It's as if John-Boy himself had come down from Walton's Mountain, leaving his books and journal behind, to run the mile indoors like no man ever has. His stride is too long and his elbows flap, but with unexpected suddenness and remarkable ease Tony Waldrop has become America's best indoor miler.
As the University of North Carolina senior prepared for the Atlantic Coast Conference championships last Saturday night, a string of amazing performances—and a long line of bewildered competitors—trailed behind him. In one month he had crisscrossed the continent and run sub-four-minute miles in Richmond, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Diego. Five of them in one month, when no one else had ever accomplished four in one season. His times broke meet records held by Tom O'Hara, Marty Liquori, Kip Keino, Jim Beatty and Jim Ryun. A week ago last Sunday in San Diego he ran 3:55 to shatter O'Hara's 10-year-old indoor world record of 3:56.4, which Ryun equaled in 1971. He did all this against fields that included such runners as Liquori, Dave Wottle and Steve Prefontaine. "I ran a perfect race and he ran a better one," Liquori said at the Millrose Games. Three days later, beaten again by Waldrop in Philadelphia, Liquori said, "I think I'm running him wrong."
Along the way, however, Waldrop became aware of changes in his own life, alterations that were not for the better. He thought he was losing touch with the things that really mattered to him. "I haven't read a good novel lately or gone to a campus play or a concert," he said early last week. "I've really fallen behind in the journal I keep about the things I see around me. The travel, the attention and the pressure to do well have made me very tired. I'm not ready to run Saturday at all."
None of this was what Waldrop intended when he left his hometown of Columbus in mountainous western North Carolina to attend college on an academic scholarship. He had been a good high school runner in the half mile and mile, drawing the interest of half a dozen college recruiters, but he was more inclined to academic pursuits. His visions went beyond Polk County, where generations of Waldrops had lived out their lives. His parents had once picked cotton; now his father commutes from Columbus to a nearby Firestone plant across the state line in Spartanburg, S.C. and his mother is a receptionist in an optometrist's office. "They'd like me to move to Spartanburg," Hunter Waldrop said recently as a CBS camera crew interviewed Tony in the family's front yard, "but I can't think of a better place than right here where my family has always been." Danny, the oldest of three brothers, is in medical school. Neal, the youngest, stayed home after high school, leaning, like his father, to mechanical interests. Neal races and repairs motorcycles for a Honda dealer and the trophies he has brought home are as proudly displayed in the family's living room as any of Tony's medals.
"I'd rather have Tony as Tony than anything else," his father says. "I can't see why anyone would get out there and work the way he has at anything like track, but he has and we're proud of him."
"I tell you what I'm more proud of than anything else," his mother said as she sat on the front-porch steps. "Whenever he and his brothers are together they act like three long-lost friends. Now that's really something to be proud of."
Tony's roommate and teammate at North Carolina, Mike Garcia, shares Waldrop's fondness for the historical rooms of Wilson Library and for the small town of Bynum near Chapel Hill, which has been bypassed by time and change. "We wanted to do a book about it," Garcia says. "We would go over in the afternoons and I would take pictures and Tony would make notes to write about what we saw."
While Garcia joins these expeditions into a simpler, easier-to-understand past, he is perplexed by Waldrop's reaction to his success. "It's affected other people more than it has him," Garcia says. "As far as he's concerned the records have just happened. He just wants to travel around and meet people and have a good time. He feels you can be a success just by running to the best of your ability and understanding what is happening on the track. But what I can't understand is—well, he's done more than that. He's won and he's set records, yet to him it's no big deal. After San Diego he told me it wasn't as exciting as he thought it could be. I wonder what it takes to turn him on?"
Whatever it takes, it has not happened yet. "I'm not convinced that I'm really as good as it may seem," Waldrop says. "This may just be temporary. I'm not that confident about my ability yet because I know there are guys who can beat me. Maybe if this had happened in the outdoor season, where the competition is greater and the runners are at their best, it would mean more. I know that right now I just haven't felt the impact. Maybe someday I'll look back and it will mean a lot to me, I'll think it was nice, but not yet."
The man who comes closest to understanding Waldrop is his coach, Joe Hilton. "The kid doesn't realize how good he is," Hilton says. "He doesn't know yet what is customary for him, and how much better he can be. It comes a whole lot easier to him than to other people and he's still very much within his capacity. I said he would run a 3:55 indoors and he did, not because we trained him for it or because we planned it, but because I knew that's how good he could be. If he stays with it after graduation he'll be under 3:50 outdoors someday and I hope he'll be the first. It won't come this year because it's too soon, but he'll do well outdoors and later on he'll be considered the greatest, like I always said he would."
Waldrop pays little attention to such talk. "Coach exaggerates some," he says. "He was lucky that one time about the 3:55 and I guess he thinks he can do it again."
Waldrop speaks little of his own goals. "I don't want to seem like a braggart," he says. "Mostly I just want to go out and do the best I can and have fun while I'm at it. That's why I could never be a professional or run in the Olympics. Pro track is too much like a job and the strain and pressure of the Olympics would take away the enjoyment of competing." Waldrop's ambition used to be a "3:55 something" but it was a time that he thought would come outdoors. "Now so much has happened so fast I haven't had time to think of any new goals."
Any reevaluation must take note of his accomplishments of the past year and a half. Last season he was an All-America in cross-country, the NCAA indoor champion at 1,000 yards and runner-up to Wottle in the NCAA outdoor mile. His second-place time of 3:57.3 was better than the previous NCAA record held by Liquori. That mile was one of the few that Waldrop ran before this year. "When he got here as a freshman the first thing he did was ask me if he could continue to run the half," Hilton says, "but I saw him as a miler. I didn't push him but I won't say I didn't water at the mouth a little bit. You can talk your fool head off about something like that but it doesn't make a bit of difference if he doesn't want to do it himself."
After such encouraging results as the 3:57.3 behind Wottle, Waldrop told Hilton that he would like to concentrate on the mile this season. "He still had a lot to learn," says Hilton. "He was going out and running as fast as he could as long as he could. He was aware of it, too. I remember one day he came up to me and said, 'These fellows are running a little differently than I do, aren't they?' "
Waldrop's commitment to the mile is unlike that of most other top runners. Where a Liquori might run 100 miles per week, Waldrop will do half that, all in the afternoon. "I doubt I'd get along with a real demanding coach," Waldrop says. "I know I don't put in as much work as a lot of runners, but what I do seems right for me. Coach Hilton understands me and lets me choose my own style. I appreciate that."
The other strong influence in Waldrop's running career has been Dr. George Vosburgh, a general practitioner in Polk County. Dr. Vosburgh has encouraged Waldrop's track ambitions ever since the day he coaxed Tony out of a hiding place in the high school library and took him to a sectional qualifying meet. The doctor has been watching Tony for eight years now, jotting in his battered notebook such performances as the first big meet Waldrop ever won, the state high school mile championship his sophomore year. "Tony ran that one with his shoelaces untied," Dr. Vosburgh recalls. "I remember telling him, 'Some Eagle Scout you are, you can't even tie your own shoes.' "
Dr. Vosburgh was at Cole Field House in College Park, Md. Saturday night, sitting high above the finish line with a stopwatch in his palm, even though indications were that there might not be anything spectacular to clock. "The string of sub-fours will probably come to an end this week," Tony had said matter-of-factly on Thursday. "When it does, everyone is going to say 'What happened?' like they expect me to do it every time. I don't expect myself to, so why should they? That's what I mean by pressure."
"A string like this has to end sometime," Hilton told him. "When it does it will be someone else's disappointment, Tony, not yours. You've got too many good things to look back on already."
When the entries for the mile were announced it appeared even less likely that Waldrop would do well. Duke's defending champion and record-holder, Bob Wheeler, was out with an injury, and two others who might have quickened the pace were in the two-mile instead.
"He's only got one chance in a hundred," said Hilton. But Waldrop, far ahead of the field, passed the three-quarters in three minutes flat, and when he crossed the finish line it was obvious that he had run another sub-four-minute mile. When the time was announced at 3:56.4, equaling the previous world record, the crowd let out a roar.
Waldrop said to Hilton, "I'm so damn tired," but when the coach told him the second-place finisher was a freshman teammate who came in at 4:09, Waldrop leaped up and shouted in exultation.
In Waldrop's dormitory room there is a wall-sized poster decorated with drawings, graffiti and such. On it Waldrop has inscribed a quote from The Brothers Karamazov: "And even if we are occupied with important things, even if we attain honor or fall into misfortune—still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us...better perhaps than we are."