A Streak on The Line

Edwin Moses, winner of 94 straight 400 hurdles races, is fit again and ready to take on his challengers
June 08, 1986

The University of California, Irvine has a wonderful all-purpose athletic field. It is half a mile in circumference and surrounded by dark pines and airy eucalyptus trees. At 10 minutes to 8 on a spring morning the evaporating dew carries an inviting, herbal tang. The 10 acres of turf are dense and level. "The sprinkler heads retract to be flush with the ground," says Edwin Moses. "And look, they have plastic caps on them, so they won't bruise you."

Moses, as he does every day, has spread a ratty old beach mat in one corner of this salubrious expanse. On it he has laid out a thermos bottle, a radio, a towel, keys, spiked shoes, a clock and a notebook. "My camp," he says. He stretches for many minutes and in many positions, then does a series of high-kicking hurdler's exercises. Save for a groundskeeper or two, he is alone.

Which is natural, for Moses has commanded us to think of him only in the singular. He easily won the 1976 and 1984 Olympic gold medals in the 400-meter hurdles (1980's was kept from him only by boycott), and he has broken the world record four times, his current mark being 47.02. Far more inflaming to the imagination, he has not been beaten in the 400 hurdles since Aug. 26, 1977, when West Germany's Harald Schmid nipped him in Berlin. Since then, Moses has won 94 straight finals. Over nine years. Over 940 hurdles. Over everybody else in the world.

Moses will be 31 in August. "I never thought I'd be in track and field this long," he says, as he pulls off his sweats. "Even in 1980 it was hard to see another four years."

As he speaks, he emits a steady beeping. "Pulse," he says. The large black watch on his right wrist sounds with each heartbeat. "I use it to gauge recovery. When it gets back down to 120, I'm ready to go again."

In early-season training he has run many half miles for stamina. Now he is doing faster quarters. The speed and number will depend on his instrument readings. "I got quick recovery after the 800s, but it's taking longer with the 400s," he says. He has stripped to an old Morehouse (his alma mater) T-shirt, shorts, shades and spikes. He walks awhile, back and forth across his starting point, head down, marshaling concentration. Then he is off.

And there is the familiar, immense stride. His head nestles between his high shoulders. When he passes, his footfalls are perceptible through the earth. He reaches 400 in 56 seconds.

Then he walks, the beeps dropping slowly from the 180 range. "Have to do this early," he says, "before the sun. You never recover if your body's always trying to get rid of heat."

He runs again, as lean and hard as the eucalyptus trunks. And walks again. "People see the star life. They say, 'You're lucky. All you have to do is run.' I laugh and say let's compare. If you were a lawyer, you'd have to be on the Supreme Court to be equal in performance. Competition is fierce everywhere." This remark seems to wander off in two directions. Sacrifice is necessary to reach the top in any discipline. That's why they are called disciplines. But a Supreme Court justice is appointed for life. Moses, on the other hand, must keep winning.

He will run these 400s until he decides he has done enough. He asks that the number not be printed. Lately he has noticed opponents altering their training programs to match his. "I used to be perfectly open," he says. "Now I try to be a little more mysterious."

Moses trains over the hurdles infrequently, perhaps once a week. His methods are inseparable from his nature. He is precise, maintaining a computer record of all his workouts for the last two years. He is careful, cutting back if he is feeling especially bad or especially good.

He is patient. He waits with deliberate equanimity for his pulse to tell him he is ready to run once more. His workouts take two or three hours. He was educated to be an engineer. He is also an engine. He knows all his working parts. If something takes time, he gives it time.

Moses has been accused of being so protective of the streak that he might arrange to duck a dangerous runner here or there. He has heard that criticism for years. And for years, when the big meets came around, he has been 5 or 10 yards ahead coming off the final turn. Or he hasn't been in the race at all. He sat out the entire 1982 season in order to recover from pneumonia. And last year a knee injury felled him. "My only requirement in deciding whether to go to the starting line is that I am ready to run," he says. "If I am not, I don't. No matter what they say."

And as far as accusations go, he has faced worse. In January 1985, in a celebrated incident, Moses—who gave the Olympic Oath at the 1984 Opening Ceremonies—was charged with soliciting an act of prostitution from an undercover policewoman on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. He was found not guilty. Yes, he had jived with the woman, but instead of meeting her where she had instructed, he had simply driven off. Yet the acquittal could not take away the emotional keelhauling he and his wife, Myrella, had undergone.

"We had tremendous support," he says now. "Personal friends and corporate sponsors were solid. There was no real trauma, no breakdown." Many of his corporate tie-ins and endorsement deals had expired at the end of 1984, and while some sponsors did not renew their contracts with him, Moses says he planned for that. "I still have Adidas," he says. "And Kodak uses me in parts of the world. And I have more time and feel great. I made a lot of money during the years leading up to L.A. I spent three days a week doing ads, books and TV—and it showed. The Olympic final was my slowest ever [47.75] in a major championship."

He meant to devote his newfound time to undistracted track, but on May 10, 1985, going over a hurdle, he twisted his knee in an odd way. When he landed he had injured all three joint tissues you learn about in health class: ligament, tendon and cartilage. He resisted surgery. "We rehabilitated one area at a time. A cartilage can heal if it's near a blood supply. This one was. I was really lucky." The more so because he could still run, though not hurdle. By Christmas he could stretch again in the hurdling position. "It was a year of training without racing," he says.

After his 400s, Moses breaks camp. He drives his Mercedes 300D five minutes to a physical therapy and athletic conditioning center operated by Ken Yoshino. There he sits in a whirlpool bath of cold water, to reduce the risk of muscle inflammation. The water is 52°. Moses shovels in some ice to get it down to 48°. "After about the first three minutes, you don't feel anything anymore," he says. He comes here at least three times a week, and the ice bath isn't the half of it. Since 1982, Moses has submitted to Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation in his training.

"PNF is a set of therapy techniques that use the receptors in the muscles—the way muscles talk to each other, really—to help strengthen them and coordinate them," explains Yoshino. "It's complicated, but the keys are that, because muscles are attached at peculiar angles and a lot of movement is rotation, a therapist can work in functional patterns, can simulate the act of running, say, while weightlifting machines can't."

After 15 minutes in the icy pool, Moses dries off and lies supine on a table. Physical therapist Cathy Carreiro raises his left leg, hooks an arm around his ankle and calf and takes a good grip on the toes, rotating his foot to the side. Her other hand is on Moses' lower hamstring. She looks as if she is climbing a juniper tree in a high wind, except that her feet are firmly planted. She stretches the limb toward Moses' head. "Hold," she says and waits. "O.K., pull."

Moses strains against her, trying to force his leg back to the table. The muscles of his hamstring look like coaxial cables. Carreiro prevents any movement. "Relax," she says after a few moments. Then she moves the leg to a new, higher position. "Hold," she says.

"When she has him hold a position," says Yoshino, "she is getting the muscle her hand is on to relax. When she senses that it has, she tells him to pull, flexing the muscle and relaxing its antagonist."

The session is 20 minutes of straining, static embraces. Moses' face is impassive. Carreiro's is absorbed as she feels for the proper relaxation, then tense as she resists him.

When Carreiro is finished, Moses works furiously on computerized quadriceps and hamstring machines, takes another icy soak and receives a penetrating massage. "Go deep," says Yoshino to the therapist. "If you feel bone, don't worry about it."

"I cry here some days," says Moses. It is well after noon. He has been at his discipline for five hours. And he'll run again in late afternoon. The temptation for the observer is to seek an equation here, a balance. Moses' regimen is so consuming that whatever he stands to gain by it must be compelling. But hasn't Moses outrun the mathematics of sacrifice and reward? Every conceivable reward has been his, and none will evaporate if he stops running. He will still be respected and loved and wealthy.

He has even outrun history. A loss or two couldn't mar this, the most dominant career of any runner ever. He admits to that. Yet still he goes on. "This is my life," he says simply. Being an athlete, in all its essential suffering, is better than not being one.

And where he once seemed absorbed in prolonging his streak, he now pleads for some perspective. The streak is unquestionably important to him because it measures his faithfulness to his gifts. "But I worry about it less than I did in '83-84," he says. "It seems such an artificially concocted, hyped thing. I think the streak makes it harder on the pursuers. They have to do something they've never done before."

And don't think they don't know it. "The pressure is going to be on the guys trying to knock the king off the hill," says Iowa State's Danny Harris, the two-time NCAA champion and silver medalist behind Moses in L.A.

Moses plans now to run in the TAC Championships to be held in Eugene, Ore., from June 19 to 21. "What I think he'll do before that," says André Phillips, last year's TAC champion, "is sneak off somewhere quietly, and get in a tune-up race without Danny or me. Man, I'd really like to find out where that is, and call and have them reserve me a lane."

"I can beat him if I can get over those first two hurdles faster," says Harris. "I was closing on him at the finish in the Olympics."

Harris is hugely talented. His Olympic medal came at 18, in his first year of 400 hurdling. Before that he was a football defensive back. "But then I realized my opportunities were greater in track," he says. He dropped football in 1984, to the not quite speechless displeasure of Iowa State football coach Jim Criner, who all but called Harris disloyal.

"I understood his viewpoint," says Harris. "I was on a football scholarship. But while I love football, I'd even junk my dreams of the pros if I could make a living in track, like Moses does."

Last year Phillips, who is five years out of UCLA, won the TAC 400 hurdles in 47.67, then turned almost exclusively to the 110-meter high hurdles because that was a Mobil Grand Prix event and the 400 hurdles was not.

This year his best event, the 400 hurdles, will earn Grand Prix money, Moses is back, and it's hard for Phillips, a temperate man, not to envision the day things finally are different.

If loyal opposition is worth anything, then Phillips should be the heir. He idolized Moses in high school and threw a scare into him as far back as 1981. And last week he ran the fastest time this year, 47.95 at the Bruce Jenner Classic in San Jose. He has the early speed that Harris is still working to get. "But the critical thing Edwin has is that he looks like Gregory Hines over the last hurdle," says UCLA sprint coach John Smith. "His stamina gives him control. Now André's work has brought him that, too."

In 1984 Phillips seemed a cinch for Olympic silver, but he came down with a virus. At the U.S. Olympic trials, he finished in the most dreadful place open to man—fourth—and failed to make the team. He sank down, untied his shoes and threw them into the L.A. Coliseum infield. A considerate official returned them. Phillips discarded them again. "These don't concern me anymore," he said.

"After the trials I felt like someone had died," says Phillips. "For days I wouldn't come out of my room. They had to put food under the door. And when I came out, here was this big party in Los Angeles—the Olympics—and I wasn't invited. And almost everybody else on my club [World Class A.C., coached by Bob Kersee] ended up making the team."

Sustained grief just isn't Phillips's way. He brought roses to teammates Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Florence Griffith, Jackie Joyner, Alice Brown and Jeannette Bolden, all of whom won medals. "But I didn't relax until the torch was out. Then I vowed to not let track and field get to me like that ever again. Now I just want to have fun. Because you can stumble in life, just like in a hurdles race. But in both, the main thing is to get up and keep going. It's going to be that way until you die."

That's what Kersee likes to hear. "If anything, André has been too humble, too nice about things," he says. "He's been able to take a blow, reassess, and go out again. But he's realized, finally, that Ed is not about to retire. André has to go out and knock him off."

Myrella Moses' works of art are displayed throughout their new house in Newport Beach. She weaves. She sculpts. She hammers out jewelry. She assembles pieces for which there seems no genre; call them three-dimensional collages or bas-reliefs. One of these is mounted on a wall of the master bedroom. Central to it is a plaster cast of Ed's rear end.

"It hurt, too. Did she tell you that?" says Moses.

"I forgot to put Vaseline on him first," says Myrella. "I got the plaster on and said, 'Uh-oh. I forgot to prepare you.' He yelled. He really had to fight to get out of that sucker."

Myrella and Edwin are transparently the right and left hemispheres of a single, spectacular brain. He has his linear, infinitely measurable world of track. She has her intuitive art. Both end up dealing with the same things. "Here is a depiction of when he told me he wouldn't be able to race in 1985," says Myrella. It is a face perfectly divided between delight and sorrow, with one joyful orange eye and one shedding aquamarine tears.

Another work has dried, brown eucalyptus bark peeling from a pastel inner core. "It is image curling up and falling off," says Myrella. "Post-1984."

The Moseses seem an example of symbiosis as striking as the clown fish and the sea anemone. "We admire each other's qualities," says Myrella. "I envy Ed's discipline, his ability to be calm."

Edwin doesn't give voice to his envy. But it is surely of Myrella's future. Artists go on as long as Supreme Court justices. "And meanwhile," says Moses, "I'll be searching the rest of my life for another job."

PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHMoses, rigged for taking his pulse in workouts, often seeks the edge in novel ways. PHOTOSTEVEN E. SUTTON/DUOMOMoses was an easy winner at the L.A. Olympics even though his time was slow—for him. PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHAfter an ice bath, a PNF session and machine work, Moses gets a penetrating massage. PHOTODOUG HOKEHarris, who quit football to concentrate on hurdling, thinks he's closing in on Moses. PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHPhillips, the TAC champion, professes a desire to take on Moses anytime, anywhere. PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHMyrella's method for constructing this bas-relief made a painful impression on Edwin's posterior.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)