For Marty Liquori it was an evening of satisfaction and relief. For Bob Wheeler it was an evening of triumph. And for both, in the afterglow of their respective successes, there was a mood of promise, of impending excitement, the recurring sense that big things might soon begin to happen, for them and between them.
Another indoor track, season began last week at the University of Maryland, and both Liquori and Wheeler were there, but in different races and with different goals. Liquori, entered in the two-mile, hoped only to finish respectably. Wheeler, who reached the 1,500-meter semifinals at Munich, was in the mile and would be satisfied only with a victory. Both got what they wanted.
Bob Wheeler's 4:00.5 was more than three seconds faster than his previous best indoors, and for a runner who claims his only concern is winning, not time, Wheeler's reference to "several sub-four-minute-mile possibilities" for himself in upcoming weeks is intriguing.
Liquori, once considered America's best miler, provided a more subtle form of drama than Wheeler. The thing about his comeback, as they called it, was that it had started from so far back. This was Liquori's first race in 11 months, a time of discouragement, recurring pain and concern that his career may have been ended by the bone spur in his left heel. The mile had always been his race, but he had entered the longer event because training for it would require less speed work and, therefore, less pounding of his troubled foot. His training had been outdoors though, and he was worried about what might happen to his heel on the relatively sharp turns of Maryland's 11-laps-to-the-mile indoor track. And now he stood at a starting line once more, pale and whippet thin and, to those who knew best of his travail, very vulnerable. Barry Brown, the winner of this race for the last two years, took the lead on the first lap, then lost it on the fifth to England's Ian Stewart, bronze medalist in the 5,000-meter run at Munich. Liquori, looking relaxed and confident, settled in behind the leaders, a tight fifth in the early going. But then, just past the half-mile mark, he became a distant fifth. His stride seemed hesitant and, although he showed no trace of a limp, it was evident he was not the old Liquori, one who would be dallying behind the pace but merely warming up for the moment when he would pounce on the struggling men ahead.
Next came a surprise. Just as quickly as Liquori had lost his touch, he regained it. If there were doubts in his mind that this was the night to find out where all those weeks of 100-plus training miles had brought him, they were instantly resolved. Finishing the first mile, which Stewart covered in a blistering 4:13.5, Liquori moved past Brown into fourth place. Now he went to work on Neil Cusack, East Tennessee State's NCAA cross-country champion who ran for Ireland at the Olympics. The two traded positions before Liquori, looking very much the runner of a year ago, destroyed him. He would never catch Stewart or Jim Crawford, his stylish New York AC teammate who was hanging tenaciously to the Englishman—almost half a lap separated the two from him—but Liquori could test himself. And did he ever. Stewart, on his way to a meet record 8:28.4, sprinted the last two laps, yet Liquori gained about 25 yards on him. Striding out in that graceful, economical style that had cut down so many runners in the past, he moved almost effortlessly to the finish like a man who had topped off a nice jog with a pleasant little dash to keep the juices circulating. His time of 8:35.2 was as good as any he had ever achieved indoors. This was more than a comeback. It was as though Liquori had excused himself from the room for a minute and returned remarking, "As I was saying...." Twenty-four hours after the race, Liquori still had not felt so much as a twinge in his heel.
The trials of Marty Liquori began in October of 1971. Competing in cross-country for Villanova, he tore ligaments in his left heel. Each morning for most of that winter, he would dangle his foot in a whirlpool bath, give it diathermy and ultrasonic treatments, and then go out and run 10 to 15 miles—slowly. After his workouts and each night, he would treat the heel with ice packs. Finally he tried a five-minute mile, and he could not walk the next day. People were calling him the favorite for the Olympic 1,500, but the trials were coming up and there he was limping past a smorgasbord of podiatrists, orthopedists, internists, witch doctors, anyone who offered hope. In April he saw a doctor he calls Needles, who had an arsenal that could have been used for knitting. Soon the heel looked like a Swiss cheese, but Needles said Liquori would be running again in 10 days. He told him to go out one morning and run hard, even if it hurt, and then to hurry over for a shot. Liquori ran and, his foot all but exploding, dashed to Needles' place, only to learn the doctor had been taken to the hospital with an ulcer attack.
By May Liquori's hopes of competing at Munich had ended, and he stopped brooding about it. Carol, his wife, says, "It was just the not knowing." But he got to Munich anyway, with ABC. Liquori has a good TV face—a little of the young Leslie Howard, a little Ryan O'Neal—and he had long provided reporters with interviews laced with bright, provocative banter. He says, "Writers are always presenting quotes from athletes as if they're ad lib, but we're always thinking, 'What'll I say if I win, what'll I say if I lose?' We wonder as we run." And for years he had been telling reporters of his interest in broadcasting. "Oh yeah," he says, "I was plugging myself. What else can you use sports for, but to get a job? I'd hate to be 50 years old and hear someone say, 'There's Marty Liquori. He was a great runner 30 years ago.' Successful businessman sounds better to me now. That takes brains and diplomacy. Athletes only need brawn."
Of his experience in Munich he says, "It will probably be years before I find out if getting hurt was really a lucky break. I always thought that when I retired as a runner I'd start at some little TV station and work my way up, but here I was with ABC in Munich."
Liquori has thought a lot about one of the dramatic moments at Munich, Jim Ryun's fall there, and says, "In one way I felt sorry for him, to have come all that way for nothing. But then I didn't know what was worse, to have it all end in 10 seconds, like it did for Jim, or to have the pain and needles and wondering for months."
By late August Liquori's heel was noticeably better. He jogged with Erich Segal in Munich's English Garden, and in September he and Carol moved to Gainesville, Fla., where he enrolled in the University of Florida's graduate school of broadcasting. He has since run 100 miles or more every week with Barry Brown and Frank Shorter among others, but until last Saturday the uncertainty remained.' 'I've had a long enough career," he said recently, "so that if it ended right now I would have to be content about it." In the warm sun, with his new-found running buddies, another Marty Liquori seems to be coexisting with the "successful businessman." For example, this impromptu oral review of Jonathan Livingston Seagull: "He wanted to fly faster than any sea gull ever had, and they said he was wasting his time. The whole point is he didn't care what anyone thought, but they saw him practicing one night and kicked him out. So he went of with some other sea gulls, a bunch of outcasts who flew just for perfection, and they trained together. So many people dismiss running, but I think if they read Jonathan Livingston Seagull they'd understand."
And Jonathan Livingston Liquori is still a free spirit. After the race in Maryland, he announced he would run the mile at the Philadelphia Track Classic this weekend. A soul mate named Bob Wheeler will be competing there too, in the 880-yard run. But their flight patterns appear to put them on a collision course. Oh, how the feathers are going to fly.