Tallest, fastest and buggiest

Jack Bacheler of Florida is not just the best U.S. distance runner, he also is the only one who is a constantly expectant moth-er
June 15, 1969

This Saturday at the Orange County (Calif.) Invitational the two-mile run will feature the world record holder, Ron Clarke, and a fellow named Jack Bacheler. The meet will be extended through Sunday morning for the sole purpose of pitting Clarke and Bacheler in the 5,000 meters. All this, of course, is contingent on Bacheler showing up. Last Saturday at the Coliseum-Compton Invitational in Los Angeles, the 5,000 was delayed until 10 p.m. in the vain hope Bacheler would rush in from his brother's wedding in Ohio. And the Saturday before that the Kennedy Games in Berkeley, Calif. had to do without Bacheler because he was off on a field trip looking for spiders.

However, Jack Bacheler commands our attention for reasons other than poor attendance: 1) he is the best American distance runner, 2) he is so much taller (he is 6'6[5/8]" and weighs 165 pounds) than his competition that he looks like a crane running with quail, and 3) he has found an answer to the question of what to do while running 18 or 20 miles a day. He keeps an eye out for interesting bugs.

Bacheler's two strong suits are moths and the 5,000 meters. He is the fastest student of those insects over that distance, if not the swiftest entomologist, period, in the world. Not etymologist, as he has been classified by the U.S. Olympic press guide and The New York Times. If he were one of those, he could tell us that the word "run" comes from the Middle English ronnen, alter of rinnen, the Old English iernan and rinnan, the Old Norse rinna and some other things. As it is he can tell us more than most anyone else in either the scientific or the track-and-field community about Arctiidae Apantesis, a genus of red, black and white tiger moths of which he says, "They're kind of pretty little things." The particular moths he is studying in pursuit of his doctorate in entomology at the University of Florida are ones that he has raised in the laboratory from caterpillars. But he gets in some incidental research while running alongside the highways of Gainesville—whenever he spots an Arctiidae, or any unusual insect that doesn't look too elusive, he interrupts his workout to catch it.

The average track man collects a few bugs during his career, but usually to his chagrin and in his eye, nose or mouth, in the manner of an automobile grille. Bacheler has been accumulating insects on purpose since he was 5 years old, and when he discovers a caterpillar feeding on a roadside tree he either holds it in his hand the rest of the way, which must require a considerable professional detachment, or, if he is lucky enough to find a scrap of paper, wraps the caterpillar up in it and sticks it into the waist of his shorts. If it is a butterfly or moth that has been struck by a car, he picks it up carefully between thumb and forefinger by the tips of its wings and runs on, working his way steadily toward an almost certain Ph. D. in moths, two years away, and a possible gold medal, three years away, in the 10,000-meter run—an event usually dominated by smaller, inward-looking men.

In last year's Olympics, Bacheler finished a strong fourth in his heat in the 5,000 and was the only U.S. entrant to qualify for the finals. The night before the finals, however, he picked up, ironically enough, a little bug and he was ill for three weeks. "Actually I was relieved when the doctor wrote a note saying I couldn't run in the finals," Bacheler says. "You imagine yourself out there sick, a lap and a half behind at best, with U.S.A. on your back."

So he got out his net and made the best of the situation. "One day during siesta time," recalls Bacheler's pretty, expectant wife Jeanne, "there were people lying around and sleeping against trees, and Jack started pulling down limbs and taking things off, and I was putting things in my purse. I had all kinds of things in my purse—caterpillars and butterflies and moths...."

"I guess there's not much done in entomology in Mexico," says Bacheler. "I guess when people saw us taking pictures of moths and catching them they must have thought I was crazy. But 10 or 12 little Mexican kids started helping us, catching butterflies with their hands. At first a lot of the butterflies were in pretty bad shape after they grabbed them, but I taught them how to do it right."

At any rate Bacheler was undoubtedly the only athlete from any country to return from Mexico with "several hundred dead butterflies and moths and some things I probably shouldn't have brought into the country—some live cocoons." He hastens to declare that the cocoons' inhabitants, "if they had gotten away, would have been of no economic value"—that is, they would not have caught on, like walking catfish, or eaten anything valuable. "There are no host plants in the Gainesville area for that genus," he explains, "and anyway I kept them in the lab and when they hatched I killed them all."

But how do you sneak cocoons into the U.S.? "It's not too hard," Bacheler says. "You just put them in your laundry." Caterpillars are more of a problem. "When we were going through customs leaving Mexico," he recalls, "I looked over at a bush and saw a caterpillar I'd never seen before. So I put it into my zipper bag. Then, when we got into U.S. customs in Dallas, I looked down and there it was outside on the zipper. The bag wasn't quite zipped all the way, and I guess it saw the light. It was just sitting there or standing there or whatever they do. The customs inspector looked at it, and I looked at it and I said, 'Gee, what's that worm doing there?' Because you know an entomologist would never have said 'worm.' The inspector took it away. He just went walking off with it."

Whether running around from childhood chasing butterflies helps you in distance running is hard to say, according to Bacheler, who was attracted to insects long before he ever thought about track. "I can remember getting a cecropia moth at the age of 5, because my dad took some pictures of that," he recollects. "And when I was in kindergarten and the first grade in Birmingham [Mich.], there would be many monarch butterflies all over this grassy field. I would catch them and put them in jars. I didn't make any attempt to label things then, as to place and when caught, but I did get a great number of insects—box on box full. It was a big operation but not very scientifically oriented. And then, after junior high school, it was kind of off and on. If I saw something unusual, then I'd keep it."

Bacheler was over 6'5" in the 10th grade and a "mediocre" member of the Seaholm High School basketball team. He didn't even play center all the time. "The coach found out I couldn't rebound," Bacheler explains. Then in the summer before his senior year he got to making fun of some of his friends who maintained that cross-country was hard. He accepted a challenge to race one of them around the block, and won. That fall Bacheler went out for cross-country. Coach Kermit Ambrose tried to talk him out of it. "He thought I was awfully big and skinny to run," says Bacheler. "He just wanted to give me some workouts for basketball." But Bacheler persisted and found that cross-country was indeed hard, but to his liking. He went out for track that spring, finished third in the mile (4:28) in the state championships and won a modest grant-in-aid to Miami of Ohio. Aside from one five-month break in 1967 to do research for his master's thesis, The Biography of a Flower Bug (he is that rare case, a graduate student with the good grace to join in polite laughter over the title of his dissertation), he has been running steadily and with pleasure ever since.

By the time he graduated from Miami in 1966, however, his only notable accomplishments were finishing 11th out of 13 in the steeplechase in the '64 Olympic Trials and breaking the school record in the three mile run, which was held by Bob Schul, who won the 5,000 at the Tokyo Olympics. "Schul had asked that all his records be retired because nobody could touch them," Bacheler recalls. "I mean I don't know whether you know Schul—he's not too modest." Schul was also, says Bacheler, more intense than he and some other members of the team, who used to throw a football or a roll of tape back and forth as they ran in practice. "If I were talking to young people," says Bacheler, "I'd say it's nice to be in shape, it's fun running and just to enjoy themselves. The real serious people in college, they don't seem to be running anymore. Running can be very enjoyable. It's not something you need to grow out of."

Bacheler grew into it, as far as excellence goes. Fortunately, Florida Coach Jimmy Carnes chose Bacheler's graduation year to form the Florida Track Club to augment the Gators' track program. Bacheler got a research assistantship at the University and thus was able to get married, get started toward a profession and keep running. It was not until 1968, though, that he began showing Olympic potential. At that, he qualified for the Trials, made the altitude-training squad and ran a qualifying time in the 5,000—all by the skin of his teeth. At South Lake Tahoe, however, he was bothered less than most of the U.S. distance men by the shock of thin air; Bacheler believes one explanation may be that he was accustomed to the difficulty of running in Gainesville in the summer, when it is extremely humid. In the final trials he surprised everyone by easily finishing in a virtual tie with Bob Day for first place. And he felt so good in his heat at Mexico that he thinks he could have come in sixth or seventh in the finals, in which five of the first six finishers (all but Ron Clarke) were from high-altitude countries.

Since the Olympics, Bacheler has run the best American times in the two mile (8:31.8), three mile (13:25.2) and six mile (27:30.0) and has posted a personal best in the mile (4:01.3). With George Young retired and Gerry Lindgren struggling to come back from ulcers and an Achilles-tendon injury, Bacheler, at 25, could be the top American at distances of more than one mile for the next several years. He has beaten Lindgren in their only meeting this year and hasn't really been pressed so far outdoors. And this despite his anomalous conformation. When he says, "I am a little flangey with my elbows," he is talking about knobs that appear quite capable of drifting several feet out from his trunk (which itself has not much more meat on it than the average elbow), so he has an unusual amount of trouble fitting all of himself into the tight turns indoors. Outdoors, he says, "I am big and flat and tend to run a little bit like a sail." "Flat" is hardly the word, but he does present more of a surface to the wind than the average distance runner, who is likely to be 10 inches shorter. The force that holds moths up, then, holds Bacheler back.

But it by no means keeps him down. Bacheler runs for 50 minutes every morning and for an hour and 45 minutes every afternoon, even in pouring rain—covering 95 to 105 miles on the week of a race and 125 to 140 on an off week. During his five-month layoff he gained 30 pounds of flab, so he thinks he will run fairly regularly for the rest of his days. Each morning Bacheler is out of bed by 6:15 and on the road by 6:30. "When things are going well," he says, "and you're just waking up as you run, and you're going along at a good clip, and the sun is coming up, it's fairly enjoyable." Especially if you are holding a caterpillar you've never seen before in your hand.

PHOTO PHOTOBACHELER PREPARES A TRAY OF MOTHS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)