When the word tactical is used to describe a slow race by a fast group of runners, it usually means plain old disappointing. It does, that is, unless Australia's Ron Clarke is the one applying the tactics. When that happens, win or lose, world-record pace or snail's pace, the race gets a unique brand of excitement—Clarke's brand. And so it was in the feature event of last week's Los Angeles Times Indoor Games, a two-mile run with such a strong international field that a new indoor record seemed guaranteed. Instead, the winning time turned out to be routine, but for the standing-room crowd of 13,477 and a field of eight runners from six countries the time was the only thing that was routine.
Aiming to confuse and exhaust his formidable opposition, Clarke alternated between bursting ahead with a sprint and slowing to a jog that made his pursuers stack up behind him. In the end all but one of his opponents was left dazed and rubber-legged by Clarke's tactics. The exception was New Zealand's Bill Baillie, an old foe who knew that the best thing to do about Clarke was to ignore him. Thriving as the others faltered, Baillie sprinted into the lead with a quarter mile to go and beat Clarke in 8:37.4, 6.6 seconds off the record.
The fact that Kenya's Kipchoge Keino was entered in the race made his personal duel with Clarke the meet's strongest attraction, but to heighten the international flavor of the two-mile the Times made liberal use of its air travel card. Lajos Mecser of Hungary was brought 6,800 miles from home, and Russian Viktor Kudinski some 6,500 miles. After a 10-day coast-to-coast tour of the indoor circuit, Baillie was facing a 7,000-mile return flight to New Zealand. Clarke and Keino, meanwhile, were making round trips of 16,000 and 20,000 miles just for this one confrontation. To bring so many so far for such a short exposure seemed grandiose, but no one was complaining except the people who could not get in. Everybody wanted to witness a two-mile record; the meet was sold out a week in advance.
There was a major flaw in this see-a-record theory, however. It lay in the fact that no one in the field of eight was eager to start the race off at anything faster than a brisk walk. Everyone but Baillie was counting on Clarke to set a good pace, and Clarke was having none of it.
"A fast pace?" the man who holds seven world distance-running records said at breakfast the day before the race. "I wouldn't have a chance of winning if I ran that way. Two miles is a bit short for me, and Keino is four to six seconds faster than I am over the distance. I've got to try something new. Maybe I should steal his orange cap. Do you think that would do the trick?"
Actually, Clarke had a far more formidable psychological thrust in mind. When a runner feels he has insufficient speed to win by either leading or following he must do something dramatic in midrace. Clarke resolved to do just that, if necessary.
"I must hope for a first mile in at least 4:20," said Clarke. "The faster the better. A fast enough pace will tire everybody a little. At that point I can take the lead and try to kill everyone off."
Clarke may have been unwilling to set a fast early pace in the two-mile, but he was willing to do so as a man-about-town in Los Angeles. Having arrived on Thursday after a 26-hour plane trip from home, he was up early on Friday for a 45-minute workout in MacArthur Park, six blocks down Wilshire Boulevard from his hotel. Breakfast was followed by a two-hour shopping excursion and then 18 holes of golf at the Wilshire Country Club in a foursome that included Baillie, New Zealand Miler John Davies and Meet Director Glenn Davis, the Mr. Outside of Army football fame. Never mind how runners play golf. Suffice it to say that Baillie grips a club cross-handed, Davies swings with his arms limp and Clarke hits every shot as if it were a short chip to the green.
Meet Director Davis may have been merely amused at this, but he would have been horrified had he witnessed what occurred later. Back at the hotel following their four and a half hours of golf, the three tireless runners changed into warm-up gear for a 25-minute workout in darkness. Because a new pair of training shoes proved to be too tight, Clarke decided to run barefoot down Wilshire and through the park. As the three swung briskly along one of the park's twisting macadam paths they encountered the shattered remains of a milk bottle. Clarke managed to zigzag through the jagged glass without lacerating himself. Even Baillie, who came close to winning the race then and there, sighed in relief.
"Ron's got the right idea," Davies shouted as the runners sped on. "When you've got too strong a field stacked against you in a race you try to cut your foot so you can drop out honorably."
Instead of any dropout plans, Clarke was ready to spring his new hurry-up-and-wait strategy. He expected the most resolute challenge to come from Keino. The one he feared next after Keino was UCLA senior Bob Day, who at 21 has suddenly shouldered his way into the distance-running youth movement once restricted to Jim Ryun of Kansas and Gerry Lindgren of Washington State. Day came within a lunge of catching a stumbling Keino in the Millrose mile in New York late last month. Two nights later in Portland, Ore. he beat Lindgren in an 8:33 two-mile, the fastest of the season. Day is tough, he is fearless and he trains hard. Things like record times, swift opponents and—looking ahead to Mexico City and the 1968 Olympics—high altitudes cause him no alarm. Last fall he led the UCLA cross-country team against the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. (elevation 7,000 feet) and shattered what everyone had considered an invulnerable course record by 35.6 seconds.
Oddly enough, Clarke completely discounted Baillie. "I was probably the only one in the race who had written Bill off," he admitted afterward. "I figured he just wasn't in form."
Following a frustratingly slow 67.7 first quarter, Clarke took the lead with slightly less than half a mile of the race run. He then proceeded to launch a series of flowing sprints and ebbing jogs that had the track-wise crowd howling and Day and Keino in a state of shock. Only Baillie, holding himself well off the leader's erratic pace, paid no attention. Suddenly, with three laps of the 22-lap race left, Baillie sprinted into a lead that he never gave up. After Clarke came Day, then Kudinski and Keino.
"I reckoned it was time to go," Baillie said, "or I might find myself in some kind of box. I just hoped that no one else would start out ahead of me."
"He surprised the very devil out of me when he shot by," said a chagrined Clarke, who lashed himself for his natural lack of speed and his misjudgment during the race. "I slowed down too much after each sprint," he said. "But there are times when being forced to set the pace is maddening. You feel like turning around and punching the fellow who's running right behind you."
While not a great deal of significance can be attached to Baillie's victory—you win some and you lose some in the running business—a good deal can be attached to Clarke's loss. He is now determined to be in San Francisco for the Golden Gate Invitational weekend after next and is hoping to run against Lindgren. This time he is resolved to make an all-out assault on the indoor two-mile record.
"I promise to go after the record right from the start," he says. "Gerry might beat me to the record, but I don't mind helping him do it. He's also a member of the front-runners' club." So the Clarke strategy for that night will be exciting, too—running fast.