At five o'clock on a winter afternoon in Southern California's San Fernando Valley the sunset is out of an MGM musical—apple-green sky blending upward to turquoise and wisps of salmon-colored cloud floating over the black silhouette of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Near the foot of the mountains, in a scruffy junior-college football stadium, 30 members of the San Fernando Valley Track Club—school kids, CPAs, housewives, firemen, doctors and college students—await the order to begin their 2½-mile warmup jog.
The stadium lights suddenly blaze, erasing the spectacle in the western sky, and the coach barks in a Hungarian accent, "O.K., you guys, let's go. Five big laps." As the runners move off in a bobbing bunch, a small, pigtailed figure in a light-green warmup suit dashes out from under the grandstand and onto the field in pursuit.
Jacki Hansen, 27, the fastest female alive at 26 miles, 385 yards, is late for her workout, but her coach, Laszlo Tabori, the third man ever to run a sub-four-minute mile, chooses to overlook the transgression. His world-record holder has just returned from Hawaii, where she completed her sixth marathon, winning the women's division, and in a few days she will leave for a race in Brazil, a virtual sprint of 8,900 meters. His goal for the moment is just to keep her fresh. No need to pack in the miles.
So for two hours Jacki Hansen runs 220s, 440s and 660s as Tabori prescribes them, varying in tempo from rolling to rhythmic to driving, interspersed with jogging recovery laps.
Five years ago Hansen was a mile-a-day jogger, without a coach, a training schedule or a goal. She had competed in the 100 and the hurdles since high school, but with limited success and less encouragement. "I was not a natural," she says. "In high school my coach wouldn't even take me to the city meet."
She was fortunate to have a coach at all in those days. She had been a member of the first track class for girls ever set up in a Los Angeles city school, but by the time she got to L.A. Pierce Junior College the opportunities for girl runners had shrunk. Track was being handled by a golf teacher who turned over the coaching, such as it was, to Hansen and a friend. "And the farther you went, the worse it got," she says.
When she arrived at Cal State-North-ridge, a four-year college in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, Hansen was the only woman who wanted to run. "They told me I could go out and run every day, and they'd give me a grade," she says. By 22, going to school and working for a living and having no one to run with had just about finished her as a competitor.
In the fall of 1970 the turnaround began. While jogging a loop around the campus at Northridge, she met Judy Graham, a miler. They began running together regularly, and before long Graham introduced Hansen to Tabori, who had defected to the U.S. along with many other Hungarians following the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and was then coaching the men's cross-country team at Los Angeles Valley College.
The next spring Hansen began to work out with Tabori at L.A. Valley. It was Tabori's first experience coaching women, but his team, made up of Judy Graham, who eventually ran a 4:48 mile, Hansen, whom he assigned to the mile and half mile, Becky Dennis and Sue Kinsey, took second at the AAU championships the next year. "They had to get used to me and my ideas," he said. "Interval training, training constantly. It took a while."
While adapting to Tabori and his system, Hansen also discovered distance running. Real distance. As part of their training she and Judy Graham occasionally ran a six-mile loop, out to a nearby flood-control dam and back. The dam and the dry lake behind it were the home turf of a group of senior distance runners who regularly ran 12-and 14-mile workouts. Eventually Graham and Hansen were persuaded to go along. Judy did not cotton to the experience, but Jacki says, "I could tell it was right up my alley. I knew I wanted to do more."
About that time Hansen also happened to see Cheryl Bridges, a schoolteacher from San Luis Obispo, win the Culver City Marathon in the world-record time of two hours, 49 minutes, and her resolve was reinforced. "I wanted to jump into that race," she says.
When she announced her marathon intentions to Tabori, he had some doubts, but in the end it was the coach who gave in. "He said that there were things he wished he had done when he was younger and that this was obviously something inside me, and that I should go ahead and do it," Hansen recalls. "He also said, 'You're stubborn enough. You will probably go pretty far.' "
A marathon has been described as two races: the first 20 miles and the last six. In her first race, at Culver City the following year, Hansen says she clipped along at a seven-minute-a-mile pace for 20 miles in "an ecstatic mood." Then she hit the 20-mile wall. "I don't remember the last six miles," she says. "It was a devastating experience, the hardest thing I had ever done in my life." Still, she won, and her time—three hours, 15 minutes—qualified her for the Boston Marathon in April 1973, the first in which women were to be allowed to compete officially.
Tabori, seeing his own prediction about Hansen's potential come true, added long morning runs to her schedule and increased the length of her afternoon workouts. She was logging as much as 140 miles a week, but although she won the women's division at Boston in 3:05:0 and continued to compete at lesser distances through the rest of the year, she began to be plagued with injuries.
Part of her problem was her stride. She still ran like a half-miler, on her toes. "I got away with it for a long time," she says, "but, finally, it took its toll."
In the summer of 1974 she was fitted with inserts for her shoes that instantly corrected her stride. That September, in Waldneil, Germany, she ran the best marathon of her life and her first under three hours (2:56:24) and finished fifth overall. One week later, while she and a friend, Tom Sturak, a good Masters miler, were traveling in Italy, she ran her best 15 kilometers. "We saw a poster on the parlor wall of our boardinghouse in Florence," she says. "We didn't know whether it was a footrace or a bike race or a hike, but we copied it down and decided to enter." Sturak finished sixth, Hansen was seventh in 52:15 and, because she was the only woman in the race, the organizers gave her a bouquet of red carnations—and a flatiron.
From the European trip on, Hansen was in the big time. In December 1974 she again ran the Culver City Marathon, this time in a world-record 2:43:56. She had had difficulty hearing the times of her splits, so it was not until she was within one block of the finish, when she heard Tabori shouting "2:43!", that she first knew she was three minutes under the record then in dispute between Christa Vahlensieck of West Germany and Chantal Langlacé of France. It was Hansen's fourth marathon.
A few months later Vahlensieck took back the record with a 2:40:15 in D√ºlmen, West Germany, but Hansen was still improving. She passed up the Boston Marathon last year, largely because of the expense, but also because of the effect its frequent bad weather might have on her time. She pointed instead for Eugene, Ore. where, on Oct. 12, a cool, cloudy day, perfect for a marathon, she set another world record—2:38:19. She averaged 6:02 per mile, but this time when she passed the 20-mile mark, she actually picked up the pace to an average of 5:58 for the final six.
Currently the best female marathoners are running about 20% slower than the best men, compared to approximately 10% slower at 100 meters and 12% in the middle distances. But the gap is narrowing. From 1967 on, the women's record has dropped more than 37 minutes (since April 1973 Hansen has lowered her own time by 27 minutes). "The next barrier is 2:30, I guess, but there won't be any more big chunks," she says. "Two thirty-six would be under a six-minute pace. I'd like that."
The International Road Runners Club in Switzerland is considering the feasibility of including a women's marathon in the 1980 Olympics, which is small comfort to female marathoners in this Olympic year, especially Hansen, whose record time would have placed her ahead of 15 men at Munich.
But for Jacki, at least, there are other compensations. More and more meet organizers are including women in their distance-race plans, and as the world-record holder she gets her share of expenses-paid speaking engagements. Her job as an underwriter for a health-insurance plan pays enough for her to get by, and her supervisor, Bill Adler, is a runner himself so the job is tailored to her schedule of training and meets. In return for this accommodation Hansen helps put together the monthly newsletter of the Masters Striders, the club for which Adler competes. "It's the least I can do, I think," she says. "I make $4.25 an hour and have fringe benefits like a week's paid vacation to anywhere I want to go, and I'm insured up to my teeth."
All 5'2½" of Jacki Hansen radiates her sense of well-being these days. She sometimes wears a pin that says UPPITY WOMAN, a gift from a running companion, but her self-assurance runs deeper than slogans. "Running is my way of living now," she says. "Every morning feels better because of it. I want to live a long time and run forever."