An extremely thin young black man, with blue eyes and a seemingly permanent death's-head grin, is torturing a guitar and chanting something about cosmic awareness. He has a large battery pack on his back and roller skates with red fluorescent wheels on his feet, and his voice is a curious, hoarse warble. What pass for lyrics don't seem to have changed for as long as anyone can remember, and each time he finishes he grins into someone's face and croaks, "Gimme some change, gimme some change, gimme...." But no one pays him any mind, or anything else. He is just another regular along the beach in Venice, Calif., as is the woman cradling a canvas tray covered with yelping chihuahuas and the tawny, topless young goddesses catching rays on the sand. But who looks? Who cares? In Venice, when you see two breasts you've seen 'em all. On this sun-filled day, into this scene worthy of Mad magazine—or Hieronymus Bosch—a 27-year-old native of Toronto named Gayle Olinek (soon to be changed back to Olinekova as it had been in the Ukraine) comes sprinting by, wearing bikini shorts. In 1972 she was a 400- and 800-meter runner on the Canadian national track team, and last February she ran the New Orleans Mardi Gras Marathon in 2:35:12, which at the time was the fifth-fastest marathon ever by a woman. She has also run a 2:36:12, in the Fiesta Bowl Marathon in Scottsdale, Ariz. But she certainly doesn't look like a marathoner, or what we've come to expect one to look like. She's not a large woman, only 5'6" and about 125 pounds, but she has the enormously muscled legs of the sort usually only seen in marble statuary. Her thighs and calves are plaited with ridges of sinew. And she doesn't look as if she belongs anywhere near Venice beach, either. No birds or monkeys perch on her. No magenta flames course down her cheeks. And—how weird can you get?—she's wearing a top, on this occasion a T shirt. But still the natives are dumbstruck by her, specifically by her legs. Never have they seen such legs. She's running at a sub-six-minute-mile pace, faster than such calves and thighs seem capable of carrying her, and as she hurries by, a sea of heads keeps turning, eyes cast downward, mouths ajar.
"Does everyone in your family look like that?" shouts a tiny albino man, his head encased in a skintight leather helmet of azure blue.
"No," Olinek snaps, not changing her stride, "some of us have two heads."
She continues north through Santa Monica and then onto Route 1 toward Malibu, an alert eye on traffic. Her caution is well-taken. Last March in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Olinek was running along the main drag at rush hour. She was wearing a yellow bikini, and drivers were so distracted that their cars wandered all over the road. One, a silver Mercedes Benz 280 SL, was crawling along close behind Olinek. "Wow, baby," the driver shouted, "look at those legs." Suddenly there was a screech of brakes and a sickening crunch. Olinek wheeled around. The grille of the Mercedes was folded around a parking meter.
On this day, running back from Malibu, Olinek stops at her favorite Venice health-food store. As she waits in line to pay for her sprouts, bean curd and yogurt, a young surfer-type comes shuffling toward her on his knees, grabs her tightly around the legs and begins planting hurried kisses on the various muscle groups, all the while ranting, "I love your legs, I love your legs, I'm in love with your legs...." By this time all business in the store has come to a halt, but Olinek, having overcome her surprise, merely pats her admirer on the head; they both chuckle and he rises, possibly sane.
Olinek moved to Venice from Fort Lauderdale last April with her 33-year-old boyfriend, Michael Grandi, a marathoner and a lecturer on nutrition and naturopathy, which relies on nature and natural materials in treating diseases. What brought them west were hills to run on, lower humidity and more public track facilities. Olinek's only goal at the time was making the Canadian Olympic team in the 1,500, but then came a letter from Al Thomas, an English professor at Kutztown (Pa.) State College and a prolific writer on weight training for female athletes. When Thomas had first met Olinek at a track meet a few years ago, he'd proclaimed, "You have the greatest legs to ever stride the earth." And now, having heard of Olinek's move to Southern California, he urged her to enter a bodybuilding contest. But Olinek wasn't even sure what bodybuilding was. She thought it had something to do with grunting up barbells on a stage. At the Venice area gyms, though, where Mr. (and, now, Ms.) Americas train, they knew all about Olinek.
For the preceding year Stacey Bentley, the most successful competitor in women's bodybuilding, had kept a picture of Olinek, one that emphasized those legs, pinned to the wall in her Venice apartment. When people asked why it was there, Bentley would say, "For inspiration."
On May 11, in the Pepsi Invitational Track Meet at UCLA, Olinek ran the 1,500 in 4:29.2, which qualified her for the Canadian Olympic Trials in mid-June. About that time she also was invited to compete in the Frank Zane Women's Invitational Bodybuilding Championships, to be held on June 28 in Santa Monica. When Zane, a three-time Mr. Olympia, had first seen Olinek at Venice's World Gym, he'd told her, "From the lower chest down you're fantastic." In addition to her muscular legs, Olinek has "washboard abs" (deeply ridged abdominal muscles) as a result of a training regime that had long included doing as many as 2,000 bent-knee situps a day. Zane prescribed a weightlifting routine for Olinek's upper body, and after the news came in mid-May that Canada would boycott the Moscow Olympics, Olinek says, "I decided to go crazy with weights for the contest." At the same time she had decided to keep training for the Peachtree Classic, a 10-km. race in Atlanta on July 4, only six days after the bodybuilding contest.
In the weeks approaching her "doubleheader" Olinek woke each morning at 4:45 and poured eight ounces of water into a blender, along with four tablespoonsful of primary yeast and the juice of a lemon. "It gets my blood sugar up," she claimed to those who screwed up their faces at the thought of it. Then she and Grandi would slog five miles in the soft sand to Santa Monica before doubling back to Venice on grass and roads at a sub-six-minute pace. Or they would take a bus to UCLA for speed work. One morning, as she prepared to leave UCLA's Drake Stadium, Olinek began conversing with a man who'd been leaning back as he ran around the track. "Ever have pain there?" she asked, pointing to his lower back, having noticed a slight curve in his spine.
"Yes," he said. "All the time."
"Well, I think you might have a displacement of your fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae," she told him.
"And I'm just getting over a sprained ankle, too," he said.
"For that I suggest you eat a whole pineapple," she said, ever willing to spread the gospel of good health through nature's bounty. Olinek believes that an enzyme in pineapple will put down such swelling.
As Olinek walked away, the man regarded her oddly for a moment, his expression akin to that of the wide-eyed character at the end of Lone Ranger episodes who exclaims, "Who was that masked man?" The man kept glancing back and forth from Olinek's legs to the singlet she wore, emblazoned across the chest with the words: GARLIC POWER.
After the morning runs Olinek would go home for a snack, two apples or peaches and a handful of sunflower seeds. Then she would run a mile to the World Gym. The roads were for her legs, the gym for her upper body, her lats, pecs, delts and traps. For 90 minutes, as she trained, a stream of huge men would sidle by and then stand before mirrors gazing worriedly at their legs.
At about 11 a.m. Olinek would run back home for a typical lunch: a whole cantaloupe and a bowl of yogurt with bananas, berries and a sprinkling of granola and pumpkin seeds. More fruitarian than vegetarian, she has made a study of nutrition and she was appalled by the almost zero-carbohydrate diets many of the women bodybuilders eat to stay lean. Once at a group dinner, a woman bodybuilder was getting unusual pleasure from a bowl of clam chowder, but after three spoonfuls, containing perhaps half an ounce of potato, her coach snatched the bowl away and said, "That's enough." The coach proceeded to finish the chowder himself, his bodybuilder gazing longingly as he ate the last of the carbohydrates; later at Olinek's house, which became a sort of billet for bodybuilders in the days before the contest, she found the woman huddled in a corner, sobbing, her hands trembling. "My God," she wailed, "I feel awful. I don't know what's the matter with me."
"Your brain cannot work without carbohydrates," Olinek said. Then she massaged the appropriate acupressure points in the bodybuilder's hands and feet, and color came flooding back to the woman's face and a headache she'd had for days disappeared. A few mornings later, Olinek discovered that a two-pound bag of raisins had been eaten during the night. She suspected one of the carbohydrate-starved bodybuilders, and she stopped bringing such foods into the house. She told Grandi, "It's cruel for me to stuff my face with grapes and bananas." That was especially true because the chowderhound coach kept pointing to Olinek and saying to his bodybuilder, "Look at those legs, look at those abs, not an ounce of fat on them." He never added that a world-class marathoner rarely has trouble with extra fat.
At 5 p.m. in those weeks Olinek often ran five miles to a flight of more than 200 stairs in Santa Monica Canyon. Zane had told her, "If you like to do things that are crazy, then go to the stairs." She'd asked, "What's the record for climbing them?" He'd answered that for two stairs at a time it was about 23 seconds, so Olinek ran them one at a time, in 41 seconds, to build leg speed.
Once, as she topped the last stair, a friend looked into her eyes and saw only whites. Veins and arteries throbbed visibly all over her upper body. Olinek grabbed her wrist and glanced at her watch. "Pulse 230," she gasped. "Sometimes..."—she paused to catch a few breaths—"sometimes I feel a certain blackness on the stairs. It's like an implosion, as if all my muscles—my quads, my hamstrings, my pecs—are going to explode inward. But then I go a little faster and come out of it, and I feel an exquisite kind of power."
On the eve of the Zane contest Olinek gave a three-hour interview to a writer researching a book on muscular women. She told the writer, "Only a few years ago people didn't know how to react to my kind of body, but that time is gone. The Twiggy look is history. The Playboy centerfold look is a distortion of what is best in the female form. Women's bodybuilding is really coming on, and I'm convinced that look—my look—is the look of the '80s."
If Olinek is right, her vision has come true none too soon. Her legs may be seen as a metaphor for her life: so much leg and so little girl; so much living and so few years. A member of the Canadian track and field team at 16; a gypsy wandering around Europe at 21. Olinek went days without food, living in a high-jump pit in Rome, sleeping in telephone booths, nearly dying in Marseilles and becoming a heavy drinker in Spain. She especially recalls "the loneliness, the blue gut feeling of being in a strange city, cold and hungry; going weeks and weeks without hearing anyone speak my name," and, most frightening, "gazing at the moon through pine branches, a pastime of lovers and madmen, and knowing I wasn't the former."
There is a pertinent line from a song in the musical play The Fantasticks: "Without a hurt the heart is hollow." Olinek has collected hurts enough for any lifetime.
As a child, she never rode the school bus; she raced it, on foot. She was 10 when a shoe salesman in a large store tried on every knee boot he stocked in her size and failed to get one over her calves. When she promised, "Someday people will pay to see these legs," her family suggested that she hide them until then, all the while wondering aloud which of their Ukrainian ancestors had provided the genes for such an embarrassment. At 15, still wearing sweat pants to hide her legs during workouts, she ran a 62-second quarter mile in her first real competition; it broke the Toronto girls' high school record by 10 seconds, and eight months later in June 1969, she was named to the Canadian national team. But she trained too hard and contracted mononucleosis. It wasn't until two years later, in the spring of 1971, that she regained her strength. The Pan Am Games were coming up in July, and Olinek went to the trials. She finished a strong second in the 800. But the Canadian authorities decided to send the woman who was third. They said her record was more consistent than Olinek's.
Three weeks before the Olympic Trials the following year, Olinek was sprinting on a Toronto track when a girl of about 10 dashed in front of her; they collided, Olinek suffering whiplash injuries and a fractured skull. She failed to qualify at the Trials.
Olinek did little running in the summer and fall of 1972, having developed chronic bronchitis. But classes in modern dance made her more flexible than she'd ever been—on the first day it took three dancers to raise her foot to the exercise bar—and the next spring, running full tilt once again, she represented Canada in a meet with a Soviet team in Montreal. She was leading down the homestretch in the 800 when something popped in the back of her thigh. She says a doctor later told her that she'd pulled the biceps femoris, the hamstring, away from the tendon and the tendon away from the bone, and that she'd never run again.
It looked like a good time to plan a career outside athletics, so that fall Olinek enrolled as a journalism student in Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. She stayed one semester, and then, having decided that she needed "life experience," one December day she found herself sitting on a dock in Amsterdam with $50 in her pocket. Soon she was hitching toward Zurich, where a Swiss chiropractor got her running again and a bank with a track team gave her a job. But her work permit ran out before she could compete in big meets. In Rome she was robbed of nearly all the money she'd earned in three months at the bank. So she set up housekeeping in the Stadio Olimpico, which had been used for the 1960 Olympics, sleeping in the high-jump pit, rolling the canvas cover over her head at night. Early in the morning she would step from the pit to the track and have her run.
It was July of 1974, more than a year since the hamstring injury, and the leg was better. A prestigious track meet was scheduled for Zurich in August. Olinek went back to Switzerland and applied for a job clearing brush and planting trees. The foreman told her, "I'm looking for men."
She pulled up her pants leg and replied, "I'm stronger than you are."
The foreman said, "You start in the morning."
Two weeks later Olinek won the Zurich 800 meters in a time of 2:06.22. She stood on the victor's platform and gazed out at the grandstand full of strangers. She wept, and no one knew why.
When the trees were all planted she began hitchhiking west, sleeping in telephone booths each night, covering herself with newspapers. For three weeks she picked grapes in the rain, 11 hours each day before her evening run. Then, tired and weak, the harvest over, she sought out the sun in Marseilles. But it did her no good. She began to shiver and to grow even weaker. She found a room in a musty old hotel, and when a doctor finally came he kept repeating a word that Olinek interpreted as cholera. In fact, it's more likely that the physician was saying, "chaleur," in reference to her high fever.
Two weeks passed, though Olinek recalls little of them except the doctor's mournful words and the title of a gloomy poem, Just Ducked a Swoop from the Reaper, that she feverishly scrawled and lost. Finally her fever broke and she headed for the south of Spain. In Torremolinos, her money gone, she spent her first night in a Spanish phone booth, smaller and warmer than the Swiss variety. In Rota, near Gibraltar, she got a job as a barmaid in the Tokio Bar. It paid $2 a day, and 50¬¨¬®¬¨¢ of that went for a room, but there was a U.S. naval base nearby, and if a sailor bought you a drink, for about 70¬¨¬®¬¨¢, you got to keep about 35¬¨¬®¬¨¢. Olinek didn't tell the man who hired her about her recent illness, but for two months she didn't dare touch alcohol, and she made almost no money. She ate vegetables that the markets discarded, and octopus that she trapped in tide pools at low tide and boiled over a hot plate in her room. At first she lay in the sun all day, still too weak to run, until, after growing a little stronger, she began making more money by drinking heavily, sometimes 20 or 30 shots of Scotch a night. This went on for six months, and as she says now, "Just how many days can you wake up with one foot in the grave and the other on a bar of soap?"
Olinek started running a bit. Her training shoes had been stolen in Rome, so she ran barefoot on the beach. "I fell in love with running again," she says. Late in the summer of 1975, she was back in Toronto. She found part-time work in a library, restoring old books. Soon it was winter. She ran at night on the ice and in the snow. Rather, she ran, stumbled and slid. She lived rent free in an un-heated carriage house, where sometimes the temperature at night fell to 30 below zero. A midnight trip to the bathroom was an exercise in survival tactics, especially when she wasn't feeling well; she was still suffering from the aftereffects of the disease that had laid her flat in Marseilles. She told Tony Urbaitis, her best friend and 71-year-old landlord, "I don't think I'm operating at full power."
"Then don't run," he said. "Get a real job. Eat. Get healthy. Be warm."
"I have to run," Olinek said.
Her heart was set on the Montreal Olympics. Two weeks before the Trials she woke one morning at 4:30 drenched in cold sweat, writhing and nearly delirious. Four days later, on a Wednesday, she got out of bed and jogged around the driveway. She arranged an invitation to run in the Martin Luther King Games that weekend in Atlanta, and came in third in the 1,500. But she was still weak from her illness, and hitching back to Toronto without stopping to sleep didn't make her stronger. At the Trials she led the 1,500 with 500 meters to go but then faded to the back of the pack. Her Olympic dream was ended.
Then Olinek decided to train for the upcoming cross-country season. One August afternoon, while running along Lake Ontario, she met another runner—Michael Grandi. He was a singer and a songwriter then, with a Top 40 single record in Quebec, Hey Friend. He'd been using the name Michael Polacco in the music world. He and Olinek had run together for only about five minutes when he said, "You could be one of the world's greatest female marathon runners."
"You're absolutely crazy," she replied, adding that whenever she tried to run distances she developed severe bronchitis.
"Do you drink milk?" Grandi asked.
"Yes," she said.
"Stop," he told her. "It produces mucus in your system."
One hot morning that October Olinek was hitching to a race in northern Ontario and was picked up by a man in a green 1968 Pontiac. Instantly she knew that something was wrong. The driver wouldn't talk, and his knuckles were white on the steering wheel. "Please stop the car," she said, "I just remembered I've got to make a phone call."
The man grabbed her hair, yanked her head back against the seat and snarled, "I'm going to kill you."
Olinek still can't recall how long she remained in that position, but finally from the corner of her eye she saw a farmhouse. Olinek relaxed her head in the man's grip and then jerked it free. She kicked out at the window, smashing it. The man tried to seize her again, but she pulled at the window frame and was through the opening and falling. After rolling and skidding in the gravel and melting tar of the road, she rose and stumbled toward the house, where she could see a man mowing the lawn. It hurt to breathe. The man with the lawnmower phoned for an ambulance, which took her to the hospital. She says she was found to have several broken ribs, an ankle full of bone chips and torn cartilage in her right knee and that the attending physician recommended that the knee be operated on, "or you may never walk again." Olinek refused. She phoned Grandi, who was in Boston, and told him what had happened. He said, "I'm moving to Florida and you're coming with me."
They arrived in Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 31 of 1977. The next day Olinek tested her knee at Holiday Park, which is eight-tenths of a mile in circumference, and she failed to complete even one lap. But she ran a little farther each day, and on Feb. 18, she and Grandi participated in the Greater Miami Marathon. Olinek agreed to run with him as far as she could. At 12 miles, with the temperature nearing 90°, she said goodby and slumped to the curb. Soon another woman runner came by and said, "Oh great. I'll stop, too."
"No," Olinek said, "don't stop. I'll run with you."
At the 19-mile point someone called out, "Keep going and you might qualify for Boston." Olinek knew that the qualifying time was 3:30, and she said to her partner, "We're going too slowly. I'll see you later."
She was the first woman to finish. Her time was 3:29.
Olinek didn't think she was ready for the Boston Marathon, so on March 17 she entered one in Fort Myers, Fla. Again she led the women, in 3:18:30. A month later, after starting so far back in the pack in Boston that it took her six minutes to reach the starting line, she finished fourth among the women. Her time was 2:56:55. Miki Gorman was first, in 2:48:33.
No one had told Olinek that it was unwise to run three marathons in three months, so a searing pain in her right Achilles tendon made the point. It was October before she could jog again, and in late March of the next year, frustrated and impatient and with the Achilles improved enough to consider racing again, she trained for a week and entered Fort Lauderdale's 7.6-mile Heart Run. The male and female winners' air fare would be paid to the Boston Marathon two weeks later. Olinek covered the first three miles in 15:45, but doesn't remember anything after that. At one point she was seen trying to climb to the roof of a car, waving her arms wildly; eight-tenths of a mile before the finish she ran herself into unconsciousness. She spent the rest of that day in the hospital, with a combination of heat stroke, dehydration and exhaustion, and the next day in bed at home. But when some friends offered her air fare to Boston—the marathon was now a week off—she got up and said, "I know I can win."
She reached the 13.1-mile Wellesley College checkpoint leading and running comfortably, and her 1:58 at the 20-mile point was a 2:33 marathon pace. "But then came rigor mortis," as she puts it. The temperature was only 46° and she began exhibiting symptoms of hypothermia, shivering uncontrollably and growing increasingly drowsy. Unable to close her hands, she grabbed for cups of water and watched them splash to the street. At one point she nearly ran into a wall. Those last six miles and 385 yards took her 55 minutes. She finished in 2:53:25, 3½ minutes faster than in 1977, but her ranking among the women fell from fourth to 10th.
For a week after that Boston Marathon Olinek couldn't walk. She couldn't run comfortably until July, when a Coral Springs, Fla. podiatrist named Kenneth Rehm made her a remarkable pair of orthotics—or maybe it was just the patient that was remarkable. Not only did the orthotics position Olinek's feet so that they transmitted power from her legs more efficiently than before, but in doing so they changed the shape of her legs almost overnight. The muscle that gives width to the calf is the soleus, and Olinek's inner solei were already legendary from Boston to Miami. Now, with the outer ones popping as well, she met a Hollywood, Fla. microbiologist, biochemist and chiropractor named Jack Kahn. He determined that she had a toxic liver, anemia, reactive hypoglycemia and a protein deficiency. He changed her diet and prescribed megadoses of vitamins and minerals. She became healthier than she had been in years, and all that new calf muscle didn't slow her down, either. She began to run faster. Her dreams became unusually vivid.
In one, a week before running in New Orleans' Mardi Gras Classic Marathon in February 1979, she dreamed she was running a race on a bridge. "I was winning," she says, "and I was winning fabulously. I didn't recognize the bridge, but I couldn't see land on either side."
When she arrived in New Orleans and learned that a police strike had forced a change in the racecourse, she asked, "Where will it be now?"
"On the Pontchartrain Causeway," she was told.
"Can you see land?"
"I got chills," Olinek recalls. "I knew it was the bridge from my dream."
Her winning time was 2:38:11, but a tail wind had blown through much of the race, gusting to 20 mph, and overnight Olinek had a new nickname: "wind-aided." After all, her previous best marathon time had been 15 minutes slower; two months after the Mardi Gras race she ran a 2:47:30 at Boston, nearly a six-minute improvement on her previous best there but good for only ninth place. Her competition was still improving too quickly; in September, at the Women's International Marathon Championships in Waldniel, Germany, her time of 2:44:04 put her in sixth place.
Back in Florida, Olinek decided she wasn't strong enough. She began strapping two- to five-pound weights to her ankles and doing dancer's pliès and marching up and down in front of her bedroom mirror, knees high, for up to an hour at a time. She also chinned dozens of times each day on a bar she had installed in the doorway to her kitchen. She did these things for two months, and the first test of their effectiveness came in December, in the Fiesta Bowl Marathon. For the second time in her running career, someone called out, "One fifty-eight," as she passed the 20-mile mark. On the previous occasion, at Boston in 1978, "rigor mortis" had set in; now, though her pace slowed, she finished in 2:36:12. That made her the third fastest woman marathoner of the year, but still she wasn't happy with her time. "I'm a sub-2:30 marathoner," she kept telling Grandi. "I know it. I just haven't run that fast yet." But it was nearly time to begin serious track training for the 1980 Olympics. When that started, her marathoning would be over for quite a while, so she decided to enter last February's Mardi Gras.
The wind was strong at this one, too, but it blew from the side. (Olinek would finish with an earache.) Her first split, at one mile, was 5:45, just right for a 2:30 clocking, and she was holding back; she had plotted her race, as usual, 58 minutes for 10 miles, 1:25 for 15, 1:54 for 20. She had always been good at keeping a pace, but that required knowing where she was, and now for 19 miles after that first split there were no official markers and no one to call out times. She didn't know whether to speed up or to hold back. Finally, at 20 miles, she got another split, 1:57:13, a pace of 5:48 per mile. Turning to Grandi, who was running alongside, she asked, "What do I have to do the rest of the way for a 2:30?" Grandi, figuring as he ran, said, "Less than 5:30 a mile." Olinek groaned and said, "I could run this pace all day, but I can't go any faster."
The temperature was only 34° and she could feel all her old injuries. With 200 yards left in the race, she summoned up the energy for a sprint, lunged past the finish line and glanced up at the clock. It read 2:35.12, and at that moment she was the third-fastest woman marathoner of all time.
Back again in Florida, Olinek began training for the Olympics—or attempting to. One evening last March she ran seven miles to a high school track only to find the gate locked. Looking up at the nine-foot-high fence, topped with barbed wire, she said to Grandi, "That just about does it." Three weeks later they were in California, and one night before the Zane contest she received a phone call from her sister, Susan, in Toronto, who asked, "Do people have to pay to get into this contest?" "Yes," Gayle said, "$15." And Susan reminded Gayle of her vow that someday people would pay to see her legs.
Olinek was the only one of the 17 women in the Zane who had never been in a bodybuilding contest. And the level of competition may have been the finest ever, eight of the women having won at least one national title. The seven judges, three men and four women, had been cautioned to watch for stretch marks, cellulite and bowlegs, but they found only perfect skin and straight bones. The day would be won by ideal proportions and by the right combination of muscular development and "femininity."
One thing was sure: nothing in the contest stirred the judges, for better or worse, than Olinek's arrivals and departures. The excitement she created was out of proportion to the scores she was given, just as her legs—so more than one judge said—were out of proportion to her arms and shoulders. What are the "ideal" proportions? Olinek offered one version; the best of the rest, Stacey Bentley, offered another, and Olinek wondered, "Am I ahead of my time or just out of step?"
She has been asking herself that question for much of her life. On the tracks and on the roads she'd used her distinctive solei and quadriceps to get her to the finish lines first; on the stage in Santa Monica the best they could do for her was seventh place. "Give me the stopwatch every time," Olinek said. "It never lies."
In the days after the contest, Olinek kept saying, "What irks me is having neglected so much of my running training and then not even placing. I may have had the best legs in the group, but so what? There were no separate awards for legs."
The next Saturday in Atlanta Olinek had the best legs in a group of more than 25,000 men and women, none of whom had competed in the bodybuilding contest. The 10-km. Peachtree Classic had more runners than any other U.S. road race in history. The start looked like a scene from a Charlton Heston Bible epic. Olinek stood around answering questions about her legs. One girl asked, "Do you run all the time, or do you lift weights, too?"
"Weights, too," Olinek told her.
"Ever in a bodybuilding contest?"
"Last week." She winced as she said it.
"You won the legs, didn't you?"
Forty-seven seconds into the Peach-tree a large man came elbowing past and smashed Olinek's stopwatch. Thereafter, she had no way of pacing herself, but it didn't make any difference. "I was only in fair shape," she admitted, after struggling to a fifth-place finish among the women; her time of 35:31 was two minutes and 43 seconds behind Patti Lyons Catalano's winning 32:48.
"I'll have to figure out how to train for 10-K races," she told Grandi.
"But, Gayle," he said, "you only ran nine miles last week."
"I know," she replied. "Too bad there's no biathlon combining bodybuilding and road racing, I could retire with the record."
Had Olinek failed in her unprecedented doubleheader, or as friends kept insisting, had she scored a triumph of sorts simply by having competed? The latter view gave her little solace. And now she was tired. After Peachtree, she developed a severe inflammation of the heel, plantar fascitis. It made running on pavement and even on grass impossible. For many weeks she confined her training to the beach, but she couldn't run fast in the sand and her leg speed diminished. In mid-August her time of 40:42 in the Falmouth 7.1-mile road race placed her 10th among women. On the verge of a classic Olinek tailspin, she confronted the task of simultaneously regaining peak racing form and of staying off her injured heel.
Back in Venice, knee deep in the surf, she rose on her toes and strode for miles in the swirling water. At the UCLA track, still on her toes, she got some of her leg speed back by running mile after five-minute mile. The weeks passed, her heel grew less painful, and in mid-September she won Los Angeles' 10-km. KNBC Peacock Run, in 33:57, beating her personal record for the distance by more than a minute.
One night later that week, coming off Venice beach at sunset, Olinek met a quartet of typical locals. One of them, clad in purple velvet briefs and gold lamè roller skates, had a squawking cockatoo dancing on his clean-shaven scalp. He stepped forward, gestured toward Olinek, turned to his friends and said, "There she is, the woman with the greatest legs in the world." Then he turned toward Olinek. "I just want you to know that you are in the best shape of anyone I have ever seen," he said. "I tip my hat to you." He reached upward, as if for a hat, and got a painful peck on the hand for his gesture of gallantry.
Two weeks after the Peacock Run, in the second 10-mile race of her life, Olinek was runner-up to Jacqueline Gareau, in 58:44, in Lynchburg, Va. "I'm getting there," she said, apparently on the comeback trail again. It was a course she knew well. She had been running it, it seemed, all of her life.