World Champion Miler Mary Decker Settled for a Tie—with Marathoner Ron Tabb

UPDATED 05/03/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/03/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

He doesn't like her dog. She thinks he's "at times a little pigheaded and doesn't give in enough." She says he rarely cleans the bathroom. He jokingly calls it "woman's work." Happily, though, they have one overarching interest: Mary Decker, 23, is the women's world record holder in the indoor mile, and her husband, Ron Tabb, 27, is a top marathoner. They met a year ago when Ron, having moved to Eugene, Oreg., the training mecca for top U.S. runners, was out partying and decided to knock on the door of her house. "It was 11 p.m. and I thought he was nuts," says Mary. "But I had nothing going on that night, so we went out dancing and drinking." One thing led to another—she forgot her keys and spent the night at his place—and within six months they were married. Now they're together almost 24 hours a day. "Everybody says a relationship as close as ours won't work," says Tabb, "but I love our togetherness. I really miss Mary when she goes shopping."

That togetherness is often on display—most recently last week, when Mary flew cross-country to cheer Ron in his fourth Boston Marathon. With Mary watching on TV from their hotel, Ron began well. But at the halfway mark he had to quit when his legs gave out: He had failed to break in his new running shoes properly. "Mary was visibly disappointed when I came in," he says. "She knew how important this was to me." Says Mary: "I felt so helpless. There's nothing you can do." (World record holder Alberto Salazar won the race in 2:08.51.)

More often it is Decker who is in the spotlight; she holds world indoor records in the 800-, 880-, 1,000-and 3,000-meter runs, as well as the mile. She set her first mile mark at a Los Angeles meet in January when, emerging from a 17-month layoff caused by recurring injuries, she beat the previous record by nearly four seconds. Three weeks later she bettered her own record by 3.13 seconds, with a time of 4:21.47—and one week after that ran a 4:20.5 mile in San Diego.

Decker credits her success to a newfound stamina traceable in part to her twice-daily runs with Ron. "When I go hard in a workout, my butt gets sore," she said after the L.A. meet. "But now nothing hurts." She's also gained a needed measure of restraint. Says her coach, Dick Brown: "She and Ron are both aggressive and tend to overtrain. But somehow they manage to slow each other down. Their training and racing schedule is much more intelligent now." Mary's also less driven off the track than she used to be. Says Houston businessman Craig Christopher, Tabb's best chum: "Each makes the other a better person. They're still very independent, but they both realize they have to give a little."

Mary has been running since she was 11. Her father, a tool-and-die maker, took his wife and four children from New Jersey to California in 1968, finally settling in the L.A. suburb of Garden Grove. A year later Mary won a cross-country race sponsored by the local parks department. A track coach took an interest in her, and she began working out daily and racing constantly. Soon she was beset by injuries. At 12, she ran four races in one weekend—a 440, an 880, a mile and a two-mile—and wound up Monday morning having an appendectomy. At 15, she set a world indoor record in the 880 but shortly after suffered a stress fracture (shin splint) in one leg, which kept her out of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In 1977 radiographic studies showed shin splints in both legs, and she spent 10 weeks in casts. Still the pain persisted. "At one point," she remembers, "I was taking 12 aspirins a day. Finally the pain got so bad I had to grit my teeth. I couldn't walk. Sometimes I felt hopeless and I wanted to punch something."

Then she met Dick Quax, a lanky New Zealander who had won a silver medal in the 5,000 meters in Montreal. He became her coach—and her boy-friend. At his suggestion she had operations on the sheaths surrounding her calf muscles, which were too small and stiff for the muscles to expand. It worked: Her pain faded, and in 1980 Decker set records in the 800 and 1,500 meters, as well as in the outdoor mile. That year, too, she and Quax broke up. She still sees him at practice in Eugene, but they don't speak. "I wish it were friendlier, but that's the way it is," says Mary.

For Tabb, the son of a Lexington, Mo. carpenter, injuries were never the problem—his size was. As a 5'4", 95-pound high schooler, he was too small for most sports. He played sophomore football and recalls being "a dummy holder who got hammered all the time by a 200-pound fullback. He ran over the dummy and me." He later took up cross-country running and eventually earned a scholarship to Central Missouri State University.

There, while rising to 103 pounds (he now weighs 115 and stands 5'6"), Tabb broke every school record from the mile to the 10,000 meters. But he quit before graduating and moved to Houston, where he installed roof gutters for a living and trained as a marathoner. In 1978 he won the Houston Marathon with the world-class time of 2:17, then six days later won in New Orleans in 2:22. Most marathoners rest at least a month between races and run only two or three of the 26.2-mile events a year.

In 1980, his best year so far, Tabb won in New Orleans in the blazing time of 2:11 and was ranked seventh in the U.S. by Track and Field News, the runners' bible. At present he's ranked tenth. Characteristically, Ron was scheduled to run in Montreal the day after he and Mary were married in Eugene. After flying all night, they arrived two hours before the race. "I was so tired, I didn't have the slightest idea where I was on the course," says Ron. Still, he finished in 2:27.

In their daily runs Mary and Ron do speed work in the morning and distance later. They are financially comfortable, thanks to the relaxed amateur rules that allow them to be paid in various indirect ways. This season Mary has earned $10,150 on the Mobil circuit and another $9,000 by tying for top honors on the Jean Naté circuit. They both are subsidized by running-shoe companies. Ron drives a Porsche and Mary a VW Rabbit. "Everything just clicks," says Ron. "We met at a time when we were both looking for the same things in life." He's even taken care of their "dog problem." A couple of weeks before the Boston Marathon he got Mary to send little Jake to live with his mother in Missouri. Says he: "I'm content."

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