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.
“I’m so used to competing that you almost automatically have your mind focused on your race,” Marsh said. “Even though all those things happened--Mary’s fall, hitting the hurdle, the guy jumping out of the stands--they shouldn’t be the reason I lost. None of those things was the reason. You want to know the reason? I wasn’t physically prepared. I wasn’t in shape.”
For that, Marsh blames the nagging virus. During the Olympic Trials, Marsh felt stronger than ever. He easily won the Trials with a time of 8:15.91, running the final lap in 60.8 seconds. In a post-race press conference, Marsh said that the win was “dedicated to my wife, who is three days overdue with our third child.”
It was almost as if the baby was waiting for his father to finish the Trials before deciding it was time enter the world. Marsh took a late-night flight back to Salt Lake City, arriving just as his wife was going into labor. Marsh stayed up all night, then the next day before the baby was born.
Finally, he was able to sleep, but he awoke with a bad virus that kept him bed-ridden almost as long as his wife. The virus obviously happened at a most inopportune--but not unexpected--time. He was weak from intense training and caring for his wife, and the pressures of the Olympic Trials was equally as draining.
So, with only five weeks before the Olympics, Marsh faced what he now calls “a simple dilemma.” He could either stay in bed for about two weeks and fully recover or continue training despite the illness. Either way, Marsh wouldn’t be totally prepared for the Olympics. Two weeks without running would throw his training and timing off, but training while ill would greatly weaken him.
Marsh came upon a compromise he thought might work.
“I decided to work out every other day,” he said. “I’d do a normal training day, then rest the next day. Then, train again. But it turned out I still couldn’t get rid of the virus. You have to train continually to stay in shape, but you have to rest to be strong enough to train every day.
“I was in trouble, I knew that. I cut back mostly on strength and endurance work. I would keep up the speed work, because that doesn’t wear you out as much as the strength work. There wasn’t any doubt. I knew I wasn’t ready. I’d be dizzy when I’d go out on my morning runs. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing. I decided to make the best of it. I gave it everything I had.”
It wasn’t enough. Marsh likes to think that, had he been at full strength, he could have kept pushing himself and overtaken Korir. Past performances seemed to indicate the same thing. Marsh’s American record time of 8:12.37 was three seconds faster than any other competitor in the Olympic final. Marsh, who said he was in sub-8:10 shape before the virus hit, still recorded his second fastest time ever (8:14.25) in the Olympic steeplechase. Marsh’s disappointing Olympics effort kept alive a disturbing streak of failures and misfortune in major international races.
It all began in 1979, after Marsh had won the Pan American Games and the Spartakiad and was the favorite to win the World Cup in Montreal--a forerunner to the World Championships. In that race, Marsh said he “didn’t feel right” and finished fourth. Shortly thereafter, doctors told Marsh he had mononucleosis. Marsh was back in top form the next year, but was denied a chance in the Olympics at Moscow because of the United States boycott.
In 1981, Marsh won the World Cup race in Rome. At least, he thought he won. After coming from behind and picking off the field, Marsh was in a dead heat with East Germany’s Raif Ponitzsch nearing the last water jump. But Marsh never did take the jump, instead veering to the outside and then catching and beating Ponitzsch. Marsh was disqualified for the move and placed ninth. He appealed, arguing that Ponitzsch forced him outside. Marsh lost the appeal, too.
By 1983, Marsh had solidified himself as one of the world’s best steeplechase runners. All he had to do was win a major race. The first-ever World Championships that summer in Helsinki, Finland, would give Marsh the opportunity to silence the critics. This time, Marsh hit the final hurdle 80 meters from the finish line and fell on his face. West Germany’s Patriz Ilg cleared the hurdle just ahead of Marsh and won easily. Marsh finished eighth.
Marsh’s comment afterward: “Why me? I must be jinxed.”
Others felt it was Marsh’s risky, come-from-behind style that left him prone for misfortunes. Doug Brown, Marsh’s former training partner of Marsh, was quoted in Runner’s World shortly after the 1983 World Championships as saying, “Henry’s going to have to revise his race tactics and run a little bit differently than he’s used to in order to win in Los Angeles. The way Henry runs, from the back of the pack, everything has to go perfectly for him to be exactly where he needs to be with a lap to go. If anything goes wrong, he gets in trouble.”
A lot went wrong in last summer’s Olympic race and Marsh failed again. But Marsh staunchly maintains his race tactics had nothing to do with his poor showing.
“I’ve heard that for a long time,” Marsh said. “And people said that after the Olympics, too. But the only thing that did me in in the Olympics was the virus. I wasn’t prepared to race.”
After the Olympics, Marsh returned to Utah and moped. Because of the hamstring pull, he couldn’t run and he contemplated whether he would ever run competitively again. If Marsh, 31, had won the Olympic steeplechase, he probably would would be working fulltime alongside his father, Howard, at the Salt Lake City law firm of Parsons, Behle and Latimer.
“You think about retiring,” Marsh said. “I planned to go to Europe after the Olympics and then make a decision. But the (hamstring) injury scratched all that. I decided to try it again this year.
“I can’t quit. I haven’t accomplished all my goals. I know there are better times and races in me. People insinuate that when you reach your 30s, forget it. You’re finished. I’m running as well now as ever. At the TAC meet, I set a meet record in the steeplechase (8:18.35). I ran very well at the Pre (Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore.) and I won a meet in Oslo (Norway) last week.”
Marsh was on the phone from Helsinki, where the next day (July 4) he would compete in the same stadium where he fell two years ago in the World Championships.
“Nah, winning this race won’t make up for that other one,” Marsh said. “What I’m pointing to this summer is the the World Cup (in Canberra, Australia, October 4--6). That is a big race where I can redeem myself.”
Even though Marsh is on leave from the law firm, he still works as a sportscaster when he’s in Salt Lake City. For the next four years, he also is the president of the USOC’s Athlete’s Advisory Council.
Marsh isn’t sure whether he will still be competing in the steeplechase in four years. The 1980 boycott cost Marsh a chance at his ultimate goal--the Olympic gold--and the virus did him in last summer. Marsh will be 34 in 1988, when he could get another chance.
“That’s not something I’m planning on right now,” Marsh said. “But the Olympic gold is still my lifelong dream. If I feel like I’m still up to it and good enough, I’ll try it again.”