Filbert Bayi, the remarkable middle-distance runner from Tanzania, had vowed to make this indoor track season a learning experience that would profit him well later on in bigger races in the great outdoors. His five-week U.S. tour started in Madison Square Garden on Jan. 31 with a victory in the Millrose Games mile, but finishing first was incidental to his quest for racing knowledge. Training was the thing, he suggested, and if he broke the tape while running for experience, what was the harm?
Well, as John Walker and Rick Wohlhuter discovered last Saturday night in San Diego, a little learning is a dangerous thing. For Bayi has passed a cram course in indoor-mile strategy after just three meets, subtly revising his tactics while giving quality performances consistently. The indoor Bayi is a decidedly different runner from the impulsive African who set the track world on its ear outdoors: the astonishing front-runner who relished the idea of opening up 40 yards of daylight on the pack in the first half mile. Forced into a more conservative style by the tighter turns and shorter straights of the 160-yard indoor track, Bayi has mastered the concept of running with his rivals while distributing strength more evenly over the course of the race. And he probably has become a better runner as a result.
For strategic performance it is hard to imagine a better effort than the race Bayi ran in San Diego, a 3:56.4 victory that equaled the third-fastest mile ever contested under cover. To achieve that clocking, only a couple of ticks off Tony Waldrop's world record of 3:55, Bayi ignored the enticing early pace of a "rabbit" named Ed Zuck, put down the gutty challenge of Walker and ended Wohlhuter's string of victories at 26.
It is doubtful that Bayi could have accomplished any of those ends using his front-running style of last summer, and he was aware of this. A week earlier, after beating Walker by a yard in Los Angeles in 3:59.6, Bayi had said, "I think it is time I changed my tactics. I can't use the old ones indoors. My goal now is not a world record, but to learn to run indoors. People think that I must always go to the front, but I don't now like to lead all the way."
February 23, 1975
And in San Diego, the day before the race, he said, "I think I will have to go, like them, in groups, even if they wait to run the last quarter in :55. They would like me to run ahead, but I have to save my strength for the end. They are more experienced. I don't know indoors and I am just using this for training."
Everyone expected that Bayi would get his biggest training impetus from Wohlhuter, the Sullivan Award winner who holds the world records at 1,000 meters and 880 yards outdoors and who had run a 3:57.7 indoor mile almost by himself on Jan. 25. "Bayi's a challenge for me," said Wohlhuter. "I keep beating the same guys in the half mile all the time, and I need something new. This race is sort of an experiment for me. I want to see what I can do. It might be too early for me to face difficult mile competition, but I want to give it a shot anyway."
As for leading, Wohlhuter said, "I don't think I'll have to worry about that. I think Bayi may not lead in the beginning, but by the middle stages of the race he will. If he runs a slow pace, he'll play right into my hands. I'll bide my time, just waiting to jump on him."
Almost at the same moment Wohlhuter was discussing his plans for the San Diego mile. Walker was 3,000 miles away, running to a 3:58 victory in the Toronto Star's Maple Leaf Games. It was the fastest ever for the big New Zealander indoors, but that exertion, and a spectacular party following the meet, were expected to deliver Walker to the West Coast the next day weary and worn.
"What a party," said Walker with a chuckle in San Diego. "And afterward, it was impossible to sleep, because there was this great siren outside our hotel, a burglar alarm at one of the shops, and it rang the whole night. Then en route from Toronto we circled Chicago for two hours. I've had three hours' sleep in the last 48."
Despite the large debt he owed to Morpheus, Walker had something going for him. Sitting in section 15 in the arena was a loud, exuberant knot of sailors off H.M.S. Canterbury, a New Zealand frigate that put in at San Diego. Waving the Kiwi flag and cheering lustily, the Canterbury crew made Walker forget he was supposed to be dragging his anchor.
Zuck, an Arizona State athlete whom meet promoter Al Franken recruited to set a hot early pace, gave the three internationalists a shot at the world record and the crowd of 9,899 an excellent race to watch. He went through the first quarter in a blistering 54.5. Bayi had not been informed of Zuck's role in the competition and, trailing by as much as 10 yards, must have experienced the same sort of feeling he used to create in his rivals. Worried, they call it. He began to close the gap. Zuck covered the half in 1:57.8, with Bayi at 1:58 and Wohlhuter, who was right on Bayi's shoulder, at 1:58.1. Fast, they call that.
Bayi took the lead shortly after the half mile and Wohlhuter and Walker went with him. Bayi passed the 1,320 mark in 3:01.4, with Wohlhuter six-tenths behind him and Walker within grabbing distance of both. They stayed that way for another 200 yards before Walker made his big move. Going into the turn with a lap and a half left, he brushed past Wohlhuter and momentarily threw the American off stride. Forty yards before the gun lap Bayi started sprinting. Walker tried to close on him, without success, and Wohlhuter just did not have his usual kick. They went to the wire that way for Bayi's third straight victory. Walker was timed in a remarkable 3:56.9, his best ever indoors, and the disappointed Wohlhuter had a 3:58.4 for third.
"I think the guy who kicked from the start, he didn't like to win," a somewhat puzzled Bayi said afterward. "I didn't want to run with him from the start because I know there are some behind me who are very fast, Wohlhuter and Walker. They are very fast for the last quarter, so I waited for them. I didn't run by myself." He didn't wait long, for he covered his last quarter in :55 flat. "I was relaxing through the way," he said. "I thought I was under the world record because I was not very tired as I was in Los Angeles and New York."
He also said his goal was to run each of the pair of mile races left on his U.S. tour—both at Madison Square Garden—in under four minutes.
"I enjoy running," he said, "and I enjoy even if anybody beat me. I don't mind it because it is racing. You can always lose because you are a human being." As for the indefatigable Walker, he said, "With two laps to go I didn't figure I had a chance. Filbert got too much of a break on his sprint. I thought Wohlhuter would have been the one to watch. He was the one I was sitting on. No one realized that Bayi was going to pick it up that quickly. Filbert ran very, very strongly. But I'm pleased, considering the amount of travel I've had. I've had three races indoors this year and improved in each one."
For night-to-night improvement, however, neither Bayi nor Walker nor any other athlete in the meet could hold a stopwatch to Francie Larrieu, the only female member of the Pacific Coast Club. In the 1,500 meters at Toronto on Friday night, with no one to push her in the last half of the race, Larrieu set a women's world indoor record of 4:10.4. In San Diego Saturday night, after enduring the same tedious flight Walker was on, she won the mile in 4:29, the fastest ever run by a woman indoors or out. On the way, she passed 1,500 meters in 4:09.9 to better the mark she established in Toronto.
"I can't believe it," she said happily. "I'm really, really pleased. I felt good tonight and I said to myself, 'Heck, I'll just keep going.' "
One would expect Bayi to keep going, too, even though the competition in his final two U.S. appearances is unlikely to push him to a new world record, barring an unexpected matchup with Marty Liquori in the AAU championships on Feb. 28.
"I expected Filbert to run well indoors," Walker said. "He's very slight and he has good acceleration and he just goes. He has certainly lived up to his reputation as a very fine athlete." Yet Walker is not yet convinced that Bayi will beat him as easily outdoors.
"I've raced against him so much now I feel I'm getting to the stage where I can master him," Walker had said a week or so earlier. "I'm starting to believe that once you get past Bayi the race is finished for him. If you can get past him, that's it. I feel surprise is the ultimate thing. If you can all of a sudden, bang, open up five or six yards, that's enough to snivel him up. He'll never close the gap again after that."
Perhaps. But it would appear that Bayi's indoor education may make him harder than ever to get past, something that was never easy in any case. Bayi has discovered that he can run with his foes without losing control. He has gained more confidence in his ability to sprint at the end.
"I didn't have any trouble tonight," said Bayi after the 3:56.4, "because now I've got some experience. Now I learn, I think, 50% of the things that I want to learn. But I need to learn more."
So does Wohlhuter, the 26-year-old Chicago insurance salesman who has hopes of competing in both the 800 and 1,500 meters at the 1976 Olympics. "Why not?" he asked. "They're scheduled at separate times."
For his showdown with Bayi, Wohlhuter might have found a better omen than a sign he kept seeing at various spots around his hotel, a waggish reference to a dance contest. It is comic actor Mantan Moreland's most famous line and every track man's prayer. "Feet don't fail me now," it read.