Tom O'Hara is a shy, unassuming fellow whose most outrageous boast is a claim that he weighs 131 pounds. He has broken the world record for the indoor mile twice this winter, yet he still has the uneasy feeling he is a boy running against men. A shambling redhead with the posture of a consumptive filing clerk, he merely looks like a boy. He is, in fact, the best miler in the world, with only one real weakness—he doesn't believe it.
Last week in Chicago this lack of self-confidence cost Tom O'Hara at least two seconds in the Bankers Mile—and a chance to run even faster than Peter Snell's world outdoor record time of 3:54.4. Not that O'Hara's race was anything to be ashamed of. With 160 yards to go, he smoothly shifted into a sprinter's stride and ran away from Jim Grelle, his closest rival, finishing in 3:56.4. The time was the fastest ever recorded for an indoor mile, breaking by .2 second the record O'Hara had set just three weeks earlier in New York. But he could have gone faster and would have, except for the improbable fear that Grelle, no longer in his class, would outkick him in the last lap.
All week long the Chicago Doily News, sponsor of the meet, had been promising its readers a record. So excited had the local citizenry become that the high school basketball tournament, annually the breeziest conversational gambit around the Loop, was upstaged by O'Hara, now known affectionately as Mousemeat to his flock of new fans. Even the mayor himself, Richard J. Daley, had to scrounge for tickets to the meet, which had never sold out before. Quite obviously O'Hara knew what was expected of him. The pressure was enough to keep a seasoned trouper in an agitated state, not to mention an insecure one, and O'Hara's coach, Jerry Weiland, tried desperately to ease his star runner's state of mind. Facing reporters with the hangdog look of a man who had just invested his life savings in an Edsel agency, he assured everybody that "Tom's a tired boy. All we're after is a win." Then, remembering his obligations as a promoter, he added: "Of course, all his friends and family will be there. He'll give you a good run."
Privately, Weiland thought it quite probable that O'Hara was going to set an indoor record and, more privately still, he was not a bit sure that Snell's outdoor time was safe. But he studiously refrained from expressing his innermost thoughts within earshot of O'Hara, who has a history of reacting to such news with sleepless nights. "Don't even think of records," Weiland told O'Hara. "We've got a whole outdoor season ahead of us."
March 16, 1964
Having thus informed O'Hara of his lack of interest in a world record, Weiland immediately began planning for one. "We're going to try something different," said Weiland. His stratagem was to send O'Hara out of the gate like a sprinter for 25 yards. Traditionally O'Hara strides casually behind the field, moving up on the leaders in fits and starts before positioning himself for the last quarter dash. His early foot, Weiland figured, would startle Canada's Jim Irons, imported as a pacer, into a faster pace. "Tom will lead the field around the first turn," Weiland said. "Irons will have to hustle to take over the lead in the backstretch." At that point, as Weiland saw it, O'Hara would be in second place instead of way back in the pack. He might save a second, possibly two, with the quick dash, and he would conserve energy he might otherwise expend passing the entire field.
While Weiland was scheming, O'Hara was training. The routine was comparatively casual, coming nowhere near the 120 miles he usually puts in at the dingy old Chicago Avenue Armory each week. On Tuesday, for instance. O'Hara ran a series of 220-yard dashes, 40 of them to be exact, each in 31 seconds, with 90-second jogs between them. He ran a smorgasbord of distances on Wednesday, a couple of 660s, some 220s, a few half miles and ended up with brisk 440s. On Thursday, O'Hara just went out and ran off 10 miles straight, a distance that does not even make him breathe hard.
By midweek, Weiland knew pretty well what he wanted of Irons during the race: a 58-or 59-second quarter, two minutes at the half and 2:59 at the important three-quarter mark. "I'll settle for a three-minute three-quarter," Weiland said, "or even a 3:01."
The entry of Grelle may have helped Weiland make up his mind. Word had arrived suddenly from California that Mihaly Igloi thought his runner was ready for a big race. "I am most anxious to meet O'Hara again," Grelle said, "and I am ready to go under four minutes." When Tom O'Hara heard the news he turned several shades paler than his ordinary complexion, which is approximately the color of cream cheese. "Ah, we don't care about Grelle," Weiland told him. "You know you can beat this guy." Indeed, O'Hara had beaten Grelle, exactly a year ago in the same Chicago Daily News Relays. He trotted off reassured.
Despite his brave pose, Weiland was concerned. "There are six milers running today who are great," he said. "Snell, Jim Beatty, Dyrol Burleson, Cary Weisiger, O'Hara—and Grelle. They are all a little fearful of each other."
On Friday morning Thomas Martin Ignatius O'Hara attended a class in morality and business (he is an accounting major), where he took down the lecture nearly verbatim, "to keep my mind off the race," he said. O'Hara then went home to nap the afternoon away and hide from the army of people shoving press credentials at him and asking such questions as: "What are you planning to eat for dinner?" He had, in fact, a rather alarmingly large piece of halibut, one boiled potato and assorted vegetables cooked and served by his mother.
At exactly five minutes to post time, Weiland finally told O'Hara of the night's strategy, indicating offhandedly that an all-out assault on the world indoor record would be sort of nice. O'Hara blinked his long red lashes, pranced a few steps in place, then jogged away to contemplate the new strategy.
Weiland's casual brainwashing more than worked. O'Hara actually jumped the gun and had to be called back. "I wanted to make sure I got out like Jerry told me," he said later. At the gun he executed Weiland's plan perfectly, taking a quick lead. Irons, as expected, overtook O'Hara in the backstretch. Grelle positioned himself in his customary spot near the end of the string. The first quarter came and passed with Irons bringing the field past in 58.1—exactly right—and O'Hara a stride behind.
Just short of the half-mile mark, where Irons began to feel the pace, O'Hara was having the time of his life, running with light, quick strides, his long red hair, which was bright pink under the lights, bobbing happily atop his head. A lap beyond the half-mile mark the public address announcer gave the time: 1:58.8. This was just the sort of news the big crowd wanted to hear, and they began to abandon their seats and their senses. Almost before the announcer's voice had died, O'Hara saw Irons falter. He quickly raced by the Canadian on the inside. "He has to do it all by himself now," Weiland shouted.
And then Grelle made his move, realizing that if he didn't do it then, O'Hara would be out of sight later. "I felt surprisingly strong," Grelle said, "and for an instant I thought I could catch the redhead." But the redhead was running just as strongly and seemed to be capable of going much faster. He flew through the three-quarter mark in 2:59.8, right on schedule, and immediately went into his long kick to the finish. It left Grelle five yards behind. Still, it was not an all-out effort—"I knew Grelle was right behind me," he said. "I was afraid of him. He has that kick, too, and I wanted something left for the last 160 yards." Weiland, unheard in the crowd that was screaming at the top of its lungs, was saying: "He's got to go faster, faster, faster. He'll never make it." With the gun for the final lap, O'Hara bolted. So swift was his final surge that he lapped Bill Dotson, the fifth man in the race. Rounding the last curve, he leaned far out over the infield and sprinted past the finish line. "I felt strong," O'Hara yelled at his coach to make himself heard above the crowd, "real strong. I could have burned those last three laps." And then, softly: "I wish I had."
If O'Hara was wistful, it was also plain that he was maturing rapidly. His Chicago lesson behind him, there now remains the great outdoors and Peter Snell to conquer. "Snell's record is definitely within reach," O'Hara said quietly after the race and, while such talk smacks of brashness, O'Hara is not a brash man. If he says Snell's record can be had, look out. O'Hara will very likely have it.