Once when I was working in an office in Washington, D.C., our tall, blonde attorney asked me up to her apartment at noon. She looked like Catherine Deneuve, except her eyes were sea green instead of gray. "I'll give you a cello lesson," she said.
As we walked through the lobby of her building, she took my arm. I felt breathless in the elevator. Her apartment was a sanctuary of Persian rugs and palms. The air was rich with Shalimar.
The cello lesson turned out to be a cello lesson. I found that disconcerting on a number of levels, the least of which was that I'd never before touched a cello.
This memoir is like that. No matter how much it may titillate the reader with references to an illicit sporting event that entangled a movie star, dragged the name of an Olympic champion and his family through the mud and saw a gorgeous sex tester run rampant, it doesn't really deliver solid scandal. It isn't supposed to. This story is more a try at evoking the wistful expression I now get when I hear the phrase "cello lesson," a tale to be told not for its substance or its gossip, but for its unexpectedness.
April 20, 1981
For one thing, it happened in Eugene, Ore., a pleasant university town of 100,000. Eugene has sometimes affected visitors from harder-driving regions with its simplicity. A New Yorker observing citizens sorting out a traffic jam without the aid of the police once said, not entirely in approval, "It's a toy city." Another found the natives' sweet temper unsettling. "It's as if the waiters in my hotel suffer from a dreamy sort of retardation," he growled. "They serve me oversalted wild rice, and when I complain, they serenely and without consultation replace it with cottage cheese—like that's an even exchange."
"Maybe they shouldn't be called Eugenians," said the first New Yorker, "but Eugenics."
"I would hardly consider them an improvement on the breed," said the second.
Eugene happens, however, to contain its share of farmhands, sporting-goods salesmen and orthopedic surgeons who are ruled by antic imagination. As proof, I offer our subject, The Put Up Or Shut Up Mile Run, conceived two winters ago in the brackish murk of Chuck Jaqua's hot tub and strenuously overorganized at the Olde Towne Pizza Parlor.
A lot of Eugenians run, and most of those runners talk big. The idea of the mile was to shame the dozen loudest of roughly 4:40 to 5:00 ability—the Alberto Salazars and Mary Deckers of Eugene being very soft talkers, as well as being intent on the upcoming Olympic Trials—into each ponying up a $25 entry fee for a race the evening of June 26, 1980 on the track of Lane Community College. The winner would receive 50% of the total purse, with decreasing money through fifth place.
A race committee headed by attorney Kip Leonard did the preliminary shaming with its invitations, which merely described the potential contestants. Of Bruce Ronning, 34, the entry form said, "His special petition for a weight class was denied on the grounds that his weight has no class." Leonard's law partner, Bill (Sheephead) Martin, "whose personal record of 48.5 is for the 100-meter freestyle," was said to be praying for rain. And for Leon (Nearly Normal) Henderson, a ranch foreman who had finished second in the 312-mile Great Hawaiian Footrace in 1979, "an especially attractive young heifer had been installed as pace calf at the LCC track."
After lubricious reference to the awards banquet and attendant debauchery that would be denied to non-entrants, the form concluded with a request that the runner submit his money and T shirt size if he were ready to do the manly thing, his panty size if he were not.
There followed a torrent of acceptances, most of them profane. "I'm ashamed that I'm succumbing to this social pressure," wrote Jimmy Jake Jaqua, 35, lawyer, central Oregon builder and drama student. "If the value of seeing the perpetrators of this ripoff fall down and puke is one cent less than $25, you'll be using your winnings to pay legal fees."
Barry O'Donnell, a wrestler and fitness consultant, said, "Due to an iliopsoas strain, it might be necessary to ambulate upon the rotator cuff and groups of the anterior and posterior arm. In other words, if I can't run on my legs, I'll run on my hands like any other good gorilla."
And Clark Meinert, a sporting-goods executive from West Linn, a town to the north, asserted that "only blockage of Interstate 5 by a lava field would deter me from sharpening my spikes." Later, when Mount St. Helens let go, Henderson said, "I wonder how Clark did that? Of course, the lava completely missed Interstate 5."
"Merely a warning," returned Meinert. "A smoke signal compared to the hell I'm going to raise in June."
In fact, Meinert took the race so seriously he hired a coach, former Pac-8 steeplechase champion Bob Williams. In response, Lary Simpson, Meinert's business partner, signed an Olympic steeplechaser (1972), Mike Manley, as an adviser. Soon the town was webbed with secret interlocking alliances. Leonard and Jimmy Jaqua, unbeknownst to each other, approached the same Olympic marathoner, an austere and almost contemptuous recluse, who gave them training programs of heedless severity. Within a month, both were injured. Jim's brother, Chuck, also a builder, trained so hard he broke his foot.
The prime beneficiary of this carnage was another competitor, Dr. Stan James, portrayed on the entry sheet as "a multiseason athlete rumored to practice medicine in his spare time." James is one of the nation's finest orthopedic surgeons, but the description was perfectly apt. A cyclist, cross-country skier, runner and kayakist, James is capable of such purity of concentration while, say, paddling that he has been known to churn blindly on for a mile past the finish line. His constant advice to injured runners is to back off, relax and rest because injuries are almost always the result of overuse. James knows because he's injured half the time himself. Consequently, he would run under the colors of the Do As I Say Not As I Do Track Club, but first, because at 48 he was the oldest entrant, he petitioned for a slight handicap—"two minutes will do"—on the basis of expert testimony of other doctors ranging from Louis Pasteur ("This nut wanted to boil me in milk!") to Madame Curie ("a strange glow about her") to George Sheehan ("Told me I had runner's knee, Morton's toe and hadn't read enough Thoreau"). His request was lovingly denied, the race committee saying, "He wasn't invited as a contender. It was thought that he could scrape together 25 bucks to help fill the pot. And he did. Next case."
Most entrants were in their 30s. "Old enough to know," said one, "that the leisurely pleasure of anticipation usually outweighs the brief rush of an event itself." The anticipation took the form of hyping the social implications of the race. Leonard, whose office had been involved in arrangements for a movie to be shot in Eugene at the time of the race, sent a description of The P.U. Or S.U. Mile to the film's star, 18-year-old Mariel Hemingway, who said she would be pleased to award the prizes. "But she wants to know if it's safe for such old guys to get all excited when she kisses 'em so soon after a tiring run," said her messenger.
"We're fatalists," said Leonard. "We figure if she's killed, she's killed."
Emboldened by success with a movie star, the committee pressed on. Feeling a need for a distinguished signature to lend weight to the award certificates, it prevailed on friends of then mile world-record holder Sebastian Coe to forward the papers to him in England. The documents returned, inscribed not only by Sebastian but also by his parents, brother Nick and sister Emma as well as Harry Potts—Milkman to the Coe Family. With them came a letter from Peter Coe, Sebastian's father and coach. "Just what is all this bull about putting up or shutting up?" he wrote. "For the record, I have put up with the iniquities of Watergate, and the peanut farmer's Olympic tantrums; with Margaret Thatcher and the worst fiscal system ever riveted upon a nation; 40 years in manufacturing; the British Amateur Athletic Association; countless race promoters; a wife, four children and three world records; and after that lot I'm damned if I'm going to shut up. Now, just how much time with Mariel Hemingway does my $25 buy me? P.S. Leave my son and athlete out of this—he's got enough going for him as it is, the lucky swine."
Most contestants felt there was a stroke of luck in the choice of sex tester, Leonard's wife, Jody Miller. A beautiful woman, she possesses a lovely smile that one would swear was innocent. One would be seriously mistaken.
"I'm being purposely vague about exactly what the test will be," she said a week before the run. "We will have to draw straws to see who goes first, because the timing of it could affect the outcome of the race. I mean the first ones will get more time to rest."
"What kind of test is it?" asked a naive visitor. "Hormones? Chromosomes?"
"It's a little more demanding than that," said Miller. "These are supposed to be men, you know. And I can't certify them to run without some evidence. I mean track meets have gone on for years and years just assuming that whoever says he's a man is a man. I suppose you can understand that. The poor dears, probably lots of them worried about it themselves. But when you start running for the money, you just have to have some standards, and believe me, I do."
Ultimately the day came. The LCC track rests within a bowl of mounded, grassy earth, which opens out on the north to a view of evergreen ridges. The place seemed on that summer evening to carry an air of open spaces not yet developed, a 19th century sort of promise. And of pomp. On the infield the 50 or so invited spectators sipped champagne from glasses arrayed on a steeplechase barrier and made lewd sport of the fretting, warming competitors.
The ribaldry was soon cut off by the bullhorn-amplified voice of the master of ceremonies, Robert Newland, a lumber broker who was a wide receiver for the New Orleans Saints for five years. The experience left him with scarred knees and a rueful sense of humor. Resplendent in velvet, he introduced the field.
In Lane 1 was O'Donnell, representing the Lower Primate T.C. Then, from Rosie Ruiz's Road Runners, came attorney Rick Roseta, who had assisted in the legal effort that won former pro shotputter Brian Oldfield the right to take part in the Olympic Trials.
"In Lane 3 is Jim Bryant from the Big Dog T.C," said Newland. "Jim has expressed a desire that the race be run in heat. Excuse me, in heats."
Chuck (Life Is a Holiday) Jaqua limped sourly into Lane 4. Meinert, looking fit, was in Lane 5, running for the Mental Block A.A. Next to him was his partner, Simpson, "who," said Newland, "is dedicating his efforts to the memory of Terri Rackley—The stuff that dreams are made of.' " This brought a curious expression to the brow of Simpson's wife, whose name is and always has been Sally.
Leonard was in Lane 7, with his old Marine singlet on and lethal two-inch spikes at the ready. "In Lane 8 is a competitor notorious for his lack of notoriety, from The Planned Parenthood T.C., Uncle Denny Elliot." In Lane 9 was Jimmy Jake Jaqua, and in Lane 10 was Martin, "a man who hasn't got a P.R. and doesn't know what it stands for." James was next, "the real winner already with more than $500 from treating the rest of you self-destructive bums." And in Lane 12 was San Francisco's Sandy Skeie, who said, "With a hustle like this, you guys should be in the record business." Skeie is in the record business.
Newland gave careful instructions, even mentioning that it was hoped the race would proceed in a counterclockwise direction. Then the men went to the line. Henderson, not running because of illness, readied his video camera.
The gun refused to fire.
"Good, now we can all go home," shouted Jimmy Jaqua. "I knew there was going to be some kind of trick ending."
They were organized afresh and sent off with a whistle. O'Donnell was away fastest, the gun finally sounding as he led Simpson and Meinert down the back-stretch. The three completed the first lap in 71.5, with the pack already stretching far behind. Simpson led at the 880 in 2:26, and Sally encouraged him by running along the outside of the track shouting, "Who the hell is Terri Rackley?"
Simpson and Meinert were pulling away from O'Donnell at the three-quarter in 3:39. A stretch duel appeared likely.
A man named Tom Sturak, a fine California masters runner, out for a jaunt, had stumbled on the scene. "This event has more life than the Olympic Trials," he said with wonder. "What is it?"
"Just Eugene's version of the old pyramid scam," said Jimmy Jaqua.
Simpson sprinted hard with 300 yards to go, but couldn't shake Meinert, who drew even as the homestretch opened before them. He drove on by and, as he neared the tape, emitted a horrific scream of victory.
"Simpson shot him," said Henderson.
Meinert had run the last lap in 57.6 to win in 4:36.6. Simpson ran 4:41, O'Donnell 4:52.4, and Chuck Jaqua, short of training after his stress fracture, still made it to fourth in 5:01. Roseta was fifth in 5:05. Charity demands that the list of times stop there, though it was clear that all had run hard, if not rapidly. Chuck Jaqua was down on his knees, sick, when Henderson waved his camera and announced, "Oh, too bad. I didn't get it. They'll have to do it again."
Miller watched with a misty, forlorn expression as Leonard and Skeie came in at the tail of the field. "But they did so well on the tests" she said.
"I might retire now," said Meinert, flushed with victory. "The purse [which for the winner was $187.50]? I'll spend it all on beer and clothes."
Roseta, startled at winning $18.75, albeit on a $25 investment, said, "Amateur no more. I'm going to have to start preparing an injunction for myself."
For the awards ceremony, held in the courtyard of a vacant fraternity house, Chuck Jaqua had built a victory platform five times the size of the one being used at the Olympic Trials 2,500 miles away. "You expected perhaps a refined sense of proportion?" he asked.
Mariel Hemingway showed up right on time, though with a dubious mien. "Do I really have to kiss all 12 of 'em?" she asked Leonard.
"O.K.," she said, a grin breaking across her face. "They better be ready."
Some were. The presentations began with 12th place, Sandy Skeie, who numbly accepted his certificate and T shirt and forgot to collect his kiss. "A telling comment on the manliness of the record business," said O'Donnell.
"Now, now," said the sex tester. "We know that's not true."
Leonard, next up, more than compensated, embracing Mariel three times for three different photographers. On his wall there now hangs a picture of the moment, signed, "To Kip, with Lust—Mariel."
That pretty much set the tone of the proceedings, although they didn't decline into the indiscriminate. Dr. James had been called away to the hospital, so Henderson designated himself proxy prize-receiver. He was met with a fiery stare and an outflung arm. "Oh, no," said Hemingway. "I know the rules. You don't run, you don't get kissed."
"Next year we get Brooke Shields," said Henderson.
The Coe family somehow entered into the spirit of things from 6,000 miles away, Peter Coe having written bits of advice on the certificates. "If you want 'em fast, breed 'em yourself," was one that briefly sobered the house. Briefly.
A long table was spread with roasts and turkeys and salmon and midsummer produce. As the men continued their serial mauling of Mariel, the women drifted over to the strawberries and cream. "She seems to be holding up altogether too well," said one.
"Listen," said Martin, snapping out of the trance Hemingway's kiss had induced in him, "my greatest joy right now is that I won't have to hear about this damned thing anymore, ever."
"The replay is ready!" shouted Henderson, rolling in a TV set, and everybody lived through the race one more time. A few grew mistily philosophic. "It's so jubilant," said one. "Such a counterpoint to the sadness of an Olympic Trials for no Olympics."
"Anticipation is one thing," said Jimmy Jaqua, "and the event is another. But analysis afterward is still another, and the worst." And that put a stop to that.
" 'Toward the end,' " said Leonard toward the end, quoting something he'd read on a bulletin board once, " 'they had only a dumb wonder at having debased themselves so wretchedly.' "
All but O'Donnell, who wandered through the crowd demanding to be told the times were wrong, that there couldn't possibly be 16 seconds between Meinert's first and his third. At last he gave up, coming to rest in a corner with a leg of lamb. "Oh, well," he said with the pinpoint accuracy of the insensate, "we did it all for the money, anyway."