A mile runner does not run a mile, he bombards it with logic. He plots it, schemes it, calculates, bisects, barbecues and bakes it. He plots not only against the men who run against him but against the distance itself, because in the end, to be successful at his lonely project, he must be prepared to cross the finish line—to break the tape, if his itinerary is right and God is willing—at the moment his lungs turn to brimstone and his legs to apple butter. Cary Weisiger, a successful miler, schemed to upset Peter Snell, the most successful one a year ago, by beginning his kick (his stretch drive) an unnaturally long distance from the finish—600 yards or more. Weisiger became actually, physically sick at the starting line just thinking of the torture he was about to put himself through.
If by surgery you could expose the psyche of a miler, you would find such a complexity of hot wires and fuses that you would think you had lifted up your head in a terminal box. Milers are the same only in their primordial passion for the race (is it the pain they court? the purifying pain?) and in that curious, introspective, esthetic quality that makes each one appear to have been born in the gatefold of an old book. You half expect milers to blink in the sunlight. They are loners, with ruggedly individual theories and practices that, individually, they cherish. Dyrol Burleson, who has been America's best miler outdoors this season, strikes his fellow milers as being exceptionally evasive (one miler who is less guileful than Burleson wonders if he is just not very friendly). Actually Burleson is not so much taciturn as he is tactical. He was unsettled recently when it was revealed in print that he had been working privately at increased distances, up to 140 miles a week. "Gee, I didn't want that out," he said in his desperate, invasion-plan, loose-lips-sink-ships voice.
Any hiker can run a mile. It takes thought and maturity to be a miler. But most of all it takes passion, and a man cannot reason his passion any more than he can hold his heart in his hand or see love in a glass. What he can do is live with his passion or live it down (often the wise alternative) or put it to use in the form that it takes. "Why do I run?" asks Tom O'Hara (see cover), whose passion since his mid-teens has been to run great lonely distances. "Maybe a psychologist could tell me. Or a psychoanalyst. But why should I know? If I knew, then I might not run anymore."
A miler—a distance runner, if you please—is unique among athletes in that he will carry the solitary agony of conditioning into ripe old age for no reason, or for no better reason than to boast (behind a confirming grimace) of the shin splints he collected up at the Y yesterday afternoon. Question: "Why do you run?" Answer: "To run is reason enough." If the passion, together with the dedication and the sensitivity common to milers, is put into a meaningful physical package, then a byproduct—success—will arrive to forever complicate matters.
June 21, 1964
In the winter, running indoors, Tom O'Hara of Chicago, product of an unbroken Irish home and a few thousand miles of running over railroad tracks, along beach fronts, down alleyways, in empty corridors and around keep-off-the-grass signs, became the best miler in the world. Success had clearly set in. He won nine straight races, and in Chicago lowered his own world indoor record to 3 minutes 56.4 seconds. But today if Tom O'Hara sat down to breakfast with Dyrol Burleson he would be the second-best miler at the table. Burleson, who has been at the race longer, might tell him that this easily could be a temporary situation, that fortunes change, that it takes a heap of charting to chart 5,280 feet. It is more likely, however, that O'Hara will be allowed to simmer in his doubts. "Am I overtrained? I seem to be tired, you know?" O'Hara fretted in his still-small voice two weeks ago in Los Angeles. Burleson had beaten him for the sixth straight time. "I'm still learning. The pace. The start. When to kick. You know? Strangely enough I still have a good kick, regardless of the pace, if I just knew exactly when. Maybe I'm working too hard. If I make the Olympic team...."
The ifs that march in solid regiments through O'Hara's conversation are genuine, because he is a genuine Doubting Thomas Martin Ignatius O'Hara, a distracted centipede trying to decide which leg to use first. Milers are like that—they are so often left to their own devices. A steady C+ student at Loyola of Chicago, O'Hara worries over his progress as if failure would strike him down at every impasse. ("The irony is it took me four years of struggling with accounting to find out I didn't want to be an accountant," he said the other day.) A devoted subscriber to the Track & Field News, he pores over the agate type until his eyes burn, "getting tremendously encouraged, then getting tremendously discouraged." He suspects hidden breakdowns in his bodily functions. He wears Dr. Scholl shoes to protect his narrow, blistered double-B-width feet—and at a meet on a cool night he is not above trudging around the infield wearing an outsized overcoat over his sweat suit. Recently he has found he can wear away his peace of mind thinking about the tactics that always go wrong against Dyrol Burleson.
Well, for all that, Tom O'Hara will make the Olympic team, and on the day he runs a mile in 3:52 and makes the agate type—maybe even an asterisk—in Track & Field News there will be 300 people lined up to tell him how right they were. Dr. Ralph Mailliard, for example. Dr. Mailliard was O'Hara's high school coach at St. Ignatius in Chicago, and the first time he saw O'Hara run—frail, unimposing little Tommy O'Hara, the shy kid from Bucktown—he told him to start planning for the 1964 Olympics. That was in 1958. "I've never told a boy that before or since," says Dr. Mailliard, "but with O'Hara there was something—something there you could sense. Guts. Courage. Dedication. Whatever you call it. He never did better than a 4:20 mile for me, so I deserve no credit, but you could tell it was just a matter of time."
"O'Hara? O'Hara is like people who walk on nails and through fire," says Jerry Weiland, who is his coach at Loyola. "I don't teach him, I learn from him."
"Tom O'Hara," says Australian Distance Runner Ron Clarke, who saw him often last winter, "could run two miles—three miles, even—and break world records."
At Loyola, naturally the hotbed of O'Hara support, there is a modern new crucifix, a mosaic of glazed stones, in the faculty dining room. Father Joseph Pendergast, dean of arts and letters, advises visitors to be sure to see it. "And please notice," he says, "how much it looks like Tommy O'Hara breaking the tape."
The more terrestrial Coach Weiland, who once invented a plastic coaster that "sold like hotcakes" and who has made a million dollars in businesses outside coaching, says he will name his next racehorse Tom O'Hara—if it is good enough. Joseph Parrilli of the Loyola Food Shop gets right to the stomach of the matter: he is thinking about a Tom O'Hara Special—a ham sandwich on white and a quart of orange juice. "Every day on his way back from practice Tom stops in," says Mr. Parrilli. "He doesn't say much. Very shy, you know. But it's always the same—a quart of orange juice and a ham sandwich. Except on Fridays when he has American cheese and mayonnaise. He's a good Catholic, you know."
Around Chicago, O'Hara is now in demand as an after-dinner speaker. His speech is portable (one speech is enough if you watch your schedule), and it generally runs to thank you very much for inviting me—his modesty can be maddening—and please don't let me hold up the dessert. As honored guest, he has attended as many as two or three Irish dances on a weekend. Mrs. Nora O'Hara, Tom's mother, has her particular Irish up, however, because the adulation has spilled over into suspicious territory. A fellow in a black Porsche and an orange ascot and "talking kind of funny" arrived to take pictures of Tom the other day for a girlie magazine. "Isn't that carrying things a wee bit far?" Mrs. O'Hara wanted to know.
Well, then, can success spoil the dedicated, celebrated, granulated, grade-A sanforized miler? Of course it can, just like it can spoil anyone else. Good milers soon discover they are in demand by good track promoters—and by bad track promoters—and the competition is keen enough for a promoter to risk a miler's amateur skin violating amateur codes. Wes Santee, for example, became so cynically adept in the give-and-take of payments and favors when he was running near-four-minute miles a few years ago that the promoters who contaminated him were eventually convinced he curled his lip every night before he went to bed. Sadly, it was Santee who had to suffer, not the promoters.
Jerry Weiland finds that he now spends a good deal of his time fending off offers—"$2,000 for you, Coach, and how about a TV set for the kid?"—and keeping Tom O'Hara from becoming susceptible. O'Hara graduated from Loyola last week and understandably is concerned for his future. (There is, he has discovered, no such thing as a professional miler.) Weiland says Tom ought to stay on at Loyola, continue training, work for the public relations department and study for a degree in law. O'Hara, on the other hand, takes the short view: jump right into public relations for a company large enough to make a tangible return on his reputation. "You can't tell boys anything these days," says Weiland, pounding the steering wheel he has a hard time holding on to when he's discussing O'Hara. "Take Tom. This is a wonderful boy in every way, but confused all the time. All these guys filling his head."
People who know him best are nevertheless convinced that all the praise and all the poor advice that swims in Tom O'Hara's head will never turn it, and that his appealing naiveté—not necessarily a miler's stock equipment—is permanent. Athletic Director-Basketball Coach George Ireland almost has to force O'Hara to accept basketball tickets to Loyola's games, even though Tom is a big fan and tickets are scarce. "He'd come in here blushing and ask me for one ticket to the game," says Ireland. " 'Don't you have a date?' I'd ask him. 'Yes, sir, I do.' 'Well, won't you need two tickets?' 'Yes, sir, I suppose so.' He hasn't changed in four years."
Promoters had O'Hara fly out to Los Angeles a week early for the recent Compton meet to appear on television and help accelerate ticket sales. Weiland would not be along until the weekend, so O'Hara was left to fathom the Sheraton West alone. On Monday morning one of the meet officials spotted him at the hotel cashier's desk. "Tom, what are you doing over here?" he asked. "I'm paying my bill for last night," O'Hara replied.
As milers go, Tom O'Hara is of un-heroic proportions. Mousemeat, spectators call him. He is gaunt even by the spare standards of distance runners: 5 feet 9,130 pounds. Most of it—the Nutriment and chocolate malts he attacks faithfully—appears to have settled in his calves. He takes his structural shortcomings philosophically. "I tried lifting weights for a while, but somebody moved them someplace. I couldn't find them so I quit. Arms are just for balance, anyway."
O'Hara's hair is the color of pumpkin—he is dismayed that a Chicago sports-writer persists in calling it pink—and he wears it long so that when he is in full flight he seems to be sailing beneath a luffing orange canopy. Because he has had to watch his step running over railroad tracks and down alleys, he runs with his eyes down and looks like a 10 o'clock scholar who is afraid he may be recognized and reported to the truant officer. He plucks and pulls absently at his satin pants as he runs. (One woman wrote to ask if he had a secret cache of vitamins he kept digging into as the race progressed.) O'Hara saw himself run on a television recording once. "I laughed the whole race through," he said. "That's nothing compared to the old folks' way you walk," said a friend who had become weary of O'Hara's poke-along gait. "I just happen to be one of those guys who doesn't know how to walk," explained O'Hara.
The sun does not tan Tom O'Hara. Instead it gives him a perpetual glow of embarrassment, or of a small boy pleased with a new discovery. There have been many new discoveries since Tom the miler became Tom the Successful Miler, not the least of which was the Polish girl he met while touring eastern Europe with an all-star American team last summer. Mother O'Hara was undisturbed until she heard an interpretation of one of the subsequent letters the girl wrote. "Why, Tom, she's hintin' at marrrriage!" Mrs. O'Hara said in her light brogue. Tom, more worldly-wise by the minute, said not to worry, that he knew it, that the idea was strictly singular and that European girls always seem to get the mistaken notion that all Americans are rich Americans. "Who could afford to bring her over here anyway?" he said. The East-West romance died a natural death.
The O'Haras live in a second-floor walk-up apartment over a currency exchange on Elston Avenue in a tough-ugly industrial section in Chicago's near north side. Bucktown, it is called—once predominantly Polish but now without particular ethnic character. Or prejudice. The apartment is plain and lived-in—linoleum floors and pipes that stick out and "O'Hara" penciled into the cracked brown paint on the mailbox downstairs. Not a good deal to show for the senior Tom O'Hara's 31 years with the city of Chicago, perhaps, but upstairs there is the warmth and love of genuine filial closeness, as good an argument as Mr. O'Hara needs when Mrs. O'Hara begins talking about moving across town. Young Tom is the focus of the O'Hara interest these days, of course; Mike, 16, is particularly proud because his big brother, whom he outweighs by 20 pounds, has taken to wearing Mike's striped dress shirts on dates. Mike is plump from good food. Noreen, 22, who is now Mrs. Daniel Bubalo, Tom, 21, and Patricia, 13, take after their mother. Nora O'Hara never weighed an ounce more than 98 pounds in her life.
It was to the warm O'Hara hearth and Mrs. O'Hara's Irish cooking that Tom fled after one semester of Loyola cafeteria food. "I couldn't take that synthetic stuff," Tom announced.
"What you wahnted was your peanut-butterr-and-jelly sandwiches, that's all," says Mrs. O'Hara; bright, pixie little Irish face.
"Are peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches really good for a miler in training?" Tom was asked.
"Ma thinks so," he said, smiling, "and Ma knows all about milers. She reads the papers, knows all the times and everything."
"He eats 'em because thurrr easy to fix and he can eat 'em all day long, comin' and goin', that's all," says Mrs. O'Hara.
Bucktown boys have a tendency toward aimlessness, the O'Haras believe, so they packed Tom off to St. Ignatius High—two buses away—as soon as he was old enough. St. Ignatius outlived (with honor) the Chicago fire and Prohibition street wars. There are some leftover bullet holes in the walls, and a point of interest is the spot where a bootlegger's riddled body was flung over the fence into the schoolyard. It is now a school reputed to have high scholarship and a no-nonsense faculty. It also has Dr. Mailliard, who for 35 years has pressured aimless boys off doorsteps into track shoes. In addition, Dr. Mailliard is a full professor at DePaul. His St. Ignatius teams have won 26 championships in Chicago's Catholic high school league.
The day Tommy O'Hara told his mother he was going to run the mile for St. Ignatius, Mrs. O'Hara smiled and told him he was out of his skinny little red head. Leading the neighborhood in ring-alevio and Johnny-across, and winning speed-skating medals in the park, was one thing, but running yourself to exhaustion was quite another. "You'll waste away to nothin', small as you arr," she said. Tom quit on his own after one week—he didn't like all those exercises. "I told the coach my father wanted me to pay more attention to my studies." He had not accurately gauged Dr. Mailliard's persistence, however, and before long he was back at it. When it came time for college he was good enough for three scholarship offers: Notre Dame, Loyola and Georgetown. He chose Loyola because he wanted to stay close to home. "We thought he'd be good," said Coach Weiland, recalling O'Hara's unsensational freshman year, "but there was no way to know he was going to be this good." O'Hara ran his first sub-four-minute mile in February of 1963. Since then he has run under four on eight occasions.
To run one mile in competition, a miler—one with logic and passion—will consume as many as 1,600 miles in preparation. Tom O'Hara can run two and a half hours at a time. From his apartment in the morning he disappears into the labyrinth of Bucktown alleys, railroad beds and industry lots, varying his routes to make it interesting, and returns five or six miles later. In the winter he also runs in the Chicago Avenue Armory, two blocks from the downtown classrooms of Loyola. Clop-clopping along the darkened corridors, he is known to workmen only as "the kid who runs in the halls." When the weather is good, as it almost becomes in the Chicago springtime, he takes the "L" down to the main campus—"He's really faster than the L," says Athletic Director Ireland, "but I suppose he likes to ride once in a while"—changes to his sweat suit, does 25 toe-touches, and takes off for the lakefront. There he often picks up a coterie of Dr. Mailliard's young milers from St. Ignatius. He gives them pointers, and they admire his style. One boy recently ran into a light pole admiring his style.
Of all the demons that drive a miler, the most persistent is the conditioning program he sets for himself. Rather than shirk it, he would sooner eat brickdust. At 7:30 in the morning after their race at Compton, both O'Hara and Burleson were out in the park near the Sheraton West, running their separate ways.
In his persisting effort to be one of the fellows, O'Hara will take an occasional beer, or stay out until 12, and he has become, in his new worldly fashion, a dancing fool ("I can keep going and going, you know"), but if his convictions about Spartan living sometimes bend, they are unbreakable. "Baseball players, for example, aren't really athletes," he says in a moment of stern reflection. "You read about guys like Bo Belinsky out boozing it up every night, and like that. I think probably the worst guy on our team is in better shape than most baseball players, you know?" Once Tom has begun his program, there is no stopping him. Icicles have formed in his eyebrows as he pounded along on raw winter days. "Running," says Nora O'Hara, "is Lent for Tom."
There is some question as to what system, or whose system, Tom subscribes to, other than his own. (Nobody trains with a miler, of course, unless it is another miler.) Don Amidei was his freshman coach at Loyola and, though he moved on to DePaul to become head coach, he has maintained influence. "Amidei yells at Tom," says a friend, "and Tom likes to be yelled at. It keeps him going."
"Amidei reads a lot of books," says O'Hara. He says he follows the two-part series Amidei outlines: strength through cross-country running—Tom has been chased off the finest lawns by custodians and off the best expressways by cops—and then speed work in volume. Where O'Hara departs from, say, a Jim Beatty or other milers coached by the fine Hungarian expatriate, Mihaly Igloi, is in his speed work. He will run quarter miles slower than his capacity. He will do as many as 16 quarter miles in one workout, running each in 62 to 64 seconds. Beatty might do them at 56 seconds. O'Hara believes this makes Beatty susceptible to injury.
There is a decided difference, too, in the approach to a race. Igloi teaches that you run against the clock and the result will take care of itself. Dyrol Burleson, on the other hand, runs only to win. He does not give a nickel's concern for flashy-times. All he cares is that his time is better than anyone else's who might be on the track with him.
O'Hara is sometimes torn between the two theories. Igloi, watching him lose to Burleson for the sixth time, said he was convinced O'Hara needed to follow—or even set—a faster pace. "He must have tempo. A slow pace is not good for him, it is good for Burleson. He must run, run, run."
The problem is enough to give a logical, successful miler insomnia, or nightmares. Logical, successful miler Tom O'Hara says he does lie awake mulling it over and worrying about it, but when he dreams he does not dream about it. "When I dream," says O'Hara, blushing wildly, "I dream about girls." There are times when even the best logic breaks down.