Never before had one country swept the medals in a major championship marathon – not at the Olympic Games, nor at the fledgling World Athletics Championships nor even at the European Athletics Championships – until the Spanish trio of Martin Fiz, Diego Garcia and Alberto Juzdado made history in Helsinki.
Nor was it a coincidence. The trio had trained together for several months prior to the 1994 European Athletics Championships, were firm friends and were determined that in the first continental championship after the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games that they would capitalise on the momentum, confidence and inspiration from two years before that permeated Spanish athletics.
Already there had been Spanish success in the Finnish capital with Fermin Cacho adding a European 1500m title to his Olympic crown and Abel Anton, soon to be a major name in the marathon himself, taking the 10,000m gold medal.
However, on the last day of the championships, the marathon men added lustre to the already impressive Spanish medal tally.
The gun went off at 9.30am local time in the Finnish capital and the consensus was that it was going to be an open race with few obvious favourites although the usual suspects from the Portugal – which included Manuel Matias, the fastest man in the race with a best of 2:08:33 having won the Jeonju Marathon in Korea earlier in the year – and Italian squads were augmented by the likes that the two most recent individual winners of the IAAF World Marathon Cup, Russia’s Yakov Tolstikov and Great Britain’s Richard Nerurkar were on the start line.
Few pundits on the day thought that the championship record of 2:10:54, which had belonged to Italy’s Gelindo Bordin since 1986, was in danger owing to the thermometer reading 20 degrees Celsius and around 80 per cent humidity.
Nevertheless, the pace was more than respectable during the first half of the race and a bunch of 25 athletes passed together through the halfway point in 1:06:08.
However, the heat and humidity soon started to take its toll. By 30km, the leading pack was down to just five men, the three Spaniards and the Portuguese pair of Antonio Pinto – who was to win European gold over 10,000m in 1998 and set a European marathon in 2000 – and Antonio Rodrigues.
This quintet, with Spanish record holder Fiz driving the leading group from the front, went through 30km in 1:33:20 and it started to seem like the championship record might yet fall to the winner despite the unhelpful conditions.
But who was it going to be?
Shortly after the 30km checkpoint, Garcia attacked and only his two compatriots followed him. The race then turned into a war of attrition between the three amigos.
Juzdado was the first to fall out of gold medal contention, drifting back after Fiz attacked at 38 kilometres. Garcia realised he was going to have to settle for silver with barely a kilometre to go after Fiz surged again with Helsinki’s famous Olympic Stadium – which had heralded the triumphs of Emil Zatopek 42 years earlier – in sight.
Fiz came home in a championship record of 2:10:31, taking 23 seconds off Bordin’s mark. The time was to remain as the championship standard until Belgium’s Koen Naert broke it two years ago when he crossed the line in Berlin in 2:09:51.
Garcia finished 15 seconds in arrears and then the pair famously stayed just behind the line waiting for Juzdado while catching their breath, Fiz pointing to the stadium door as Juzdado arrived before they dropped to their knees to greet their team mate as he took the bronze in 2:11:18.
“It was a dream, because we thought we were going to do well but it never occurred to us that we would all be on the podium. We were very close. There were three of us but we were one in so many ways, we were a gang,” recalled Fiz last year on the 25th anniversary of their triumph.
“We trained together in Navacerrada [about 60 kilometres north of Madrid] for several months. Diego was the hardest worker, he would sometimes do up to 260 kilometres a week, even though we were running in the mountains at up to 2000 metres. Alberto and I were more likely to do 180-200 kilometres.
“And it was Diego who motivated us,” added Fiz, paying tribute to his compatriot who tragically died in 2001 from a cardiac arrest while out running.
“I knew Helsinki as I had been there and won on my marathon debut the year before (Fiz’s 1993 time of 2:12:47 remains the event best) and I felt in good form after our preparations.
“However, the Spanish media had been dismissive of our chances. The day before Diego said to us, ‘Listen do you know what they are saying about us? They are saying we are tourists! Well, let’s take a souvenir back to Spain.'”
In the end, the trio took back something much more valuable and permanent from their trip to Finland than just a Lapp hat or Moomin troll doll.