Murray Halberg, an almost painfully thin New Zealander with cool light-blue eyes under pale bushy eyebrows, had just won a two-mile race in the Los Angeles Times indoor track meet. Now, a few minutes later, he seemed completely rested. He had run a hard, driving first mile in 4 minutes 13 seconds, leaving the other competitors (including Canada's Bruce Kidd) far behind. The second mile was much slower as Halberg tired. It was not a typical Halberg race at all. He usually wins his races on his finishing kick.
Someone asked him why he had run the first quarter mile in 60.3 seconds, a violent tempo for so long a race. "I hoped to do it under 60," Halberg said. "Most Yanks don't like a fast early pace, you know. Then later in the race it gives me a chance to use my strength and they can't use their speed." Halberg's time in the two-mile was a very respectable 8:42.5, well off his own indoor record but good enough to set a meet and an arena record.
Before the evening was over, a small Yank with Halbergian stamina and even more speed disproved Halberg's theory of American distance runners. Jim Beatty, running with three of his Los Angeles Track Club teammates and with outsider Peter Close, broke the American indoor mile record in a typically meticulous race planned almost to the second by his coach, Mihaly Igloi. Beatty broke the record held by Ron Delany by 2.5 seconds, running the world's first sub-four-minute indoor mile in 3:58.9.
Said Peter Snell, Halberg's countryman, who broke his third record in two weeks at this same meet, "I'm glad I was not in that mile. I don't think I would do so well on the boards." Snell had lowered Herb Elliott's outdoor mile record two weeks ago, running in 3:54.4.
Snell was sitting in the stands with his coach, Arthur Lydiard, and Halberg during Beatty's mile run. Earlier, he had run 1,000 yards in 2:06, breaking the indoor record in this event by 1.9 seconds in his first attempt at running indoors on a wooden track. In the morning, when he had gone to the Los Angeles Sports Arena for his first look at a wooden track, he had been much amused. "I got a bit of a laugh," he said. "It looked so like a big table."
Snell had trouble twice in his race. Both times it was with the track. He is a big half-miler and the tight turns sent him skidding off balance so that he almost broke stride. Like Halberg, he went into the lead at once, set a withering pace for the first half while he built up a tremendous lead, then hung on grimly to protect most of that lead to the finish. En route to the 1,000-yard record, he broke the indoor record for the half mile by a tenth of a second, passing that point in his race in 1:50.2. Unfortunately, this cannot be recognized, since the officials at this meet had only one timer catching him at the half-mile post. It had seemed a most remote possibility that even so strong a runner as Snell could break the world record for the 880 while en route to victory in the 1,000.
Snell, of course, represents almost a new breed of runner. The day of this meet Lydiard sat at breakfast with Bill Bowerman, the fine coach of the Oregon University team, and discussed Snell. "He is a big man," Lydiard said. "Like all big men it is very difficult for him to reach the condition of a smaller man. You've heard how he cried for the last mile of his first 20-mile run because it hurt him so much. But when you work a big man into his condition he will always beat a small man, even in running, and where many runners pull a blue on Peter, they think he is only a powerful runner. He has very good speed, too. He can run the 100 in 10 seconds. I try to give him stamina so that he will be even at the chalk and can spring in with that fine speed."
Because he was unfamiliar with the tight indoor track, Snell did not choose to lie back in the traffic of the pack in this race. He is not a graceful runner; he has a rather lumbering stride and he carries his hands very low—which makes him look awkward. But Lydiard was right: Snell does have extraordinary speed for a distance runner, as he proved in the opening laps of this race. He would very likely have had it in the closing laps as well had it not been for the rather strenuous life he and Halberg had led for the 48 hours just preceding the meet. They left Auckland, New Zealand, flew for 20 of the next 25 hours (they spent a five-hour layover in Hawaii sightseeing), then slept briefly at the Sheraton West Hotel in Los Angeles. On Saturday they limbered up on the board track briefly, retired to the hotel, then walked through a steady rain shopping until it was time for them to eat and go out to the arena again.
The meet's other record breaker finished the mile still strong and full of running. Jim Beatty sprinted the last three laps of this race, opening a huge lead over teammate Jim Grelle, who finished in 4:07.1. "I was worried before the race," Beatty said. He is a small man, not at all the model of the large runner Lydiard had talked about at breakfast that morning. "This track psyches me, and I worried about it being slow and about my not being able to run well on it. I knew I was ready to run under four minutes. I think I might have done 3:57 if we had done the three quarters in 2:58, like Igloi wanted us to."
Three weeks ago a flurry of newspaper stories said Beatty would run the first sub-four-minute mile indoors at the Los Angeles Invitational meet on this same track on Jan. 20. The stories irritated Igloi, who called Beatty to his apartment. "I show him the book," Igloi recalled after the race. He was sipping a white wine at a Hungarian restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, the scene of a victory party for the Los Angeles Track Club in celebration of Beatty's record mile. It is called the Sunshine, a name that seemed peculiarly inappropriate on the night of Los Angeles' worst rain in six years.
"The book is the book I keep on all my athletes," Igloi went on. "In this book, I have written down that Beatty cannot run better than four minute two or three seconds at that time in late January. I show him that he will run under four minutes indoors between February 10 and February 20. I show him the time I have write down."
Beatty, drinking a beer and eating Hungarian goulash, broke in. "He wrote down 3:58.8 for February 10," he said. "That's almost what I ran tonight."
Igloi may have underestimated Beatty. As originally planned—and this attack on the indoor mile record was very carefully planned—the Los Angeles Track Club runners were to pass the three-quarter-mile mark in 2:58, with Jim Grelle setting the pace at that point. Then the rains came. "It started to rain Wednesday," Beatty said. "We had finished our heavy training and we would have sharpened up Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. But we couldn't work the way we wanted to. It threw the timing off a little."
Laszlo Tabori led for the first two laps of the race. Tabori, who has been running for Igloi for many years, has a built-in stop watch; probably no other runner in the world today can run as close to a prescribed time for a quarter mile as he can. Beatty took the lead from him just as they finished the first quarter. Igloi had wanted a 59-second first quarter and Tabori ran it in 59.1.
Beatty kept the lead for the next quarter; the lack of sharpening work did not show here, because he turned the half-mile in 1:59.6, only 1.5 seconds off Igloi's schedule, and Beatty does not have the same innate sense of pace that Tabori has. Going into the third quarter of the mile, Jim Grelle, who had upset Dyrol Burleson in a mile race in Portland, Ore. the week before this meet, took the lead. ("You knew we were shooting for a record when I took the lead then," Grelle said later, grinning. "I don't jump into a lead at the half.")
Grelle led the field around two laps, with Beatty hanging close to his heels, the rest of the field dropping far back. As they went into the eighth lap (11 laps to a mile on this track), he fled past Grelle in a few strides, then began to pull away rapidly. Los Angeles fans are informed track spectators, and at this meet, as at most meets in this area, the public address announcer was a track expert who called lap times during the race. As Beatty moved out, the full house began a steady, mounting roar that grew and grew as it became clearly apparent that Beatty's sprint would continue to the tape. When Beatty finished the race almost everyone in the arena knew that he had broken four minutes. When they heard his time, they howled.
"This is not best," Igloi said that night at the Hungarian restaurant. "This I think is near best for indoor mile at this time in training schedule. Could be much better if he ran indoors in June, when he is at peak."
"What will he run outdoors in June?" someone asked.
"Between 3:51 and 3:53," Igloi said. "Vorld record. First quarter, 56 or 57. The half mile, 1:54, 1:55. The three-quarter, 2:54. Then the last quarter mile 58, 59 second. Vorld record."
Beatty leaned across his wife to shake hands with Igloi. It was a rather formal handshake. "That's the first time he ever shook my hand after a race," Jim said. "I've waited a long time for this."
"I don't shake hand for win," Igloi said. "I tell him only for vorld record."
If Mihaly Igloi's book is as accurate in June as it was in February, Beatty should get another handshake then, unless Peter Snell has run the 3:48 mile his coach thinks he can. Beatty may get a handshake anyway. This is one good little man who may be capable of beating a good big man.