Pete Pfitzinger is a living legend in the sport of running and especially the marathon. For those not familiar, he was the Fastest American Finisher in both the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. During his career he also won the 1983 and 1986 San Francisco Marathon’s. He went onto become an accomplished author and exercise physiologist. Most notably he is the author of Advanced Marathoning, which serves as one of the premier running resources for the serious Marathoner.
We got a chance to ask Pete a few questions from his home in Auckland, New Zealand about his career, coaching, and the future of American Distance Running.
WM: At the 1984 Olympic Trials in Buffalo you were among the American legends facing Salazar, Rodgers, Meyers, and Sandoval. You broke from the field around midway then were passed in the last mile yet in the final few hundred meters you dug deep and re-passed Salazar and Tuttle for the Victory. Tell me a bit about this race and your expectations going into it as a relatively unknown marathoner at the time.
PETE: It was an exciting time with a “home” Olympics coming up and American marathoning very strong. The field was high quality, and I was seeded 19th having run in the 2.12s a couple of times. I had trained in New Zealand for 5 months, running high mileage over hilly terrain and was in the best shape of my life. My expectation going into the race was to run 2.10 or 2.11 and finish in the top 8. My dream was to finish in the top 3.
Race day was warm and humid, with a light head wind and we started at a moderate 2.12 pace. At 10 miles I was about 10-12 seconds behind the leaders so decided to work a bit harder to move up. I continued the effort and caught the lead pack of about a dozen guys including Salazar, Meyer, Rodgers, Sandoval, etc between 12 and 13 miles.
I wanted to run a good time and also knew strategically it would be better to get rid of guys in the middle of the race rather than running along cautiously, so I picked the pace up moderately figuring we might reduce the pack size. No one went with me and I fairly quickly had about a 30-40 yard lead. At that point I hesitated but then figured my best shot of making the Olympic team was to push harder and gain a “real” lead or at least drop off some of the guys in the pack.
The rest of the guys were looking at each other and the best guys figured they could catch me later, so I continued to run about 4.58 to 5.02 per mile while the pack was running a few seconds per mile slower. My lead built up to about 30 seconds at 22 miles. I didn’t know it at the time but that was when John Tuttle and Alberto Salazar and a few of the others made a move to drop each other and catch me.
At 25 miles, Tuttle and Salazar passed me. I stuck to John and Alberto as closely as possible and did not look back. Alberto got about 30 to 40 yards ahead and John was about 15 yards ahead and I was worried about the guys behind. John had just run a tremendous 3-4 miles to catch me and was getting tired. He looked back and eased a bit and I took the opportunity to squeeze ahead of him. In passing John I made up ground on Alberto too and then found the strength to sprint and passed him with about 30 yards to go. That was my most satisfying race.
WM: You earned another spot on the 1988 Olympic Team surging late in the 1988 Jersey City Trials for third place. How much did it mean to represent your country in the Olympics? What did you learn from this experience?
PETE: Qualifying the second time was a very different experience because I had the pressure of being one of the favorites. Also, my wife had already qualified to represent New Zealand, and I didn’t want to be the guy carrying the bags. It was easy mentally in 1984 to be an unknown. In 1988 I was one of about 6-8 guys expected to make the team. In the end, an unknown (Mark Conover) won the race and Ed Eyestone and myself picked up the other two spots. Representing the United States in track and field was an amazing experience. Among my team-mates were the legendary Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Flo-Jo, Steve Scott, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Mary Decker-Slaney. The key in the Olympics was to prepare optimally for your own event while also appreciating the overall experience. My favorite aspect of the Olympics and of international marathons is the common bond between all athletes. I have friends in many countries from my marathoning days.
WM: What is the greatest piece of advice you have received?
PETE: When I was 15 I had just set a personal best for 2 miles of 9.41 and was elated and convinced I could not go any faster. My high school coach Tom Cole came up to me and said that was a good race but that I still had too much energy for celebrating after crossing the finish line. The next week I dug deeper and ran 8 seconds faster.
WM: You were inspired to enroll at the University of Massachusetts Dept. of Exercise Science and wrote your thesis on the reliability of lactate measurement during exercise. How has the scientific understanding of human physiology benefited your coaching? Are there any exceptions to the rule?
PETE: Coaching any physiology-based sport is a balance of understanding the physiology of the athlete and the psychology of the individual. A coach who does not understand how their athlete’s body responds to training (physiology) will make many mistakes. A coach who does not understand the psychology of their athlete will sometimes make bigger mistakes! I still sometimes make both kinds of mistakes.
WM: In your opinion, what is the most common mistake of many athletes training for a marathon?
PETE: The three mistakes that I see most often are:
1) Starting specific marathon preparation too late. You need a minimum of 12 weeks and preferably 4 months to do the job right.
2) Doing too much speedwork and not enough mileage.
3) Sticking too religiously to your training program when injured or sick. Too many runners miss the race altogether when they do not listen to their body’s signals to back off.
WM: A lifetime of devotion to the sport of running has given you numerous accolades and recognition. What motivates and drives you today?
PETE: I work for High Performance Sport New Zealand, which is the government-funded organization responsible for ensuring New Zealand athletes win medals in Olympics and world championships. In this role, I get to work with coaches and athletes from many sports, including rowing, cycling, triathlon, swimming and sailing as well as track & field and distance running. What drives me today is trying to understand how to assist athletes to reach their full potential. The more I know, the more I realize how little I know!
WM: In your opinion, what is the best running book written?
PETE: Lore of Running by South African exercise physiologist Tim Noakes. It is very thorough (over 900 pages) and I refer to it often.
WM: With the addition of post collegiate programs throughout the country – Where do you see American Marathoning in the next 10 years?
PETE: American distance running is in very good shape. I have been delighted to see the various post-collegiate programs that have developed over the past 15 years and also the renewed attitude that Americans can compete with, and beat, the best runners in the world. This resurgence cover the 1500 meters through the marathon. It is important to remember that distance running is one of the most competitive sports in the world and that medals are incredibly hard to win. There is no reason why the United States cannot have 3 to 5 guys under 2.09 and 3 to 5 women under 2.25 each year. If we do that consistently, American runners will win their share of the medals in major events.