It was going to be the finest Philadelphia Track Classic in the 11-year history of the event. A top field had been lined up for last Friday night's meet and arrangements had been made to fly many of them out the next morning for Saturday's Sunkist Invitational in Los Angeles. But on Thursday night, Philadelphia was hit by its worst blizzard in 20 years. The city was buried under 13 inches of snow. The airport was closed. Roads were treacherous, often impassable. High jumper Dwight Stones was stranded in Pittsburgh, miler Wilson Waigwa in St. Louis, four athletes from Western Kentucky were stuck in Nashville and half the Pacific Coast Club was wandering around the corridors of Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport. Other West Coast athletes had made it to Washington and were trying to mush north to Philadelphia by bus and train.
Renaldo Nehemiah, last season's sensational high school hurdler, who is now at the University of Maryland, was heading south from Union, N.J. where he had received an award. "At times I couldn't see a thing," said Nehemiah after the ordeal. "It was a total whiteout." Hurdler Larry Shipp, who had made it to Washington from Baton Rouge, sat for two hours in a train with no locomotive. "You had to be in shape for traveling today," he said. Mark Belger, scheduled to run the 1,000, even had trouble getting to Philadelphia from Villanova, just 25 miles away. "We couldn't drive," he said, "and had to go from one train station to another until we found a train that ran."
Meet officials were forced to scratch entire races and reschedule other events to accommodate athletes who had sent word that they would be arriving later. When they did straggle into the Spectrum, most of them didn't have time to warm up properly. As for the 5,000 die-hard spectators who had fought their way to the arena, they had to be content to witness the miraculous appearance of those who had been reported stranded. Performances obviously had to suffer.
In the 60-yard dash, for instance, the anticipated duel between Houston McTear, of Cerritos College in California, and local favorite Steve Riddick failed to come off despite the fact that both were on hand. McTear had left Los Angeles Thursday at 10:30 p.m. and reached Philadelphia at 4:30 p.m. the next day, having dropped in on Washington and Baltimore along the arduous way. He won his heat in 6.1, but in the final he jumped the gun twice and was disqualified. Riddick won in 6.24.
January 30, 1978
When Dick Buerkle, the new indoor record holder in the mile, reached Philadelphia, after traveling 7½ hours by plane and rented car from Buffalo by way of Washington, he felt more like taking a nap than running. He had entered the 1,000 instead of the mile and led the field of three with a 55.1 first quarter. But then Belger and Bill Martin of Iona passed him, and Belger went on to win easily in 2:08.2. Buerkle finished in a pokey 2:12.0. "I was hoping to go out in 53, but a 55 is never going to hurt Mark," said Buerkle. "I wanted to see what I could do in the 1,000. I guess I wasn't ready for it."
Another Villanova student, 21-year-old Don Paige, took the 880 in 1:51.4, but more remarkable than his win was the fact that Paige was running at all. In this instance, the weather had nothing to do with it. Last March, three weeks before the NCAA indoors, Paige had suffered a stress fracture of his left fibula. Nonetheless, he came in second in the NCAA 1,000-yard run, but the following day his leg was in a cast, and he did not compete again for 10 months. In October he started training with Marty Liquori in Gainesville, Fla., logging 100 miles a week. Last Friday he found himself boxed in with 1½ laps to go but managed to slip through on the inside and into the lead. "The distance work had given me strength," he said, "and I knew I had the kick. You never lose your kick."
One who would agree with that statement is Wilson Waigwa, the Kenyan attending the University of Texas-El Paso. He had taken a flight at 2:55 a.m. Friday, spent seven hours at Dallas and another two at St. Louis, and arrived from the Philadelphia airport, which had reopened, shortly before the mile. He chose to bring up the rear of the five-man field as Paul Cummings led the first quarter in 59.5. Waigwa moved up to second just after the half, then sprinted to the front with two laps to go. He won in 4:00.3, ahead of Sydney Maree of Villanova and Cummings.
The Outstanding Performer Award went to the 18-year-old Nehemiah, who won his first major hurdle race as a college freshman. After going unbeaten as a high school senior, he had finished fourth at the Muhammad Ali Games in Long Beach and third at Maryland the week before the Philadelphia Classic. But despite his harrowing drive to the Spectrum, he took both his heat and the finals, clocking 7.13 for the 60-yard race, .02 off the automatically timed world record. "I wanted to let myself and everyone else know that I'm for real, and that it wasn't just a high school thing," said Nehemiah after he beat Mike Shine, the Olympic silver medalist in the intermediate hurdles, and Shipp, the world-record holder in the 60-yard hurdles. "This was a test to see whether it was all in my head or whether I was a world-class hurdler."
In fact, Philadelphia was a test for all. Everyone who showed up should be ranked as a world-class traveler.