Over the past 20 years, before crowds large and small, Tom Von Ruden has played many great scenes and a humiliating variety of minor roles. Considering his gypsy past and his vagrant taste for games, it is hard to believe that he is now an accomplished specialist, a middle-distance runner of renown and a virtual certainty to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 1,500.
Today there are 19 active middle-distance runners from 10 countries who have run faster miles or 1,500 meters than Von Ruden, whose personal bests are 3:56.9 and 3:38.5, respectively. At one time or another, here or there, Von Ruden has raced against 16 of them. He has beaten most of them and has been beaten by almost as many. "Among runners of equal ability and conditioning," he says, "it comes down to who wants it the most, and the only thing I know, when it comes to competing or winning in the Olympics, there will be nobody who wants it more than me." In March, Von Ruden won the first major outdoor mile of the season in 3:57.8, beating a good field that included Jim Ryun, the world-record holder. Seven weeks later, at the Kansas Relays, Von Ruden ran only one-tenth of a second slower, but Ryun was six yards in front. He realizes that on a given day, DO one really knows.
Von Ruden, 27, is a command-performer who barely looks the part. In street clothes he seems quite bookish. Outside the arena, there is nothing in his manner to suggest that he is an Olympian (ninth in the 1.500 in 1968) and a Pan-American 1,500-meter champion (1967), who in his checkered pas! also played basketball well, football desperately and baseball without distinction. Although he long ago proved he is the odd sort of scrapper who likes to carry the ball up the middle on third and 20, in his ordinary blue eyes there is no such spark. On the grounds of Oklahoma State University, where he trains and sometimes studies for his master's in phys. ed., Von Ruden passes easily as just another intent soul. Like or not, anyone guessing at a glance would figure him to be a scholar involved in the exquisite derivations of Planck's constant or the life cycle of the leaf-cutter bee.
Until six years ago, Von Ruden prospered in obscurity. In Oklahoma, a state largely devoted to its homegrown and imported football beef, he still runs without attracting much attention. If Von Ruden should ever win the Dream Mile of All Time, beating Kip Keino and Ryun and Marty Liquori and all his peers in one race, the Oklahoma press would probably give him some notice—about as much as a halfback like Greg Pruitt can get any day by simply tripping over a water bucket.
June 4, 1972
Along the vagabond trail of his youth, some people remember Von Ruden very well and others not at all. In Notus, Idaho, the speck-sized town where Von Ruden spent his last two years of high school, a longtime resident insists, "Nobody named Von Ruden ever lived here that I know of." In a bar in Notus a rancher explodes in disbelief. "Are you telling me that the Von Ruden I sec running on television is the same Von Ruden boy who lived hack of the café and played basketball for the high school?"
The people of Notus who knew him best do remember that he was a running boy. According to current gospel in Notus, young Tom Von Ruden trained almost every day the year around, running on roads and the shoulder of the Union Pacific tracks, and jumping fences from pasture to pasture. In order to train on a real track it is said he often ran seven miles to the town of Caldwell, and, after working on the cinders there, sometimes ran hack to Notus.
According to Von Ruden, he did once run from Caldwell to Notus, but never covered 14 miles round trip. "Running back from Caldwell felt like a marathon," he recalls. "I stopped and walked three times." Actually, in his Notus years he ran only in the spring and rarely covered more than four miles a day. In his workouts, it is true, he did jump fences. Jim Baxter, his best school chum, explains, "Tom came to Notus from around Los Angeles, and he was a little awed by cows. Sometimes when they came toward him, he would head for the fence."
Even now, after four years of hard campaigning, beating and being beaten by the best, when Von Ruden goes to the mark in a big arena he seems a trifle brittle for the job. He is muscular but small-boned and finely wired. He looks like a thoroughbred that could easily break down, but he has the record of a Percheron. As a 15-year-old at San Gabriel High School in California he suffered a muscle spasm in a 660-yard run and had to lay off for a month (he spent the recuperative period high-jumping and took second place in the Class C division in a California regional meet). In the 12 years since the muscle spasm, he has run nearly 500 races and has never come unstrung physically or emotionally. He has dropped out of only three events: a two-mile that came too soon after he had run a half mile: a mile that he tried too soon after influenza; and a 1,000-yard run he attempted after eating a bad bowl of chowder.
In the cryptic log that Von Ruden keeps, there is a surfeit of gloom. After a long day of roadwork he records, "gas pains at two miles." After a day of hard interval work he notes, "tired mentally, sore physically." On days when he has run commendable races he reports, "felt terrible—dizzy, weak and tingly" and "no desire, no kick." Although the log suggests that he is ready for the junk pile—or a psychiatrist—Von Ruden runs on, fit and eager. Last summer he ran eight races in 17 days in four European countries, losing only once and climaxing the whirl in Aarhus, Denmark, where he recorded the 3:38.5 for 1,500 meters, his best performance ever.
In his running style he resembles the graceful old floater, John Landy of Australia, but only superficially. Von Ruden has more bounce and far more speed. In a pinch he can pour it on. He has run a quarter-mile relay leg as fast as Ryun (46.9) and 800 meters in 1:46.8. This past winter, at distances from a half to a whole mile, on tight indoor tracks where elbows and brawling speed count, Von Ruden won 10 of 12 starts. In one 1,000-yard run he was disqualified for trying to bull his way past Ralph Dou-bell, the Olympic 800-meter champion. His only real defeat came in San Francisco, where he lost a mile run by three-tenths of a second to Keino, the Olympic 1,500-meter gold medalist.
Although he is aiming for the Games, Von Ruden is not the kind of superserious moth that could ever be consumed by such a flame. In him there is a small and constant font of self-derision. He takes the edge off losing and tarnishes his best moments with a light, almost careless laugh. Remembering a 1,500-meter race against the veteran Jean Wadoux and 11 other flying Frenchmen on ancient cinders in Paris, he says with a laugh, "I kept passing Frenchmen. With 220 to go I caught Wadoux. With 80 to go I was on his shoulder. Then I ran out of gas." Sorting through the track records he has held and maybe still does. Von Ruden says, "I probably still hold the American 1,000-yard outdoor record because nobody has run the event since." Remembering a high school victory in the decathlon, he relates, "For some reason the triple jump was one of the events, and nobody had practiced it except me. I won the decathlon." Again he laughs. "But it was not a good effort. I high-jumped higher than I pole-vaulted."
In the press Von Ruden has been described as "unassuming" and "reticent." He is unassuming, and, in the hour before a race—when reporters often approach him—he prefers to stay within himself and concentrate. In his off-hours he gabs easily. Philosophically, Von Ruden is a throwback, an oldtime amateur still doing fine in a world that has forgotten the origin of the word. In a more gracious day he would have been known as a "good all-rounder." ready for any game with archaic disregard for the stakes or the condition of the venue or his own talents. At 17, when rivals such as Ryun and Liquori were dedicated to the middle distances. Von Ruden was still a man of all seasons, taking each game in its proper time.
He was not good at baseball and disliked it, but he played. "For half of every inning you sit on the bench," he says, "and for the other you stand in center field. About the time your muscles tighten up, somebody hits the ball, and you run after it."
Casting about for something kind to say about Von Ruden's baseball career, Karl Elliott, who coached him at Notus High School, observes, "Tom was a beautiful base runner. At such times as he got on base." At Notus High, Von Ruden worked his batting average up to .167 by beating out infield hits. His only lingering regret is that in all his times at bat before he quit the game, he never hit a ball to the outfield—even one that was caught.
Though devoted to running now, in spirit Von Ruden is still unconfined. Ralph Tate, the present Oklahoma State coach, maintains, "Tom will try anything, anywhere. If you put him on sand, he will run. Put him on rocks, and he'll run on rocks. He is a competitor." in his grammar school days in Montana, Von Ruden won and lost 50-yard dashes on tough sod that God created for buffalo to trample. Four years ago, when he was old enough to know better, he ran his first full marathon in Colorado at an altitude of 7,500 feet, in thin air that God intended for Kenyans and Ethiopians. In the past 20 years at—shall we say—intermediate distances from 90 yards to 10,000 meters. Von Ruden has set quite a few bizarre records that are of no interest to conventional statisticians but are certain testament of his love.
How many Olympians have ever started a major race with one foot on the track and the other off? How many have ever run and won a race with one shoe off and one shoe on? Von Ruden has done both. In his epic 1,500 against 12 flying Frenchmen in Paris, he got the 13th starting position from the pole, but, alors, the track was barely wide enough for 12. The outermost Frenchman, a model of politesse, inched over enough to let Von Ruden get his left foot on the track. In Los Angeles last February in a 1,000, somebody's spikes tore Von Ruden's left shoe off. Running on a bare foot, Von Ruden managed to hang onto the pace—which was literally blistering him—and in the stretch beat out an old rival, Juris Luzins, by half a stride.
How many collegiate milers have ever doubled in the triple jump and tripled in the high jump in big-time competition? In addition to his middle-distance duties Von Ruden also scored for Oklahoma State in both jumps in dual meets and twice placed in the triple jump (his personal best: 46'2") at the Big Eight championships. Often, before completing his jumps, he would have to run the mile. He maintains that he usually triple-jumped better after the mile, when logically his legs should be rubbery. Ralph Higgins, who coached Von Ruden at Oklahoma State, used to broad-jump after running the 440 in the old Southwest Conference shortly after the birth of Christ. "Trying to triple-jump after a hard mile is not something I ordinarily recommend," Higgins says, remembering his own rubber legs, "but then Tom is not an ordinary boy."
Is there any man of Von Ruden's caliber—indeed, is there any running fool—who has ever won a half mile and come back 40 minutes later to run two of the four legs on a mile-relay team? For want of competition in the years since his eligibility expired. Von Ruden has often taken part in college meets as an added starter whose points do not count. In April of 1970, after unofficially winning the half mi le in a dual meet between Oklahoma State and Wichita State, Von Ruden was still full of run. In conspiracy with a redshirted Wichita runner, he tried to make up a mile-relay team. They could find only one other sidelined man willing to try, so Von Ruden led off the relay and also anchored it. On his final leg, instead of pacing himself with regard to the 49-second lead-off lap he had run barely a minute and a half before, he tried to stay up with the fresh anchor man and failed spectacularly. With 150 yards to go, Von Ruden was no longer full of run. "I was seeing black spots," he recalls. "Black spots and white flashes." He finished his anchor leg in 59.2 seconds, good time for 11-year-olds.
How many world-class milers have ever run 100 yards in 9.3? Two years ago in an allcomers meet in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Von Ruden did, necking out a classy 9.9 high school sprinter. Regrettably, his spectacular clocking will never get into the record book. When the course was remeasured, it turned out to be only 90 yards—a double embarrassment to Von Ruden since he was also one of the meet officials.
Because his father, Mathew, was a teacher, coach, principal and school superintendent—and always on the move—Tom Von Ruden, who was born in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, spent most of his boyhood in small Montana towns: in Poison and Harrison; in Brockton on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation; and in Ronan, on the old Kicking Horse Reservation. His father recalls: "In the school at Brockton there were only Tom and two other non-Indian boys, and Tom thought, he was an Indian. When they played cowboys and Indians after school, there were always too many Indians. Some of the real Indians had to pretend they were cowboys. Tom would come home, scratched up and his clothes torn, and tell his mother, 'The white-skins beat us again.' "
After his parents were divorced Von Ruden left Harrison to live with his mother in an enclave of Greater Los Angeles called Rosemead. From seventh grade in Harrison to seventh in Rosemead was an abrupt transition. In Harrison, Von Ruden had been one of two seventh-graders. To put together a basketball team for the junior high league the boys of Harrison had to join up with kids from the neighboring town of Pony. By contrast, when he migrated to California, each of the seven seventh-grade classrooms of Muscatel Junior High School in Rosemead had its own basketball team. As a 9-year-old in a Cub Scout meet in Poison, Mont., Von Ruden competed in his first organized footrace, a quarter mile, which he won although he walked partway. He won most of his races in Montana, on cinders or sod, but when he got to Muscatel Junior High, first time out of the gate he was beaten in a 50-yard dash by three kids from his own classroom.
By the start of his sophomore year in California, Von Ruden was concentrating on basketball and track and gradually getting somewhere. Instead of football he ran cross-country to condition himself for basketball. In the spring he ignored baseball and spent his time running, jumping, hurdling and philandering around with the shotput. Then, barely a year after he started specializing, he made another abrupt transition and became an all-sports bum again. In the fall of 1960, when his father became superintendent of School District 135 in Idaho, Von Ruden emigrated from California to rejoin him in Notus (pop. 324).
When he returned to his father, Von Ruden planned to stay with basketball and track, but he soon saw that Notus High needed bodies willing to play anything. Counting runty freshmen, there were only 57 boys in school that year. Karl Elliott, who coached all sports at Notus in Von Ruden's day, remembers with a slight shudder, "Tom had come from a big California school where he played basketball and also track, a sport about which I knew almost nothing at the time. He was the son of the superintendent. He had a $1,000 worth of braces on his teeth, but he wanted to play football."
In the first football game of Von Ruden's junior year Notus lost to New Plymouth 19-12. Thereafter, it was downhill. In the next five games Notus never scored while its bigger opponents piled up 40 points or more. Mathew Von Ruden threw three boys off the team for smoking. Two more were benched because of low grades, and others were maimed. The attrition was such that Notus had to forfeit its last two games because it could not field 11 men.
When he first went out for football, Von Ruden had planned to serve only as a specialist, a kicker perhaps, but by the second game he was playing offensive halfback and safety. "Playing full-time at Notus was more fun than sitting on the bench and watching your friends get killed," he maintains. "I liked offense. On defense there was usually too much action. I would see our line crumble and blockers coming at me. Sometimes the runner would trip over me and fail to score. My helmet was too big. When somebody hit me, a lot of times it would fly off, or the chin strap would catch on my nose, and I would get a bloody nose. Sometimes the helmet would spin around on my head, and I would end up on the ground looking out through one of the ear holes."
In Von Ruden's senior year Notus had a famous four-man track team. Although they could not win a local meet for lack of depth, the four wonder men won the Class B regional championship and took the Idaho state title against teams from Priest River, Gem, Soda Springs, Culdesac, Potlatch and other faraway towns. By the Idaho rules then in effect no high-schooler could run more than one race longer than 220 yards. As a consequence, Von Ruden, who could probably have scored a triple in the middle distances, ran the mile and a relay leg and high-jumped and long-jumped.
One of the four old wonder men, a Seattle graphics designer named Gary Shinn, remembers that he went out for track at Notus because baseball bored him. "I ran the 440," he says, "and led off the relay because I was pretty good out of the blocks, but Von Ruden and Clint Alley scored the points. Von Ruden always won the mile and usually the high jump, and Clint Alley always won the sprints."
Alley, now a teacher in Boise, remembers, "It was a barrel of laughs. Karl Elliott got a great stack of books out of a library somewhere—on how to train and run and how to start. Bob Hayes, the Olympic runner, had developed a bunch start that year, and I tried it. Maybe it worked for Hayes, but it never worked for me. In the loose sand we practiced on in Notus the only way to get out of starting blocks was by shooting almost straight up in the air. Try anything else, and you went on your face."
Jim Baxter, the fourth wonder runner of Notus, remembers that he did not like to run. "I was a baseball man," he recollects. "But at a track meet that I went to watch, Von Ruden came up to me and said, 'Jim, you're running on the 880 relay.' I told him I'd never run any relay in my life, and Tom said, 'Don't worry. Gary Shinn will start and give us a big lead, and I'll give you a lead, and if you can stay within 10 yards of everybody who passes you on the third leg, Clint Alley will do the job.' Adrenalin, I guess, but nobody passed me. We whomped everybody and set some kind of record."
In 1962, in the last race of his senior year at Notus, Von Ruden ran his fastest mile: 4:35.9. Most probably 150 or 200 U.S. schoolboys ran faster that year. (In 1962, Track & Field News listed 16 high-schoolers who did better than 4:18.) Von Ruden never expected to get an athletic scholarship anywhere because of his mile times. The best of three modest offers he did receive was about $400 a year from Oregon—and that was an academic scholarship.
In Notus, Von Ruden worked as night janitor at the district school. After his chores he often went onto the basketball court to practice shots and to play one-on-one and horse with Jim Baxter. Realizing that he was not deft enough to become a stunted wonder guard, he still hoped he might keep growing and gel a basketball scholarship somewhere. But it was not in his stars. He stopped growing at 6'½", and, despite having averaged 19.8 points per game, he was unnoticed.
He figured he would be able to attend some college by earning money and cashing in on his 94% grade average. He might well have ended up playing basketball and running 4:20 miles at a small school except that in the summer after his graduation from Notus there were two old track stars in conjunction in his heavens. In the two years that Von Ruden ran at Notus, Ralph Tate, the present coach at Oklahoma State, was working at the Class A high school in neighboring Caldwell. In his own active days as an undersized halfback, high hurdler and long jumper, Tate had been a scrambler like Von Ruden. Tate was so impressed by Von Ruden that he called Ralph Higgins, who was then coaching at Oklahoma State, and said, "There's a boy up here named Von Ruden that you should take, and don't ask his times. He's never been pressed, and he's never been spoiled. He is a runner of great expectations. Before he graduates, he'll break four flat and 1:48 for the half."
Although Higgins had only four full scholarships to give out a year, he took Von Ruden on faith—nothing down and four years to pay off. "I was suspect for taking a 4:35 miler," Higgins says, "but was I wrong?" Not really. Before he graduated, Von Ruden had run the mile in 4:01.1, the half in 1:47.9.
Since returning to the big time in Oklahoma, Von Ruden has fairly well lived up to the schedule he set for himself, with one exception. Long ago he decided he would not marry until he quit running. "Most women are as jealous of sports as they are of other women," he says to explain his pledge. On a blind dale a year and a half ago Von Ruden met a Stillwater lass named Eleanor Keller, who taught music. A year ago they were married, and both Von Rudens believe the marriage works because track and music have a common requirement: lots of preparation for each brief performance. Eleanor Von Ruden, who now jogs to keep fit, sums up their mutual adjustment: "We live a pretty normal life except that there are always a lot of sweat clothes lying around."
In one respect Von Ruden has come full circle this year. For want of a real track, he is working out on sod as he did of yore. The Oklahoma State stadium has been redesigned. To accommodate 22,000 more spectators, the track that encircled the football field has been eliminated. The new track outside the stadium is not yet finished, so in this important Olympic year Von Ruden is training on an old golf course studded with daisies and dandelion buds. He is philosophical. "Running on a track can become a monotony," he says. "Any quarter mile run out here is worth a second, maybe two, on a good track." Heeding the poet, he ignores the metaphorical woods and runs on, with miles to go and promises to keep.