It was Friday the 13th and, naturally, Dick Buerkle's flight out of Buffalo at 12:30 p.m. was canceled because of a snowstorm. But at 4 p.m., even though it was still snowing, he was able to take off for Washington, D.C. and the season's first big indoor track meet in the East, the CYO Invitational at the University of Maryland. By 7:30 p.m. Buerkle (pronounced Burk-ley) had arrived at Cole Field House in College Park, but the gateman wouldn't admit him because he didn't have a competitor's pass. He got in only after an official intervened. Later, warming up in a hall with a wet floor and a leaky roof, Buerkle said, "I've got to be crazy to fly out in a snowstorm on Friday the 13th to try for a world record."
At 9:05 he lined up for the mile on the 160-yard track alongside Filbert Bayi, Paul Cummings and Ken Schappert. When the gun went off, Buerkle took the lead. He ran the first quarter in 57.3, was 1:58.9 for the half and hit the three-quarter mark in 2:58.3—but barely two yards ahead of that more famous front-runner, Bayi. Then he did the final quarter in 56.5, pulling away to beat Bayi by 20 yards in 3:54.8 (although it will probably be recognized as 3:54.9 based on the automatic timer). Tony Waldrop's mark of 3:55, also hand-timed in 1974 at San Diego, had been wiped out.
"When I hit the last quarter I didn't think I would get the record," Buerkle said. "I only pulled it out because I thought Bayi was too close."
"Dick ran a very good race," allowed the recently married Bayi. "It was a good one for me, too. I did not expect to run 3:58.4. I had only two days of training this week in Los Angeles, and it rained."
January 23, 1978
Bayi's training in the rain was a piece of cake compared to the hectic four days that Buerkle had spent after finishing third behind Wilson Waigwa and Paul Cummings at the Muhammad Ali Games in Long Beach, Calif. He returned to Buffalo on Monday to spend a couple of hours with his wife Jean and 13-month-old son Gabriel. Then, as a contact lens salesman for Bausch & Lomb, he had to go on the road. Monday night he jogged five miles at the YMCA gym in Fredonia, N.Y. Tuesday, back in Buffalo, he ran 10 miles in Memorial Auditorium. Wednesday night he ran 10 miles on Route 18 in Sharon, Pa. in 10° weather. Thursday night he drove home from Meadville, Pa. and searched for an ice-free stretch where he could run. Finally, he resorted to his CB radio and asked, "Where can I find a piece of road that is bone-dry?" Someone directed him to Kenmore on the outskirts of Buffalo, and he got in two quarters, each in 56 seconds.
What made Buerkle's feat the following night all the more surprising is that he is 30 years old and had been best known as a 5,000-meter man. Buerkle does not even look like the classic tall, big-striding American miler. He stands 5'7", weighs 130 pounds, and his gait has been compared to that of a man in pursuit of a bus. Because he has been bald since he was 12, he appears to be older than he is. "I spent a lot of money trying to find out why," he says, "but no doctor could ever explain it."
After high school in Rochester, N.Y., Buerkle went to Villanova, where he set school records in the 5,000 meters and the two-and three-miles. "Villanova had plenty of good milers," he says. "I felt I only had a chance in the longer races." In 1970, after graduation, he became a Spanish teacher. Last year he took a break from competition. "I knew I would get the urge to race again," he says, "but there were other things I wanted to do." For one thing, he changed jobs. In part, he credits that switch for his newfound determination. "Working as a salesman started me on positive thinking," he says. "You just don't allow yourself to have any doubts when you pursue a goal." At his bedside at the Holiday Inn in College Park lay Maxwell Maltz' book on Psycho-Cybernetics, opened to a chapter entitled "A Salesman Who Needed Surgery on His Thoughts Rather Than His Nose."
Another thing Buerkle did in 1977 was get himself a coach. He had been working out on his own ever since he left the famed Jumbo Elliott at Villanova, but last September he began training under a Buffalo high school coach, Bob Ivory. "I heard Bob tell a runner that American milers always lay back and wait for the final kick. 'You got to go out fast from the start,' he told him. So I adopted that strategy. I wanted to find out how fast I could really run." On Friday the 13th he got a pretty fair clue.
Next morning Buerkle pondered the future. "I feel like the man played by Robert Redford in The Candidate," he said. "He worked and worked, and when he finally won he said, 'What do I do now?' " One thing is certain. Dick Buerkle has no intention of just sitting around until October, which is the next time there will be a Friday the 13th. He had just returned from a seven-mile workout. In a driving rain, of course.