Once they were so full of life. Now these children of Berkeley, their faces sallow, memories of the '60s dimming, huddle like barnacles on the jumbled sidewalks of Telegraph Avenue, close to the university. Spread out before them in this eroding oasis are displays of Indian jewelry, scrawled paintings and remnant clothing. They are trapped in the Age of Aquarius, tattered flower children. They seem oddly old-fashioned but still they wait for the revolution, for the Messiah, for something to happen.
As Ron Laird walks down this street, an almost prim figure, he appears to be misplaced. But he belongs. He belongs. He cadges sleep on an exercise mat spread on the floor of a friend's apartment half a block away, borrows vitamin pills, eats cheaply, trades frayed training shoes for his worn advice.
Ron Laird is a sports hippie, living only to compete, to move into the final straightaway, muscles numbed and heart exploding. Those last few desperate steps and then the finish line; relief and jubilation. His moment comes every four years in the Olympics. In the meantime he also waits. Ron Laird is 39 years old. Like Peter Pan, he will not grow up.
To others his vigil seems tedious, unwarranted. Although he is one of the most successful athletes in U.S. history, Ron Laird is virtually unknown. He is a race walker, a member of that curious band of athletes whose gait calls to mind an old car with broken pistons. Heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe. Most people have never seen a race walker in the flesh and do not feel they have missed anything because of it.
May 7, 1978
Thus Ron Laird is the curator of a museum without visitors. He has cardboard boxes of newspaper clippings and photographs, medals and ribbons; souvenirs that document his 69 national championships, his 81 records, his participation in four Olympics. In the boxes is proof that he traveled with 24 international teams, won a gold medal in the 1967 Pan-American Games and two bronze medals in world championships. These scraps of paper and bits of metal and ribbon certify that there is a Ron Laird, and he hoards them the way some people save their paycheck stubs. They show that he has been a top race walker for 23 years. Laird walks on, but does anyone care? People laugh at him when he trains, meet organizers refuse him expenses and a few fellow walkers label him an eccentric, an aberration, a kook. His is a cold street, and on it he has no address.
To locate America's most durable track athlete you send letters to various addresses, wait several weeks, then pick up the ringing phone and hear, "This is Ron Laird. Did you want to talk to me?" "He's sort of a vagabond," says Ray Lumpp, sports director of the New York Athletic Club. For most of Laird's career, the NYAC has served as his East Coast refuge. It has given him traveling expenses. When he is on the premises he can go into the bar during the cocktail hour, surreptitiously load a tray with peanuts, cheese dip and crackers and consume this poverty-level buffet dinner in front of the television set in a nearby lounge. Ron Laird has not worked since 1971, except occasionally as a handyman. He can make it on $3,000 a year—bunking in donated locations up and down the West Coast and in Mexico, working out twice a day, smearing petroleum jelly on sore feet and cushioning them with pads, nursing tight hamstrings, aging knees and a toe that needs surgery. All to get ready for the next Olympics. Every time Ron Laird is scraped off the underside of the sport, he grows right back.
For most of his adult life Laird has believed, like the English dramatist Thomas Dekker, that "Money is trash." Not surprisingly, Dekker lived a life of poverty and spent several years in debtor's prison. Laird does not pay his bills either, because he does not have any. He survives on a form of athletic social security. Last winter, for example, he lived in a cluttered house with Dennis Reilly, an enthusiastic walker and graduate student in architecture at Berkeley. Also in the house were two other students and Glenn Sweazy, a young race walker who was fourth in Canada's 1976 Olympic Trials. Laird earned his keep by giving advice, mapping out training routines, pacing his roommates through workouts and always bringing home a doggie bag of scraps from handout meals.
One day, as Laird fumbled about in his cardboard boxes, Sweazy, perhaps foreseeing his own future, said, "That's all you have, isn't it, Ron—just mementos?"
Ron Laird does not own a credit card, but he is in the Guinness Book of World Records for most national championships won by a race walker. Henry Laskau, who raced in the 1950s, is in second place with 43, and Laird hopes someday to double that total. If he does there will be no shortage of documentation, because Laird is a compulsive recordkeeper and letter writer. He has diaries of his daily workouts over the last 15 years. When a journalist sought him out recently, he dashed off a seven-page handwritten letter highlighting his career, then apologized for not being thorough enough. He writes notes to companies (General Motors) and personalities (Muhammad Ali, Jack LaLanne) outlining his accomplishments and asking for the financial assistance he needs for high-altitude training in Mexico. He writes much but receives little.
Laird shows the journalist a letter. It suggests that Laird is not "normal," that he ought to reassess his values and reset his goals; join the community, so to speak. Has he ever considered therapy? The writer is a businessman and he concludes by saying he never supports projects that are not tax deductible. Ron Laird needs to become a tax shelter. "They all want to help a 14-year-old," he says. "If you're 39, they don't want to talk to you. It's not like I'm asking for $50,000, just a few thou' to keep the ol' legend going."
A legend in his own mind, Laird does not think he is too good for work, he thinks he is too good to quit. This persistent quality has cost him a wife, and perhaps his family. "My dad wants me to go back to school and get a job," says Laird. "I told him that I was too young for school, and I already have a job—15 miles a day." His mother and father, retired and living in Ashtabula, Ohio, refuse to watch him perform in the Olympics. They have not seen him in years and do not know where he lives. Told recently that Ron was in San Francisco, the elder Laird neglected to inquire how his son was faring. "It's hard to tell you anything about Ronnie," says Arthur Laird. "I guess he told you he was in the Guinness book. I checked it out and saw it there. But at 40, what is the future for walking? All that effort has gone into it, and I don't know what it has amounted to."
"Quitting and getting a job? It would be the easiest way out," says Ron, "but I don't want to melt into the crowd and become the average guy. A lot of people think walking is some sort of big plaything for me. It might be that way in some Olympic sports, but not in race walking. Basically it's very boring, just a hell of a lot of hard work. There are times when I'm out training when I say to myself, 'I just can't do it anymore. Give it up. Get a job.' I look at my life, and it all seems so unreal, like a dream, something that never existed. Training, racing, the traveling around the world. The fear, the anxieties before a race. It never existed. It wasn't me. It's as if I look at it through somebody else's eyes. I was never a gifted athlete. It was all just hard work."
Hard work. But what has it amounted to? Over the years the race walker becomes inured to the question. Resentment is his crown of thorns. Once, while competing, walker Jim Hanley was attacked by a Los Angeles policeman who thought he had burglarized a nearby church. Laird has been hit in the chest by a thrown beer can and bitten by a German shepherd. In Eastern Europe the sport has an enthusiastic following and, as a group, the Mexicans have recently become the best in the world, but by and large race walkers are an endangered species. The world loves a runner, but even in airports a fast walker seems out of place, a bit too purposeful, aggressive and rude. Walking too quickly is one of the faults visitors pin on New Yorkers.
Race walking would appear to be easier than running, but in certain ways it is much more difficult. A runner can soar, but a walker is chained by regulations that say he must be in constant contact with the ground, and that he must straighten his supporting leg during each stride, which results in that familiar Mae West movement of the hips. While moving faster than joggers, walkers, like harness horses, are always fighting the inclination to break into a run—which confounds long-distance runners. It is far easier to run an eight-minute mile than it is to walk one. Laird's personal best for the mile is a 6:14.4, and at the last Olympics the quickest race walkers finished their 20-kilometer race in under 1½ hours, a 7:15-per-mile pace.
Certain institutions—the armed services, the church, even prisons—provide protection and solace for some, and, after much time spent in them, the rest of the world becomes alien. Ron Laird puts on his uniform and perseveres, sometimes training 110 miles a week, doing 300 sit-ups daily, lifting weights, stretching tight muscles, agonizing through 21-day fasts, driving a car that needs to be pushed to make it run, being laughed at by women and children. But he is in the Guinness Book of World Records. And unlike the people who litter Telegraph Avenue, Laird can see his future. It is Moscow, 1980.
Recently Laird was taken to dinner in a dark, well-appointed restaurant, the type that shuts out the world. In restaurants families enjoy a night off from PTA meetings, Little League games and Three's Company. Businessmen cajole clients. Young lovers linger over wine. Laird has no time for any of this. He was married briefly in 1963, but his wife left when she realized that he could never love her as he loved race walking, probably arriving at this conclusion when he had her ride on his shoulders while he trained. To Laird the restaurant is only a place to refuel, to replenish what two arduous workouts earlier in the day have depleted. There is a salad bar, which is good, and a benefactor has offered to pay the tab, which is better. In anticipation, Laird has not eaten all day. None of the other patrons recognizes that there is a four-time Olympian sitting among them.
Once upon a time Laird was middle-class and average, as befits the son of a government civil engineer. As a youngster he was sickly, too weak to do a chin-up and no athlete. Baseball befuddled him. In track he could manage only a desultory 5:12 mile, so he dabbled in throwing the discus. He earned only one sports letter in high school. But he stumbled upon race walking at a Madison Square Garden meet in 1955, and that fit. Within five months he had defeated Henry Laskau in a handicap race. He was good, though in the currencies in which most athletes deal—money, clout, fame, a groupie at the dressing-room door—he was destitute. But he was rid of that awful appellation: average. And now those handsome, glib stars of his youth, those fair-skinned cheerleaders and prom queens, are adrift in the land of Liquid Plumber and lawn mowers, their own glory days long ago buried.
At dinner Laird visits the salad bar and patiently constructs a volcanic sculpture of vegetables and Roquefort dressing. If he does not leave room for dessert, he can take that home in a doggie bag. Laird's life-style dictates that he take what comes his way. He has lived in garages, in a house with a 92-year-old woman whose grass he cut in exchange for lodging, and in a basement apartment where, after workouts, he bathed in a sink. He has hitchhiked coast-to-coast to track meets. Once he created a rèsumè that landed him a job as a draftsman in Hamburg, Germany for a year. He has trained in a sweat suit during the hot, humid summer months on the grounds of a mental hospital in Norristown, Pa. In the winter he trained through tunnels connecting the buildings. The doctors and nurses thought him a patient. During his stay in the area he had 14 different jobs in three years, often being fired for skipping work to compete in races. During coffee breaks he did isometrics. Throughout his career he has denied himself the simplest pleasures. He shuns liquor and cigarettes and, with women, talks a better game than he plays. Recently, he drove 20 miles to a San Francisco park where 1,000 women were competing in a road race. Laird coyly acted as if he had stumbled upon the meet by accident while race walking. He asked for names and phone numbers as the competitors jogged by. "You should have smelled the perfume in the air," he says dreamily.
Such reflections keep Laird late at the restaurant. It turns out that his waiter is a former quarter-miler from Minnesota. When he learns that Laird is a four-time Olympian, the waiter first looks skeptical, then impressed. "I always wanted to be in the Olympics," he says, "but after school I gave it up. Where else could I run?"
"You should have been picked up by some national team and sent for high-altitude training in Mexico," Laird tells him. "In two years you would be Tarzan on the track. The Russians would never let you quit like you did."
"Yeah," the waiter replies, "but for me it was time to quit." The boy is saying that he wants to lead a "normal" life. There it is. Normal.
The waiter walks away. "The most important thing to me is health," says Laird. "People have the choice, health or wealth, and most take wealth. I've had friends drop dead on me. That's scary. Friends from high school. Most people are into making money and accumulating things. I go out for a super workout and I knock out those hostile, poisonous emotions. When my wife left, I doubled my workouts. I don't know how people get through life without it. No wonder there are suicides."
Laird has been nominated several times for the Sullivan Award, amateur athletics' version of the Oscar, and a race-walking magazine once named him Athlete of the Decade, but a few of his fellow competitors are embarrassed by his zeal. There is also a possibility that Laird survives because race walking is not that sophisticated in this country. Nationally there are probably only 300 hard-core walkers. Todd Scully, who has set U.S. records at several distances, competes in street shoes. Age is not an infirmity because the sport is less demanding on the cardiovascular system than many others. In 1967 60-year-old Larry O'Neil won a 100-mile race with a record time of 19:24:34, rubbing off all his toenails in the process, and the best race walker in the world over the past two decades is Vladimir Golubnichy of Russia, who has been on five Olympic teams and is 41 years old. This takes diligence. Laird is able to go out on those stifling summer days, when even the birds sit motionless in the trees, and walk for more than four hours. He envisions himself competing and improving for another decade.
"Nothing has mattered in the man's life other than race walking," says Elliott Denman, who gave Laird much of his initial guidance on technique in 1955. Denman is now 44 years old, still a recreational race walker, and a sports columnist for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. He sees Laird as an enigma. "He has given up a normal life in the sense of working and raising a family," Denman says. "I can't think of any other athlete who has devoted himself the way he has. I guess he's reached maturity, but I don't think he really grew up. Someday it might strike him that he's missed out on other things in life."
In the restaurant Laird is finishing his meal. His companion had finished 40 minutes earlier, about the time Laird dispatched his acre of salad and started on soup. "I forgot something," says Laird, folding his doggie bag. "I once got something from race walking. A judge let me out of a parking ticket because of it. I didn't have money to pay the fine, so instead of sending me to jail he let me give a speech at a high school. I gave a speech and got paid a parking ticket."
Next day Laird is on the track in Berkeley. He has already done 10 miles during a morning workout, and now, in dwindling afternoon light, a chill temperature and a fine mist, he is going to do some speed work. On the track a nationally ranked sprinter is working on his start. Parked nearby is the sprinter's Mercedes, bought. Laird grumbles, with illegal payoffs from meet organizers. Off to the side several young sprinters loll about, chatting. "See how hard speed guys work?" says Laird derisively.
It is here on the track that Laird is most comfortable. People recognize him and ask for his autograph, and he signs it patiently, laboriously adding the figure of a small walker to the signature. Make no mistake, he is extremely likable. The worst that people can say is that he has missed out on some things in life. And despite his peripatetic nature, he is always able to find a home with friends.
Of course, those friends are race walkers, too, immersed in a sport that draws the eccentric and iconoclastic. Apparently it also fosters an almost compulsive urge for wandering. In 1937, a Venezuelan named Julio Berrisbertia went on a four-year walk over 20,000 miles. Dave Romansky trudged door to door to raise money to make the Olympics in 1968.
Laird finishes his workout in darkness, and a curious girl, interested in learning the race-walking style, approaches him. The athlete is delighted, at both her gender and attention. He begins a dissertation on the benefits of walking, theorizing that its twisting motion is good for the body's "vital organs." It is one of the recurring subjects of Laird's frequent exhortations. Others are: the need for subsidization of athletes and Laird's superlative qualifications for being named a national race-walking coach. He fantasizes about meeting and marrying a rich girl who will not mind holding his stopwatch. "I'm looking for a wealthy, well, not really wealthy, just well to do, girl who would like to get into race walking and travel the world," he says. "You've heard of a ski bum? Well, she would be a race-walk bum."
Just now Laird is not in superior competitive condition. He is 15 pounds overweight because he treated 1977 as if it were a throwaway year, letting his training deteriorate. This has been his style. After failing to make the 1972 Olympic team because of an injury, he went 3½ years without winning a championship, then won the three-mile walk in record time at Seattle in 1975. At the AAU championships in 1976 he set a record of 21:09.4 for 5,000 meters and subsequently made the Olympic squad that year. It is easy to tell he is not in top condition now because his eyes do not have that glitter of emeralds set in deep, hollowed-out sockets. This ethereal appearance comes from pushing one's body several levels beyond what it was built for. Walker Todd Scully's eyes shine like that, and in this year's indoor season he walked in record-breaking time.
To the 29-year-old Scully, Laird is a radical, to be sure, but in a way a freedom fighter. Scully works. He once raised hogs on his farm in Big Island, Va. but now has a sporting-goods store, teaches and coaches. "It's hard for Ron," he says. "It really is. Because you have to train up to 130 miles a week and just in time alone it takes almost twice as long as running. None of the Mexicans have jobs; they just train eight hours a day, every day. Once in the morning, then some weight work, then again in the afternoon. The thing that makes Laird different is that he lets himself go, then comes back. Go, back, go, back. He gets too far out of shape. That's why he's had so many injuries lately."
For Laird to make the 1980 Olympic team he will have to contend with Scully as well as a formidable group of young and developing race walkers, most notably former distance runner Neal Pyke. But Laird has faced challenges before. "Nobody in this country would beat me if I put my mind into it and got back into it hard," he says after his workout, pulling on a jacket and heading to the campus gym for some weight work and sit-ups. "I have the ability to train hard and not break down and to get into shape when I need to." Thoreau once said that almost no one understood the art of walking. Thoreau never encountered Ron Laird, the guardian of a treasure that few value. Why does he do it? Because he does not like the sound of the phrase, Ron Laird, former race walker.
A few days later Laird is standing in line at the checkout counter in a supermarket. His meager finances dwindling, he made the decision to enter the food-stamp program for the first time in his life earlier this year. His letters are crumpled in office wastebaskets, no rich girls are in sight and his body is telling him it is getting old. Laird indifferently pulls his groceries from his shopping cart and lines them up on the conveyor belt. One package is a box of Wheaties; on the front is a picture of Bruce Jenner, the Olympic decathlon champion, his former teammate at Montreal. Jenner is a celebrity who can make $3,000 just for showing up with a pen at a shopping center.
"I know him," says Laird to no one in particular.
The checkout girl looks up suspiciously. Ron Laird stares at Bruce Jenner's picture and sighs.