One of our Olympians, Shotputter Al Feuerbach, sat in the press box last Saturday afternoon and watched a cold rain falling on the 4,570 entrants in the Drake Relays at Des Moines. "If I wasn't such a dummy," he said, "I'd be out there freezing and getting soaked with the rest of those dummies." The former world-record holder shifted his heavily muscled legs and winced. Earlier in the week, while fooling around in an impromptu 50-yard dash, he had pulled both his hamstrings. "I guess it's like the old joke about shotputters," he said. "A guy says, 'I heard you shotputters were big and dumb. But you don't look so big.' " But April is turning into May of an Olympic year, and there are few world-class athletes who can find any humor in even a suspicion of an injury.
There were three big relay meets last week, and when they were over, the hale had turned in some hearty performances. Mac Wilkins set a world record in the discus and Canada's Debbie Brill upset American record holder Joni Huntley in the women's high jump (6'2¾") at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif.; Marty Liquori ran the 5,000 in 13:33.6—fast enough to convince himself that what everyone had been telling him is correct; and the University of Tennessee 800 relay team tied the world record (1:21.5) at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia; and even on the sodden field Feuerbach was viewing, competitors like Decathlete Bruce Jenner, Sprinter Harvey Glance and Distance Runner Francie Larrieu had excelled. Still, it was obvious that our Olympic hopefuls are at a stage where they are competing against the clock and the tape measure and will be worrying about winning later.
Four years ago Ralph Mann finished second in the 400 intermediate hurdles at Munich. He had run a 48.51. At Des Moines he ran just strongly enough to beat Nolan Cromwell by a head. Mann's time was 50.1. "At this point if I had to go one-tenth of a second faster to win I wouldn't have," Mann said. "In April of an Olympic year you aren't looking to set records. Or to tear up muscles."
Adding emphasis to Mann's statement was the fact that the field for the Drake Relays had lost some of its glamour because of injuries and fear of injuries. Among the scratches were Frank Shorter (5,000, ankle), Mark Winzenried (800, ankle) and, of course, Feuerbach. Also missing was 400 hurdles favorite Jim Bolding (a death in the family).
Shotputter George Woods, twice an Olympic silver medalist, agreed with Mann. It was Woods' first competition since February of 1975. He arrived in Des Moines late Saturday morning, finished a sopping second with a toss of 63'4¾" and was on a plane back to St. Louis that evening. "With Feuerbach dry in the press box and me cold and wet on the field, I wasn't quite as psyched as if it had been Montreal," Woods said dryly.
Earlier in the week, before the rain, Jenner scored 8,250 points to win the decathlon. That is 274 points under his world record. "Two days from now that Russian ['72 gold medalist Nikolai Avilov] will know what I did here," Jenner said. "The point total won't get him excited. That's the way I like my competition...unexcited."
Mann and his wife Jackie arrived at Des Moines two days before his race. He and Feuerbach had been named to the Drake Relays Hall of Fame, and Mann had been designated as grand marshal for Saturday's parade.
"I was second choice for marshal," Mann said. "Rumors I hear say they went after Rin Tin Tin first. Two years ago they had Ronald Reagan. I guess they want a dog every other year."
Last week the 26-year-old Olympic veteran finished his dissertation in biomechanics at Washington State. Next month he'll receive his doctorate. Between the dissertation and training, he found himself crisscrossing the country for job interviews. Sleep had become a luxury. "Right now I've only got two worries," he said. "One is falling asleep during the race. The other is making sure the rain doesn't fall on my parade."
With Bolding out of the race, Mann's only competition was Cromwell, a wishbone quarterback for the University of Kansas who only lately discovered that he can run over hurdles as well as people. Cromwell should be used to late discoveries. Two seasons ago he was a defensive back. Then Bud Moore arrived from Alabama as the new head football coach and began searching for a big, strong-running wishbone quarterback. Exit 195-pound Cromwell from the defense. About the same time, after a brief fling in the 440 dash, he discovered the intermediate hurdles.
"This is only my second season as a hurdler," Cromwell said before Friday's race. "I don't know if I'm in the same class with Mann." He laughed. "Still, I'll take Montreal if it comes."
At the moment, his schedule seems self-defeating. Each afternoon the 6'2" strongboy spends an hour in spring football drills. He then works another hour and a half at track—as well as hurdling he also runs the leadoff leg for the Kansas mile-relay team.
In the last few weeks Cromwell had won the hurdles at both the Texas and Kansas Relays, but, as he pointed out, Mann hadn't been there.
When they met at Des Moines on Friday, Mann was away strongly. But at the 200-meter mark Cromwell made his move and took a surprising lead. "He's an animal," Mann said later. "I was jogging along in the fourth lane, making faces at him, hoping he'd take it easy. He just growled at me and burned. But I knew if I could just get over that last hurdle I could catch him."
They both cleared the final hurdle cleanly, with Cromwell coming down a step in front. With 10 meters to go, Mann drew even, then pulled ahead to win. He tried to congratulate Cromwell for having run a fine race. "He's...he's nasty," Mann said, laughing. "I kept saying nice things and he kept snarling, so I followed him around telling him how good he looked. Boy, is he intense. His head will be burned out before we get to the trials if he doesn't learn when to relax. But he's the best young prospect I've seen in six years."
The other major race on Friday was the invitational 800, matching Rick Wohlhuter, the world-record holder in the 880, Mike Boit and Mark Enyeart, last season's half-mile newcomer sensation. A week previous Wohlhuter and Boit had run in a 1,500 at the Kansas Relays, with Wohlhuter winning, but Wohlhuter wasn't letting himself be lulled by that victory. During their careers he and Boit had met 13 times at two-lap distances and Boit held the edge 7-6. Said Wohlhuter, undefeated this year, "Mike had to run a couple of races before that 1,500 in Kansas. He's tough, and that defeat won't bother him."
A senior at Eastern New Mexico, Boit won the bronze medal in the 800 at Munich. He promised a fast 800 for the Drake. "I like to run like Bayi," said the 27-year-old Kenyan, "I like to run fast and in front. Otherwise it's easy to get boxed in. If you do, the faster people escape and then it is too late."
True to his word, Boit jumped to the lead, took the field through a slower than expected quarter, and then waited for Wohlhuter to make his move. The slim Chicago insurance salesman came at the Kenyan going into the last turn.
"I saw him coming," Boit said, "but I knew he wouldn't try to pass me on the turn. I waited until the straightaway and then kicked before he did." Boit finished in 1:46.2, Wohlhuter in 1:46.6 and Enyeart, never a factor, was ninth.
"I let the first quarter go too slowly," said the disappointed Wohlhuter. "But maybe this will help. I guess I won't see him again before Montreal. When I do, I'll remember this race."
Saturday morning broke wet, windy and cold. Francie Larrieu sat at a window table of a downtown Des Moines hotel coffee shop. She was having breakfast and watching Mann and his parade pass on the street outside. Mann was in the lead car, a maroon Eldorado convertible. For the first few blocks the top of the car was up. Tired of trying to wave at the crowd through a window, Mann ordered the driver to lower it. Then he stood in the rain and began waving to the people along the street.
The convertible, thoroughly soaked, passed a squad of small boys standing on a corner. One of them shouted, "Get that car out of the way. We wanna see the clowns."
"Hey," Mann yelled at the driver. "Put the top up, it's raining."
Larrieu had ordered two cups of tea, a bowl of oatmeal and a quarter section of honeydew melon and said that she heard the rain was scheduled to fall all day. "I don't mind that, but I hope it gets warmer," she said, "I can do all right if it isn't too cold."
She also had just discovered that there was a women's 800 on the schedule as well as the 1,500. She checked her airline tickets and figured that if she had a cab waiting after the race, she could run in the 800—an hour after the 1,500—and still make the airport in time for a flight to Los Angeles. "The 800 would be a fun race," she said.
Not too far away, in the hotel lobby, George Woods, too, was thinking about the rain. "It's kind of risky to waste yourself on a meet like this," he said. He shrugged his massive shoulders. "But I guess I have to start somewhere."
It was early in 1975, after finishing third at the AAU indoor championships, that Woods decided to take the rest of the year off. "I just didn't have it," he said. "I didn't feel like putting out any effort. I spent my time experimenting, in building up my antagonistic muscles. It was good for my speed but I found it hurt my timing. It has only been in the last two or three days that I've hit upon a pattern of throwing that feels comfortable."
Two weeks ago in an exhibition at the University of Illinois, Woods put the shot 65'9". He was just trying to determine his condition. He liked the way the test turned out.
"You can't do much this early," he said at Des Moines. "In this country we have a system where you have to peak for the Trials and then try and hold it for a month. The Olympics become almost anticlimactic. That hurt us all at Munich. And anytime you have to live with Brian Old-field for two months, it's got to hurt you. I think he knew he couldn't beat Al [Feuerbach] or me so he was trying to wear us down. We should have turned him loose on the Russians or the East Germans. He was our secret weapon and we used it on ourselves."
That off his mighty chest, Woods watched Larrieu win the 1,500 in 4:18.8. Madeline Manning Jackson finished seventh, but an official, missing the sixth-place finisher, thought it was Jackson.
"Who do you run for?" he asked her.
"I run for Jesus," she said.
"For Jesus," she repeated, turning and showing him the back of her gold uniform. It read: "RUNNING FOR JESUS." She smiled. "But I don't think you want me; I think you want that girl over there." She pointed to another runner.
Meanwhile, Francie was asking officials if she could run in the 800. "Why not?" they said. And an hour later, she won in 2:08.7, Jackson having passed up her specialty. Then Larrieu took off for the airport. "I thought it was just for fun," Francie said on the way out, "but I couldn't help myself."
In the cold driving rain, no one really expected much from the sprinters. "I don't mind it," said Ivory Crockett, the 27-year-old co-holder (with Houston McTear) of the 100-yard world record of 9.0, "but it's got to be a warm rain. Anybody runs too fast in this weather has got to be crazy."
In the blocks next to Crockett was Harvey Glance, the 19-year-old freshman from Auburn who may be one of the world's most unusual athletes. For one thing, he is only 5'8" and 145 pounds but can bench-press 305 pounds. Even more amazing, the youngster from Phenix City, Ala. can jump on top of a Volkswagen from a flat-footed start. His coach, Mel Rosen, is sure that someday Glance will not only be a great sprinter (in April, at Columbia, S.C., he became the eighth man ever to run 100 meters in 9.9), but also a world-class long jumper.
At Des Moines, Crockett and Glance were just about even at the halfway mark. And then, pfft, Glance was gone. He won in 10.1. Crockett, who never really got into high gear, finished third, behind Mike Goodrich, in 10.3.
After a few more events the relays were over. The rain was still falling. Equipment bag in hand, Ralph Mann came down from the stands and onto the track. Slowly he pulled on a pair of spiked shoes and began to work out. For him and so many others there are still a lot of lonely miles between the end of April and Montreal.