Duel in the Sun

The 1982 Boston Marathon – the Duel in the Sun – was the most thrilling race in the 113-year history of distance running’s most storied event.

Other famous marathons have involved close finishes, but their suspense came about late in the race, with a pursuing challenger giving chase or a fading leader trying to hold on.  At Boston in 1982, Americans Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley battled stride for stride for the entire 26.2 miles, with nobody near them for the final nine.  For more than two hours, two indefatigable warriors battled mano a mano.  It made for great theater.  Competing at the sport’s most famous venue, at the peak of the first running boom, when the U.S. churned out world-class runners much like Kenya does today, Beardsley and Salazar engaged in an epic duel.

It was the greatest Boston Marathon of all time.

I viewed every marathon as a test of my manhood.  It wasn’t enough for me to win the race; I wanted to bury the other guys.  – Alberto Salazar

Born in Havana but raised in the Boston suburb of Wayland, 23-year-old Alberto Salazar was the world’s greatest and most charismatic distance runner.  He had won his second consecutive New York City Marathon six months earlier in record time, earning him an audience with President Ronald Reagan at the White House.  The fastest and most talented man in the field, Salazar was accomplished at a  variety of distances.  The University of Oregon All-American had finished second at the World Cross Country Championships in March.  Then, one week before Boston, he ran a torrid 27:30 in a 10,000-meter match race with the great Henry Rono at Oregon’s Hayward Field.

Dick Beardsley, 26, was a relative unknown.  His running career got started almost accidentally.  After getting pummeled at his first high school football practice, Beardsley quit the team and went out for cross-country without quite knowing what it was.  A humble farm boy from tiny Rush City, Minnesota, Beardsley was the gutsy underdog.  He ran his second marathon in a brand-new pair of running shoes that he didn’t want to get dirty by breaking them in.  He prepared by fasting for four days after reading somewhere that fasting worked in ultramarathons.

The third Monday in April is Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts.  Also known as Marathon Monday, April 19, 1982, broke warm and sunny for the noon race, ideal conditions for just about anything but running a marathon.  With temperatures in the 70s, an estimated crowd of two million people lined the racecourse.  The 1982 event drew 7,647 entrants and a world-class field.  In addition to Salazar, who owned national titles in both cross-country and on the track, the race included Bill Rodgers.  The 34-year-old Rodgers – nicknamed Boston Billy — had won four times in Boston, including three straight from 1978-80, and twice set course records.

At the 13-mile mark only Rodgers, Ed Mendoza, Beardsley, and Salazar remained.  By Mile 17, at the base of Braeburn Hill, Rodgers dropped away — and Mendoza soon followed.  Now it was just the two of them.  Beardsley stepped to the lead that he would hold for the next nine miles.  They ran in each other’s pocket, with Beardsley monitoring Salazar’s progress by studying his shadow on the pavement.  Considerably taller and 20 pounds heavier, Salazar – who was competing at Boston for the first time — had better short-range speed.  Beardsley, whose best 10K time was nearly two minutes slower than Salazar’s, knew he had to drop his opponent on the hills to win.

Beardsley was in excruciating pain.  Not certain he could finish, the Rush City, Minnesota, native kept telling himself, “One more mile, one more mile.”  Beardsley couldn’t feel his legs.  To make matters worse, he was brushed by the side mirror of a passing press bus.  The huge crowd, most of whom were rooting for the local boy, Salazar, swelled as the race progressed.  With a half-mile to go, Beardsley’s right hamstring tightened and he relinquished the lead for the first time all day.  Salazar blew past him and the race appeared over.

As the finish line drew nearer, the 128-pound Beardsley stepped in a pothole and the knot in his hamstring subsided.  Bedecked in a white painter’s hat, he put his head down, pumped his arms furiously —  and started to sprint.  Salazar, now surrounded by an escort of motorcycle patrolmen, glanced back to see his pursuer bearing down on him, rapidly closing the gap.  Nearing exhaustion, the 1978 NCAA cross-country champion searched for another gear.

I didn’t give an inch.  Neither did Alberto.  The way I look at it, there were two winners that day. – Dick Beardsley

Dick Beardsley ran the race of his life, finishing in 2:08.53.  But Alberto Salazar ran faster, winning the greatest Boston Marathon in history by two seconds.  Salazar’s time was fourth-fastest in marathon history and his margin of victory –ten yards and two seconds — was the closest finish in the race’s 86-year history.  Both men broke the [then] American record, and Beardsley’s time was the fastest second-place finish in marathon history.  Said Beardsley after the race, “I honestly thought I could win this thing…and you know, we just ran out of room.”

While many believed the battle between the two competitors would provide distance running with a long and spirited rivalry along the lines of Bird – Magic or Russell and Chamberlain, the Duel in the Sun was more of an end than a beginning.  After that day, neither man ran a marathon as well again.  While Salazar went on to capture his third straight New York City Marathon that fall, he struggled to stay healthy in the coming years.  “After Boston, I was never quite the same.  I had a few good races, but everything was difficult.  Workouts that I used to fly through became an ordeal.”  Two years later, Salazar qualified for the 1984 Olympic team but finished an exhausted 15th in Los Angeles.

Seven years after running the fastest marathon of his life, Dick Beardsley was involved in a farm machinery accident that mangled his left leg, broke several bones, caused a severe concussion and left a monkey on his back.  While in the hospital, he was given pain meds and soon became addicted.  By the summer of 1995, Beardsley was taking 90 tablets of Demerol, Percocet, and Valium a day.  He photocopied physician’s stationery, forged the prescriptions and filled them at a dozen pharmacies around Rush City.  When visiting friends or family, he secretly rifled through their medicine cabinets looking for painkillers.  He even stole meds from his father, who was dying of pancreatic cancer.

On October 1, 1996, Beardsley attempted to fill a forged prescription at a local pharmacy, just as he’d been doing for years.  When the pharmacist, who was a fishing buddy, wouldn’t make eye contact, Beardsley knew he was in trouble.  He was booked on felony narcotics charges and his stunning arrest made national news.  Beardsley avoided a prison sentence.  He sought treatment and has been sober since 1997.  He has since had both knees replaced and has resumed running but hasn’t run a marathon since the surgeries.

Years after the Duel in the Sun, Alberto Salazar was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma largely due to the 1982 Boston Marathon.  He retired from competitive running and moved into coaching.  One of his athletes, Mo Farah, captured double golds – in the 5K and 10K – at the 2012 London Olympics.

The 1982 Boston Marathon remains one of the signature moments in the history of distance running.  That day, 156 runners — every one an American — finished in 2:30 or better.  By contrast, only nine logged 2:30 or better at the 2019 event.