First, in two breathtaking bursts of speed, came Rodney Milburn and Dr. Delano Meriwether, setting world records, one legal, the other disallowed because the wind was blowing too hard in the right direction at the wrong time. Milburn, 21, is greatly talented, greatly ignored, a cool dude in muttonchop side whiskers with a hurt inside because people do not talk about him when they talk about high hurdlers. But no more. Looking only to qualify in the semifinals of his event in the national AAU track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., the Southern University junior-to-be flowed over 120 yards in 13 flat, knocking 2/10ths of a second off track's longest-standing world record, one which was held by six famed hurdlers and first set by Martin Lauer of West Germany in 1959.
"Before, when they hear of Milburn they don't know who it is," he said after winning the final in 13.1. "Everybody will wonder where I came from, but I've been around. Like there's a part in the Bible. It explains that all that's happening now happened before."
Almost. Nowhere in the Bible is it writ that a man ran 100 yards in nine flat, even aided by a 6.2 mph wind. (The legal limit is 4.473 mph.) But bursting out of the blocks in last Friday's final came not-so-young Dr. Meriwether, the lanky leukemia specialist, his buttocks tightly encased in gold nylon swim trunks, gold-and-white suspenders over his hospital shirt, at 28 probing the improbable.
After he had become the second man in history to run nine flat (John Carlos was the other, and he had an aiding wind of 15.6 mph), the doctor said, yes, winning was nice, but his family is moving from Baltimore to Boston and how in the world was he going to ship his large collection of tropical fish without losing a few? "I've heard some comments on the fact that I'm not elated enough over my times," Dr. Meriwether continued, "but I know, and all the other runners know, that I just as easily could have torn a muscle. I've done it three times this year. Time is nice, but the competition is the thing. Today was a lot of fun. Next time I could just as easily finish seventh."
July 4, 1971
The dramatic tempo of the meet was established, and hardly had the crowd screamed itself hoarse at one astonishing performance when it was rising to its feet to scream at another. Steve Prefontaine of the University of Oregon gave the home folks a treat when he ran three miles in 12:58.6, less than nine seconds off Ron Clarke's world record and only the second sub-13-minute three mile in five years. The next five finishers did 13:07 or better. "Three years ago you could hardly find a 13:07 three-miler in the country," said Prefontaine, shaking his head. "Now you run that, and all you get is sixth place. Things just keep getting tougher and tougher."
Then on Saturday, Ralph Mann picked up the opening day's pace, winning the intermediate hurdles in 49.3, which was what the world record had been until he broke it last year with a 48.8. "The last time I did something like this," he said, "those 440 guys came behind me and spoiled everything. Curtis Mills set a world record. One minute everybody was talking to me, and the next I was alone. Hey, where's everybody going? Oh, Lord, they've done it to me again."
They sure had. John Smith churned out of the final turn with UCLA teammate Wayne Collett, turned on his burner and blasted through the tape in 44.5, which was 2/10ths under Mills' record. Collett came in second in 44.7.
Smith knew the time was fast, but not how fast. When the crowd continued to roar, his hopes rose. "And then I heard the public address guy say it was a record," he said. "Man, I felt great. When Wayne and I got up this morning we felt like it was a world-record day for one of us. Funny, all Friday, I couldn't get awake. But when I went to bed I couldn't get to sleep. From 10 to 10 I stared at the ceiling Wayne couldn't sleep either. When we came to the field we decided we'd both go for broke. And if we tied up, well, it would just have been the wrong decision."
More was to come. Marty Liquori ran a 3:56.5 mile but, like Mann's performance, it went relatively unnoticed as Sid Sink won the steeplechase in an American record 8:26.4, more than four seconds better than George Young's old mark.
Young was supposed to go in the three mile, but due to a mix-up he did not get an invitation until two days before the meet, and decided it was too late to compete, although at least one of his opponents expected him to turn up.
"I'm still not counting him out of the race," Prefontaine said. "Those old veterans are crafty and have read a lot of books. I read one where Herb Elliott said he wasn't going to run in a mile. Then he warmed up on another field, showed up in his street clothes and at the last second changed to his track suit. It blew everybody's mind. So until the race starts and Young isn't in it, I'm not counting him out."
With a best of 13:01.6 this year, Prefontaine was the favorite in a field including Frank Shorter, Gerry Lindgren and Steve Stageberg. "I wish I could psych up," he said gloomily. "I thought I'd be all jumpy, and here I am totally calm. It's unreal. And I hope some guy gets out and shares the pace. If I have to bust my hump by myself for 12 laps, I don't know what will happen."
For his part, Shorter was in a daze. "This is the kind of nervousness you only go through two or three times a year," he said. "It's something you can't control. It sort of creeps up on you. You know you've oriented your life toward this kind of moment, and you wait for it to happen."
Shorter had run well in the Drake Relays, but, as he said, "I haven't done anything since. I don't know what I can do. I'm in limbo. Maybe it's because I'm apprehensive about running against Prefontaine in his home town. Also, my sense of fair play is coming in. If he goes out, should I try and share the lead with him? Or should I lay back and leech off him? Then I think, I've run most of my races in front, so why not? I'm primed to go, but it's like when you step on the gas. It either goes cha-clunk, cha-clunk, cha-clunk or it goes off like a 427 'vette. What kind of race is this for me anyway? Here's Prefontaine. They say he has the best cardiovascular system in the sport. And that other guy, Steve Stageberg. They say he's got the highest oxygen intake system. What am I? Just the world's fastest ectomorph."
Stageberg was one of the 5,000-meter sensations of 1968, but he found he could not run at altitude and finished fifth in the Olympic trials. He went back to Georgetown University, ran into a dispute between the track team and the coach and, disgusted, hung up his spikes. He made several halfhearted attempts at a comeback, but he did not get serious until this year. One day, Frank Rienzo, the current Georgetown coach, called and said he was entered to run two days later in the Penn Relays. "Wait," said Stageberg. "I haven't done any work." Rienzo told him he would have to get his feet wet sooner or later. For the next two nights Stageberg worked out, and he won the Penn Relays three mile in 13:52.4.
In four races he got his time down to 13:15.8, and with hardly any training. He runs 85 miles a week; Prefontaine and Shorter do from 125 to 150.
Stageberg says he is destined to be great. "I was reading some old clippings from before the 1968 trials," he said. "How I said I'd never train for the 1972 Olympics. I had to laugh. Why did I come back? First, I have a God-given talent. If I don't develop it, I guess I think it would be a sin. It's like in the Bible, the parable of the talents. If you bury them you are damned. Second, I'm still improving, and I'm intrigued to see how much my body can take. I believe I'm divinely blessed. My success, it's not rational. I've dropped 20 to 30 seconds every time I've run. For lack of a better word, it's irrational, or rationally inexplicable. Is it mystical? Well, in some ways, but not like they use the word today, not as part of the new culture. My belief is reactionary compared to that. I believe in miracles. God does grant miracles. God does have a divine plan for some people. Running is God's divine plan for me. There is a guardian angel making my steps lighter. No, the more I think about it the more I don't like the word mystical. I have a conventional belief in miracles. If I win the race, I'll just say, 'See, that's it.' "
And there was Gerry Lindgren. As a skinny little high school runner he had been a wonder, but he developed a bad case of pessimism and a bad case of ulcers, and he fell out of sight.
"It's all in having a positive mental attitude," said Lindgren, still little, still skinny, but now 25 and a distributor for a cosmetic firm owned by Glenn W. Turner, the Orlando, Fla. millionaire with the DARE TO BE GREAT motto. "In high school I had a coach with a great positive attitude," Lindgren said. "It rubbed off on me. But in college I began to associate with people with negative attitudes. Within a year and a half, I developed an ulcer. A doozie. I almost died from it. You know, you are who you associate with. My past trouble in track was because I associated with people who had bad attitudes. But now I only associate with those with positive outlooks. I see no end to where this can take me. Take this three-mile race—a great cardiovascular and a great oxygen intaker—why, you could pick out anyone and tell him for some strange, esoteric reason he had been chosen to run a fast three mile and, well, even if he had trouble walking, he could go out and do it. If he believed it. The mind is that strong. Take me. All I am is a little runt who can run."
"All those things are fine," said Prefontaine. "I have a positive mental attitude, and I think I'm divine, but I also think it takes a heck of a lot of blood, sweat and tears."
And so on that note, they called the three-mile field. Then they sent it back. The meet was running close to an hour late. Prefontaine took Lindgren into the Oregon dressing room to warm up.
"And what does Gerry do?" said Prefontaine, shaking his head. "He tries to sell me a cosmetic distributorship. Here's the big race coming up and he's making a sales pitch."
Finally the race began, and soon Shorter and Prefontaine were sharing the pace. Lindgren took it for three laps, then fell back to seventh. "A tactical mistake I never recovered from," he would say later.
"With a half mile left I knew I didn't want to win badly enough," said Shorter. "Sometimes it happens. I don't know why. Then you lose your concentration and it's all over."
Still, Shorter hung in second, splitting Prefontaine and Stageberg, until there were but two laps left. "I wonder what they are up to?" Stageberg was thinking. "Are they colluding against everyone? Maybe they're going to slow down, then surge, then slow down, then surge, trying to break away. I don't like this." If it had been a slow pace, Stageberg had intended to make his big move at the 2-mile mark. The pace was not slow. The leader did the first two miles in 8:42. "Well," Stageberg said. "So much for that. Another plan goes by the boards."
On the 11th backstretch, he decided Shorter was losing ground and he moved up into second. Prefontaine looked around. "He's surprised to see me," Stageberg thought happily.
"I was," said Prefontaine later. "There were still 660 yards to go. I didn't expect anybody to move on me that soon. I thought, 'I've come too far.' "
On the last lap they began to sprint. "He can run 58," thought Stageberg. "I wonder what I can do?" Then the crowd noise swept over him. "It was a din, a deafening din," he said. " 'Hey,' I thought. 'What a feeling!' Then I realized I was tiring, and from 220 out I knew I couldn't win. Then that din again. I started looking for the tape. 'Come tape, where are you?' I thought."
With 100 yards left, Prefontaine looked back, saw Stageberg struggling and slowed to win in 12:58.6, the fifth fastest three mile ever run. Stageberg crossed in 13:00.3, with Shorter (13:02.3), who won the six mile the next day, and Lindgren (13:04.3) a few steps back. Almost abreast of Lindgren came Mario Perez in the same time.
A few minutes later, Prefontaine was asking Bill Bowerman, his coach at Oregon, if he could run in Saturday's mile.
Bowerman fixed him with a steady stare. "I think you have proved a point," he said.
"That means 'no,' " Prefontaine explained later. "But I feel so strong. The longer the race went, the stronger I felt. My last mile was 4:16. I really think I can take my time down before the summer is out. Say, can you believe that Milburn? Thirteen seconds? Wow!"
The question was the same one Milburn—who also won the NAIA and the NCAA college division hurdles—had been posing for months. "Now that I've got the world record," he said, "maybe they'll believe in me. Funny, I don't feel like a world record holder. I mean, I have this thing about a big head. I figure when a guy gets cocky, he's going the wrong way. I wasn't pressing here. The only thing that's got me shaking is the Olympics. But I'm running so well now, next year the bubble could burst. That's why I'm trying to be cool now. I'm hoping that nothing happens. People start that jive about 'Where's Milburn, man? What ever happened to Milburn?' I don't need that jive. I know what I am, and that's what I'll always be: a guy with a don't-care expression who inside really cares."