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THE AGONY OF DEFEAT : AT END OF STEEPLECHASE, HE WAS OUT OF IT--LITERALLY : Fate Was Again Cruel to Marsh

July 28, 1985|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

The last thing Henry Marsh remembers about the race is falling. By the time he hit the Coliseum track, face first, just beyond the finish line for the Olympic 3,000 meter steeplechase, Marsh was out cold.

It had been Marsh's dream to be carried off the track. But he wanted it to be in exultation rather than exhaustion. He wanted to be on top of somebody's shoulders, rather than on a stretcher. Marsh, the favorite to win the gold medal, left the Coliseum with a fourth-place finish and no medal.

Because he was unconscious with what was later described as extreme fatigue, Marsh fortunately doesn't recall anything about his not-so-triumphant exit from the Coliseum last Aug. 10. However, there is no way Marsh will ever forget the bizarre events that took place before and during the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

Only now, a year after the race, can Marsh laugh about it, even though he still doesn't find it too amusing.

Omens slapped Marsh in the face as early as an hour before his race was scheduled. He took a break from his pre-race preparation and sneaked into the Coliseum to watch the much-publicized women's 3,000-meter final, featuring Mary Decker and Zola Budd.

Decker, now Mary Decker Slaney, and Marsh are friends and occasionally trained together, so it greatly disturbed Marsh when Slaney tumbled to the track after clipping Budd's heel.

Marsh said he removed the image of Decker's fall from his mind before his race, but his concentration was off and his confidence waned.

Then, as Marsh trotted along the track minutes before the start of the steeplechase, bad omen No. 2 struck. He had unzipped the bottom of his sweat pants and they were flapping as he ran. The spikes on one of his shoes caught the flap on his opposite leg and cut Marsh's calf.

"Not only that," added Marsh, laughing, "I went smashing into a hurdle and sprained my knee. The trainers came over and took a look at it, but the race was about to begin. There was nothing they could do and I was going to race no matter what. It really didn't hurt that much."

But the sprained knee and the blood running down his calf was aggravating. During the early part of the race, Marsh was in his customary position near the back of the pack and feeling all right despite the pre-race problems.

Then came the most bizarre disruption of the race, which also was one of the few security foulups during the Olympics. On the second lap, a man later identified as Llewelyn Thomas Phelan of Berkeley jumped onto the track and joined the runners in the back of the pack, not far behind Marsh.

Phelan carried a sign that read: "Our Earth At Peace, One Human Family." It was a nice message, Marsh says now, but did the guy have to join the race in progress and even take the water jump with the competitors? Security guards rousted Phelan off the track, but he later broke free and joined them again.

"I never really saw the guy," Marsh said. "But it was strange. I knew something was causing commotion behind me. It scared me a little bit. The fans, I could hear them yelling and then laughing. You usually don't hear that in a race. I can't really say the guy from the stands bothered me because he didn't throw off my stride or run into me. It was just another distraction."

Distractions were things Henry Marsh didn't need if he hoped to win a medal. He knew he wasn't in ideal physical shape. He had been unable to shake a virus that hit him after the U.S. Olympic Trials in August. But despite his weakened condition, the reminder of Decker's fall, the sprained knee and bloodied calf, Marsh still was in good position to win the race heading into the final lap.

Marsh had managed to weave through the pack and move to the outside, where he could creep up on Kenya's Julius Korir, the leader. Marsh never did catch Korir, but he was only a stride behind in the straightaway. At that point, Marsh began to fade. Korir opened a 15-meter lead and, in the stretch, he was passed by both France's Joseph Mahmoud (the silver medalist) and teammate Brian Diemer (bronze medalist).

Adding another injury to the insult of finishing fourth, Marsh pulled a hamstring muscle right before collapsing.

"I was so out of it, I didn't even feel it," Marsh says now. "I didn't even know I had pulled the muscle. Later that night, my hamstring was really giving me problems. I had it checked when I got back home (Salt Lake City) and I didn't run again for a few weeks."

It would have been easy for Marsh to blame his poor Olympic showing on all the outside distractions. But he wouldn't do it the day after the race, when he gave his first interview, and he still won't do it a year afterward. He did admit that it was quite an unusual race, to say the least.

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