People, guys who get paid to be reporters, keep asking Ralph Doubell the darndest questions. Win one lousy gold medal and right away you go from obscurity to a fish bowl where even the color of your undershorts is no longer sacred. Like the guy in New York a few weeks ago who demanded to know why Doubell drank French champagne instead of Kentucky bourbon? Or another who wanted to know what the swinging Aussie bachelor thought of U.S. girls as compared to, say, the ones in Belgium? And what else could Doubell do but say that if anyone happened to have any bourbon he'd be happy to swallow some, say a fifth. And as to that probing question on the qualities of the various young ladies around the world, well, so far the tests are incomplete, but, yes, going well. And now, gentlemen, are there any questions about, uh, track? To which, last week in Los Angeles, a TV man responded, "Now that you mention it, Ralphie baby, who do you think is the best man in your 600-yard race Friday night?" Splat!
"Now just who did he think I thought was the best man?" Doubell said a few days before last Friday's Los Angeles Times meet. "Martin McGrady? Lee Evans? If I didn't think I was the best, I wouldn't be running in it." Then he had to grin. "And I'm sure going to find out if I'm the best or not, aren't I?"
For Doubell, it would be his first 600 indoors. Sure, the program offered an 880 and a 1,000. Doubell holds the indoor world record in both. He couldn't lose either race if they made him compete on his hands and knees. Ah, but the challenge of the 600, which has become the glamour race of this indoor season, stirred him. Some men are content to climb no higher than the steps on their front porch; others must go up the sides of Everest. And so Doubell chose Everest, the 600, where he'd have to face Martin McGrady and Lee Evans.
It was the same challenge that lured Evans back to the 600, although twice before this season he had gone against McGrady and lost. It's not his distance. His Olympic gold medal and his world record are in the 400 meters, and if he wanted to run nothing but 440s indoors every promoter in the country would be happy to shuck tradition and oblige. "And I guess I could find a couple of guys to run against," said Evans, at the same time dismissing any such thought. To him, winning 440s against stiffs would be as unrewarding as Lindbergh having taken a boat to France. Indoors you seek out the giants—even if you have to take them on at their game. And the 600 is McGrady's game.
February 23, 1970
"A little blackjack?" said McGrady.
"Why not," said Evans and Doubell.
"My deck," said McGrady.
"Fine," said Evans.
"I'll deal," said McGrady.
Doubell shrugged. "Hit me, baby."
But the dealer almost didn't get to play. Martin McGrady doesn't run the 600, he owns it. Twenty-five races, 23 wins, the world record (1:09) and, until he beat Evans in the Millrose Games three weeks ago, the only way he could have got into the Times meet was as a spectator. Then five days before the race his coach, Brooks Johnson of the Sports International Track Club of Washington, D.C., called Los Angeles.
"Some dream race you got out there," said Johnson. "The best 600 runner in the world, the guy who's run it faster than anybody, and he isn't even invited. You've got to be kidding."
"Oops," said Will Kern, the meet director, reaching for an invitation, an envelope and an airmail stamp.
On the afternoon of the race McGrady sat in a hotel coffee shop, staring at a large orange juice. He thought of Doubell and he grimaced. "I really don't know anything about him, except he's supposed to be a great half-miler," he said, and smiled. "Personally, I think he's been built up to be more than he really is. That's all I've been hearing: Doubell this and Doubell that; about his great kick. Who's he ever kicked against?" Again the little smile. "Use your kick against one guy and everybody may say it's great. But use it against another guy—"
"Yeah, maybe. And then everybody will say, what kick? I just don't think Doubell is that good a runner. I think I can go up and crack his record in the half mile. What is it? Forty-eight? What's that? Shoot."
McGrady shifted his stare from the orange juice to his right knee, which he began to rub. Earlier that morning he had slipped in a puddle during a workout and fell. When he regained his feet he was totally wet and partly lame. Later a doctor told him he could run that night, but if it began to hurt to stop. "I aggravated a tendon," McGrady said. "Had the same thing two years ago. But I'm going to run. The doctor said it would probably kill me after the race, but I don't care about that."
He stood up. "You know, that Doubell is in for a surprise," he said. "I figure early in the race I'll be first and Lee will be second. That means he's got to go around two of us. And first he's got to go around Lee. Let's see him do that."
In his first two losses, Lee Evans had found himself running McGrady's race, a quick burst to the front and then trying to fight off any challengers. In L.A. he decided it would be different.
"This is only the second race this year I've really been psyched up for, I mean really psyched," he said. "It's because I got dusted a couple of times. Man, I'm not going to get my butt kicked on national television. Tonight I'm going to run my race."
Doubell drew the first lane. Then Evans, McGrady and, in lane four, Len Van Hofwegen of the Southern California Striders, who looked as though he wished he had drawn seat 37, row 8, section 5. McGrady was the only one who dropped into a sprinter's crouch. And the only one who broke before the gun. Then they were off: McGrady streaking into the first turn and the lead, Evans a few steps behind, Doubell third. As they swept out of the second turn a TV cameraman got too close to the Aussie and was straight-armed six feet into the infield.
On the second lap Doubell moved past Evans into second and he began thinking about winning. On the third lap Evans shot into the lead. "And when he did," Doubell said later, "I said good-by to the race. It was, to say the least, shocking. I also knew I was running my last 600. Those guys are just too bloody fast over a short distance."
When Evans roared into the lead, McGrady was having his own moment of shock. "I never expected him to come at me that soon," he said. "He was running a beautiful strategic race. Just beautiful. But then I thought, what the heck, just because he's making a surge that doesn't mean I'm fading."
It was then that McGrady saw the finish line. "In every race it's my focal point," he said. "You know how they tell you in karate to concentrate all the power in your body on a single focal point? Well, the finish line is my focal point. I don't care who is in front of me, I know I'll always get there first."
Just as McGrady sighted in on his focal point, Evans began to tie up. First he felt his arms going fast. "When you begin to lose your rhythm, to slow down, you always begin moving your arms faster," he said. "Not your legs. Your arms. That's when you know you're in trouble. Then you feel it in the legs. Then your neck and chest get tight. All you can do is run as hard as you can and hope nobody catches you."
But McGrady was catching up. With less than five yards to go, he drew even, and that's the way it looked at the finish. Uh-uh. "I figured he has about three-quarters of his body out in front," said Evans. "He won by an inch." Which is the way the camera saw it, too. But both men were timed in 1:08.7—a world record plus. McGrady's old record had been set at Louisville, where there are only eight laps to the mile. The track in the Los Angeles Forum is 11 laps to the mile, and consequently slower.
Doubell finished third in 1:09.8, up to then the third-fastest time for a 600 this season. "The race was a couple of hundred yards too short," he said. "And they can both thank my reputation for their record. They weren't racing me, they were racing my reputation. It had them scared."
Be that as it may, what was scaring McGrady on Saturday was that his plane from Los Angeles was landing in Cincinnati and he was supposed to be running a 600 that night in Freedom Hall, which is in Louisville. It seems the runway in Louisville was too icy for landing. McGrady finally made it to Freedom Hall and that big eight-lap track and went out and ran another world record, a 1:08.5, beating Tommie Turner of Murray State by eight yards.
"I felt I could break the record comfortably here," McGrady told Frank Litsky of The New York Times after the race, "but I spent from 8 a.m. to an hour before the race just getting here. I was darn tired. My muscles couldn't get relaxed and I was stiff during the race. I heard Turner coming around the last turn. That made me run."
"I thought I would be strong enough to catch him in the stretch," said Turner. "I thought he was dying, but he was still moving."
People keep getting the wrong ideas about Martin McGrady.