NEW YORK — When Gianni Poli set an Italian national marathon record last fall in Chicago--but finished fourth--he told his countryman Orlando Pizzolato, two-time winner of the New York City Marathon, that it was better to run a fast time than to win.
Pizzolato told him he was wrong. A little known runner two years ago, Pizzolato had become something of a sensation in New York--and the object of considerable adulation back home--after his consecutive 1984 and 1985 victories here.
"I told him last year he should try to win in New York City," Pizzolato said. "Then he can know the difference between a fast time and to win."
On Sunday, Pizzolato learned never to give advice.
By the time it was over, Poli had outdistanced Pizzolato and everyone else. Pizzolato could only shrug and smile.
"Now I think he will agree with me," Pizzolato said.
Poli covered the 26.2 miles in 2 hours 11 minutes 6 seconds, far slower than his personal record of 2:09:57 in Chicago last fall and only 28 seconds faster than Pizzolato's win here last year.
But, as Pizzolato had predicted, it didn't seem to matter to Poli that his performance was not especially fast.
"This is a wonderful race," Poli said. "It is the best in the world. It is the most important race for me. It is a victory I enjoy the most."
Pizzolato finished fourth, running 2:12:13. Poland's Antoni Niemczak was second in 2:11:21, and Australia's Rob de Castella, the pre-race favorite, was third in 2:11:43 after fading badly in the final miles.
Pizzolato abandoned his usual come-from-behind tactics to run with the lead pack and later described his strategy as "stupid."
The first American was Peter Pfitzinger, a member of the 1984 Olympic team, who ran 2:14:09 for 10th.
Italy had a remarkable showing, taking 4 out of the top 10 spots. In addition to Poli and Pizzolato, Salvatore Bettiol was seventh in 2:13:27 and Osvaldo Faustini ninth in 2:14:03.
"I think Italy is one of the best countries for running long distances," Pizzolato said. "We know which are the important races during the year and we concentrate on them."
Norwegian Grete Waitz easily won the women's race in 2:28:06. It was her eighth New York win and fifth in a row. Australia's Lisa Martin was second in 2:29:12, and Italy's Laura Fogli third in 2:29:44.
The first American woman was Sharlet Gilbert of Richmond, Calif., who placed 10th in 2:38:24.
Poli and Waitz each won $25,000 and a Mercedes-Benz. Neither runner threatened the world record--2:07:12 for men, held by Carlos Lopes of Portugal, and 2:21:06 for women, held by Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway. The course records are 2:08:13 by American Alberto Salazar and 2:25:29 by New Zealand's Allison Roe.
An estimated 22,000 runners lined up in a light rain that cleared soon after the start with temperatures in the low 60's. While the skies were cloudy, the humidity remained high, making it somewhat uncomfortable for marathon running. Still, Sunday's weather was a vast improvement over the two past years of unseasonably warm conditions.
Poli's biggest challenge came from De Castella, finishing his best year since 1983. The Australian won both the Commonwealth Games marathon in Edinburgh in August and the Boston Marathon in a personal and course record 2:07:51 in April, after three years without a marathon victory.
The usual large pack of men clung together for the first 10 miles, reached in 48 minutes 42 seconds. While most of the men stared ahead, maintaining their concentration, Pizzolato waved and blew kisses to the specators who lined the streets.
"I did it to relax and because I think the New York people love me," he said, not in arrogance, but groping for the right English words. "I try to run well to give them a good time."
When they hit the halfway point, in a brisk 1:04:08, the group had dwindled to De Castella, Pizzolato, Poli, and Kenyan Ibrahim Hussein, who was to finish fifth in 2:12:51.
On the uphill of the Queensboro Bridge, just before the 15th mile, De Castella and Poli broke away from the others and began to duel.
They crossed the bridge onto First Avenue and raced shoulder to shoulder trading the lead between them.
Each time Poli surged, he looked back to see if De Castella was right behind him. He was.
But then suddenly, he wasn't. Just before the 20th mile, Poli's lead stretched to about 50 yards and quickly began to grow, even though he had not increased his pace.
In fact, he had slowed from the sub-5 minute miles the pack had been running earlier to miles that were averaging between 5:13 and 5:20.
But De Castella was laboring. It soon became clear that even his legendary strength would not help him regain the lead when Poli reached the notorious rolling hills in Central Park that can often make or break a race .
De Castella was in such trouble that Niemczak, the Polish runner, who had slowly worked his way up, managed to pass him in the final mile and a half.