Rome via Eighth Avenue

While Jumper John Thomas was setting a world record at the Millrose Games, Jim Grelle made the mile look easy
February 08, 1960

As miles go, the American one is good enough: 5,280 feet, 1,760 yards, 1:36[1/5] on a good day at Hialeah. It stacks up pretty well inch for inch with anybody else's mile. The trouble is that Americans can't seem to run these 5,280 feet as fast as foreigners do. American milers are patronized by distance runners from other countries and looked upon with a certain mixture of sympathy and embarrassment here at home.

If the United States made a habit of producing poor hammer throwers, somehow we would all find a way to survive; it is always possible to explain, with proper modesty, of course, that one can hardly be expected to excel in everything. The hammer throw can even be ignored, although ignoring hammer throwers themselves might present something of a problem. It is impossible, however, to ignore the mile. This Everest of track events is always there, fascinating, demanding, challenging, and about all we have been able to do in recent years is admit that we've been lousy in it. But take it from Jim Grelle, things are going to change.

"Dyrol Burleson," says Grelle, "can beat Herb Elliott right now."

Grelle, it should be explained, is a miler himself, and not a lunatic, no matter what he says. He's a pleasant fellow of 23, blond and boyish and slightly emaciated, as any good distance runner should be. A graduate student in business at the University of Oregon, he is America's least-known good runner, having won the U.S. Russia dual-meet 1,500 meters in 1958, the NCAA mile last year and a handful of other well-regarded events. In fact, only three Americans—Don Bowden (our only sub-four-minute miler), Wes Santee and Fred Dwyer—have ever run a faster mile than Grelle's 4:01. Jim's trouble is that when he runs, people always seem to be looking at something else: Don Bragg pole-vaulting or John Thomas high-jumping or some babe in Bermuda shorts walking down the next aisle.

Last Saturday night, in the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden in New York, Grelle did it again. While the crowd watched Bragg as he worked his way up toward 16 feet (he eventually missed, brushing the bar with his chest) and Thomas as he threatened to jump all the way out into Eighth Avenue (he finally missed, too, after raising his world indoor record to 7 feet 1½ inches), Jim Grelle won the famed Wanamaker Mile. Perhaps not in the overpowering tradition of Ron Delany or Don Gehrmann, who each won it four years in a row, or Glenn Cunningham, who won it six times in all, or even those occasional winners, Venzke and Fenske. But for a guy whose name doesn't rhyme too easily ("fella" is the closest he can get), Grelle did a pretty good job.

OVERHAULING THE POLICEMAN

Concerned only with Ed Moran, the ex-Penn Stater who won at Washington a week before and who has done 4:01.7 outdoors himself, and Phil Coleman, the Illinois English teacher who won the season opener at Boston, Grelle stayed back in the field during the early laps. He is not an effortless runner, but neither is he a struggling one. Jim Grelle just runs along, in a pleasant sort of way, and eventually, when the time comes, he takes off. That is what happened in the Millrose Games.

Moran led the pack through a fair 61.2 quarter and an ordinary 2:04.1 half. Hippity-hippity-hop came Grelle. Then Coleman, who is called the policeman because he refuses to let these indoor miles get too slow, moved into the lead and hit the three quarters in 3:06.8. Loping along came Grelle. Then the three leaders came down the straight leading into the final lap—and zoom went Grelle. He jumped ahead of Moran as the gun for the last lap went off, passed Coleman at the end of the straight and whirled around to win by two yards. The time was 4:06.4., better than three of Delany's four winning efforts, better than any of Gehrmann's or Cunningham's, and fourth-best in Millrose history. The crowd took its eyes off Bragg and Thomas long enough to applaud politely.

"I've got a blister on my left foot," said Grelle in the cavernous basement beneath the Garden where he was cooling off. "I guess my shoe was too loose." The time? "Well, I was hoping it would be a little faster." Why didn't he go out early and set a faster pace? "I don't feel safe out front." Was he pleased? "Yeah, I guess I'm pleased. You can't do any better than win."

Despite his victory Saturday night, however, and the ones which came before, Jim Grelle is more famous for not winning. He ran fourth (4:01.7) behind Herb Elliott's 3:57.9, then a world record, in the National AAU at Bakersfield in 1958; he ran fourth (4:01) behind Dan Waern's 3:59.2 in Sweden last summer; and two years in a row he finished second to Delany in the NCAA mile. Yet when Grelle speaks of the future of American mile running his voice rings with authority, for he is the world's greatest living expert on the back of Dyrol Burleson's neck. Grelle has run second to Oregon's 19-year-old whiz kid so many times in the last year that he is beginning to lose count.

"Well, it's not really that bad," he says. "I think I can beat him. After all, I'm the only one who has beaten him since he has been in college. But I'm going to have to get in awfully good shape."

BOWERMAN'S BOYS

There is no envy between these two prize pupils of Bill Bowerman, the Oregon coaching genius who previously produced Ken Reiser, Jim Bailey and Bill Dellinger; they are not only teammates but friends, and the rivalry arises only when they step on a track. No one is more impressed by the credentials of the big, powerful Burleson than Grelle. As a 17-year-old, Dyrol set a national interscholastic record of 4:13.2. As a college freshman last year he won at the Drake and Modesto relays, at the National AAU championships, at the U.S.-Russian meet in Philadelphia. This season he won the Sugar Bowl mile, and in his first try indoors, at the opening of the new Los Angeles Sports Arena (SI, Feb. 1), he beat a field which included Dan Waern.

"That boy," said Waern, "will be in the finals of the Olympic 1,500 meters at Rome."

"At the finish," says Grelle, "he may be out in front."

Jim waves aside the fact that Burleson has never run the mile faster than 4:06. "With Burley," says Grelle, "you can throw out the clock. Time doesn't mean a thing. He runs to win. And he's never been pushed.

"Look how young he is and the way he improves. He's chopping off about six seconds every year. Coach has been taking it easy with him; you don't want to push a boy along too fast, even one as strong as Burley. That's why he didn't send him to the Millrose Games. If he had made one of the European trips last year he would have been under four minutes by now. He'll run it this year. So will I. Anybody who makes the Olympic team is going to have to run the equivalent of a four-minute mile. I tell you, he's going to set a world record some day.

"You wouldn't believe some of the things he has already done. One day in practice Burley told Bowerman he wanted to run a four-minute mile. So Coach went along with him; gave him a half-miler to pace him the first 880 and another one to pace him the second. Everything went fine through the first half, but the second pacesetter took off like he was running a quarter. Burley tried to stay with him, without overdoing it, but when he began to fall behind he decided he must be running too slow. So he said what the heck and dropped out with half a lap to go. His time was 3:26. For 3½ laps. I don't think anyone has ever done that before. He would have been way under four.

"And he's a smart runner, too. He's never foolish, he's never made a mistake in a race; he has a perfect mind for the mile. Terrific confidence. At Bakersfield, when he was 18 and just out of high school, he went out to beat Elliott in the AAU. Oh, I guess if he had to bet, he would have wanted some odds, but Burley really thought he might beat him."

The one race which Burleson lost to Grelle was in the Oregon AAU. Neither wanted to go out ahead, and both dawdled off the pace. Finally it came down to the stretch, and Grelle outsprinted Burleson and won. The time was 4:06.7.

"The time wasn't too good," says Grelle, "but I'm as proud of that race as any I've ever run, maybe prouder. Because I did beat him and that's the idea in track, to win."

"I'M GOING TO BE A LOT BETTER"

Grelle is well aware of Burleson's great strength and the remarkable finishing kick the young miler has turned on to win most of his races. But Grelle also thinks he is every bit as fast as Burleson. Maybe faster.

"Not last year," he says. "I wasn't working hard enough. For one thing, I didn't want to get tired of running and wear myself out the year before the Olympics. But I'm working hard now, harder than I ever have. I'm going to be a lot better this year."

Actually, Burleson and Grelle may not compete against each other very many times this year, since Bill Bowerman would prefer that they run different events. For example, at Los Angeles, while Burleson was winning the mile, Grelle was breezing to a very impressive victory in the 1,000. And that is all right with Grelle, too.

"If we run the same race," he says, "we can't both win. So I'm thinking about working on the steeplechase. What I would really like to do is hit the Olympic qualifying times in the half, the mile and the steeplechase. Then I can decide later which event to go after at the final Olympic trials."

An innovation for the 1960 Games, the Olympic qualifying rules allow each nation one automatic entrant in every track and field event. A nation may enter as many as three in each event, provided all three achieve certain minimum standards. This is to keep the huge entry list from becoming cluttered with a flock of 5-foot high jumpers—or five-minute milers. The standards in Grelle's events are 1:49.8 for the 880, 4:02 for the mile, 8:55 for the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

"I can do the half any day I decide to go out and try it, I'm sure," Grelle says. "All you have to do is run the qualifying time once in a recognized meet. The mile I know I'll hit early in the season. I don't know about the steeplechase; I'll have to find out.

"But if I do all right, then I think the steeplechase it will be. In the mile, there's Burley. In the 880, there's too many other guys these days who can go too fast. But if I run the steeplechase, maybe Burley and I can both win gold medals at Rome."

REUNION IN ROME
If Grelle does make it to Rome, he will see a number of other young men who were present at the Millrose Games: Thomas, of course, and Charley Dumas; Bragg and Bob Gutowski; Hayes Jones, who tied the 60-yard indoor hurdle record of 7 seconds flat, and Lee Calhoun; Tom Murphy, who won the half-mile; and surely Al Lawrence and Mai Spence, although at Rome both the little Australian, who turned in a brilliant three-mile, and the Jamaican, who ran off with the Mel Sheppard 600, will be part of the opposition. But it's beginning to look as if the U.S. would bring home a good many medals anyway. Particularly if Grelle and Burleson are as good as Grelle says.

PHOTOSPECTACULAR JUMP by Thomas broke record, was his seventh over seven feet. THREE PHOTOSLAYING BACK IN LAST PLACE DURING THE EARLY LAPS (LEFT), JIM GRELLE LETS ED MORAN SET PACE, WAITS UNTIL START OF FINAL LAP TO CHALLENGE PHIL COLEMAN (CENTER), AT FINISH IS AHEAD OF COLEMAN BY TWO YARDS IN GOOD TIME OF 4:06.4 (RIGHT)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)