The Mason-Dixon Games are run on a tight budget, and so even the most glamorous of the track events, the mile, usually offers a field such as last week's—Jeff Kramer, Phil Barker, Ralph King, Chris Ridler and Tony Staynings, all of whom seem to run the distance uphill. In fact, the entries for the mile historically are so mediocre that the meet record is 4:01.9, set in 1964 by John Camien out of Emporia (Kans.) State. Thus has the mile been run, or jogged, for 15 years around a giant track—only eight laps to the mile—upon which more than two dozen world indoor records have been tied or broken. Which is why the promoters were awash with warmth last Saturday when Rick Wohlhuter, the celebrated half-miler, arrived in Louisville to remove the embarrassing 1,760-yard albatross from around their necks.
For Wohlhuter it would mean going twice his normal distance, but the quiet, 27-year-old Chicago insurance salesman has never found that to be much of a chore. Since he first began attacking the distance seriously, in 1973, he has gone under four minutes 11 times, and twice he has been clocked under 3:54. That's a pretty fair score for a guy playing someone else's game.
"I like to run one or two miles a year to test my conditioning," Wohlhuter says. "And like everyone else I guess I'm caught up in the mystique of it. That's where the real glamour is. But basically I'll always be a half-miler. Anyway, everybody tells me that when I run the mile I'm tackling a man's game."
Perhaps. But that isn't stopping the world-record holder for the half mile (1:44.1) and the 1,000 meters (2:13.9)—and the 1974 Sullivan Award winner—from aiming for the 800-1,500 double at the Olympic Trials this June in Eugene, Ore. There are those who think Rick Wohlhuter is making a serious mistake. One of them is Jumbo Elliott, the Villanova coach who had brought his world-record distance medley relay team to Louisville for a shot at the indoor version of the record.
February 16, 1976
"I'd rather see him stick to just one event," says Elliott. "Especially now that they are running the Trials on the same tough nine-day schedule as the Olympics. It's just too many races. Before 1968 you had at most semifinals and finals. Now there will be a preliminary heat in each distance. I've seen more than one guy try to double, then fail in one and break down mentally in the other."
It is extremely difficult, however, to imagine Wohlhuter breaking down mentally after anything. He came from near obscurity and Notre Dame to make the 1972 Olympic team, only to fall in his first 800 heat at Munich. Undaunted, he rose with his body bruised but his ego intact. Later someone asked him how he liked the track. "It's nice to fall on," was his answer.
"People still ask me what I tripped over and I still tell them what Red Smith wrote, because it is still the best answer," Wohlhuter says. "He said I tripped over a sunbeam. That must have been it, because I sure don't know. I just remember that all of a sudden I was down. First I looked up at the crowd. Then I looked at the other runners and they weren't waiting for me. After that I had a good time. I drank a lot of good German beer and I didn't have to do a lot of running."
Returning home, Wohlhuter went to work as an agent for Massachusetts Mutual Life in Chicago. Then he went back to the track and in 1973 lowered the world half-mile mark to 1:44.6. The following year he was nothing short of sensational, winning 22 straight races and setting the record in the 1,000 meters while lowering his own record in the half. For that Track & Field News selected him its Athlete of the Year and the AAU honored him as the best amateur athlete of 1974.
"I'm always glad to see a track man get an award like that," Wohlhuter says, "especially if it is me. Stuff like that kind of tells me that what I am doing is right, to keep on. Or maybe it is telling me to quit while I'm ahead. But the nicest thing about the Sullivan Award is that you can only win it once. You don't have to worry about coming back and winning it again. Now I need to get a name that everyone can remember. Wohlhuter is too tough. I need a name like, well, I saw a great one the other day."
"What was it?"
"I don't know. I thought it was great when I saw it, the kind people would never forget. But I forgot what it was."
With his wry sense of humor, Wohlhuter is a rare man, one who can laugh at himself, and he enjoys it even more when there are others to laugh with him. Yet, for all his good-naturedness, Wohlhuter is no one's fool.
Last year he balked at an opportunity to play straight man. "Bill Cosby, who was filling in on the Tonight Show for Johnny Carson, wanted me to run with him on a treadmill," Wohlhuter says. "I got to thinking about it and I realized no one would be turning the show on to see me. They wanted to see Cosby. I would only be the butt of his jokes. Heck, he could have some gorilla running on the treadmill. I said, no, thank you."
The most famous Fighting Irish track star since Greg Rice always seems to know where he is going. In the eighth grade he decided he wanted to be on the track team, and ran the sprints, long-jumped and high-jumped—anything to win a spot. Gradually he settled into the half mile, where he was outstanding enough to get countless scholarship offers.
"It was heady stuff, but I knew even then I couldn't run forever," he says. "It was nice just knowing someone would pay for my education, that it wouldn't be a financial strain on my parents. I decided that since I wouldn't be running the half mile when I was 50, I had better get something out of college. Notre Dame was an easy choice. You get a great education and, later, having gone there is good for business."
"He plans ahead. He knows exactly what he is doing all the time," says Ted Haydon, Rick's coach now that he runs for the University of Chicago Track Club. "In December he sent me his entire indoor schedule. But he was sick with the flu and a cold in January and we had to make one change. Originally he had planned to run the mile at Indiana before the Millrose Games. Instead, he ran a shorter race there and switched the big one to here. Just this morning we were laughing about it. I've never seen him run a mile over four minutes. He picks his spots and knows exactly what he can do."
In 1975 Wohlhuter ran his third mile of the outdoor season in Jamaica. Before the race a pool was arranged, with everyone putting up $1 to pick who they thought would win and in what time. Wohlhuter picked himself in 3:53.8.
"I hit my time right on the nose," Wohlhuter says, "so they gave me a 50¢ rebate. I wasn't exactly accurate on the winner."
That was the night Filbert Bayi lowered the world record to 3:51. Just behind him came Marty Liquori (3:52.2) and Eamonn Coghlan (3:53.3). Wohlhuter finished fourth. Later he ran a mile in the USTFF championships in Wichita, and fully expected to break Bayi's mark. "He doesn't lack for self-confidence," says Haydon.
"I went for broke and it was me that got broke," Wohlhuter says. "It was a perfect day at a great facility. The record was within reach. And when the race was over I was glad my insurance policy was paid up because I thought I was going to die." He had run 3:53.3. "I remember trying to get across the infield to pick up my award and I went at least halfway on my knees. But I'm planning on going for broke again at Wichita this year." In 1975, Wohlhuter was overshadowed in his specialty by Kenya's Mike Boit, who beat him in six of eight races, but Wohlhuter had eight marks below 1:46.0, an outstanding performance. He arrived at Louisville's Freedom Hall two hours early last Saturday. "We don't run until 10:05," he said in mock complaint. "I've blown the whole evening. Still, it's better than Italy. Over there you run the mile in outdoor meets at 11:30 at night."
Turning to teammate Ken Popejoy, a miler running the half, he said, "Hey, I'm bored. Let's go home. Lord, look at the Villanova relay team. Are they hyper. I'm going to cut short my warmup to watch them run."
Which he did, and Villanova didn't disappoint him. With Mark Belger leading off in the 880, Elliott's speed machine broke on top. Belger (1:50.4), Glenn Bogue (49.3 in the 440), late substitute Phil Kane (2:56.7 for the 1,320) and Coghlan (4:02 in the mile) lowered the University of Pittsburgh's world record by 1.4 to 9:38.4.
"A tremendous time," said Wohlhuter. "Now I'd better get ready. Where are my goggles?"
He broke up. "Well, I really don't have them yet. What I want to do is get one of those old leather flying helmets with goggles. Just walk up to the start, flip the goggles down and say, 'Let's go.' Or maybe wait until the gun lap and then flip them down. Wouldn't that blow everybody's mind?"
He went back to the warmup area, and Popejoy came out to finish second in the half behind Ken Schappert. Then someone told him he had better get ready.
"What for? Popejoy still has to run. He ran? When? Geez, I thought I still had 20 minutes. Well, it would have been a nice relaxing evening."
After a quick look at his rivals, Wohlhuter decided not to wait for someone else to set the pace. "If I do we may be out there all night," he said. He led from the gun and sped past the quarter in 59.1. At the half he heard the public-address announcer say, "1:59.7." Oh, oh, he thought, too slow. He believed he quickened the pace, but he fell off to 3:01.2 at the three-quarter mark. Coming out of the last turn he glanced up at the clock, which read 3:57. With 50 yards still to go.
When the race was over he said, "Well, we can go home. Geez, they gave me a 4:03.8. Not even the lousy meet record. Can you believe that? But I knew I was in trouble when the crowd was quiet."
Popejoy came over. "How do you feel?"
"Like a few beers. How do you feel?"
"Stupid. You're going to have to give me a lesson on how to get around Mark Winzenried. He's big out there."
"And smart," said Wohlhuter. "He's got all that experience. That's just how I see the Olympics. After everything else is done, it's going to be the same old guys plugging at each other in Montreal. Now if I can just stay on my feet in that first heat."