A visitor is running with a bunch of strange men through a strange forest. His impressions are of modest effort beneath pines, over sandy, moist ground. There are few complete sentences, many knowing looks, mild insults. The air carries grass perfume and the sweetness of flowering trees. Everything seems relaxed, but then the green needles overhead erupt with raucous hoots that let the visitor know he's not in Marin County. "Magpies and kookaburras," someone says. There's a sense of the sun working steadily northward, toward noon.
The runners talk of movies, coming races, babies, electronics. The trail takes them along the edge of an immense field of tall green oats. From among them, a shadow leaps up; my God, it's a kangaroo, six feet high, and another smaller one, both hopping around on legs like truck springs, mashing down the grain, watching the runners until they're well away. "Wild pig off here to the left sometimes," says John Gilbert, a 2:27 marathoner, peering idly into dark, dry thickets.
A crimson and violet parrot comes clumsily to rest in a pine. The other runners take no notice of the bird, but they do of the visitor's exclamations. "Just a rosella," says one. "Don't you have birds in the States?"
This is Stromlo Forest, rolling away over the hills southwest of Canberra, Australia's capital city. It's possible to become so caught up in the forest's unexpected exotic touches while padding along some of its 30 miles of cushiony paths that at first the visitor doesn't give much thought to the true rarity—the runner who happens to be just ahead, name of Rob de Castella.
July 17, 1984
But eventually it penetrates that here is a remarkably formed beast. He seems out of proportion, with heavily muscled legs supporting a taut, wiry upper body, as if halves of two different men have been joined at the waist. The recipient of the leftover pieces would have to totter through life with a weightlifter's torso supported by bandy little lower limbs. De Castella, in violation of all fairness, gets to run with those great muscles, and all he has to carry is the upper body of a hollow-boned bird. The image comes of a griffin, mythical composite of a lion's body and the head and wings of an eagle, but that seems too warlike to apply here.
For de Castella is a creature of these temperate, entertaining woods. The bulk of his 135 miles per week is done in them. He never finds it too muddy or too hot or cold or hilly. Twice a week, when he needs to run hard, he will leave his training companions and storm away over the last hour of 18-and 22-mile efforts. But more often he is content to run and chat and let the time pass, the sweat flow, the miles mount.
Now, those miles have brought de Castella, at 27, surpassing strength. In his last four marathons he has won four times against the best in the world, over four different courses, in races of drastically different tactics. In so doing, he has made himself the clear favorite for the gold medal in whatever conditions August in Los Angeles brings.
In 1981 de Castella showed he could run fast. That was when, five weeks after Alberto Salazar had set the world best in the marathon with a 2:08:13 in New York, de Castella won in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2:08:18. Because the Fukuoka race finished in the stadium where it began, but New York's went from one end of the city to another (making possible a net assistance from a tail wind for Salazar), de Castella is recognized as the record holder for loop, or out-and-back, courses. Marathon purists feel this to be the more legitimate mark.
Then in 1982, de Castella showed he could control himself and run in the heat. During the British Commonwealth Games marathon in Brisbane, Lieut. Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania set a killing pace, a world-record pace, on a hot October day. De Castella was a full minute behind with nine miles to run. Then he charged. He caught and passed Ikangaa with 2½ miles to go. But Ikangaa's pace hadn't been suicidal. He had energy enough to fling himself back into the lead. De Castella passed him a second time. Again, Ikangaa drove to the front. Implacable, de Castella came on once more and powered away to win, by 12 seconds, in 2:09:18. Those final miles on Coronation Drive were heralded as the most fiercely competitive in marathon history.
Until, that is, the spring of 1983, in Rotterdam. There, de Castella raced Salazar for the first time. After a fast start and a tactical, wait-and-conserve middle, de Castella launched his drive for the finish with four miles to go. Salazar, tired from travel and slightly injured, with a strained groin muscle, couldn't hang on and faded to fifth. But Carlos Lopes of Portugal, the 1976 Olympic silver medalist at 10,000 meters, went right with de Castella. With 1,000 meters to go, de Castella was thrashing low with his arms, his head twisting with the strain. Lopes seemed far more efficient. But de Castella lifted into a full sprint with 300 yards left. "I hoped that the fatigue had built up in Lopes's legs more than in mine," he would say, gasping, later. "That he couldn't go with me one last time." De Castella won by two seconds, in 2:08:37. This was happy proof, he said, that the marathon, despite the entry of accomplished track runners such as Salazar and Lopes, was still a race that could be dominated by raw stamina.
It was almost anticlimactic when de Castella won again last August at the world championships in Helsinki, in 2:10:03, over a rugged, undulating course. In his four notable wins, he revealed no weaknesses. Strength, pace judgment, heat tolerance, the ability to harbor his emotional reserves in a waiting race (as the Olympic marathon may well be), and the ability to charge to the finish, he had them all.
But here, running in these woods, none of that shows. De Castella habitually does the first mile of a training run in about nine minutes. He isn't very flexible, yet seldom stretches. Indeed, once in Tampa Bay, women's world champion Grete Waitz's husband, Jack, called her to their hotel window. "See that man trying to run," he said. "If you keep marathoning for too many years, you'll end up like that." She had to look twice before recognizing de Castella beginning a workout.
"He's indistinguishable from native flora," says Brian Lenton as he trails in de Castella's wake this morning. Lenton is a writer and teacher from whose house these runs invariably commence. "Dr. Dick Telford of the Australian Institute of Sport—that's him running at your left—has shown that the circumference of Deek's thigh is equivalent to that of an 18-year-old gum tree."
De Castella grins at this abuse. It's clear that, world champion or not, he still relishes the traditionally rough Australian democracy of sport.
De Castella grew up 300 miles to the south of Canberra in Melbourne, the son of Ann and Rolet de Castella. The family is of Swiss origin, and Rolet is an executive with Nestlé. He encouraged Rob, at age 12, to begin running mornings with him. "I hated it," says the son now. "I wasn't any good at sports like football and cricket, and I had this horribly awkward running style." Indeed, de Castella still is slightly knock-kneed when he runs and has an arm action that would serve to scatter seeds in a dozen furrows. "But as I started to improve, I was motivated enough to keep it up."
At 14, de Castella went out for cross-country at Xavier Preparatory School and came under the gentle guidance of history master Pat Clohessy. Clohessy, who won the 1961 and '62 NCAA three-mile races while studying history at the University of Houston, remains de Castella's coach, having moved to Canberra after accepting a position as a distance coach at the Australian Institute of Sport in 1983. Moreover, the basic system of training Clohessy wrote for de Castella then is what he follows still.
They have shared 13 years of faithful work together. Salazar has said he recognizes his own good fortune in having been coached in a similar manner by Bill Squires in high school in Wayland, Mass. and by Bill Dellinger at Oregon ever since, but Salazar and his two like-minded mentors are still three years short of the de Castella-Clohessy string.
The best way by far to hear about this is simply to drop back as de Castella surges up a hill, and fall in step with the still lean Clohessy, now 51, who's also a denizen of Stromlo pine forest. "I'll show you the circuit we sometimes do fartlek on," he says, leading the visitor away from the group, down a path beside a stream.
Clohessy is usually the Socratic teacher. He has the ability to leave his pupils with the feeling that they knew the answers all along, that Clohessy simply happened to be there—pleased and impressed—when that solution shone through.
When asked to recall the boy who was Rob de Castella, Clohessy can't figure a way to get the visitor to answer the question for himself, so he reluctantly sets about the matter. "The settled routine of school was good for Deek," he says kind of dreamily, as if it were just coming to him. "His gift was—what else?—steadiness. He could run strong and relaxed, and remarkably evenly. We never went near the track in cross-country season, and even when we did in the track season, lap times meant nothing to him. But he had a sense of how to keep something for his finish."
The structure of a week's training grew out of Clohessy's wanting his runners to do a long run on Sundays, and to do it with others. "Every Sunday I'd take some boys to Ferny Creek in the Dandenong Ranges, about 20 miles east of Melbourne," he says. "This is the run Ron Clarke and all the best have made famous. Rob began doing it when he was 15 and covered 13 miles. Very gradually, over years, he built up to 21."
By a stream, Clohessy takes a turn onto a more obscure forest path, covered with sticks and showing no sign of recent passage. "We had cross-country meetings or track races for the school on Fridays, so that meant that Saturday was a recovery run, as was the Monday after the long runs on Sunday. Tuesday we would run those hills, Wednesday would be some fast intervals, and what would Thursday be? Right, easy again, of course. Over the years Rob has added to the distance with morning runs, but he has never changed that fundamental pattern.
"His last year in school he ran Aussie junior records. He did 8:49 for two miles, which broke the mark held by Herb Elliott [the 1960 Olympic 1,500 champion]. He had lots of help in these races from older, open-class runners...."
Clohessy picks his way along the trail, looking vaguely troubled. "Let me back up," he says. "A major influence on me was John Landy [an Australian who was history's second sub-four-minute miler]. He was a tremendous athlete, but the contribution he made to helping other people was vital. I have a stack of letters he sent me. He wrote anyone who ever asked advice. His way was a rejection of the view that you had to disdain opponents. Am I making myself clear?"
He is. Though he hasn't mentioned any names, the period Clohessy is discussing, roughly 1952 to '60, was notable in Australia for the strident exhortations of Percy Cerutty, Elliott's coach, who saw every race as a physical, intellectual and emotional death struggle. It was against this background that Clohessy came to believe, as he says, "If you're not prepared to help people, there's a weakness in you."
The genial de Castella, then, is a spiritual descendant of Landy. "Rob has had a lot of help from senior runners because of his mild, relaxed ways," says Clohessy.
But although de Castella's racing fire was never in question, Clohessy says, "I did wish in the early days he might have been a bit more serious."
Clohessy runs on in silence, picking through his memory for a revelatory example of his last statement. Finally he begins to recount the time de Castella and a friend, Jim McCauley, who were Xavier's top runners, wanted to win the intramural cross-country race for their house with the lowest possible score. A dead heat would mean two points. De Castella's mother had suggested, in jest, that if one carried the other across, it might count as only one point. So de Castella slowed at the finish, McCauley jumped on and de Castella piggybacked him in. School authorities, viewing this as offensive farce, disqualified them both, and their house lost.
Clohessy has led his guest over a loop of two miles, and now they've returned to the stream. "Only a mile and a half back now," he says, but he turns away from the direction of the Lenton home, confusing the visitor by beginning what seems another lap. "After Rob left Xavier, in 1977 and 1978 he was at Monash and Swinburne [studying biophysics] and then worked in Prince Henry Hospital. His routines were always changing. He trained, but there were distractions."
De Castella has spoken of many late nights. Lenton is more blunt. "There is a quiet gregariousness about him," Lenton wrote in his book of interviews with notable runners, Through the Tape. "Around the age of twenty-one, it would have been better described as a wild gregariousness. Deek could well have been the life (and death) of many a party."
De Castella is loath to be drawn out on this period now, but it couldn't have been too comfortable. "He had a few good races," says Clohessy, "and he made Australia's 1977 world cross-country team, which was a vital motivator. If he hadn't done that, we might have lost him."
This was a time when de Castella grew a beard and let his hair tangle in apostolic masses. At the 1979 world cross-country championships in Limerick, Ireland, he met Gayelene Clews, an exceptionally comely runner from Perth, who was a member of the Australian women's team. Western Australians are even more blunt than Eastern ones. "I thought he was an animal," Clews says.
The animal thought she was terrific, but she lived 2,000 miles away, across the continent.
The visitor begins to wonder whether he should say something, for he and Clohessy have now completed a second lap over the broken sticks and, without pause, have begun a third. But Clohessy is in the midst of reliving 1979. "Rob's job at the hospital was what helped him get a routine, and Gayelene, even in Perth, was a direction for his emotional energy. His commitment began to grow."
De Castella ran his first marathon, the Victorian Championships, that year. "It was just to get the experience," says Clohessy. "The idea was to run a 2:20 pace and stay relaxed. I followed along, and at 20 miles asked him how he felt.
" 'Fine,' he said.
" 'Well, when you feel like it, stretch out,' told him.
"And he rockets away. He's going so well, I suddenly start to think of the possibilities. I'm hollering to people, 'What's the Olympic qualifying time?' They shout back that it's 2:14:50. I do calculations, and with two miles to go, I tell him, 'You can do it.'
"And he does do it, in 2:14:44. The idea had been to introduce him to it right, without him staggering at the end. So it was a success. But then he said, 'I'd like to run the National.'
"That was to be in Perth. So I said, 'S' truth, I get the connection.' " Racing before Gayelene only six weeks later, de Castella won in 2:13:23.
"I always thought of him as a marathoner," says Clohessy. By this time he has unhesitatingly committed himself and his companion to a fourth lap over the sticks. "I always knew the longer the distance, the better he went. But I was afraid of sending him out too early.... Look here, are we going the right way?"
"I think all we have to do is stop turning left at the stream," says his relieved partner.
"Of course. Good on ya." Clohessy does a sharp about-face and begins briskly striding for home. "I didn't really go out to beat the world with Deek, you know," Clohessy says, reluctant to abandon his teaching. "I didn't initially see him as different from the rest of the kids. He was relaxed and kind and got a lot of enjoyment from his sport. So it's a mature relationship. Mutual trust and counsel. A privilege." Clohessy then runs a silent half mile before he says, as if it had no connection with what had gone before, "People who reckon they have all the answers are looking for trouble.... Fancy you finding the way back."
The road outside the Lenton house is jammed with cars. It looks as if there's a garden party going on. But it's just the usual returning tide of runners, now searching out the gallon jugs of Gatorade in the kitchen.
Gayelene, whom Rob married in 1980, is there with their infant daughter, Krista. Beside her is a tawny-haired, clear-featured woman who appears to be Gayelene's sister. But Marlene Clews is Gayelene's mother, and mother of six other Clews children as well, including Graham, 26, who ran 2:17:00 in the 1983 Rotterdam Marathon.
"She's great," de Castella is saying of the new baby, his and Gayelene's first, "although an athlete can be affected by changing routine...."
"But the first six weeks are the worst," says Marlene. "After that, you gain the possibility of control. For now, she controls you."
De Castella is a thoughtful planner. "But as soon as we get adjusted," he says, smiling, "the way of a baby is to grow and change and require further adjustment."
"Yes, but not so bad as now," his mother-in-law says firmly. "If you were an ordinary person, you'd arrange your life around the baby's needs, but you're not an ordinary person. Your time and energy are precious. So after I'm gone [this signifies no terminal illness, but her return to Perth], you ought to get someone in to do all the work and leave you to enjoy the baby and still keep to your basic routine."
All on hand express assent, and the de Castella-Clews family departs, which leaves only about 20 people in the Lenton house. One of them, Telford, is a physiologist who was de Castella's nominal boss at the Australian Institute of Sport and whose best marathon is a 2:27. De Castella worked as a technician in Telford's biophysics lab until a year ago, when he took a leave to train full-time for the Olympics. Telford is asked to speak of de Castella's physiological parameters.
"Rob's oxygen uptake is around 85 millimeters per minute per kilogram of his body weight," Telford says. "That's as high as a runner gets. But it's how he got there that's most interesting. He hasn't ever been injured. He's averaged 100 miles per week for the last five years.
"People get injured when they alter the kind or the intensity of their training. Since 1979, Rob's has changed not at all. He still runs his 400s every Thursday in 65 seconds. His Sunday run is still the same pace. He's destroyed the myth that you have to intensify training to keep the body improving."
And in so doing, de Castella has made his mental processes the object of some fascination. Imagine the confidence that it takes to train this way, to put in a year just like the one before, and the one before that, and to have faith that on those one or two occasions each year when it counts, in the marathons, you'll be better than ever. Of course, de Castella has checkpoints, cross-country or road races to test his condition, such as the 1983 Gasparilla 15-km in Tampa, in which he set a world best of 42:46. But in the main, it seems that he escapes the perpetual jitters that most athletes, if honest, will admit they experience. Everyone who knows de Castella describes him as calm or imperturbable. Well, maybe not Krista, but then she can't talk yet.
Of her, Rob has said, "I'd like to know what goes on in her head, because she'll begin to cry and there will be real desperation or rage in it, but if you go away for a few minutes and come back, she'll be fast asleep!" Changing mood is a mystery to the stable. To Gayelene, who has on occasion justifiably been made nervous by the traffic during visits to Melbourne, he has said, "You ought to be able not to let that bother you."
This calls to mind what James Thurber said he was told by a professor about his total recall: "Like every one of the few persons that I've known with your gift, you seem to be less aware and proud of it than you are irritated that everybody else doesn't have it."
De Castella doesn't deny his serenity but tends to see his consistency as brought about by natural causes. "My big, strong legs are a great asset in doing the mileage that I do," he told Lenton. "They can store more glycogen in the muscle fibers than small ones would. But in the end, you develop incredible strength through continuous running and it's got a snowball effect. Strength allows consistency, which brings more strength. Once you do get injured you are vulnerable to getting injured again because of the inconsistencies in your training."
This is irrefutably the long view. But the visitor still finds this sense of working cautiously within one's limits hard to mesh with trying one's absolute best. Athletes usually insist on the necessity of fighting out to the risky edge, for if they don't a rival surely will. Is consistency de Castella's defining ability? If so, what accounts for it?
To find out, the visitor must first break through de Castella's reluctance to be questioned. The next afternoon, running, he says, "One is being interviewed because of who one is, not what one says." He adds that he believes "professional" (he, like virtually all Olympians these days, is only nominally an amateur) athletes, including himself, ought to have time spent in interviews adequately recompensed. He does receive payment from Australian tabloid journals. And many of them are indeed after him not for what he says but for who he is. American publications, SI included, generally refuse to pay for interviews.
In light of that, his unwillingness to talk seems to be as much a matter of culture or custom as of ethics. It certainly doesn't mean that de Castella is any more grasping than any other runner. Indeed, in his single-minded drive toward the Olympics, he will pass up the Los Angeles, Tokyo and Rotterdam marathons, forgoing, in Clohessy's estimate, about $200,000 in guarantees.
De Castella eventually relents, and the visitor begins to delve into why de Castella is so calm, asking if he thinks of himself as having overwhelming innate ability.
"No," says de Castella, "but it depends on how you define it. In school, it's speed they call natural ability. But another form of it is having a body that adapts to exercise, a body that's trainable, and I do have that. If I don't train, I deteriorate quickly...."
Running along with de Castella this afternoon is Derek Froude of New Zealand, who was ninth in the 1983 New York Marathon with 2:11:25. Upon hearing de Castella discoursing on injuries, he cries out, "How would you know?"
"When I was 13," de Castella says with a perfectly straight face, "I was off for two or three days, and I can remember it really affected me."
"Well, what are the reasons you seem so balanced, so pressure-proof?" the visitor says, pursuing his own rhetorical path.
"Don't people get ruffled as a result of pressure, their own or others'?" de Castella asks. "And then answers himself, "That varies depending on why you do your sport. It's easier if you're doing it for yourself, not to prove something to others. I was lucky not to be a superstar at a young age. I had to discover for myself that I wanted to run and train."
He now has finished his easy 10 in the woods and is sitting at the Lenton kitchen table over a cup of tea. Speaking of the principles of his endeavor, de Castella is brisk and articulate. Discussing his past, however, he's given to pauses.
"I was always serious about my running," he says. "But Gayelene affected my life-style, my attitude. Before, I never missed training, but she brought that dedication to the whole of my daily life, thinking about proper rest and nutrition. She was very, very independent and strong. I don't like feeling responsible for entertaining a woman. I liked to go out and have a reciprocal experience, not a one-way thing. Her being an athlete was vital, too. She understood because of her own experience.
"All athletes go through periods of enthusiasm and complacency," de Castella continues. "It's important then to have a stable approach. It's a disadvantage to enjoy it too much. It can't be a fanaticism, because you lose control of yourself, you do too much. Again, this must have a lot to do with not coming to full commitment too early and with your early environment and associates. A coach who's too intense is a shortcut to the end of the road."
De Castella is asked, perhaps too much in the merrily abusive tone of his fellows on the road, to dredge up some incidents of his youth that he cringes about now, to show the distance he's come.
He struggles, looking to Lenton and others, not for stories, it seems, but for help in getting out of this. He isn't on the road now. He's being interviewed. The silence becomes uncomfortable. "Forget it," says the visitor. "It isn't important." But the visitor guesses that this logical soul has decided that one of the factors that cuts into athletic preparedness is spending energy on telling his own story. No longer does this man throw his high spirits into piggybacking teammates; he distills those spirits into his performances.
"I'm just not into details," says de Castella. "Details are just things that happen. It's the overall effect of the details that counts with me."
When de Castella has gone, John Gilbert, who has returned from his own run in time to hear this part of the conversation, remarks that a resistance to details constitutes a telling detail in itself. "That might explain how Rob goes through life with so little seeming to bother him."
There can be no simple accounting for that, of course. It has to do with his perfect organization. Coach, doctor, country, employer and mother-in-law are all exuberantly on his side. His marriage is such a perfect symbiosis that he doesn't have to get excited about things that are unrelated to his mission.
The visitor has to get home. De Castella drops around for a final chat. In his manner there's a suggestion that things haven't gone as well as they might, and he would have it otherwise. The visitor was, after all, a two-time Olympic marathoner. And de Castella ran 10th (2:14:31) in the Moscow Olympics the year before his great surge. They can talk freely about the race experience. They learn that they both read escapist novels before going to the start. "It is almost a disassociation from the event," says de Castella, "although there remains an awareness of the pain and effort that wait out there. So when I get there, I'm ready. In Helsinki, going over the course beforehand, I found myself wondering what I'd feel at certain points, say a bridge or hill. Then in the race at those points I had almost flashbacks, when I said, 'Well, Rob, this is what you were wondering about.'
"It's harder if everyone thinks you're going to win. It's almost unfair that the desires of millions of people you don't know can intrude upon your sanctuary. They believe that you, the athlete, are representing them, and you have an obligation to win. If you lose, they feel embarrassed, as if you're showing their weakness, don't you think?"
But meeting this pressure, he says, "is just part of the challenge. I've always admired emotional control in people. Like Lasse Viren after he'd won the 10,000 in 1976 and then thought he might be disqualified for waving his shoes to the crowd. He could have been driven crazy with worry, but he was able to just put it out of his mind because whatever was going to happen would happen. He could concentrate on the 5,000, which he could influence. And he won it." De Castella is growing excited talking about this, which is a mild irony, considering his topic.
"Emotional control is what I admire in the Japanese runners. They follow their own tactical plans. They don't get caught up in the competition in foolish emotional ways. You have to react, but to situations. The swings of feeling that the situation is causing have to be kept down."
"What is your frame of mind in hard racing? Fearful? Angry?" he's asked.
"In a race situation I don't think I experience any emotion. No pain, no fear," de Castella says. "But as the race gets harder and harder, I feel I'm always near losing emotional control. Not just a little, but an upheaval. And at the end, the stress you've undergone is such that your emotion, when it's over, when you don't have to race anymore, is incredibly intense. It's not just the winner who shows that. You can see it on the weeping, laughing faces of the three-hour finishers. It's the ultimate in satisfaction."
He smiles, a glowing example.