A middle-distance runner is loosely defined by middle-distance runner Tom O'Hara as a very large pair of lungs connected to the ground by legs of variable lengths. It is at this time of year—an Olympic year—that a thinking distance man (there is really no other kind) begins to put his thoughts, lungs and legs together in a way intended to establish a peak of efficiency before autumn. Last weekend in Modesto, Calif. there may have been more thinking going on than running, because the winning times in the mile and two-mile events in the California Relays were inconclusive. But the strategy that unfolded was not. It showed that:
1) The world's best middle-distance runners are just beginning their drive for Tokyo, and if it is a record you want before July, look to the swimmers.
2) The world's best middle-distance runners, possible gold medal winners, could be American. For a change. For a big change.
The U.S. Olympic record in any distance beyond 800 meters is easy to catalogue. An American has not won a gold medal at 1,500 meters (the metric mile) since 1908 and has not won at 5,000 meters since the Garden of Eden. Naturally, Dyrol Burleson beating Tom O'Hara in a mile at 4:00.2 in Modesto will not cause nervous tension in Christchurch, New Zealand. And Jim Beatty finishing third at two miles behind the 30-year-old New Zealander, Bill Baillie, who looks like Rumpelstiltskin and runs like Jack-be-quick, and the Canadian, Bruce Kidd, is not encouraging news.
But what was not revealed by the stopwatch in Modesto is that Burleson and O'Hara are well on their way to becoming a double in the mile, and if Peter Snell does not watch out the double will get him. Snell, also of New Zealand, is the world record-holder at the mile, but he was beaten several times this winter at that distance and is struggling to regain his form.
Burleson, the lone wolf of Oregon who selects his meets the way a finicky eater picks the nuts from a salad, is training at what for him is an unprecedented pace. He was running upward of 140 miles a week until a month ago. He is also a smarter runner now—losses to Snell have taught him not to rely on his fancy accelerations when they might be too late—and he does not give a hoot for records. "My records today, somebody else's records tomorrow," he says. "I believe in winning." As an example, he cites his daughter Raemi Lynn's defeat in a crawling contest the other day. He still is trying to get over it. Raemi Lynn is 16 months old.
O'Hara is O'Hara—a hank of red hair, a piece of bone and a dedication that would not move mountains so much as it would trample them to dust. He will always look like a 130-pound weakling and he will fret about making the U.S. Olympic team until his jet touches down in Tokyo, but one of these summer days he will run a 3:52 mile and everybody will know he is real. O'Hara has not broken four minutes outdoors this season, but he set a world indoor record (3:56.4) last winter.
Beatty, the small and courtly North Carolinian, had not run two miles since setting an indoor record of 8:30.7 in March 1963 in Modesto. In the interim he suffered a serious muscle pull in his right thigh, a cramp in his right calf and a 12-stitch gash in the ball of his right foot—none too helpful to him as a runner or in his job of combing the Carolina countryside for volunteers for the state's own peace corps. Modesto would be a gauge for him, he said, "not do or die. First I want to see what I will have to do before the Olympic trials. Next, I want to see how the leg holds up."
The city of Modesto protrudes unassumingly from a bend in the Tuolumne River in the San Joaquin Valley, and most of the year it would make a pretty good hideout. This time of year, however, middays are uncomfortably warm in Modesto and the evenings uncomfortably cool. The relays were held at night, and even if the excellent field of Olympic prospects had been record-conscious, it was too chilly for a big record assault. Yet Grambling, magnificent in black suits, again tied the 440-yard-relay world record of 40 seconds flat, and Olympic broad jumper Ralph Boston broke his own American record with a leap of 27 feet 2½ inches. Boston says he has added more liver to his diet since he started studying biochemistry ("I know more about what makes my body go"), and he went 26 feet 5½ inches or better on six straight jumps. Grinning, he said he owed it all to liver. "I'm having some more tomorrow."
Preparatory to the two miles, Beatty said he would run as long as he felt like running, or until the calf, the thigh or his peace of mind gave in. He said he would just as soon not set the pace in the face of a chilling wind, but he did anyway. He led from the start through six laps, thinking to himself, "Come on, one of you guys, take it for a while." But Baillie hung back, as far as seventh, and Bruce Kidd plodded along in second place.
On the seventh lap Baillie cut through the field, his shoulders hunched, his nose like the prow of a great ship. He had been "seeing the sights"—Knott's Berry Farm, the Los Angeles Dodgers, bowling alleys—since he came to the States eight days earlier, and his training had been mostly lazy jogs, but he was ready to run now. He moved to third, then second with a lap to go, and began his kick 400 yards from the finish. Kidd followed him, but Beatty could not and finished a fading third. Baillie was timed at 8:37.1, with Kidd 10 yards back.
O'Hara had been seeing the sights, too. He was late arriving for the mile and had to rush through his warmup. As in the two-mile race, the mile field seemed reluctant to expose itself to the lead, and the pace for three-quarters was an agony. At that point, Emporia State's John Camien was the leader. O'Hara had perched on Burleson's right shoulder and stayed there, a pink shadow bobbing and tugging at his satin pants. "I knew he was back there, close, but I wasn't sure how close," said Burleson after the race.
Then, 250 yards from home and in fourth place, O'Hara began his kick. He seemed more to drift past Burleson than to run, and quickly he was ahead by four yards. The lead appeared to be sufficient as they came into the straightaway, but O'Hara did not get a second drive and Burleson did. He caught O'Hara, barely, at the tape—"I startled him. He didn't think I was coming," said Burleson. "Surprised was right," said O'Hara. "I thought I had it."
Third—and a good example of the middle-distance talent the U.S. has begun to produce—was a 16-year-old high school junior from Wichita, Kan. named Jim Ryun. His time, 4:01.7, exceeded anything any high schooler had ever done, although it will not be considered for a record since it was not achieved in a high school race.
"Can you imagine that kid?" said Burleson. "And nobody was breathing hard at the finish. It's going to be lots of fun this summer."