if he has the strength to run both 10,000 meters and the marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Ten days before winning Boston, he broke an American mark while finishing a close second in a star-studded invitational 10,000. The catch is that in L.A. Salazar would have only four days between races, and warm weather extracts a severe toll from him. Still, at 23 he will only get stronger, and may be the most versatile distance man since Czechoslovakia's Emil Zatopek, who swept the 5,000, 10,000, and marathon at the 1952 Olympics.
The biggest surprise on Marathon Monday was that provided by Teske, the West German nurse whose 2:29.33 was well off the record women's time set by New Zealander Allison Roe last year.
Roe didn't run this time, but Norway's sensational Grete Waitz did. Waitz was leading through much of the race, but leg problems forced her to drop out several miles from the finish, a fact unknown to Teske. Only when one of Boston's finest congratulated her did Charlotte realize she'd won.
The confusion, of course, was nothing new for the women's competition, which is essentially a race within a much larger race (men outnumber the women almost 10 to 1). Since the 1980 embarrassment when Rosie Ruiz was disqualified after officials decided that she hadn't run the full route, race organizers have done a better job of keeping track of the top women the entire distance. Even so, there is little chance of a strategic race, since the female leaders quite often don't know the relative whereabouts of their rivals.
Perhaps the time has come to let the top women entrants start ahead of the masses, just as the courageous wheelchair athletes do now. There's nearly an 18 -minute difference between the current men's and women's Boston records. This time could be the standard used.
Some of the men might eventually overtake the women, but this would still serve to focus more attention on the women's race and possibly inspire some interesting battles down the stretch.