There are times—last summer and this fall, to cite two instances—when the world distance-running picture takes on the look of the old Oklahoma land rush. Only six months ago Australia's Ron Clarke and France's Michel Jazy were snapping world records practically on demand and treating the best competition the rest of the world could provide like so many late arrivals in broken-down Conestoga wagons. Now, after three weeks of extraordinary competition on the New Zealand and Australian track circuit, it looks as though last season's "Sooners" are about to be eclipsed by two comparative newcomers: East Germany's J√ºrgen May, a 23-year-old typesetter from Erfurt who three weeks ago came within a stride of matching Jazy's world mile mark, and Kenya's 25-year-old Kipchoge Keino, who recently set a new 5,000-meter world record, broke the listed world mark for two miles and barely lost to May in two sizzling-fast miles.
May is husky for a distance runner, his thighs are round and muscular, and at full gallop he performs like the tragic hero of a Wagner opera. En route his face is contorted with pain, and he hurls himself through the finishing tape with the agonizing lunge of a warrior dying by the sword. Apparently the German runner can sustain the agony for no more than a mile; his best performances have come at that and shorter distances. Last July he set a world record for the seldom-run 1,000 meters and in 1965 ran the year's fastest 800 meters and the third fastest 1,500 meters ever (3:36.4).
Then, in Wanganui, New Zealand on December 11, May ran within [1/5] second of Jazy's 3:53.6 mile. In action the East German has not shown a notable over-supply of Teutonic boldness. He prefers to lag back and let someone else set the pace. At Wanganui this role was taken by Keino, who was himself out to break Jazy's mark. Keino carried the field to a fast three-quarter time of 2:54.9. On the finishing straightaway of the last lap May plunged by Keino and applied a long finishing kick that brought him home in front by five yards. Four days later, using similar tactics, May nipped a shocked Keino once again, this time in a 3:54.1 mile. Thoroughly awed by it all was no less a runner than New Zealand's Peter Snell, now retired, who rates May as the man most likely to break 3:50 in a mile race.
"His speed over a half mile and his youth are on his side," says the Olympic 800- and 1,500-meter champion. "If he builds up more strength by competing over long distances he can certainly expect to lower his time."
Despite his frustratingly close mile losses to May, Keino is probably the more promising distance runner of the two. Seldom has anyone accomplished so much so fast with so little help. Keino started serious running only three years ago, at the age of 22. He is almost entirely self-taught, usually works out no more than three days a week and considers six miles about as far as he needs to go at one clip. Clarke, who trains up to 150 miles a week, could negotiate that schedule in his sports jacket and not even work up a sweat. With Keino, however, the secret may be not so much what he does but where he does it. He is the physical training instructor in the police department of Kiganjo, a town 6,000 feet up on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. In sea-level competition the effect of training in the clouds can be quite startling. "I can run three miles at sea level about 30 seconds faster than I can at home," says Keino.
When Keino first appeared on the European scene last summer he brought to distance running the kind of effervescent glamour that Willie Mays injects into major league baseball. Unlike the grimacing May and most others who ply this torturous trade, Keino runs with the jaunty expression of a man out to have a good time. His competitive uniform is as cheerful as his face, usually consisting of white shorts and a green sleeveless shirt topped by a long-billed cap of brilliant orange. The cap seldom stays aboard for a whole race. Just as he starts his finishing effort Keino will reach up and fling it off his head, an irrepressible signal that the real fun is about to begin.
At the Tokyo Olympics in the fall of 1964 Keino barely missed qualifying for the 1,500-meter final and finished fifth to America's Bob Schul in the 5,000. It was a good enough showing in his first real shot at international competition, but hardly an omen of what was in store. Last summer Keino raced nine times on the tough European circuit, at 1,500 meters, the mile, 3,000 and 5,000 meters, and won six times. He caught Ron Clarke on a couple of off days and beat the Australian multiworld record holder two out of three over 5,000 meters. He lopped 9.6 seconds off Jazy's official 3,000-meter record, lowering it to 7:39.6. He climaxed the summer by winning a 3:54.2 mile (at that time the third fastest ever run) against a strong field in London.
If the African distance runner lacks anything it is a sure sense of tactics to make the most of his amazing physical equipment. He is joyously impatient. Hold back? How dull. Rarely can he keep from jumping out in front at the start of a race and going as fast as he can as long as he can. His two losses to May occurred when he forced too fast an early pace and had nothing left for a grand finale. In a blustery wind at Sydney he attempted to set a two-mile world record but covered the first mile in an ambitious 4:07.2 and could do no better than 4:18 for the second half of the race. His time of 8:25.2 bettered the listed mark but fell short of Jazy's 8:22.6, which awaits official recognition. He was disappointed but still confident.
In his last race of the tour Keino demonstrated that he may now have learned to win with his head as well as his legs and lungs. Having taken the 5,000-meter record away from Clarke three weeks earlier at Auckland, he now was challenging the Australian face-to-face at Melbourne—and doing it (for him) in a backward manner. Circling the floodlit grass track, he allowed Clarke to set the pace, running just off his right shoulder. About 300 yards from the finish an orange cap suddenly spun onto the infield grass. Keino was off. He blasted into the lead and won by 30 yards. The time was a slow 13:40.6, but the tactics were significantly improved.
With each triumph Keino has been showered with congratulatory wires from home; from President Jomo Kenyatta, from the Economic Planning Minister and from half of Parliament. But for Keino the trip to the Antipodes was only a beginning. He still smarts from his mile losses to May and is determined to bring the esteemed mile record to Kenya.
"I'm going back home and run half miles and quarter miles to get up my speed," he warns. "I'm going to learn how to sprint that last lap, and I'm going to get that mile record. Just wait."
The wait may not turn out to be of unduly painful duration.