The hottest and most unrelenting of New York City's 15 marathons brought 26-year-old Orlando Pizzolato, a student from Milan, to a complete stop eight times within five miles of the finish line this afternoon.
He would turn around to see who was following him along the dotted blue line that led to Central Park. When he saw no one, he did the only thing he could do as 74-degree temperatures and 96-percent humidity tried to return him to the other runners. He turned back and kept on going.
The ninth time he stopped, he was finished. That was when he hit his knees to kiss the pavement after he completed his 26.2-mile ordeal in 2 hours 14 minutes 53 seconds -- 43 seconds and about 200 yards ahead of his only challenger, Briton David Murphy, now of Louisville (2:15:36).
"I don't believe I won the New York City Marathon," Pizzolato said later. "The time was not very good, but the people's applause gave me a lot of strength to go on."
Someone asked what his most important victory was before this one.
"There wasn't," he said.
Defending women's champion Grete Waitz of Norway won the women's championship for the sixth time in 2:29:30, the 57th best time overall. But she drank too much water, became ill and later called it her "worst" marathon.
There also was a fatality for the first time in the history of the race. Jacques Bussereau, 48, of Periguex, France, who was part of a group of about 500 French runners who annually run the marathon, collapsed 15 miles into the race (just before the Queensboro Bridge) and was rushed to Elmhurst Hospital, where he died at 2:10 p.m.
He was in cardiac arrest when he was picked up by an Emergency Medical Services unit, an EMS spokeswoman said. He died in the emergency room. Bussereau, who had run four marathons, suffered a heart attack four years ago.
By 10 p.m., 1,180 runners were reported receiving treatment; 81 required hospitalization. Last year, only nine runners were taken to hospitals.
Pizzolato, who has run, but never won, 11 other marathons, was a huge surprise in this race. His competitors said they didn't know who he was when he breezed past them between the 12th and 13th miles in the working class Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn to take a lead he never relinquished. Murphy and the others, including favorite and defending champion Rod Dixon, who withdrew with leg cramps after 21 miles, figured he would finally come back to them.
Pizzolato's lead, once 70 seconds with eight miles remaining, withered to 10 seconds with two miles to go. Murphy, who forced himself to look at the ground, not at Pizzolato's back, imagined himself alongside Pizzolato's shoulder.
"This will be a great finish," he said he told himself. "This is going to be a real dramatic finish again."
Last year, Dixon passed leader Geoff Smith in the last mile to win by nine seconds. In that race, Pizzolato was 27th in 2:15:28. He had hoped to finish 20th this time.
But this fall, it stayed hot in Milan, where Pizzolato lives with his parents. He was in good shape. And, for a change, most of the world's best marathon runners decided to skip New York, either to rest after the Olympics or to run in Chicago last weekend.
Pizzolato did not make the Italian Olympic team and is not considered even one of the top five marathon runners in the country. "He is too nervous before races," said Laura Fogli of Italy, the third-place finisher among the women. "When he has lost before, many times, it was because he was nervous."
If Pizzolato is known for anything in Italy, it is for running road races. Basically, though, he is not known for anything in Italy.
Now that he has the $25,000 first-place check and a new Mercedes-Benz worth $22,000, that may change.
Pizzolato was back in the pack for the first 10 miles, trailing the early leaders, who included fourth-place finisher Pat Petersen of Ronkonkoma, N.Y.
"I began to run fast at 10 miles, but I didn't think I had a chance to win until 15-20 miles," Pizzolato said. He passed Jose Gomez, another early leader, and Petersen as they neared the 13th mile, and then headed into Queens, where the Mondale-Ferraro posters got especially thick and the hazy Manhattan skyline came into view.
But just past the 21-mile mark, nearly 40 seconds ahead of Murphy, Pizzolato stopped running. He looked behind him, hung his head, and poured water over himself.
"It was a psychological problem," he said with the help of an interpreter. "I was lucky nobody was coming from behind. It means that the people behind were not doing better than me."
Murphy, who moved into second place after 19 miles, was determined not to follow Pizzolato's pace. He finished 44th in the London Marathon earlier this year because he burned out staying with the leaders. "I was hoping to have enough left in the last six miles to catch him," Murphy said. "He was hurting at the end. We were all hurting. But I didn't catch him."
If ever there were a deceiving finish, this was it. Murphy looked much fresher than Pizzolato, and ran much faster (16 seconds faster in the 22nd mile alone) until the final mile and a half.
"If you look back and that guy sees you look back, you're in trouble," Murphy said. "He was in trouble. If I could have gotten up to his shoulder, it would have been very competitive."
As it was, their legacy is that they finished first and second in the slowest New York City Marathon in the nine years it has been run on the five-borough course.
Third place went to Herbert Steffny of Freiburg, West Germany, in 2:16:22. "I've got to show you something I put on," he told a news conference, standing up to model shorts made out of an American flag. "I got one million people to cry 'U-S-A' to me. Sorry, it was a trick."
In the women's race, Waitz led from the beginning, easily defeating Veronique Marot of England (2:33:58) and Fogli (2:37:25).
But, she said, "I was seriously thinking about dropping out around 10 miles. I had diarrhea. I drink a lot not to be dehydrated . . . I've had it other times, always when it's warm and I drink a lot of water."
Meanwhile, Gabriele Andersen-Schiess became the folk heroine of the race. In the Olympics, she staggered to a dramatic 37th-place finish in the women's marathon with a time of 2:48:42.
Today, she finished with no trouble in 11th place in 2:42:24, as specatators recognized her and shouted out her name.
"It was a hard race," she said, "because in the back of my mind was lingering my experience at the Olympics. After hearing the forecast, I was a little disappointed that I would have to fight similar conditions to those at Los Angeles.
"So I went out very, very carefully, and in those last few miles, I told myself to keep remembering the Olympics. I'm pleased I finished in a lot better state than I did at the Olympics."