The slender runner moving steadily around the track looked faintly comic. A knitted red cap was pulled over his ears, and the white sleeves of an overlarge undershirt showed beneath his uniform. His face, as the race went on, turned peaked and cold from the damp, gusty wind whipping across the track, but the steady rhythm of his running never faltered. When the gun cracked to signal the final lap, Al Lawrence found a hitherto untapped source of strength. He sprinted the last quarter mile, to the delight of the handful of people huddled last week in Houston's Jeppesen High School Stadium, and with a time of 29:36.4 broke the U.S. record for the 10,000-meter run.
Twelve days earlier before a huge crowd in New York's Madison Square Garden, this same Lawrence, an Australian who runs for the University of Houston, provided the single biggest thrill of the indoor track season when he completely overpowered his opposition in the National AAU three-mile run and shattered the indoor world record by almost 11 full seconds (SI, Feb. 29). His remarkable performances, indoors and out, helped to focus attention on the fact that at the Olympics in Rome this summer Australia may well have the individual favorite in three of the classic distance races: Herb Elliott in the 1,500, Albert Thomas in the 5,000 and Al Lawrence in the 10,000.
At Houston last week, during his record-breaking race, Lawrence also broke the U.S. records for the four-, five-and six-mile runs. And still the little Australian was disappointed.
"I might have done better except for the wind," he said. "And I miscounted a lap, too."
March 14, 1960
Lawrence set his records in a meet especially arranged by Houston Track Coach Johnny Morriss so that Lawrence could run the 10,000 meters under conditions which would allow his time to be certified as qualification for the Olympics. (The qualifying time is 29:40; Lawrence was almost 4 seconds better than that.)
Lawrence was third in the 1956 Olympic 10,000, and his goal now is to run both the 5,000 and the 10,000 meters in Rome. He left Houston last Saturday on a 9,500-mile trip to Australia to make good his bid for a place on the Australian team; he'll run at Melbourne next weekend and at Sydney on March 19 and return to school on March 21.
THE AUSSIE CHAPS
"The chaps I must run against are Albert Thomas, Dave Power and Bob Vagg," he said the day after his race in Houston. He was in a small apartment he shares with two other Australian runners, Barry Almond and Pat Clohessy. "They're due for a bit of a surprise," he went on. "I was a sitter when I used to run in Australia. It was only after Coach here gave me confidence that I began to run from the front."
"They used to shout at him in Australia," Almond said. "You know how those chaps are. They want to make sure that everyone in a race is doing his share of the work. They'd yell 'Take a lap, Al,' meaning he should lead the field for a lap. But he never would."
"I had to run my race," Lawrence said seriously. "I was a bit afraid of them. No confidence. I'm a better runner now for learning to run in front. I believe I can beat those chaps now."
Those chaps include the world three-mile record holder in Thomas.
"Thomas is a complete athlete," Lawrence said. "He's a smashing runner at the 5,000 meters and the 10,000, too. He can run and win from behind the pack, in the middle or in front. He has a very nasty finish."
He thought about Thomas' nasty finish for a moment, his thin, bony face very serious.
"I'm used to nasty finishers," he went on. "The American chaps all seem to have great kicks. I lost a few races when I first came over because I tried to sit behind and outkick them. Finally Coach told me that I must draw their sting with a hot early pace, and I began to win. You see, I do not have good essential speed. I must make it up in strength and endurance. And mental strength."
A typical week for Lawrence goes like this: Monday, four one-mile runs, with a lap of jogging in between, aiming at 4:35 to 4:45 for each mile; Tuesday, 15 to 20 220s, 330s or 440s on grass; Wednesday, 16 to 20 220s or 12 to 15 440s, whichever he feels like; Thursday, 6 to 8 miles of cross-country jogging; Friday, relaxed jogging, as long as he wants to, on grass.
Often Lawrence gets up at 6 to run a few miles on grass before breakfast. During the off season, he works over long distances, as much as 15 or 20 miles, to build his endurance.
"You must use your training to build your mental toughness, too," Lawrence said. "We know that before a muscle quits, the mind quits. You can't force yourself to run to utter exhaustion. But you have to refuse to admit you're ready to quit. I keep hounding myself when I'm running, especially when I get a bit tired. I call myself a gutless dog. I do that in training. I push myself hard, recover, then push hard again. You have to. You have to punish yourself."
Someone asked him if it was worth all that pain, and he smiled.
"Back home the way things are, a guy like me, whose parents are not particularly well off, he gets in a dead end when he finishes school," Lawrence said. "A little job, no place to go, no escape. So you run because of the excitement. Even the setbacks you run into at first are better than the monotony of a job. Then it becomes a habit. It's the way I live. I'm used to it now."
Lawrence came to the U.S. after mentioning to John Landy, the great Australian miler, that he would like to study radio and TV in America and do a bit of running. "I wanted a warm climate, like Sydney's," Lawrence said. Landy wrote to Fred Wilt, the American runner, Wilt wrote to Johnny Morriss, and in September 1958, Lawrence and Clohessy matriculated at Houston. Almond followed in January.
"I'm very lucky," Lawrence said. "Morriss has done a great deal for me. Aside from building up my confidence he taught me to use a sprinter's technique in the last 300 or 400 yards of a race. You have a tendency when you're tired to lengthen your stride and lean back, and you lose your drive. Coach taught me to drive more with my arms and to shorten my stride and lean forward."
Lawrence and Morriss conferred briefly the day before he left for Australia.
"Don't try to work too hard the first two days you're there," Morriss said. "Don't blow it by hurting yourself. And take some Feen-a-Mints with you. Don't get all tied up on the plane ride. Keep your bowels open."
"Don't worry, Coach," Lawrence said.
"Remember," Morriss said. "You can beat them. You're 15 seconds faster than you were when you came here."
"I know, Coach," Lawrence said.
"Don't lay too far off the pace," Morriss said. "Don't be afraid to run from the front." He looked worried.
"I won't Coach," Lawrence said. He didn't look at all worried.