Seventeen-year-old Jerry Proctor upset six-time national champion Ralph Boston in the broad jump; Charlie Greene finished second in the 100-yard dash; defending champion Tommy Farrell ran dead last in one trial heat of the 880-yard run; and world indoor record holder Dave Patrick trailed his field in another heat. That is the way things were going last Thursday in the first half of the two-night AAU championships at Bakersfield, Calif.
Then, at about 9:15 Friday evening, Jim Ryun took over. With a race plan few people expected, Ryun rushed into a lead at the start of the mile run, widened his advantage for three laps, then sprinted the last quarter in 53.5 seconds, leaving his nearest opponents some 40 yards behind. Suddenly the 1967 AAU could no longer be remembered for such earlier disappointments as Boston's troubles or Jim Hines's tainted sprint victory over the infuriated Greene. Ryun had run the mile in 3:51.1.
The time was .2 second under his previous world record, set last summer at Berkeley, Calif. This one was achieved without the aid of pacesetters or opponents strong enough to push Ryun to his limit. Instead, it was Ryun who pulled the others along. Jim Grelle, who is 30 years old and had run only one mile race all season, placed second in 3:56.1, and the first seven finishers broke four minutes. Four of them, including Martin Liquori, the high-schooler who was seventh, were under four minutes for the first time. Liquori, a small, dark-haired 17-year-old from Newark, shook Ryun's hand eagerly after the race. "I was awfully proud to be in the race," he said. "Thank you for setting that pace."
All 11,600 spectators should have thanked Ryun, for his record seemed to establish the pattern for the entire night. Two hours later another world record was set as USC sophomore Paul Wilson vaulted 17'8" to break teammate Bob Seagren's two-week-old mark of 17'7". Tommie Smith, Lee Evans and Wade Bell joined Ryun in sweeping every meet record, from the 220-yard dash through the mile, off the books, as a total of seven AAU marks were added to the two set on Thursday by Hammer Thrower Ed Burke and Discus Thrower Gary Carlsen. Overnight an inconclusive and turbulent meet turned into one of the most exciting AAU championships ever.
Entering the stadium Friday evening, Ryun had no idea of the wonders he was about to perform. He was not even sure he would try for a record. "I'm prepared for a big effort mentally," he said, "but I'm still not sure I'm all right for it physically. It all depends on just how good I feel." Thoroughly rested after an easy week, he stood for a few moments on the grass near the entrance to the track, then turned to some friends. "Don't take this the wrong way," he said quietly, "but could I have about 20 minutes to myself right now?" He had made his decision. He jogged off alone across the field outside the stadium, then sat down under a clump of trees to complete the loosening-up exercises that would prepare him, physically and psychologically, for the fastest mile that has ever been run.
In his recent races Ryun had been relaxing behind the leaders, surging to the front whenever he pleased and winning in times dictated by the early pacemakers. "I realized," he said, "that I wouldn't set any records doing that, because no one was going to knock himself out setting a record pace. So I decided to push myself." He told only one opponent, Grelle, of his plan. "Fine. See you later," Grelle answered. "I sure won't try to keep up with you."
No one tried, as Ryun ran the first quarter in 59.2 and the half in 1:59, slightly slower than he had wanted to go. "My legs felt kind of heavy early," he said. "Then I began to feel very good. In fact, this was an easier race than the one at Berkeley last year."
Moving farther away from the field, Ryun ran his third quarter in 58.6. "When I saw what you were doing," said Oregon's Roscoe Divine, who finished fifth, "I thought I'd like to rush up to help push you. But then I said, 'Let him do it himself. I'd better just worry about placing.' "
When the time was announced, officials asked Ryun to jog a victory lap for the crowd. "You must really feel like jogging another lap," someone said. Ryun looked up with a small smile. "You know, that's the trouble. I do. I have too much left." As he jogged, Divine talked about Ryun's feet. "With somebody to help him," Divine said, "he'll certainly run 3:50." Grelle, who was delightedly claiming a world record of his own—"for my age group"—added, "You can't set a figure. There is no limit."
Ryun came back and asked to hear the times for all the runners. They were duly recited, down to Liquori's 3:59.8, and as he listened Ryun seemed to realize for the first time just what he had done. "Gee," he said, "that was a fast race, wasn't it? But if I could run that fast, and still close in 53.5, I guess I've got a long way to go yet."
The pole vaulters may have even farther to go. As record-breaker Wilson was getting set for an almost successful attempt at 18 feet, loser Seagren was saying, "I knew 17-7 wouldn't last long when I set it at San Diego." Wilson, who has had a disappointing year because of injuries, had shown that he was ready to challenge Seagren at the NCAA meet when he equaled Bob's 17'4" vault only to lose with more misses. Friday night he had fewer misses and would have won even if both had failed at 17'8". "But they both won't miss," said their coach, Vern Wolfe, as the bar was raised.
An intense student of vaulting who relies more on precision than on the power of a Seagren or a John Pennel, Wilson made it on his first attempt. He scrambled out of the pit, hugged Seagren, then raced happily around in a wide circle. Wolfe climbed up a concrete wall into the stands to kiss Wilson's mother, then jumped back down to congratulate her son. Wilson had little to say afterward, but Seagren, who narrowly missed in his own three tries at the record, talked freely. "What a perfect vault!" he said. "It was the kind you close your eyes and visualize. I guess I'm supposed to say that records are made to be broken—although I might have liked mine to last more than two weeks." He broke into a smile. "I better keep talking, because if I stop I may cry."
Among the other meet records set last weekend, the 880 mark of 1:46.1 by Wade Bell, the third-fastest half mile ever run, was easily the most impressive. The half-milers faced a grueling test. They each had to run two heats within a few hours Thursday night, then come back in the finals on Friday. College athletes had an obvious advantage: they had run more races throughout the spring, and many had doubled as milers or run in relays at most meets. But hardly anyone expected Bell to do so well.
"It was a tough weekend," Bell said, "but I felt it was to my advantage that way, because I'm a miler, too, and I knew I could last." Dennis Carr, who ran second, is also a part-time miler, but he was not so sure the schedule helped him. "I never felt so tied up," he said after the final. "It felt like we were sprinting the whole way. I don't know how I managed to get up enough kick to finish." He was shocked when told of his time, 1:47.1. "That's my best ever," he said. "I thought that would be good enough to win."
As he received his award, Bell was reminded of the last time he played a supporting role in a meet starring Ryun. In Jim's record mile at Berkeley, Bell set the sizzling pace for almost three-quarters. "I was happy to be around for that record, too," he said. "As I recall, though, I didn't finish too well."
The levity of late Friday night was a striking change from the mood of early Thursday as the meet got under way in hot, dry and dusty Bakersfield. "This city," said the Los Angeles Striders' Freddie Banks, "must be designed as a testing ground for all us people who are destined to go to hell."
"If you're right," Ralph Boston said, "then I better straighten up right now."
Bakersfield sits at the lower end of the San Joaquin Valley in central California. It is within reach of both the lush farmlands and the desert, but local citizens have managed to shield themselves from the harsh lives of migrant farm laborers and the barrenness around them. With its long line of motels featuring faded Spanish decor, its inexhaustible supply of hard-visaged cocktail waitresses and its weather, Bakersfield is not an easy town to like.
The irritable mood of the athletes was evident in the very first running event, the 120-yard high hurdles. Richmond Flowers, who had lost to Earl McCullouch at the NCAA because of McCullouch's fast start, asked officials to watch for Earl. When McCullouch was called for one false start in his first trial heat, he came back muttering about Flowers. In the finals McCullouch beat Flowers, but their small feud became academic as Willie Davenport easily whipped both of them in the fast time of 13.3, against the wind. "I'm a competition runner," said Davenport. "If the other guys go fast enough. I'll run 13.3 or better. If not, I'll win in slower time."
"I don't care if the others all run 10.3," said Jim Hines. "I'll still run around 9.3. I'm not that kind of competition runner." Hines has, however, become a competition talker in recent weeks, and Thursday in the 100 his continuing debate with Charlie Greene was supposed to be resolved. It was not. Hines won, but only after officials scrutinized a photo that was slightly ambiguous—Greene's entire body was blocked by the bigger Hines as the string was broken, and it seemed conceivable that Greene could have been hitting it at the same instant, as he claimed, for a dead heat. In addition, Hines had gained a full-stride advantage leaving the starting blocks, and many observers agreed with Greene that Hines had jumped the gun.
"Of course, this is California, and they wouldn't disqualify an Oakland boy like Jim for two straight jumps," sneered Greene. "What a way to lose your fastest-human title!" In fairness, the title must remain undecided. "I've proved I can beat him stride for stride," Hines claimed, but he was wrong. Greene made up at least a full stride after the start. While some of his accusations may have been extreme, Greene did have a case. Unfortunately, he will have to wait a long time to prove it, because he now enters ROTC training for six weeks and does not expect to race for some time. "This," he said, "is like a bad dream."
On Friday, Hines tried to prove another of his boasts—that he could handle Tommie Smith in the 220. This time there were no doubts and no arguments. Smith won convincingly. "A good race," said Hines, a soft-spoken and humble kid when he is not matching words with the clever Greene. "No excuses."
On Thursday night the words would have had a hollow ring; on Friday they fitted right in with the mood set by Ryun and Wilson and the others. The best athletes had won most events, and track and field seemed like a simple game again. "You're still the greatest," teen-ager Proctor told Boston after a headwind—always a problem for Boston—had helped Proctor win. "Maybe," said Boston, "but you won."