She turned 17 only last Saturday, and she is getting prettier every day, but there must be moments when dark-haired, dark-eyed Marie Mulder is gripped by the startling suspicion that she may be over the hill. Miss Mulder, you see, is a girl distance runner and a good one, but the way things are in the girls' running sorority these days the pledges have to work like bunnies—uh, beavers—just to stay in place. The sport, at longer distances, is booming.
What happened at last week's Los Angeles Times Indoor Games at the Sports Arena furnishes a pretty fair example. Despite the fact that there were present at least two dozen men and boys who are sure to be on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, initially the best event of the evening promised to be, of all things, the women's 880-yard run. This is a race that not so long ago was thrown into the program to provide a change of pace from the more muscular grunts and groans of the males. But early last week Francie Kraker, the Michigan coed with the bright-blonde hair who held the U.S. indoor half-mile record for a week this winter, announced that she was staying home in Ann Arbor. Then Doris Brown, a slender Seattle schoolteacher, who now holds world indoor records in both the mile and half mile, announced that she was pulling out because the arches in her fast little feet were aching from overwork.
The withdrawals dimmed but did not destroy the race, which still included Canada's curly-haired Abby Hoffman, a British Commonwealth Games champion; Charlette Cooke, the strawberry blonde with a dancer's body who holds a wide assortment of U.S. distance records outdoors, and, of course, Marie, a heroine of U.S. track ever since, at 15, she came within a lunge of beating the Russians at the U.S.A.-U.S.S.R. dual meet way back in 1965. And now she was in the somewhat ludicrous position of trying to make a comeback at 17.
By race time Miss Cooke also was out of the starting lineup. She showed up at the track, sized up the competition and decided she was not yet in good enough shape to wrestle with it. She probably was right. Marie, who feels she must set a brisk pace because she lacks the natural speed to really zing out on the last lap or so, survived some unladylike bumping around at the start, before getting the lead on the first lap. Her quarter-mile time, as a result, was a slow 67.5, but she and Miss Hoffman really-stepped through the last quarter mile. With two and a half laps remaining, Abby bounded into a lead and held off Marie to win by 20 feet in the good time of 2:11.4. The third-place finisher was Kathy Hammond, and that was significant, too. She is 15 years old and has only been running a year and a half.
Miss Hoffman was ecstatic. "That's a Canadian record, you know," she chirped to a meet official after the race. "I'm planning to run faster later on this winter, but maybe we'd better fill out an application just in case."
Abby is a 20-year-old junior at the University of Toronto who gave up swimming at the age of 14 because she had not set a world record yet and was discouraged. If she can continue to compete south of her border she may yet attain her goal, but on the running track.
"The best competition in my event is right here in the U.S.," she said last week. "Your runners are getting right up there. But it's the same old story. Whenever you people put your mind to something you can do it. You've ignored the middle distances up till now."
The prospect certainly is for faster and more exciting races in these no-longer neglected events as the indoor season ends and the sport moves outdoors. In the last two years U.S. girls have taken to distance running with the same enthusiasm that others before them devoted to skiing and swimming. Last fall in California, for instance, over 300 women turned up to run in cross-country races each weekend. "It was amazing. I've never seen anything like it," exclaims Bobby Seaman, a former UCLA miler who now chairs the Southern Pacific AAU Long Distance Running Committee.
"I first began to notice the enthusiasm just before my family moved east from Sacramento in August 1965," says Miss Mulder. "All of a sudden a whole lot of girls were running in the meets, especially 12-and 13-year-olds. And now they are getting awfully hard to beat. Two years ago if I'd been able to run the times I'm running now I'd have won by miles. Now I don't even win, period."
One of the first reasons Marie isn't winning now is Mrs. Brown. Doris has come into her prime at the advanced age of 24. She keeps her 5'4", 108-pound figure svelte by training twice a day. At 5:30 a.m. she runs five miles around Green Lake Park, a recreational area in the residential north end of Seattle. From 7:45 a.m. until the middle of the afternoon she conducts physical-education classes at Kellogg Junior High School. At 4 p.m., she shows up on the track at Seattle Pacific College, where she earned her college degree, to do her more serious pace-and-sprint work.
"I don't like training on the track like that," says Doris, whose husband, Don, also teaches school and runs. "It's awfully hard on my feet, and cross-country running is loads more fun. But I've just got to do that speed work to keep up with the rest of the girls."
The rest of the girls are having a hard time trying to keep up with Doris. A year ago in Vancouver, B.C., she set a world indoor record of 4:52 for the mile run. Last fall she won the National AAU Women's Cross-country Championships (SI, Dec. 5, 1966) and two weeks ago in Seattle set another world indoor record, 2:08.5, in the 880-yard run. "That mile in Vancouver was the breakthrough for me," she says now. "Before that it was just a lot of training held back by either injuries or sickness. But that gave me confidence, and everything has gone well since."
Most everything has gone very well, too, for 19-year-old Charlette Cooke, whose great natural speed makes her an explosive, exciting performer at both the 880-yard run and the 440. As a senior at St. Mary's Academy in Ingle-wood, she suddenly blossomed into prominence last winter by winning the National AAU indoor 440-yard championship and setting a world record of 54.2 in the process. Outdoors in the summer she set U.S. records at 400 meters, 440 yards, 800 meters and 880 yards and got almost as much attention at the Los Angeles Coliseum by winning an important race wearing hair curlers, because she didn't want to be late for her senior prom. In the autumn Charlette packed her curlers and trooped off to Texas Southern University on a track scholarship. But, while the men's track program there has produced whippet-fast sprinters and relay teams, there did not seem to be much for a girl to do. So now she is back home in West Los Angeles, trying to lose the extra poundage she put on rusticating in Houston and planning to enter Pepperdine College this April on a track scholarship.
"You don't hear much about the 100 or the 220 anymore," she said, while watching last week's meet from the comfort of her seat in the stands. "The longer distances are becoming more popular because there's better quality there and stiffer competition."
Marie Mulder, only too aware of what it takes to win these days, is planning to come on stronger than ever this season. "I'm just writing last year off," she says of her rather mediocre 1966 record. The family of six children (two are married) moved east from California when Marie's father, Carel, took a job with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Her training program, perforce, was badly disrupted. But now that Brooks Johnson, a former Tufts College sprinter who is studying at American University, has taken her coaching in hand, much of the Mulder zip has returned. "I lost my confidence," says Marie. "I began to feel that I never had a chance against a good runner. That's no way to think."
Under Johnson's direction, Marie has been training twice a day. In the morning she is up at 5:30 a.m. and runs for 30 minutes to an hour through the streets of Camp Springs, Md., a Washington suburb where the Mulders will live until they move back to Sacramento this spring. Her only trouble is dogs, and not because they bite. "One dog will start barking at me and set off a chain reaction," she says. "Soon all the dogs in the neighborhood are barking. The neighbors must get pretty annoyed."
In the afternoon Marie does faster, more intensive work on the all-weather track at Crossland High School, where she is a junior, and has pulled down five A's and a B between workouts. "I feel good, and I'm making good progress," Marie says of her running. "The pressure's not on me anymore. That's the way I like it. It's more fun to run, and I'm getting my confidence back."
Marie has also done some image remaking. Her soft, brown hair, once cut in a boyish bob, now hangs down to her shoulders, flowing behind her when she runs, like Batman's cape. "I got sick of people who saw me running in my sweat suit and yelling, 'Hey, boy, you better get a haircut,' " says Marie. "Now they know for sure I'm a girl." They know for sure that she can still run, too.