Jim Beatty, mature and confident, relaxed on his bed in a Chicago hotel last week and made this statement: "I would like to set a new indoor record in the two-mile. I feel the record should belong to an American." So saying, Beatty arose, changed into his track clothes, hustled over to Chicago Stadium and, as advertised, broke New Zealander Murray Halberg's indoor two-mile record by nearly four seconds. In doing so Beatty, who also holds the indoor mile and outdoor two-mile records, proved what many have long suspected, that he is the best distance runner in the world.
Tom O'Hara, young and shy, was also in Chicago last week. O'Hara runs the mile, and his performances this winter have made him the most sensational discovery of the indoor season. O'Hara made no statement before his race last week—he wouldn't have dared. He simply showed up at Chicago Stadium and won the mile in 3:59.5, his second sub-four-minute mile this winter.
Beatty is a bright old name, O'Hara a bright new one. Together they give the U.S. two outstanding middle-distance runners. The U.S. has not won an Olympic 1,500-meter race since 1908, and it has never won a 5,000-meter race, but those who saw Beatty and O'Hara in Chicago last week would be willing to bet that one and perhaps both of them will win a gold medal in 1964.
Beatty's record run in Chicago was more of an exhibition than a race, for despite the presence of Canada's youthful distance star, Bruce Kidd, there-was only temporary doubt as to who would win. Beatty finished the first mile in 4:13.5. (Less than 10 years ago Wes Santee won the mile race in Chicago in 4:11.8.) He finished the two miles in 8:30.7. At the end Kidd was 120 yards back, and Beatty was running with only the cheers of the crowd to urge him on. "I might have done it even faster if someone had been able to push me at the end," Beatty said when the race was over. It evidently did not occur to him that this was nearly impossible.
March 18, 1963
Whereas Beatty ran by himself, young Tom O'Hara had plenty of company. Also in the race were Jim Grelle, a teammate of Beatty who last year in London ran a 3:56.7 mile, and Bill Dotson, another sub-four-minute miler. The three were bunched closely for most of the first three quarters. But with two laps to go, late by prerace plans, O'Hara took off. "I knew the time was slow and that I'd have to go all out," he said after the race. O'Hara opened a lead of four yards and held it. Grelle was second, Dotson third. Both finished in 3:59.8, the first time three runners in the same indoor race have ever run under four minutes.
On inspection, Tom O'Hara, who is now only 20, looks incapable of jogging once around the block. A student at Loyola of Chicago, he is a frail boy, only 5 feet 9 and 130 pounds, with light-red hair and a chalky-white skin that suggests sickness. While he talks he often holds his arms as if shivering. He walks with a slight stoop. Somewhere within him lies a well of determination, but no trace of it appears on the surface. His expression is bewildered and friendly.
O'Hara ran his first sub-four-minute mile at the New York Athletic Club meet a month ago, pushing Beatty to a new indoor record of 3:58.6. O'Hara trailed through three quarters in 3:00.7, then passed Beatty and held the lead going into the last of the 11 laps. It was the first time in his three races against Beatty—all indoors—that O'Hara had led on the final lap. "I figured I'd won," he said later. "I didn't think anyone could beat me if I led on the final lap."
"Tom was upset with himself after the race," says Jerry Weiland, a dapper-looking Chicago businessman who coaches the Loyola track team on the side. "Then he heard his time, and losing wasn't so bad."
Better and better
Neither of O'Hara's fine performances was especially surprising, for he had been coming close to the sub-four-minute mile for a year. Last winter he twice chased Beatty across the finish line in 4:02.3 and 4:01.7, and earlier this year he won the Wanamaker Mile in the Millrose Games in 4:01.5. "Tom said he felt fine after that race," Weiland says. "That's when I was certain he'd break four minutes any day." O'Hara probably would have gone under four minutes outdoors last spring but for an ankle injury that ruined his season. Now there is nothing wrong with the ankle—or anything else.
A group of Loyola teammates were kidding around recently.
"Tell me," asked one, "what does O'Hara have that I haven't got?"
"Talent," answered a teammate.
"O.K., talent. What else?"
"Dedication," said another.
"Yeah, dedication. What else?"
"Guts," said a third.
"Yeah, yeah, I guess so."
O'Hara's teammates have great respect for his willingness to punish himself. O'Hara runs twice a day, as much as 110 miles a week. He runs outdoors in spring and fall, indoors at the huge Chicago Avenue Armory in winter. The armory is a drafty, ugly old concrete building. It has a dirt polo field and auditorium on the ground floor and four stories above, in which are a couple of decaying locker rooms and a small, cold gym. Recently the head janitor said to O'Hara, "Now that you're a big man you'll probably run in the big auditoriums and forget all about this place."
"I doubt it," said O'Hara. "It would be hard to forget this place."
O'Hara and the Loyola track team work out on the polo field every afternoon, but in the morning, when O'Hara runs alone, the field is cluttered with ponies being exercised. This forces O'Hara to run what must be the strangest course in track history. John Landy had his pine forest, Herb Elliott his sand dunes; Tom O'Hara has the concrete corridors, alleyways and subterranean passages of the Chicago Avenue Armory. Every morning, starting at 8, he will jog down a flight of stairs to the auditorium, run along an aisle, circle around to the other side and try that aisle. For diversion—"it gets a little boring," he says—he will push open a door, dart up two flights of stairs and jog along the third floor, then the fourth. The hallways are long, straight and usually empty, save for a few workmen, most of whom know him only as "the boy who runs in the halls." They point to their heads when they say it.
When O'Hara has jogged through the armory for half an hour, he subjects himself to a series of wind sprints in the alleyways of the cellar. It is exhausting, lonely work, and he does not pretend to enjoy it. "I could skip a day and it probably wouldn't bother me," he says. "But you become obsessed with the idea of running after a while. I even feel guilty when I stay up too late, because I know I won't run well the next day."
Tom O'Hara was born in Chicago, not far from the armory, in the summer of 1942. He favors his mother, Nora, a slight, redheaded woman who came to this country from Ireland at 17, but he gets his endurance from his father, Tom Sr., a large, dark-haired man who has worked for the city of Chicago for 30 years. The O'Haras had six children, but one daughter died of pneumonia, and a son, one year younger than Tom, was struck and killed by a truck. Tom describes his youth as "wild," including experiments in smoking, brushes with the law and hanging out with gangs, but it is hard to imagine this mild, innocent-looking boy getting himself into trouble.
O'Hara's first running experience was in public park meets. "A man would call up and ask me if I wanted to race in the 100-yard dash," Tom recalls. "He'd give me a pair of shoes before the race and take them back at the finish."
Late in his sophomore year at St. Ignatius High School, without any training, O'Hara entered a three-quarter-mile race in an informal school meet. The St. Ignatius track coach, Dr. Ralph Mailliard, had never seen O'Hara before. "I didn't know who he was, but he was running much too fast," Mailliard recalls. "After a while I yelled at him to stop running. I was scared he'd collapse." O'Hara staggered in third. Mailliard took him aside and told him he could be a great runner if he worked.
The racer's progress
O'Hara went to work. As a high school senior he ran the mile in 4:20. In his freshman year at Loyola he cut the time to 4:08. "I could have let Tom run in some of the big meets right then," Jerry Weiland says, "but I thought he was too young and not strong enough."
Last year Weiland decided O'Hara was ready to run in the major indoor meets. "I know he looks frail even now," says Weiland, "but his legs are like iron." However, Weiland found that gaining entrance to the indoor track circle wasn't easy. He wrote letters to the officials of all the major indoor meets requesting permission to enter O'Hara, but only one man, Ray Lumpp of the New York Athletic Club, answered him. It was in the NYAC mile that O'Hara raced Beatty for the first time and surprised everyone by finishing a close second in 4:02.3. O'Hara has had no trouble getting into meets since.
This year Weiland didn't have to write letters to anyone. O'Hara's splendid showing during the 1962 indoor season plus his victory in the NCAA crosscountry last November—a four-mile race—had made him a name. Now Weiland held the trump card, and when the various meet officials contacted him he wasn't willing to settle for O'Hara alone. Weiland insisted that the Loyola mile relay team be included at the meets—expenses paid, of course. The Boston K of C said that it wanted O'Hara, but not enough to pay for the relay team. Weiland told them no O'Hara. The Millrose Games said they would pay part of the relay team's expenses but not all. Weiland was about to say no again when a second message arrived from the Millrose Officials. DISREGARD FIRST LETTER, it read. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO BRING YOUR RELAY TEAM.
O'Hara himself is taking all of his success calmly and without conceit. At a recent track meet he felt a heavy hand fall upon his shoulder. "Good luck tonight, Tom," said a voice. "It was Gary Gubner, the shotputter," says O'Hara. "He knew me!"
It won't be long before the sports world knows Tom O'Hara as well as it knows Jim Beatty today.