The promised invasion of foreign track-and-field stars was in full swing by the end of last week, but there was one development of some surprise: the most successful visitor of all did not come from overseas but merely from across the border. He is Bill Crothers, a diffident young man whose chief distinction until recently was that he was the best unknown runner in the world. He is better known now.
Bespectacled and soft of voice, Crothers has—off the track—the dynamic appeal of your friendly neighborhood pharmacist. To natives of Markham, Ont., a northern suburb of Toronto, this is not particularly surprising; Crothers is the friendly neighborhood pharmacist. But at 24, he is also second only to New Zealand's Peter Snell as a middle-distance runner. This is a pity. Had he run in any other era, most likely he would have been second to none. But best or not, he is certainly the most tireless middle-distance runner of this or any other age.
In the last four years track has boomed as an indoor activity. The annual program of meets has grown from about 10, all in the East, to about 30, coast to coast. Crothers' activities have expanded similarly because he is a man who likes to run. Two weeks ago in Los Angeles, "on the spur of the moment," he entered and won both the 600-and 1,000-yard runs. Five nights later he began a punishing program of four races in three successive nights in three different cities. At times his running assignments seemed only a minor chore. He spent most of the long weekend crawling into bed late and jumping out early, climbing out of one airplane and into the next.
Competitively, the weekend began with an exhilarating win in the half mile at the Millrose Games in New York. It ended 48 hours later at the Boston AA Games with Crothers, his legs feeling as mushy as foam rubber, lunging through the tape to win the 600 yards by 10 feet in 1:09.3, just a tenth of a second off the world indoor record. Sandwiched in between were two assignments at Toronto; a meet record victory in the 600 and a 47.9 anchor leg for the East York Track Club mile relay team.
How is it that Crothers, who finished second to Snell in the 800-meter run at the Tokyo Olympics, can accomplish so much while the Olympic stars of the U.S. are still fighting the battle of the bulge around their waistlines? "I never get out of shape," he explained last weekend. "It's like piling brick on brick. Your running should improve year after year, but to keep improving this way you've got to keep training all year round. Besides, it's a lot easier to stay in shape than to fall out and get back in." These are not just idle words about vigorous deeds. Crothers resumed his post-Olympic training the night he got home from Tokyo.
Fine, but why four hard races in 48 hours? "It's just something you have to do, and you might as well be philosophical about it," Crothers said, omitting to mention his proprietary interest in the East York Track Club. By agreeing to run in meets, he manages to inveigle promoters into inviting his teammates to compete, thus providing them with exposure and badly needed international experience.
"It may not be that much of an ordeal, anyway," he said Thursday before his first race of the week. "Prerace mental tension can be more exhausting than a fast race in which you're feeling relaxed. Right now I feel relaxed." He was riding from Kennedy Airport on the way to his mid-New York motel to rest before the Millrose Games. The meet was a sellout. Just under 16,000 people were on hand when Crothers emerged from a subterranean storage room in Madison Square Garden where a few knowing athletes warm up.
"I'd been running in the Garden two and a half years before I discovered it," Crothers said.
The race was hardly more than an extension of his warmup, though quite a bit brisker. For the first half Crothers floated along in third place, behind Ed Duchini, a bushy-haired Georgetown senior and Frank Tomeo of the Marines.
"At the quarter I heard someone yell '58 seconds,' a pretty slow pace, and I thought, 'Uh, uh, they'll all be taking off now.' "
None so fast as Crothers. Above the waist he is all bones and angles, but his legs are powerfully muscular. He can sprint a 100 yards in 10.2. Showing neither strain nor obvious acceleration, he lengthened his stride and quickened it, although it was not noticeable, and simply assumed the lead with a lap and a half of the 5½-lap journey to go. He won by 30 feet in the good indoor time of 1:51.2.
"It happens very seldom, but I felt comfortable during the whole race. It was fast enough not to get boring and not so fast that it took much out of me."
This was said the following afternoon on the flight back to Toronto when he was feeling anything but comfortable. Indoor track stars are not coddled. Crothers and two of his East York teammates shared a room in New York that contained two double beds. A coin was flipped, and Crothers spent from 1:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. struggling for blanket space with teammate Don McCarten.
By Friday night the relaxation he had felt in New York was completely gone. "I'm always worried when I run at home," he explained. "They don't have too many local track heroes, and they save up their enthusiasm. It's very embarrassing to lose."
This test, at 600 yards, could have been a really tough one. But Mike Larrabee, the 400-meter gold medalist at Tokyo, dropped out in mid-race with a muscle pull, and Crothers shot by Jamaica's George Kerr, fourth in the Olympic 800, with just more than a lap to go and won by eight yards. His time was a meet record, 1:11.3, very good on a track that has the tightest turns in the East. An hour and five minutes later he was back, whirling through an anchor leg for the mile-relay team that brought the East Yorkers from a distant third to a reasonably close second behind swift North Carolina College and sent 10,617 hero worshipers into a local approximation of hysteria.
On a chill Saturday morning Crothers and the almost equally active relay team were off to Boston, changing planes en route in New York.
"I felt good when I got up," Crothers said between short naps on the two plane rides, "but I'm a bit logy now. Some sleep in Boston should fix me up, and by tonight I'll be good and scared and ready to run. Whoever wins will have to go under 1:10."
Crothers had every cause for alarm. He was running against Tommy Farrell, the best half-miler in the U.S., who had finished fifth in the Olympic 800 meters, had won the Millrose 600 and had been lying in wait for Crothers ever since. Farrell, who is short and muscular compared to the tall (6 feet), lean (155 pounds) Crothers, shot into the lead at the start like a man with a plan, which indeed he had. Reasoning that Crothers was a tired greyhound, Farrell decided to be a steady but slightly out-of-rcach rabbit. Ed Duchini and Ollan Cassell jumped right with him. Crothers, surprised, ran alone back of the pack coming out of the first turn.
"I felt very comfortable so I didn't worry," said Crothers, who seems perturbed only when he races against Snell. Again moving up without seeming effort, he went around the field with 240 yards to go and passed Farrell as the gun popped for the last lap.
"On the backstretch my legs suddenly began to feel soft," Crothers said. "I thought I had a good lead, but then I heard the pounding of feet getting awfully close. From the last turn to the tape I ran from pure fear. Right now I could use a three-week vacation."
Another man who could use a prolonged rest is New Zealand's small but durable Bill Baillie. His odyssey was, if not quite as successful, fully as agonizing as the Canadian's. Baillie arrived in New York after a two-night, virtually sleepless trip from home barely in time for his first race. He ran second to George Young in the Millrose two-mile, left the next morning for Toronto, where he won the three-mile, and capped the weekend with a two-mile victory over Young in Boston.
This seems to be the pattern for a busy season. Crothers will continue his raiding expeditions from north of the border, and an ever-increasing horde of foreigners will challenge in other events. The U.S.'s best runners will have to slim down their waistlines quickly or there will be an awful lot of medals, watches and indoor records traveling abroad this winter.