Martin McGrady jogged nervously through the corridors beneath the Oakland Coliseum, warming up for the final of the 600-yard run at the AAU indoor championships. He broke into a fitful sprint, then stopped and stared at the floor. A friend passed and wished him luck. He didn't seem to hear. After a few minutes he muttered, "Maybe I ought to scratch. I'm just not ready for this kind of race."
It was ironic that McGrady, who is usually loose and relaxed before a race, had to worry so much last weekend. During three winter seasons he had quietly become the best 600-yard runner of all time, winning 17 straight races at the distance and setting the world record. Yet he had remained strangely obscure; injuries had kept him out of the glamorous outdoor races, and people seemed to take his weekly indoor victories for granted. Then in Oakland, McGrady finally found himself a center of attention, Lee Evans, Jim Kemp and Ron Whitney were challenging him in the 600, and Martin had a chance to prove himself once and for all in a race that no one could ignore.
He also had stomach trouble. He had been sick for several days after returning from an invitational meet in Moscow and he was still weak; he had not felt up to a serious workout before the AAU championships. McGrady hated the idea of going into the race below his best condition. He knew very well that if he lost to Evans, some people would casually note that he had not been beating anyone as good as Lee during all those indoor victories. Throughout the day of the final, he wondered if he should run. Midway in his hesitant warmup he finally made his decision—and broke into a confident grin. "The people came to see a show in this race," he said. "I guess I'm in good enough shape to give them one."
McGrady and his opponents produced a show, all right—and the most exciting 600-yard race ever. McGrady, Evans and Kemp hit the wire in a group; all three were clocked in 1:09.2, just .2 seconds over the indoor world record McGrady set on a much faster eight-lap track and equal to the fastest ever run on a standard 11-lap indoor track. And despite some very bad luck, McGrady won the race and gained the recognition he has deserved for such a long time.
March 4, 1968
The 600 had to be brilliant to overshadow the other events in the meet. Hurdler Pat Van Wolvelaere and two different relay teams set world records among the girls. Earl McCullouch tied the world hurdle mark he has been aiming at all winter. Eleanor Montgomery of Tennessee State set an American high-jump record. George Young won the three-mile in 13:17.6, only 1.4 above the world mark. Bob Beamon broad-jumped 26'11½", 1½ inches off his own record, and found himself almost outside a landing pit that was too short.
No event, however, had the drama of this first meeting between McGrady and Evans. In the semifinals on Friday night each man made it clear that he was thinking of the other. In fact, Evans did so much clever thinking that he came close to blowing the most comical race of the weekend. There were two semifinals of three men each, in which the first two would qualify for the final. Evans and Kemp, matched against unknown Bill McDonald of Canada, figured that they could practically walk around the track and still qualify.
Kemp took the lead at the start, Evans dropped in behind him and McDonald settled into third, and Kemp slowed the pace down almost to a walk. "The second lap was so silly I almost started laughing," said Evans. "But the other guy was smart enough to try and catch us sleeping." McDonald sprinted briefly into the lead; Kemp and Evans easily passed him again. But when they reached the stretch they found that the slow pace had allowed McDonald, who would normally have been exhausted chasing them, to save a kick. The two leaders looked back and found their rival shockingly close—and they had a few bad moments before they held him off in a race that Evans finally won in the ridiculously slow time of 1:14.3.
McGrady had to go a little faster (1:11.2) to beat Whitney and Hardee McAlhaney, but he won laughing—at Evans, who was sitting near the finish. "I had been kidding about doing the twist and still winning," Martin explained. "When I passed Whitney in the stretch I remembered that and I did a little twist. I looked down and there was Lee. It broke me up."
"That was no coincidence," said Evans. "It was one of McGrady's patented psych jobs."
"The way I feel, I'll need it," said McGrady. "I've been looking forward to racing against Lee, but I could have picked a better time for it."
"And I could have picked a better distance," said Evans. "I'd sure like to try him at 440 instead of 600."
Saturday night the runners were much less talkative. McGrady struggled alone with his problems; Evans and Kemp loosened up easily and acted loose and confident. "Lee is as high as can be for this race," said Bud Winter, the San Jose State coach who has been working with both Evans and McGrady. "A few months ago we were just thinking casually about getting ready for the 600, because there is no 440 or 500 in this meet. Who ever thought it would come to this?"
Kemp, the quickest runner in the group, took the lead at the gun. McGrady moved into second as Evans surprisingly dropped back into third and Whitney, a solid and versatile performer who would be a favorite in many 600 fields, trailed. "I knew Lee's plan would be to stay back and let me fight Kemp for the lead," said McGrady. "But I thought he would be too impulsive to carry it out. I thought when he heard the gun he'd just go—and I could stay back."
With a lap to go, it appeared that Lee's cautious strategy might work. Suddenly he burst toward Kemp and the lead, boxing McGrady inside him. If Kemp had weakened at that point, Evans might have stolen a quick lead and won the race. But Kemp held Evans outside him until the final turn—and there Evans and McGrady collided and almost gave the race back to Kemp.
"I wanted to cut in and save ground," explained Evans. "I didn't see McGrady there."
"Lee had a full stride on me when he cut in," said McGrady, "but I moved up to close the hole, and I was too late. So I got hit."
McGrady's legs wobbled, his arms flew upward and the crowd groaned as it saw that the favorite apparently had been knocked out of contention. Kemp lengthened his lead. Evans recovered his balance and took off after him. McGrady almost gave up hope. He recalled, " 'My chance is gone,' I said to myself. Then I suddenly saw that I was gaining on them again, so I just drove for the finish." His chest got there about a foot ahead of Evans, with Kemp only inches farther back.
"As bad as I felt before," McGrady continued, "I sure felt like myself when I started running. You know, when I was running back east, I thought of guys like Lee and Tommie Smith as something very special. Now they're my friends, so it's a little different, but it's still a challenge. After all, they're great runners. I'm just a good one."
"He's a great one," insisted Bud Winter. "If he finally gets through an outdoor season without an injury, he can be the best half-miler that ever lived."
McGrady has seldom had time to think of such grandiose goals. He has been too busy surviving. He switched from Central (Ohio) State College to San Jose last fall. He has no scholarship because he is ineligible for further collegiate competition, so he works eight hours a day after classes as a computer operator. "I've just been playing it from day to day out here," he said. "I knew the grind would be tough and I wouldn't have much time for devout track work. But I'm not complaining. Coach Winter has been a tremendous help, even though we haven't had too much chance to really work on my form."
Talking smoothly and graciously, McGrady took pains to thank everyone who ever helped him; you got the feeling that he had been compiling a list of credits for this first time when people would gather to listen to him. "I'm not a great athlete," he kept insisting. "Just look at me." His green Santa Clara Valley Youth Village sweat suit hung loosely on his tall, thin frame; he glanced at himself with a whimsical grin. "How," he asked, "could anyone compare me to athletes like Tommie or Lee?"
Bill Gaines, who also recovered from post-Moscow stomach trouble to win the 60-yard dash title for the third straight year, answered, "You are the best. You have to be to get knocked around and come back to beat guys like that."
"You should never be satisfied," added Winter, "until you have the 880-yard world record."
McGrady paused, as if the idea was sinking in for the first time. "O.K., Coach," he said quietly. "I'm yours for the outdoor season. Let's go after the record."