For Kerry O'Brien it was to be the most momentous occasion of the season, the two-mile race in which he planned to set a new indoor world record. Ah, poor Kerry! Whenever he reaches out for something special, he ends up with a handful of bad luck. All last week, when he wasn't being chased from a golf course as just another jogger, he was having $60 lifted from his wallet while being fitted for a pair of slacks. And when he was finally allowed on a golf course, as a golfer, he hit two shots and the skies opened and he was drenched. The first fairway of the Torrey Pines Golf Course was the only place in San Diego where it rained that day. "Blimey," said Kerry O'Brien. Then, on the night before the race, he opened a Chinese fortune cookie and read, "You will lose through unusual happenings."
"That does it," said Mrs. Shirley Franken, the wife of meet promoter Al Franken, who had volunteered to drive O'Brien to Tijuana the next morning. "That place is creepy enough. With Kerry's luck, we'll never get back."
Knowing that his fortune was running true to form, O'Brien was easily disuaded from going to the den of José Baba and his 40,000 thieves. "If this were just an ordinary race," he moaned, "nothing would be happening." It is only during the extraordinary that O'Brien has his hapless moments. Such as at the Olympics in Mexico City, when he ran into high altitude and two keyed-up Kenyans. Stamina is the 24-year-old Aussie's longest suit, but in Mexico he staggered home fourth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase behind Amos Biwott, Ben Kogo and George Young of the U.S.
"I was so upset," O'Brien said. "Here's Biwott, fat and with a terrible technique, up on the stand getting the gold medal. I felt like shooting him. All I could think of was how badly he ran, bouncing out of the water like some bloody ox. And that horrible time: 8:51!"
March 1, 1971
It took an 8:45 to qualify for the Olympics. Four months before, Young had run an 8:30.6 to win the AAUs. O'Brien had a lifetime best of 8:29. Last year he set the world record with an 8:22.
The week after his record run O'Brien was in Scotland for the Commonwealth Games. That little black cloud was also in Scotland. "Here I am leading," O'Brien said, "and on the next to last lap, I fall. My foot slips in my shoe, I hit the hurdle and I land 12 feet away on my rib cage. All I can do is cover my head and hope I don't get spiked. I guess that's what makes me so determined. How long can you ask an athlete to be around and ready?"
To stay ready O'Brien, who is married and a PR man for Coca-Cola in Adelaide, runs at least 100 miles a week, most of them at a punishing pace. "He's a killer," said Kerry Pearce, an Australian out of the University of Texas at El Paso. "He'll run 10 miles in 51 minutes."
In 1968 Pearce set the indoor two-mile record (8:27.2) and then faded from sight. Last fall he decided to quit track. Then he decided to give it one last try. Pearce is cast in the mold of another Aussie, Ralph Doubell, the Olympic 800-meter champion. Both are single. Both would rather run into a bar than out on a road. "More people drink than run, so there must be some good points to that, too," said Doubell. "Right on," said Pearce. "Before, track was just a way of paying for my education. That's why I wasn't giving 100%. And when I set the world record I cut my time from 9:24 to 8:27.2 in just 13 months and I was content. This year I made up my mind I wanted to see about this record, to see if I really did it or just freaked it. Surprisingly, I'm working real hard, running 17 miles a day, and enjoying it."
Going into last week's race in the San Diego Sports Arena, where he had set the record three years previously, Pearce had seven victories in 10 indoor outings, including a two-mile in Seattle last month in which he tied his world record.
In February of 1969 George Young equaled Pearce's two-mile mark in San Diego and a week later in Philadelphia set the indoor three-mile world record. Then he quit. Said Young, "When you are 31, have two kids, have been to three Olympics and have two world records and no money, it seems kind of foolish to continue."
From early in 1968 until he retired, Young competed in 28 races, 18 of them indoors, and lost only one, the steeplechase in Mexico City. As an ex-athlete, he first taught school, then went to work for big business. "I had dealings with a lot of big corporations like Gulf Oil and General Motors," he said, "and I came away greatly disillusioned. I guess I was pushing too hard, and that makes a lot of people unhappy. When you work, the boss has to work. It's frustrating. You suggest something and you have to put it in writing with five copies. Then it comes back because a word is misspelled or something equally as silly. Then you send it back, some guy holds it for two weeks, then says he's going to send it upstairs to see what they think. I'm surprised General Motors even gets one car built."
Last year Young was offered a fellowship at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He jumped at it and five months ago began to run once more. "I discovered that the only place I had found where the person who worked the hardest got the trophy was in track," he said. "The rest of life is like politics. The best man or the one who campaigns the hardest isn't always the one elected. In track nobody cares how hard you work, how hard you drive yourself. You're supposed to. The only athletes who complain about training are the professionals, and with the big money they are making, I have to wonder about them." He smiled. "I'm like most distance runners: more introspective than other athletes. You have to be. When you're running two or three hours a day, you have more time to think. And if all you think about is running, you'll soon find it's not much fun plodding alone down a road, and you'll quit. So you think about other things, like when the President gets bogged down in bureaucracy you know the country is in trouble."
All last week Kerry O'Brien plodded along by his lonesome, thinking about the world record he wanted and the bad luck he didn't. This began early in the week as he ran around the almost deserted River Valley Golf Course near his hotel. As he passed the clubhouse, the public address system boomed, "No joggers allowed on the course."
"Since I'm not a damn jogger," said O'Brien, "I kept on running. Then this old guy comes out in his golf trolley and cuts me off at a bridge. I was heading for a gate less than 300 yards away. He wanted to drive me to the gate and I said, 'No, I'll run.' He said he was losing his temper. I guess I lost mine. I told him he was power-mad and I think I mentioned what he could do with his bloody trolley."
Then, in order, his $60 was stolen, his golf game was washed out and the unfortunate fortune cookie crumbled.
"Maybe," said Doubell as they drove to the meet, "you've used up all your bad luck." As they approached the arena they saw a sign reading, SORRY, WE'RE ALL SOLD OUT.
"Great," said O'Brien. "Now I bet they won't even let me in the place."
A half hour later, someone stole Doubell's kit bag, which contained the keys to the car and his hotel room—and his spikes. "I guess we'll have to run back to the hotel," Doubell said. "I just hope I get to the room before the guy who stole the key."
Then Jim Ryun tied the world indoor mile mark of 3:56.4, with John Mason, Chuck LaBenz and Dick Quax all following him home in under four minutes. It was the greatest indoor mile ever run and the crowd of 12,007 went fairly berserk.
O'Brien looked at Doubell. "What can we do to follow that?" he asked.
In reply Doubell went out in a borrowed pair of spikes and won the 1,000 in 2:06.3, the fastest time of the year and just eight-tenths of a second off his own world record. "Watching a race like Ryun's really charges you up," he said. "I'm sure if Ryun had run slower, so would I have. Watch what it does for O'Brien."
The two-mile began as expected, with Ron Pettigrew of the Southern California Striders setting a blistering pace. Pettigrew did the first quarter in 62.3, the half in 2:06 and hit the mile in 4:11.9. Then, smiling, he stepped from the track and watched the rest of the race. A quarter of a mile later O'Brien took the lead from Pearce, with Frank Shorter of the Florida Track Club and Young running a close third and fourth. With half a mile to go O'Brien moved over and gave the pace to Pearce.
"I didn't slow down," O'Brien said. "I just used a little energy to move over into the second lane. I said, 'Let's get it, mate.' "
Pearce didn't hear him, but no matter. He felt like moving anyway, so he took the lead with O'Brien a step back. By now Shorter was still third but fading, and Young was a distant fourth.
"I thought Pearce was slowing things down and I almost went out in front again," O'Brien said. "But I heard the time and I thought, 'Lord, he isn't slowing a bit!' "
With a lap to go, O'Brien made his move. He sped into the lead and was pulling away when he hit the finish line in 8:19.2, the fastest two-mile ever run indoors or out; fellow Australian Ron Clarke holds the outdoor record (8:19.6). Pearce was second in 8:20.6, with Shorter third in an American record 8:26.2. Young finished fourth in 8:34.6.
"It's this track, it's beautiful," said O'Brien as he watched Doubell and Pearce set off on foot for their hotel 1.8 miles away. "That's why I pointed all my training toward breaking the record here. The banks are real high but they don't jump up at you. And you get a nice downhill run coming out of them. And the boards here are really fastened down. Another great thing is that they don't allow smoking in the arena. A lot of smoke inside really bothers me. It pinches the lungs."
Then he took off on foot for his hotel, and he didn't slow a beat as he hit the freeway, where signs warn that pedestrians are subject to arrest. There wasn't a cop in sight. For sure, O'Brien's luck has changed for the better.