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14 minutes : a running legend's life and death and life / Alberto Salazar and John Brant.

Salazar, Alberto, 1958- (Author). Brant, John, 1951- (Added Author).
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Electronic resources

Record details

  • ISBN: 9781609613150
  • ISBN: 1609613155
  • Physical Description: 1 online resource (xiv, 258 pages) : illustrations
  • Publisher: New York, NY : Rodale Books, ©2012.
  • Distributor: Distributed to the trade by Macmillan

Content descriptions

Summary, etc.:
A champion Cuban-American distance runner chronicles his early life, his rise to athletic stardom, and a near-death experience during which he was clinically dead for fourteen minutes.
Source of Description Note:
Print version record.
Subject: Salazar, Alberto, 1958-
Runners (Sports) > United States > Biography.
SPORTS & RECREATION > Running & Jogging.
Löpare > Förenta staterna > biografi.
Genre: Electronic books.


It seems fitting that my earliest childhood memory entails strife, conflict, and intense emotion. It also seems appropriate that the Roman Catholic Church was involved. I was 5 or 6 years old. My family was out in Michigan visiting during a summer vacation. I attended a day camp run by a Catholic order, a sort of Bible day camp. I recall the presence of nuns. Another little boy started teasing me. He hit me with a vine, using it in the manner of a whip. This infuriated me. I fought back with a ferocity far beyond the pain I'd absorbed and beyond the bounds of a little boy trying to defend himself.

I jumped on the kid and started £ding him with my fists. When he escaped my grasp, I chased the terrified boy around some picnic tables. The nuns stopped me, but they couldn't staunch my rage, which kept flooding out of me, a deep volcanic upswelling at the injustice of the boy's attack. I wept and thrashed and couldn't be consoled. Eventually the nuns, who despite their experience had never encountered this sort of emotional intensity from a child, had to call my mother to come get me.

I remember that day: the stinging thrash of the vine; the deep green of the grass and trees; the startled white faces of the sisters under their habits; and my outpouring of rage that, even at that young age, I felt coming through me rather than from me. I sensed that I was a conduit of forces beyond my understanding and perhaps beyond my control.

My boyhood passed in a similarly tumultuous key. Our house was characterized by yelling and screaming. We argued about the same things as other American families—time in the bathroom, use of the car, who would claim the last slice of pizza—but the intensity we brought to these disputes was unlike that of other American families. Years later, when we were courting, I brought Molly to visit my family at my boyhood home in Wayland, Massachusetts. Molly is a smart, kind, sweet, blue-eyed and blonde- haired Oregon girl, and her early family life was as orderly and tranquil as the ones that I jealously watched on '70s TV sitcoms. Now Molly endured her first thunderous Salazar family dinner.

I can't recall what the issue was that evening—whether a movie was worth seeing? who was the better all-around ballplayer, George Brett or Mike Schmidt?—but, as was our habit, my brothers and father and I soon escalated the dispute to seemingly life-and-death stakes. We went for each other's throat, shouting bitter personal curses that to Molly's ears seemed beyond forgetting or forgiving. But the next moment, it was all gone. It was, "Pass the salt, please." Molly couldn't believe it. She thought the Salazars came from another planet.

And we did come from another planet. We came from Cuba. We came from the actual island nation itself, but also from a separate Cuba, a sort of virtual state, the one fashioned by the Cuban exile community in the United States. And my family occupied still another realm of Cuba: the one created by my father, Jose Salazar.

My father was the primary spokesman for the Cuban exile community in New England. Anything involved with Cuba, my dad was the man you saw talking about it. Politicians consulted with my father. He led public demonstrations. You drove past busy intersections and there would be my father, holding up a sign, shouting into a reporter's microphone, the veins sticking out on his neck. He appeared on televised panel discussions with Senator Edward Kennedy, his political nemesis, whose brother John F. Kennedy had—in my father's opinion—bungled the Bay of Pigs invasion, in which my father had participated (although on a personal level, the two men respected, and even liked, one another; years later, after I won the 1982 Boston Marathon, Senator Kennedy sent my father a personal note of congratulation).

There were constant meetings at our house, often running late into the night. Angry men shouted in Spanish. My brother Jose and I could hear them up in our bedroom after the lights were out. Jose, who is 2 years older than me, didn't seem as bothered by the turmoil as I was. He was wired like my father; absolutely sure of himself. Jose fell asleep easier than I did. Long after he was breathing rhythmically, I'd hear the voices swelling and receding, the deep impassioned vow that these men lived by: El ano proximo en La Habana! Next year in Havana.

One night I wandered downstairs, semisleepwalking. Strange men filled our dining room. The air was blue with cigarette and cigar smoke. More than 40 years later, I clearly remember seeing a man stalk out of the house and come back in carrying a machine gun.

I didn't realize at the time, of course—in fact, I wouldn't put it together until I was well into my own adulthood—that a sense of deep, visceral betrayal lay at the heart of this intrigue and of my father's rage. I'm not talking about the pallid kind of political betrayal common here in the United States; the disappointment you feel when the candidate you ardently supported gets into office and turns out to be just another cynical, deal-making politician. I'm talking about the head-butting fury of a deceived lover. I'm talking about the soul sickness that comes from your dearest friend violating your deepest trust.

For my father, Fidel Castro wasn't just a picture in the newspaper or a fatigues-clad, cigar-chomping figure strutting on the TV news. My father had been a friend and comrade of Castro's. My father's father had given Castro work when he was a struggling young attorney in the Cuban provinces. Castro and my father shared a dream of justice, along with nights under fire. For hours one harrowing afternoon, they'd breathed the same stale air in a cramped office, waiting to hear soldiers' footsteps coming for them.

And for my father, Che Guevara wasn't just an image silk-screened on a college kid's T-shirt. My father had fought beside Che. He had watched enemies die by Che's hand and had battled enemies himself under Che's orders. Later, my father worked under Che's direction in the revolutionary government. My father gave himself body and soul to the original, democratic vision of the Castro-led revolution, pledging a loyalty that doesn't seem in tune with our times, that is hard for an American living under comfortable, secure circumstances to comprehend.

Maybe you remember the scene from the movie The Godfather: Part II: Havana in the 1950s, a city under thrall to the American mobster Meyer Lansky; a playground for wealthy Americans sporting in casinos and brothels. The American mafia, along with US sugar, fruit, and mining interests, enriched to obscene levels the US-backed Cuban president Fulgencio Batista and his cronies, while leaving the rest of the nation destitute. Vibrant music, beautiful women, strong rum, a glowing Havana moon: It all sounds romantic, but for the vast majority of Cubans, the scene represented misery and humiliation.

My father was the scion of a family with a long and accomplished history straddling both Cuba and the United States, a line of engineers, teachers, entrepreneurs, soldiers, and priests. The family home in Havana was of sufficient grandeur that, after the revolution, the Soviet government employed it as part of their embassy complex. My father could have been one of the fortunate ones, exploiting his education and family connections to claim a prime feeding spot at the Batista trough. But instead, he chose the harder and more virtuous path. Along with a growing number of patriotic, idealistic young people, my father followed the opposition movement led by a young law student named Fidel Castro.

In 1950, the University of Havana formed the heart of the movement. Castro, who would graduate that year from the university's law school, was active in student politics, and my father headed the engineering students' league. The revolution wouldn't reach its climax for another 9 years, but already the government was wary of Castro. One day, agents came to campus to detain him. My father got wind of the development and sheltered Castro in his small office in the student union building. My father locked the door, and he and Castro moved the desk against it to block passage. Down at the building entrance, in remarkable demonstration of Cuban loyalty, a security guard bravely rebuffed the government agents.

"I don't care about Castro," the guard said. "But Jose Salazar is a friend of mine, and I cannot let you pass."

A few years later, when the rebel forces had become more of a threat, the agents probably would have forced their way into the building, but now they backed off. A stalemate ensued. Fidel Castro and my father waited out the afternoon in the small office. I heard the story so often as a kid that I didn't register its full significance and drama: my father, sitting cheek by jowl with a man who'd become one of the pivotal figures of the 20th century. The office would have been hot and stifling, its air increasingly rank with sweat and anxiety. The two young men might have shared a sandwich or coffee that supporters snuck in. Finally night fell, and Castro slipped out of the office and escaped into the darkness.

Later, my father's pride regarding this episode would grow tinged by guilt and regret, but it never completely vanished. My father had behaved impeccably that day, upholding his personal code of honor: loyalty to a friend, service to an ideal, and grace under pressure. Where there was a choice, he always chose the hard path. Jose Salazar had touched history, and he—and his family—would never be the same.

Through the rest of the 1950s, as Castro hooked up with Che Guevara in Mexico and clandestinely returned to Cuba, taking to the Sierra Maestra and building a rebel army of disenfranchised campesinos, my father followed the rebels' progress and did everything he could to support it. At this juncture, Castro wasn't aligned with the Communists, and he had not yet identified himself as a Marxist. He was simply a patriot leading a homegrown movement for justice. It was justice, and not a political creed, that attracted my father and like-minded young Cubans. Castro promised to deliver the nation from foreign and criminal bondage. That was the sum of my father's political ideology.

When the Fidelistas fought their way out of the mountains and were bearing down on Havana, my father joined their ranks, engaging in fire-fights and other forms of combat. So did thousands of other young professional-class Cubans: teachers and students, businessmen and lawyers, engineers and physicians. It was not an easy decision. Although they were upholding the highest national values, they were also turning against their own vested interests. They sacrificed their wealth, comfort, and, in many cases, their lives.

My father told me stories about the war. Once he was with Che Guevara when Che left a group of wounded enemies to die in the broiling sun without water. A comrade suggested that shooting the prisoners would be merciful. Che shook his head. "These gusanos (worms) have nothing to give the revolution but their blood." And then, my father said, Guevara ordered his troops to slit the prisoners' throats.

During the campaign, my father would preside over battlefield trials of suspected war criminals. One such prisoner was a former aide to Batista, a man responsible for the deaths of many innocent people. The evidence was unequivocal. My father, acting as judge, proclaimed him guilty and sentenced him to death by firing squad. Although the man's guilt was beyond question, the execution haunted my father for years afterward. Finally, just a few years ago, he told the entire story to a priest from the village where the condemned man lived. The priest confirmed that the man had been guilty of the war crimes. That finally put my father's mind to rest.

But at the time, in the 1950s, such incidents were swept up in the tide of war. When the professionals of my father's class fell in with Castro, they helped transform the heroic cadres of campesinos in the Sierra Maestra into a legitimate military and political force, an urbanized, organized movement. On January 1, 1959, the rebels rolled triumphantly down the streets of Havana. Batista departed Cuba in disgrace, along with the mobsters, pimps, and bagmen. Cuba's honor was restored--or so it seemed for a brief, shining moment. I was an 18-month-old child at the time, too young to recall the events, but perhaps the din and clamor of the revolution worked their way into my dreams.

The rebels were now in power. A skilled structural engineer, a man of formidable energy and organizational abilities, my father quickly rose to the new government's top tier of management. He pledged himself to enact the ideals that Castro had championed. Besides being patriotic, my father was driven by a sort of chivalrous impulse, the hunger to subsume himself both to a noble cause and to a leader he trusted and admired. I understand this impulse well. Many years later, I would pledge loyalty to a leader whose vision and talents were, in their way, as far reaching as Castro's: Phil Knight, the genius behind Nike, a company that has achieved its own sort of global revolution.

My father helped design 49 projects for the revolutionary government, including apartment houses, office buildings, and hotels. He worked with energy and conviction, living out his belief that now, free of foreign control, all Cuban citizens could achieve dignity and prosperity. Increasingly, however, the new government's leaders, especially Fidel and Che, did not always work in that same disinterested, democratic spirit. Instead, with dismaying speed, they were evolving into doctrinaire Marxists largely controlled by the Soviet Union.

I'm not trying to make a political point here. I know that many say that Castro only turned to the Soviet camp because of the hostility of the US government. And many people contend that despite its failures and excesses, the socialist revolution has been of great overall benefit to the Cuban people. But my father saw events firsthand and reached a different conclusion. His disillusionment culminated about 8 months into his employment with the government, when he drew up plans for a project especially dear to him: a church building that would serve the residents of a small town in the countryside.

Normally, my father's superiors were enthusiastic about his work and approved his plans without comment. But not this time. The plans for the church came back across my father's desk, rejected, with a terse note of explanation from Che Guevara himself: "There is no room for God in the revolution." My father appealed to Fidel Castro himself, who upheld Che's decision, confirming the edict that religion had no role in the new national order.

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