The relays fever was raging around the country last weekend and, before it cooled, so many young men had turned their fancies to thoughts of running fast that it became a record-breaking time for breaking records. At the 73rd annual Penn Relays in Philadelphia, some 6,000 athletes could hardly wait to get their spikes into Franklin Field's new $250,000 rubberized track, which proved to be about the plushest, softest, fastest running surface ever devised to provide comfort to a runner's aching legs. The result was 28 new meet records. More important, the weekend unveiled a collection of flashy quarter-milers who are helping to make the 440 look like a schuss down the Matterhorn.
Some noteworthy quarter miles also were turned in at the 58th annual Drake Relays in Des Moines and two of the most impressive were run by Jim Ryun. Each of them completed a sub-four-minute mile and helped his Kansas team to 1) set a world record in the distance medley relay and 2) win the four-mile relay, one of the 17 meet records that were broken at Drake. Ryun celebrated his 20th birthday by cutting a cake in a downtown restaurant Saturday night, but he might also have been celebrating the two fastest miles in the history of the Drake Relays. Ryun ran a 3:59.1 to anchor Kansas in the four-mile relay on Friday and a 3:55.6 to bring his team a 9:33.8 world record in the distance medley on Saturday. It was only the second time that a man has run sub-four-minute miles on consecutive days. (England's Alan Simpson did it last August.) The sellout crowd of 18,000 on the final day gave Ryun a thunderous ovation as he sprinted the final quarter in 53.9 seconds. As he walked along the track after the race one fan screamed out to him, "We love you, Jim, baby."
On Friday, Ryun had started his mile 60 yards behind Conrad Nightingale of Kansas State and, with only 300 yards left, the margin was still 20 yards. "Conrad ran the first quarter in 58 seconds," said Jim, "so I figured I only had one chance—wait until the last 300 yards and give it everything I had." Ryun caught Nightingale just a few yards from the tape, covering the last lap in 54 seconds.
The next day the crowd was anxious to witness a Ryun miracle. When the young champion grabbed the baton from Kansas teammate Tom Yergovich for his mile in the distance medley (880, 440, 1,320, mile), the buzz in the stands grew to a deafening roar. Ryun almost paused at the start of his run and looked back at the time on Drake's huge scoreboard. "We were close to the record," said Ryun, "so I decided to give it a real try. After a 56.8 first quarter I felt very good, and I knew this was one of those good days."
Which it certainly was. In the last lap he pulled 50, then 60, 70 and finally 100 yards ahead of Georgetown's Bob Zieminski, to get Kansas home two-tenths of a second under the old world mark.
For years the Penn Relays have produced exciting races, but usually in slow times. By late afternoon of the second day, when the feature races get started, the old cinder track was so thoroughly masticated by 10,000 pairs of spikes it looked like a quarter of a mile of gunpowder. But sloppy tracks at Penn are now a thing of the past. Last summer the University of Pennsylvania, which plays host to the relays, installed a green, eight-lane, Tartan track made by the 3M Company of Minnesota. The track consists of a spongy, rubbery outer layer set down over a solid, firm foundation. The result is an all-weather surface that drains in minutes and stays fresh and resilient no matter how heavily assaulted by pounding feet. The experience of running on it was cheered by the athletes last week as anything from "floating" to "running on someone's brand new carpet."
"The track is fantastic, it's the greatest," said Dale Bernauer of Rice, when the meet was over.
There was no more speculation about the track, however, than there was about what Bernauer and his Rice University teammates might do on it. The Owls have a mile-relay team that threatens the world record in that event every time it fondles a baton. It can also field teams that rate with the best in the world in the 440- and 880-yard relays. Rice's mile-relay unit consists of a senior, John Moss, and three sophomores, Bernauer, a muscular sprinter from Port Arthur, Texas, Mike Casey of Dallas and slender, studious-looking Conley Brown from Houston. "I don't get much respect from them," replied Moss, when asked if he had to put up with much lip from his three younger teammates, "but as long as they run like they do, I just let them say what they want to."
The team trains on a high-carbohydrate diet, often spaghetti dinners the night before a meet and waffles and pancakes the next morning. It apparently suits them. Rice has already run a 3:06.6 this spring, 2.1 seconds over the world mark, and the quartet had expected to be another second closer at Penn. That the boys did not succeed was due to the fact that they were just too fast—no one could push them. In the final, Brown, all alone with a 30-yard lead, still churned out a 45.3 anchor leg and an overall time for his team of 3:06.9.
As fast as he ran, Brown was only the second-fastest quarter-miler in Philadelphia. The very best turned out to be a 19-year-old Negro from New York City, Vincent Matthews, a sophomore at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. Though handicapped by slow teammates, Matthews was voted the meet's outstanding performer on the basis of an anchor leg that carried his school to the 880-relay title, plus a heroic 44.9 leg that won a consolation mile relay.
"I'd never even heard of him before," said Rice's Bernauer, who chased Matthews across the line in the 880 final. "I thought he was just another rinky-dink runner until he took that baton and blasted off."
A lot more will be heard of Matthews this summer—after all, 44.9 is equal to the world record from a stationary start—but fast times for 440-yard legs seemed to have come as a guarantee along with the new track. Bernauer chalked up a 45.6 in a mile-relay heat, and Mark Young, a shaggy-haired junior from Yale who runs in a tough, aggressive, most un-Ivy League manner, ran legs of 45.4 and 45.7 while carrying Yale to a victory in its section of the mile relay.
The quarter-milers were out in such force, in fact, that they even overshadowed a courageous performance by Villanova's hard-working Dave Patrick. On Friday he anchored Villanova to a trophy in the distance-medley relay and early Saturday afternoon to another in the four-mile relay, all this with a heavy chest cold he had been carrying all week. It finally hit him as he was about to bring his school a third title, the two-mile relay. As he came out of the final turn of his half-mile anchor leg, his legs suddenly began to wobble.
"I was tying up, but I saw someone in red coming at me from behind," he was able to say about 45 minutes after the race. "The last thing I remember is diving at the finish line."
It was no use. Jack Fath of Fordham just did get there first, by the width of his maroon jersey. But even at that moment Penn's new track proved itself in a totally unexpected way. An hour later Patrick was still suffering from the pain of his maximum effort, but he had only a light welt or two on his back to show for his headlong dive at the finish. In the old days of cinders he would have been torn to shreds, just like the records that fell all weekend long.