The Millrose Games people called it the Mel Sheppard 600, and when they sent out four guys in short pants and lined them up last Friday night at Madison Square Garden nobody would fault you if you thought it was going to be a footrace. Some footrace! The only thing they didn't do was plant land mines in the Elastaturf. But, then, who needs explosives when you've got four world record holders, all primed by pride and fused with grudges. After they blast into the first tight turn it's even money they'll have to travel the last 565 yards in wheelchairs. Instead of a trophy, the winner has been promised first choice of casts.
All week Lee Evans, the Olympic champion and world record holder in the 400 meters (43.8), had been thinking about that first turn and about Martin McGrady and Larry James and Curtis Mills, the men who would race him to it. Over 600 yards indoors Evans is not the fastest man in that field. But under a roof the race goes not always to the swiftest. Evans runs with great strength, which is of unquestioned value when someone is trying to muscle you out of position on a curve. Too, he runs with a great flaying about of elbows, and if that is without grace there are situations when it is not without worth. McGrady and James both run with superb rhythm, smoothly, seemingly gliding. To beat them you have to unsettle them, bump them and then bump them again—accidentally—off their stride. At lunch Friday, Evans was thinking again of that first turn and of the violence, and he was smiling.
"It's got to be kind of fierce, that first corner," he said. "If you get caught behind guys like McGrady or James at that speed, you might as well hang it up. And when you have four guys like this in a race, four winners, and everybody knows somebody has got to finish last, it's got to be vicious."
Evans stopped smiling. "I got to believe some guys are going to get hit," he said softly. "And I know it's not going to be me who finishes last."
February 9, 1970
McGrady, he figured, wouldn't finish last, either. Or, for that matter, even third. McGrady holds the world record for the 600 (1:09), which he turned in on Louisville's eight-lap track, and he's only lost two races at the distance since 1966. All that is rather remarkable, because until this season when he chose to run under the close check of Brooks Johnson, coach of the Sports International Track Club of Washington, D.C., he was never near being in top shape.
At one time Evans and McGrady were teammates in San Jose. "And that dude was something," said Evans. "I'd ask him to come to the track and work out with me. We'd run one warmup lap and he'd lie down in the grass and watch me work out. Or he'd drive up in his car, a 1965 GTO, and he'd sit in it watching me run. I'd yell at him to come on and work, and he would. In high boots and street clothes. And we were running 220 intervals."
Later Friday afternoon Evans found Johnson in the lobby of a New York hotel. "Where's McGrady?" said Evans. Johnson shook his head. "You stay away from that dude," he said. "You've got him worrying." Evans almost broke up laughing. "You've got to be kidding me. Martin never worried about a race in his life. Hey, wait a minute. If he really is worried then that means he's got to be in shape." Now Johnson was grinning.
"You know, I saw how easily he won over James last week in Philly," said Evans. "And I kind of thought he might be in shape. But then I said, aw, no. The only way he'd get into shape is if he was living with Brooks. Where's he living?"
"With me," said Brooks Johnson. "He isn't working the kind of sadomasochistic schedule you put in, but he's working hard enough. We had a few problems at first, but no more. I just told him that he's got his own bedroom, two fireplaces, all the jams he wants, a little walking-around money and that the refrigerator is always full. Now he'd have to hold up his end. And he has."
The rap against McGrady, if it is a rap, is that while he's been unexcelled at 600 yards, it's only an indoor distance, and there's nothing for him to run outdoors. He is, it is said, too slow for the 440, not strong enough for the 880.
"Nonsense," says Johnson. "It's just that he always ran indoors while not in shape. But he had an awful lot of talent and an awful lot of adrenalin. Just super adrenalin. Man, it's like he's high. But it took its toll. By the time he'd get to the outdoor season he was done."
Late Friday afternoon McGrady arrived in New York. Half an hour later he and Evans were in a coffee shop and acting more like members of the same relay team than rivals. "You know," said McGrady, "if I was Larry James I wouldn't show up tonight." Evans smiled and held out a hand, palm up. McGrady slapped at it. "And," said McGrady, "I can't wait to see what Mills does that last 160 yards." Evans covered his mouth with one hand and snickered.
Last month, in San Francisco, Evans and Mills had raced in a 440. It was Mills' first race indoors and the first time he had met Evans since he set the world record for the 440 (44.7) in the NCAA championships. In that race Evans and James had burned each other into the Tartan, and Mills, a lightly regarded Texas A&M sophomore, had come on in the last few yards to win. Both Evans and James had taken it as a personal affront.
"The only reason I'm still running," said Evans, who graduated last month from San Jose State with a degree in sociology, "is Mills. I've been racing since I was 11—for 11 years—and I'm tired of it. At first I wanted to beat him outdoors, but now I don't think so. I've got a chance at a coaching job in junior college, and if I get it I'll retire after the indoor season. Just beating Mills indoors, like in the race at San Francisco, will give me enough soul satisfaction." Thinking about that last race made him laugh. "I was sitting up in the stands, and I saw Mills looking at me. I figured then I had his mind. Then in the race he came up alongside of me. I could see him looking down at me like I was going to let him in. I just kept running. He came down, bounced off of me and that was the last I saw of him."
But if Evans was carrying any sort of a grudge against Mills, he harbored it in strange fashion. Before Friday night's race Evans and Mills were standing together by the top of the final curve watching Mills' younger brother, Marvin, run in a section of the 500. Each time Marvin made a tactical mistake Evans would explain to Curtis what Marvin had done wrong and what he should have done. Curtis shook his head. "Man," he said, "I don't know any of that stuff. Don't tell me what he should have done. I don't know what I'm going to be doing when I get out there." If Evans had any doubt about where Curtis Mills would finish in the 600 it now was gone. He had already dismissed James, the shy Villanova senior who holds the world record in the indoor 440 (47.0), as being out of shape and no threat. That left McGrady. And the Mel Sheppard 600.
After one false start, Evans breaking, they were off and roaring toward that first turn. And it was Evans, who rarely takes the lead, who arrived first. Or almost first. McGrady figured it was he who had the lead and didn't discover his error until he came down on Evans—and was crunched. McGrady bounced off into James and dropped back, just in front of Mills, who had found safety in last place. "I was going to win the race right there," McGrady said later. "Then Evans hit me, then James, and I sort of fell back. Then Larry made a move, and I just stayed in his wake."
Meanwhile Evans was speeding on, wondering what was happening behind him. He had an eight-yard lead, though he thought it was less. "I kept looking side to side. I was afraid somebody was going to sneak past me. On boards, you can hear if somebody is coming at you. But on that stuff [Elastaturf] nobody makes any noise."
Going into the stretch, McGrady turned it on. He blazed past James, past Evans and his elbows and into the lead. "When he went by me," said Evans, "he really looked loose."
McGrady won in 1:10, a Millrose record. Evans was second (1:10.5), James third (1:11) and Mills last (1:14).
"Some race," said McGrady later. "There I was, eight yards behind and it had just started. That sure wasn't my race plan. I kept waiting for both Larry and Lee to kick, but they never did. Lee looked like he tied up real bad coming off that last turn."
A fellow cornered Brooks Johnson, demanding to know McGrady's strategy. "What strategy?" said Johnson. "He didn't win that race with any strategy. Just with super adrenalin and super guts."