On the day before his formidable two-mile victory last week in San Francisco over Australia's Ron Clarke, 20-year-old Gerry Lindgren sat in a Spokane television studio looking positively suave and even, to the surprise of those who know this wispy creature, saturnine. He was neatly pressed into a navy blue blazer with brass buttons and a button-down, blue oxford shirt, the ensemble set off splendidly by the crimson-and-gray tie of his school, Washington State University. But Lindgren never fooled anyone. Despite his occasional attempts to appear dapper, Lindgren gives himself away every time with his high, squeaky voice and the uncontrollable cowlick that sprouts upward from his thatch of dark hair. He has forged some notable victories—over the Russians, over the NCAA, over his own confounding allergies—but his engaging little-boy quality beams out stronger even than his desire to be first across the finish line.
At the Golden Gate Invitational indoor track meet in the drafty Cow Palace the courage and the pixie in Gerry Lindgren were on bright display for all to see. Not only was Clarke running against him, but also Jim Grelle, who had beaten Lindgren in a tactical two-mile race in Los Angeles last month and had, in addition, beaten Clarke over a fast two miles on the Australian's home territory last winter. A world indoor record was a strong possibility, but Lindgren said, "What I'd really like to do more than anything is just beat Ron Clarke."
Clarke had no designs on his own indoor mark of 8:28.8. In winning over New Zealand's Bill Baillie in Los Angeles a week earlier he had run a slow 8:41.8 and claimed he could not have gone a step faster. A 10-day attack of flu had cut into his training, and he was not yet back in condition. All he hoped to do, Clarke said, was win.
At the start of the race Clarke took the lead, but the pace was slow. Lindgren decided to move out. He spurted ahead to bring the estimated crowd of 8,500 to a roar. For the next 15 laps he held the lead, his face turning bright red and his tiny but muscular legs sizzling frantically over the board track. The quickened pace forced Grelle to drop out even before the first mile had been passed, but Clarke, deeply tanned and half a head taller than Lindgren, stuck behind him like an immense shadow. Then, with exactly four laps to go, Clarke sprinted out around Lindgren and opened up a quick two-yard lead.
February 27, 1967
"It was a gamble," said Clarke later. "I was tiring, but I thought by rushing in front fast I might discourage Gerry a little and also excite the crowd enough to give myself a lift." The tactic never had a chance. On the back-straight the next-to-last time around, Lindgren suddenly exploded past Clarke. With the crowd screaming encouragement, Lindgren kept stretching the lead as Clarke faded. He won by a comfortable 15 yards in the excellent time of 8:32.6.
"I can't believe it," exclaimed Lindgren after the race, looking bedraggled in a damp T shirt and bare feet. "Ron has always been an idol to me. I've raced him four or five times before, and every time he's left me in the dust."
It was exactly three years earlier in this same meet that Lindgren first asserted himself as one of the most appealing personalities in world sport. As a 17-year-old senior from Spokane's John Rogers High School he ran the two miles in the astonishing time of 8:40, six seconds faster than his own unofficial scholastic mark. Though he lost the race to Clarke, Lindgren so dominated the occasion with his fearless front-running that he shared the meet's outstanding-athlete award with Clarke.
"It was an amazing, rather unnerving experience," Clarke recalled as he prepared for an encore. "He was so little he couldn't have looked more than 13 years old. He was such a hero to the crowd that a tall bloke like me, dressed in a dark outfit, automatically became a villain. When I tried to pass him he wouldn't let me. Once I brushed him accidentally. The crowd booed so hard I thought they were going to come after me with clubs."
Clarke was impressed more by Lindgren's attitude than by either his performance or his popularity. "He didn't seem particularly excited about what he had done," says Clarke. "He had lost, and he was simply determined to train harder and to do better next time. I sensed that he was a very special breed of runner."
Lindgren has been something special since the day his running career began in junior high school with an afternoon newspaper route that could hardly have benefited his change purse as much as it did his legs. It was five miles long and took in only 11 customers. Gerry's family, which has four boys, could not afford a bicycle for Gerry, so he walked or ran the entire route each afternoon. His running career continued on into high school when Gerry abandoned the unprofitable newspaper business and followed his two older brothers onto the track team, all 117 pounds of him. It improved dramatically through school, despite the breaking and rebreaking of a metatarsal bone in his left foot. He even established something of a social phenomenon in the northern outskirts of Spokane where he lived. Several times each week packs of Rogers High School runners, led by the spirited, diminutive Lindgren, would go on long-distance excursions around town. Local residents began to think that young Lindgren had formed his own variety of Hell's Angels—on foot instead of on motorcycles.
"Sometimes an old lady would be terrified at the sight of this mob of us running down the street toward her," says Lindgren, with a grin, "but we tried awful hard not to scare too many people."
Part of the blame for frightening local inhabitants must be placed with Tracy Walters, the Rogers High School track coach, who found in Lindgren a protégé whose zeal matched his own. Almost immediately he had Lindgren on a three-phase training program that he had evolved from the training techniques of three of the world's outstanding distance runners, Australia's Herb Elliott, New Zealand's Peter Snell and Czechoslovakia's Emil Zatopek. To duplicate Elliott's practice course along a sandy beach, Walters found, in landlocked Spokane, a sand-and-gravel pit over which he mapped out a half-mile route. Adopting Snell's technique of training in mountainous terrain, Walters located a hill almost two miles long and at regular intervals would send Lindgren and his teammates scampering up it, three or four times in a single training session. This dovetailed breathlessly with the Zatopek method, which was, simply, to run until completely exhausted. Walters sent his charges out on 15-to-l8-mile runs over the rolling countryside once a week and clocked them on his stopwatch to make sure there were no slackers.
Considering this background, Lindgren's performances as a high school senior in the winter and spring of 1964 were hardly surprising. He was not much impressed by them, however.
"Times never really meant anything to me," he says. "I hardly ever read much about track. Coach Walters kept getting excited about how well my performances compared with the best in the world, but I never took that too seriously. All I knew was that I was always getting beaten. Until I won that race against the Russians I didn't think I was in their class."
One is justified in harboring the suspicion that Lindgren's 10,000-meter race in the U.S.-U.S.S.R. dual meet of July 1964 is what brought Clarke to the U.S. this winter. Clarke currently is at work on a book, The Lonely Breed, which chronicles how outstanding distance runners of the past and present prepared for and ran their most important races. Lindgren, whose dramatic upset of the Russians Leonid Ivanov and Nikolai Dutov will constitute an important section, had barely climbed off the plane in San Francisco last week before Clarke had him in tow and was taking him off for an extended interview. When he tottered back to his hotel room several hours later, Clarke seemed badly shaken.
"That fellow is either a physical marvel or the greatest con artist in history," he said, preparing to type up his notes.
What Gerry Lindgren had described to Clarke was one of the harshest training binges in a sport notable for them. "Coach Walters convinced me that unless I was really willing to work I had no chance against anyone as good as those Russian runners." said Lindgren. He had four weeks in which to prepare, and Walters put him on a three-times-a-day schedule at home in Spokane—a 15-to-l8-mile run in the morning to help digest breakfast, fast and slow quarters on the track for lunch and a nice easy seven-to-10-mile jog late each evening to help lull him to sleep.
"But that comes to 250 miles a week." exclaimed Clarke, a prodigious trainer himself. "Yes, I guess it does," replied Lindgren, sheepishly.
After all that work Lindgren almost missed the race. During his last long run on the beach south of Los Angeles, he got lost when Coach Walters failed to appear at the pickup spot. Lindgren was barefooted. He wore cut-down blue jeans and a white T shirt and was soaking wet. He probably resembled a dope addict frantic for a fix. Two people slammed their doors in his face when he asked to telephone from their houses, and a third threatened him with a pistol. He finally got through to the police and arrived back at his room after midnight. The race proved to be less of an ordeal than what he had just been through. Lindgren sprinted past the startled Russians with about two miles to go and won by 150 yards.
Lindgren went on to make the Olympic team, though he injured his ankle training in Tokyo and finished ninth in the 10,000-meter run behind surprise winner Billy Mills. When he returned he had numerous offers of college scholarships, and he chose Washington State in Pullman, only 75 miles south of Spokane.
"I can't imagine why he came here," says Jack Mooberry, Washington State's calm, amiable track coach. "He could have gotten the NCAA's free ride almost anywhere he wanted, plus $15 a month for his laundry. Here he gets only tuition. He is allowed to work 50 hours a month, at $2 per hour, to pay for his books, fees and board and room. He's got to come out $100 or so short every term."
"Well, I looked at some of the California schools and a couple in Oregon," says Lindgren, "but I didn't like the smog around Los Angeles and the running climate in Pullman is pretty good. Besides, Coach Mooberry said he'd leave me pretty much alone to work out my own training program."
Despite the less than generous terms that Washington State was able to offer, Lindgren nearly lost even that aid during June of 1965, when he defied an NCAA ban to run in the National AAU Championships at San Diego. He went anyway, finished an inch behind Mills in the six-mile run and both received credit for a world record of 27:11.6. It was a record that Ron Clarke soon destroyed by a margin of 24 seconds.
In 1966 Lindgren won the NCAA's three-and six-mile outdoor championships, rasping out bronchial coughs between strides. He had to take the rest of the summer off for allergy tests and a dental examination. He needed $250 to $300 worth of work on a mouthful of cavities and proved to be mightily allergic to dust of a dozen different varieties. For the last few weeks he has been taking two-a-week allergy shots and his habitual wheeze is gone. Inspired by his new-found good health, he has been doing speed work on the dusty dirt floor of the Washington State field house in an effort to improve his finishing kick.
Friday he covered his final quarter in an extremely rapid 59.6 seconds, and Tracy Walters was ecstatic about his former pupil. "This fellow is so much more astute, has so much more depth than you can imagine," he said. "And he gets such joy out of running!" So, Walters might have added, do the people who watch Gerry Lindgren.