The P.R. man was exhorting Greg Foster to whoop it up for the photographers. "Hey! Wow! Exciting!" he said. "You just broke a world record! Show some en-thu-si-asm!" But Foster, arguably the world's best hurdler last year, seemed more intent on verifying the results of his most recent race. "Aw, c'mon now, smile!" the drumbeater pleaded. "Do something." Finally, reluctantly, the UCLA junior relented. Let it here be recorded that last Friday night, shortly after his spectacular showing in the 60-yard hurdles at the Spectrum in the Philadelphia Track Classic, Greg Foster, the devout stoic, treated his admirers to a full-fledged grin.
Foster's concern about the official results was well founded. After studying a photo of the finish for about 20 minutes, the judges agreed that, yes indeed, coming off the final hurdle in a patented move that was more lunge than lean, Renaldo Nehemiah, the teen-age sensation from the University of Maryland—and last year's other No. 1—had propelled himself into a dramatic dead heat with Foster in the world-record time of 6.95. Since the introduction of automatic clocking, it was the first time that any hurdler, much less two in the same race, had broken the seven-second barrier.
The judges' ruling prompted Foster to get off his second big emotion-packed gesture of the evening, a so-what-else-is-new shrug. "I knew Renaldo was right next to me," he said. How had he known? "Heck, he's always right next to me." Clapping an arm around Foster, Nehemiah echoed, "We can't get away from each other. Really, I couldn't have a better person to run against. We're going to push each other to some really fast times."
It was the second time the two had met this indoor season. In the first meeting, at the Muhammad Ali Games in Long Beach, Calif., Nehemiah had won in a hand-timed 7.5 over 60 meters, while Foster had finished third. One week later, in College Park. Md., on his home track and without his West Coast rival to contend with, Nehemiah had lowered his 60-yard record from 7.07 to 7.02. "I know I can get under seven seconds," he said then, "if there is someone to push me." Nehemiah knew who would be happy to provide that pressure.
January 29, 1979
Sure enough, at the Spectrum on Friday night, Foster pressured both Nehemiah and himself past the seven-second barrier. Though he has a reputation as a slow starter, Foster was out of the blocks first, and Nehemiah had to play catchup, mowing down the second hurdle in his eagerness. "He ran a terrible race," said Nehemiah's coach, Frank Costello. "I was shocked." said Nehemiah. "Greg isn't known for his indoor racing." One thing was certain: after that splendid come-from-behind lunge for a share of the record, Nehemiah would not be complacent the next time he faced Foster.
That matchup came the very next evening at the Olympic Invitational in New York's Madison Square Garden. There, Nehemiah ran more to form. After two false starts, the second of which was charged to Foster, Nehemiah blasted to his third straight world record and his second of the weekend. "I was lucky that the first two starts didn't count, because I wasn't ready," Nehemiah said afterward. "On the third, I was right there, right in front of Greg."
"I got out a lot slower," said Foster, "because I couldn't risk being called again and thrown out of the race." Unchallenged, Nehemiah breezed to the finish in 6.88—an even more impressive record than the 6.95 set at Philadelphia the night before because the race was at 55 meters, 5.35 inches longer than 60 yards. Foster, straining to overcome his poor start, crashed into the third hurdle and never did regain his composure. Over the fifth and last hurdle he stumbled headlong and tumbled across the finish. Auburn's James Walker tripped over the sprawling hurdler, crashed head-first into a wall and sat dazed on the floor.
Despite their Destruction Derby finish, Foster was second in 7.09 and Walker third in 7.22. Surely this had been a perfect race for Nehemiah? "No race is perfect," he said. "You always go for a better time. Out there alone tonight I had to keep my composure. That's where you show perfection."
The two East Coast meets last weekend were not only a crucible in which Nehemiah and Foster were tested, they also brought together the finest indoor sprinters in the country. In 1977 Steve Riddick had won 15 of 16 sprints. Then last year Houston McTear set five world records, winning all his races but one—and in that event he was disqualified for two false starts. At this year's first major meet in Long Beach, Harvey Glance, the 21-year-old Auburn senior, got his spikes in the door by winning the 60 meters in 6.62, ahead of Riddick and World Cup winner Steve Williams. Then at Philadelphia last week Riddick came from behind McTear to win the 60 yards in 6.16. The jubilant Riddick raised his right arm in victory, a familiar gesture on the boards two years ago, but one the big sprinter didn't have much reason to display last year.
"I only won twice indoors last season." Riddick said. "And I haven't beaten Houston since 1977. I've been reading a lot of stories lately saying I'm getting old, and I feel slightly insulted. I'm 27, and I don't think that's getting old; I'm getting better. I'm still learning. This was a great race for me. Houston was out of the blocks first, but I was right there with him at 30 yards. He would have to have a 2½-yard lead at that point to beat me."
In New York the 55-meter sprint field was even more formidable. Besides Riddick and McTear, Glance and Williams were entered. Williams could not make the finals. After a first in his heat, Glance powered from behind in the finals to win in 6.17 over McTear (6.20) and Riddick (6.23) and establish himself as 1979's fastest human pro tem.
"Obviously, I am particularly happy about this race," said Glance, "because I think I've been running in the shadows of Williams, Riddick and McTear for too long. Finally, Harvey Glance has arrived. Over the long run, I would have to admit that McTear is probably the most consistent indoor sprinter in the world, but Harvey Glance is right behind him. At 40 meters McTear was the clear leader, but over the last five meters I surged, which is my style. I ran, I think, a near-perfect race." Glance relishes tough competition as much as Nehemiah and Foster. "We can't really be enemies," he said. "If Houston gets better, it gives me incentive. Without each other, we could become stagnant. With this classy a field, it will be difficult to make the Olympic team, but, write it down, Harvey Glance will be there."
The weekend put still another pair of intense competitors under tight scrutiny: Francie Larrieu and Jan Merrill. A good deal of heat has been generated in the long rivalry between the country's top women middle-distance runners. Merrill has chosen to withdraw from the glare of publicity in which Larrieu thrives, and they are not particularly friendly. Still, like the sprinters, they need one another to bring out their best competitive efforts. Merrill holds the American outdoor record for 1,500 meters at 4:02.6, Larrieu the indoor mark at 4:09.8.
Last fall Larrieu moved to Austin, Texas, following her coach, Preston Davis, and began a rigorous training regime. She had divorced her husband, the former sprinter Mark Lutz. Once again, at 26, she seemed to have rededicated herself to running. Logging 70 miles a week, she shed the 15 pounds she had put on, slimming down to an even 100 pounds.
She felt fit and confident last Saturday in New York for this year's opening duel with Merrill. It was Merrill's first important indoor meet of the season, and, as she had done the previous year at the Olympic Invitational, she doubled in the 800 and the 1,500. Norm Higgins, Merrill's coach, believes in training for the outdoor season in indoor races, and an 800-meter event, win or lose, was viewed as just another workout. "She needs the sprint work," Higgins said before the race, in which Merrill finished fifth. But her time of 2:08.8 was a second faster than her clocking for the same event the previous year, when she won. "I'm satisfied with a personal record on this track," said Merrill.
An hour and 15 minutes later, she faced a fresh Larrieu and Ireland's Mary Purcell in the 1,500. Larrieu, as is her style, took the lead with the gun, followed closely by Purcell, with Merrill fifth. With 7½ laps to go, Merrill moved into third but chose to stay some five yards behind the leaders. For a while it appeared that the 800 had taken too much out of her. Then with two laps to go she began narrowing the gap, and on the backstretch she shot past Purcell and closed in on Larrieu. She moved ahead as the gun for the final lap sounded, throwing in another bit of sprint work to win by 15 yards in 4:14.1.
"Very interesting," said Higgins. "I have never seen her run that way. Tactically, she ran more like a European, much like Tatyana Kazankina [the Russian 1,500-meter gold medalist in 1976], who likes to hang back to survey her competition." "I was trying to act out my plan and run a smart race," Merrill explained. "I have never run under 4:15 at Madison Square Garden, so this is another personal best."
Unlike the hurdlers and the sprinters, Merrill says she does not put her mind to beating a particular competitor, and the victory over Larrieu was, to her, no special cause for celebration. "I don't concern myself with one person," Merrill said. "Indoor races are so highly competitive I do better when I concentrate on the race. No two races are the same. But we're just playing a little game running around in here. The important things are the ones you learn for the outdoor season."
One who would agree with Merrill is Don Paige, a Villanova junior who has become more competitor than comrade to his former teammate, Mark Belger. Belger, who now works as a marketing economist in Lexington, Mass., travels much of the time and has had to do most of his training, it seems, in parking lots. Nevertheless, Belger, who runs for the Athletic Attic, scored an impressive double last weekend by winning the 1,000 yards at Philadelphia in 2:09.5 and the 800 meters in New York in 1:51.4. But Paige, who had run a relay leg at Philadelphia, came on Saturday night to win the 1,000 meters in New York with an American record of 2:20.3, lowering Tom Von Ruden's mark set eight years ago by .1 second.
"The 1,000 is a good race for sharpening up," said Paige, whose favorite event is the 1,500 outdoors. "I ran the relay in Philadelphia, then I ran a relay leg and the 1,000 in New York. I'm getting three races out of this weekend. That's a good workout for me. The American record tells me that I'm in better shape than I thought."
The relay in the Garden that Paige referred to was a 3,200-meter event and it proved to be a fine finale to a weekend of splendid matchups. It came down to Villanova vs. the Athletic Attic, Paige vs. Belger, both running the anchor 800s for their teams. Paige took the baton a step in front of Belger, and with two laps to go he surged ahead. Belger couldn't catch him as Paige finished his leg in 1:49.1, 15 yards ahead of his old teammate.
"This is the big year to get ready." said Paige. "This is the base year in preparation for 1980. For every athlete who hopes to make the Olympic team, this is the time to do it. Next year is going to be too late to get started."