It had been a prosperous year for U.S. distance runners, winners of two gold medals in the Olympics, and so the small recession they ran into last week at the Compton Invitational in chilly Los Angeles probably was to be expected. But the authority with which a pair of antipodal athletes, Australia's Ron Clarke and New Zealand's Peter Snell, beat their American opponents, seems to portend something far harsher than a recession. A first-rate depression might be more like it.
Clarke, who in each race chooses to face the agonizing challenge of a new world record, set two on his way to winning the 5,000-meter run. He lowered his own three-mile mark from 13:07.6 to 13:00.4 and his own 5,000-meter record from 13:33.6 to 13:25.8. Snell, who in each race feels challenged to maintain a reputation of invincibility, snuffed out a gang attack in the mile with a final lunge through the tape just when it seemed he might at last be beaten.
"Can you imagine two such different races?" asked the exhausted but vastly relieved Snell, whose time of 3:56.4 was matched by the runner-up Jim Grelle. "Clarkey in the 5,000, running all by himself, the complete master. Me in the mile, the so-called complete master, almost being mastered myself."
It was indeed a night of contrasts but, where Snell is concerned, this "almost" is probably as close to defeat as he will ever get again. The race launched him on a world tour that will end in August with his retirement from competitive running. It was also the race about which he was most apprehensive.
"I'm a wee bit disturbed about what could happen tomorrow night," he said before the race in the soft voice that is only a decibel above a Method actor's mumble. "I honestly think I could lose. You see, in order to prepare for two months of hard racing I've had to do a great deal of distance training. It's only in the last two weeks that I've been able to work on my speed."
There were five very good reasons why Snell, who plays his role as king of the mile with a subdued, uneasy fretfulness, should have been worried. He was to run against Josef Odlozil, the Czechoslovakian who had run second to him in the 1,500-meter run in the Tokyo Olympics, and four Americans, all of whom had posted mile times comfortably under four minutes. These were Jim Ryun, the boy who looks like a stork but who had won the mile in Modesto a week earlier in 3:58.1, two days before graduating from Wichita (Kans.) High School East; Bob Schul, the Olympic 5,000-meter champion, who was stepping down to the mile to certify his claim that from one mile to 5,000 meters he is the fastest runner in the U.S.; and Jim Grelle and Cary Weisiger. Besides, the Americans had a plot.
"Snell is going to have a surprise," announced Schul, who is just beginning to round into shape after a winter in which his usually rigorous training was slowed by a knee injury. "In the past Americans have always run against each other for second place in these races. That's over. We don't care who it is, but this time one of us is darn well going to try to beat Snell."
The plan, partially abandoned during the race, was for Schul, Grelle and Weisiger to exchange the lead at each quarter, hoping that competitive rust and a fast early pace would deaden the sting of Snell's long and powerful finishing kick. Ryun simply planned to produce a winning kick of his own.
It was shortly after 10 p.m. when the runners stripped off their warmup suits for the start of their race. The crowd of 12,160, disappointingly small, shivered in the damp 58° air and so did the six milers. Snell, dressed in black shirt and shorts, stood on the inside lane, nervously shaking his massive legs. It is these that make the New Zealander look so formidable. His hamstring muscles stand out from the backs of his thighs like short lengths of fire hose. His calves are so large they resemble grapefruits.
At the start Weisiger raced into the lead and towed the field, with Snell striding comfortably along in fourth, through a 58-second first quarter. Then Schul took over for a quarter, and finally Weisiger again. But they had somehow allowed the pace to slow and at three-quarters of a mile the time was 3:01, at least four seconds slower than the three Americans had wanted it to be.
"That slow third lap made me change my tactics," said Snell, who usually charges in front with 220 yards to go. He sprinted suddenly while still some 300 yards from the tape. But as he entered the final turn less than 220 yards from the finish, Snell found he could not sustain his kick. He eased off in order to save something for a possible challenge from behind. It was at this point that Grelle, whose years of chasing Jim Beatty and Dyrol Burleson across finish lines the world over has earned him a reputation as track's finest also-ran, made a dramatic bid to end a long career of frustration. He bolted through the turn and came up on Snell's right shoulder as they headed down the straightaway.
"I saw a white jersey out of the corner of my eye," said Snell later, "and thought it must be Ryun, because I knew it couldn't be Grelle. But it was Grelle, right enough, and I actually thought he was inching ahead of me. I thought, 'No, this can't be happening to me.' "
It didn't happen to Snell, but the two ran stride for stride and grimace for grimace over the last 50 yards, and as they dived through the tape together Snell was the winner by only the width of a pectoral muscle. His head flopping from side to side, Ryun was third in 3:56.8, Odlozil was fourth as the pacesetters, Weisiger and Schul, trailed.
"Snell kicked too soon," said a sanguine Grelle to Ryun after the race. "He wasn't ready," said Ryun. "This was the night to beat him. He's going to be tougher with this one under his belt."
Ron Clarke's remarkable race against the clock looked as easy as Snell's duel with Grelle was arduous. He thought the track was fast and appreciated the fact there was little wind, a luxury he encounters seldom in competition back home. But most important is Clarke's attitude toward distance running. To him it is pure recreation, as much so as the squash racquets, the golf, the tennis and the swimming he enjoys from once a month to three times a week. Unlike Snell, Clarke, at 28, has absolutely no plans to retire from competitive running. And, unlike his closest rival in the two and three miles, Schul, whose training consists of a punishing daily series of 220-, 330-and 440-yard sprints, Clarke simply gets out on the road and runs.
This is precisely what he did last week. With New Zealand's Neville Scott, who is tall and blond, trotting along right behind him, Clarke, who is tall and dark, turned the first mile in 4:17, the two miles—after pulling well ahead of Scott—in 8:40 and, finally, with the crowd above him roaring down its amazed encouragement, pushed through the final 440 yards in a brisk 61 seconds.
Next week Clarke will run the three miles in Toronto against Schul, New Zealand's Bill Baillie, Australia's Albie Thomas, Canada's Dave Ellis and the U.S.'s 10,000-meter Olympic champion, Billy Mills. Snell will run against Canada's Bill Crothers in the half-mile.
This is the second stage of a long, hot summer of racing. Clarke will go on to Europe this month, and Snell will follow after running the mile at the AAU National Championships in San Diego, June 27. This may be the last chance the U.S. has to put a full team on the track against him, but Snell is not worried.
"I didn't look much like the unbeatable Snell, did I?" he asked two and a half hours after winning the Compton Mile. "The point is, though, that the race has done me a world of good. No one is going to beat me in San Diego."
Then he took a sip from a cup of tea and smiled, one might almost say, bullishly.