A runner is a small-boned loner, built for flight and fantasy.
—DR. GEORGE SHEEHAN.
This is an article from the May 18, 1987 issue
Twenty years ago, Gerry Lindgren was America's finest distance runner, a beloved and cheerful man. When his racing career ebbed, he settled with his wife Betty in Taco-ma, Wash., where he opened a running store. They had three children. Then, in 1980, he vanished.
Over the years, there were rumors of widely separated "sightings"—in Texas, in Hawaii—but Lindgren eluded all attempts by family, friends and reporters to find him. Where he had gone, and why, evolved into a perplexing mystery.
Lindgren was always delicate. Injuries kept him from two Olympics. An ulcer gnawed at him for most of his career. Yet he seemed to respond to every setback with jests and looniness. He was mysterious long before he disappeared, and central to his mystery, then and now, was the question of whether or not he was suffering.
I first saw him in the summer of 1963. He was breaking away from the start of an all-star high school mile in Eugene, Ore. I stood on the infield and I laughed at him, a sparrow of a kid in oversized purple shorts. His limbs were doughy white and went all blotchy as he sprinted the first quarter in a sacrificial 60 seconds flat.
I was 19 and a University of Oregon runner. I knew what that pace would do. The kid would die. The favorite, the fastest schoolboy miler in the west, Tracy Smith, was poised behind, tan and relaxed, almost bored by this pathetic bid for a little temporary notice.
And sure enough, toward the half mile the kid slowed. Smith, with all sense and right on his side, moved wide and went around. But the kid jumped as if he had been slapped, and dashed back into the lead.
Smith tried again. Once more the kid flew into an outlandish sprint. The crowd saw the startling ferocity of those bursts and came up roaring.
In the final lap you could see Smith swear to himself that this scrawny creature was going to stay passed. He dropped his arms and launched an all-out kick. He drew even. The kid reacted. They sprinted a wild last 220, neck and neck. Smith frantically dived for the tape and fell to the dusty cinders. For a while, no one knew who had won.
Smith just lay there, scraped and dazed. Lindgren trotted around wheezing and finally flopped down on the grass near me. He was jug-eared and had rodent teeth. When it was announced that he had won in 4:12.9—Lindgren's fastest time by 5.4 seconds—he came out with a high-pitched, awestruck voice and said how lucky he was that all these super runners had let him win the race.
He was 17, a senior at John R. Rogers High School in Spokane, and his person was an affront to bedrock beliefs. Runners were lean and corded. Runners took years to develop. Yet there he was, a child, without a visible muscle. Moreover, what I had just seen him do had to have made him suffer. But he didn't look it. The gulf between his appearance and performance was so immense that it seemed something outside of nature had happened, something surreal and disturbing.
The following winter he set high school records at two and three miles indoors. Then, in the summer of 1964, he ran against the Russians.
The annual U.S.-U.S.S.R. dual meets that had begun in 1958 were charged with Cold War dread. The great crowds that turned out in both nations accorded these events the gravity of history.
On July 25, 1964, eight months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his brother Robert was among the 50,519 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. In the 10,000 meters, the Soviet Union entered Leonid Ivanov and Nikolai Dutov. The U.S. entered Lindgren and one other runner. An American had never won this race.
It was 93° on the track. The Soviets set the pace. Lindgren hung with them. At 3¾ miles, he was still there, flushed and frightened. The U.S. coach, Sam Bell, called to him to lead, if he could.
Lindgren obeyed. He sprinted an entire lap, pulling to a 15-yard lead. The move seemed too hard, too early. But again he showed that feral ability to keep going after a killing burst. He ran the last mile through cheers so loud he thought he was being challenged. When he crossed the line, he turned to see he had won by 150 yards. In the crowd, Robert Kennedy's face was wet with tears.
Asked how he had kept going near the end, Lindgren said, "I knew people would judge our system by this one race. I couldn't let America down. I had to do my best."
No running boom echoed on after him, as it would when Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon eight years later, because the celebration of Lindgren was not, at its heart, about running at all. He was simply the miraculous fulfillment of a ravenous national wish of the moment.
Lindgren shared in the astonishment, saying, "Think of it. I'm just a little boy." He turned out to be a playful, chatty one. He hadn't noticed the heat, he said, because he had been running in the shade of the taller Russians. "I thought it was raining until I realized it was drops of sweat off their brows." He was a hero, and a character.
That fall he went to the Tokyo Olympics, turned an ankle in training and finished a disappointing ninth in the 10,000. The race was won, in a spectacular upset, by his U.S. teammate Billy Mills.
Lindgren enrolled at Washington State in 1965, and was at once caught up in the war between the NCAA and the Amateur Athletic Union. The colleges developed the most athletes. But the AAU governed international competition for all U.S. track athletes, and allowed the NCAA no role in this. The NCAA, determined to break the AAU's grip, ordered all its athletes out of AAU races, on pain of losing their scholarships and collegiate eligibility.
Lindgren defied the NCAA boycott and ran the 1965 AAU six-mile in San Diego. When he and Mills raced to a shared world-record 27:11.6, he was a hero again, and those of us who had knuckled under to the NCAA had a lesson in courage.
At Congressional hearings on the NCAA-AAU feud two months later. Lindgren said his decision to run had been one of conscience. "I just remembered why I was a runner," he said. "That was to be the best representative I could be. So it was wrong to be forced to choose between my country and my school." He kept his scholarship. And now he was a moral front-runner as well.
At WSU he won 11 NCAA championships in cross country and indoor and outdoor track, breaking the record of 8 set by Jesse Owens at Ohio State in 1935 and '36. But a strained Achilles tendon kept him from the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.
In 1969, Lindgren, Shorter and I roomed together on an AAU tour of European meets. Lindgren was always bursting out in Russian, his college minor (his major was political science). He was clearly bright, but so lightheartedly offbeat, so off-subject, that he was sometimes hard to take seriously.
Our hotel in London was near a finishing school for American girls. I remember Lindgren borrowing a broom from the maid's cart and standing on the steps of the school and saying to every girl going in or out, "Hey, doll, you get a broom and I'll get a broom and we'll be broommates and sweep together."
After he graduated, he had a teaching position lined up in Marysville, Wash., but lost it when he was drafted. He spent 47 miserable days at Fort Lewis, Wash., before the Army finally believed that he had a serious ulcer and discharged him. I happened to be a PFC working in the public information office there ("Keeping information from the public," as Lindgren put it), and we shared quarters under the post stadium.
Lindgren looked the same sick or well, but he looked especially sick in Army green. I remember him as a passive, pale waif in stiff, oversized fatigues, carrying his little carton of half-and-half around the snowy base. Still, against my pleading, he tried to run two or three times a day.
"The army episode seems pivotal," says Bob Payne, who for years watched and wrote about Lindgren for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane. "It kind of knocked him off course, and led to the Glenn Turner stuff."
Ah, yes, the Dare to Be Great phase. In the early '70s, Lindgren embraced the nationwide cosmetics franchising and motivational schemes that were the brainchild of Florida supersalesman Glenn Turner. Turner's operation was eventually shut down in assorted court actions because of the fraudulent nature of its endlessly pyramiding structure of franchises, but not before Lindgren became an "international motivational instructor" and traveled around the country giving seminars on fulfilling one's potential.
This was especially curious. In 1964 he had carefully removed and returned the film, deodorant and other toiletries that were in the kit given to each U.S. Olympian. "Commercial tie-ins are deceptive," he had said. "They imply that Chap Stick and this other junk actually help you make the team." How could a guy like that align himself with a shark like Turner?
Lindgren trained hard with an eye to Munich, a staggering 50 miles a day during one stretch in 1971. Two weeks before the Olympic trials, he had a collision with a car and injured his knee. Nevertheless, he went to the trials in Eugene, where "Go Pre!" was the crowd's chant for the local favorite, Steve Prefontaine. Lindgren incited bedlam when he warmed up in a STOP PRE T-shirt, knowing he had no chance to do so. Prefontaine won the 5,000 in an American record 13:22.8, ran his victory lap in Lindgren's T-shirt and stole all the thunder.
Later that year Lindgren joined the International Track Association, the fledgling pro track tour. He had always considered under-the-table payments to "amateurs" to be hypocritical and had never accepted them. Now as a pro he could take money openly, but he ran poorly. The ITA folded in 1976.
After that, I lost touch with him. I heard he had opened a running store in Tacoma named, with typical grandeur, Gerry Lindgren's Stinky Foot.
And then, suddenly, in 1980, I read that he had disappeared. There seemed to be no hint of foul play. He had left a note for Betty to do what she wanted with the business.
This was serious. But it wasn't unbelievable. "If you'd asked us whether anyone on the U.S. team would find it necessary to vanish without a trace and start a new life, we'd have said no way," said Shorter. "But if you said one of us was going to do that, we'd have looked right at Lindgren."
In the ensuing years we all kept an eye out for him. Anyone who had seen him race would recognize that stride at 300 yards. In 1981 a cross-country runner from the University of Hawaii, Becky Russell, saw Lindgren in Honolulu, selling shoe soles out of a pushcart. He was using the name Gale Young. I was in Hawaii that same year for the Honolulu Marathon and got a number for Lindgren from the cancelled check of one of his customers.
When I called the number I thought a girl had answered. I said who I was, and that I had just hoped to chat with an old friend who might be going by the name of Gale Young. The voice on the phone dropped into a keening wail of what seemed recognition and then said hesitantly, "No, no, I think...I think you probably have the wrong guy."
I knew it was Lindgren. He went on in a rush about how he occasionally was mistaken for that runner, what was his name? Boy, he wished he could run like he heard that guy could run....
And then, suddenly, he was speaking to me in his natural voice. "You just over for the marathon? Things in Eugene the same?" That lasted for a few sentences, then the first, strained tone cut back in. "No, no," he said. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I hope you find the guy you're looking for but I'm not him."
He hung up. I sat there, shaken. The conversation had been so strange and his rejection so full of agony that it paralyzed me.
The next day Shorter and I talked about what, if anything, we should do. We thought we probably could locate him, but we hesitated. We didn't know the reason for his flight. If it was illness, then would pressing ourselves on him make him worse? We couldn't answer. So we went home to wait until he might be more approachable. We waited five years.
Then last fall I moved to Oahu. Brian Clarke, an old Oregon teammate of mine, assured me Lindgren was in or near Honolulu, still calling himself Gale Young, and got his telephone number from a marathon entry form. I called and left a message with a person who spoke with a mock Oriental accent. I said that I hoped Mr. Young might call me back.
So what did he do? He called me back, as Gerry Lindgren, all squeaky and matter-of-fact, asking if I wanted to take a run. We jabbered, both breathless, of our respective injuries. He seemed to drink in news of mutual friends.
He came to dinner one evening, appearing jauntily at the door, pale even in the tropics, carrying a plate of sashimi, raw fish. "This is special," he deadpanned. "It came from the last blue whale."
His face was a little more lined, but he was still trim and gave me the sense of being the same man, not some strange new personality. At no time, he said, had he been unhinged. When I asked him about our phone conversation five years earlier, he said he didn't know what I was talking about.
I finally worked up the nerve to say that those he had left behind were anxious to know what had become of him. He was surprisingly revealing in his response. One of the things he said before the evening was over was that the controlling fact of his running career was grave self-doubt. "I began out of feeling worthless," he said. "I was the classic wimp. I was told by my first coach that being good was out of the question, but if I devoted myself and ran hard, I could be an example to the other guys, who could be good."
So he ran, he said, to explore the limits of devotion, to be of service.
He was desperate still to inspire. "I was filled with all these lemons," he said. "I was scrawny, weak and dumb. I just wanted to show that even of these I could make lemonade."
Over the following months he popped up at my house at odd intervals and poured out his story.
All I can tell you with certainty is that I, for one, have no self.... What I have instead is a variety of impersonations I can do....
—PHILIP ROTH, The Counterlife
He was born on March 9, 1946, the third son of Eleanor and Myrl Lindgren. "I almost lost Gerry at birth," says Eleanor Lindgren Roullier over coffee in her spare frame house in Spokane. She passed to Gerry the shape of his nose and timbre of his voice.
"He was transverse. They didn't want to do a cesarean section, so they turned him around the best they could, to a breech position. They broke his arm doing it. I didn't see him for two weeks. When I finally did, the nurse told me she was happy he'd made it because he'd had no oxygen when he came into the incubator. He was almost black from the ordeal of his birth. I knew then he was special. An extra hand helped me bring him into the world."
The child soon found himself snarled in mixed signals. His mother loved him, but he felt his father resented him. "My husband was sometimes like a baby himself," says Eleanor. "He picked on Gerry, and I wouldn't stand for it, although I did let him pick on the older boys. That caused friction. I imagine Gerry's memory of growing up was pretty raw."
"My father rejected me because I was weak," Lindgren says now. "He was the tough drinker. I couldn't be his son."
His mother has told this story. When Gerry was three or four, and a vocal, alert child, he sat in a chair in the kitchen and began to sing a little children's song. "Open all the windows," he sang. "Open all the doors...."
His father backhanded him off the chair. Gerry climbed back on, fixed his eyes on his father and sang again. Again his father struck him to the floor.
A third time Gerry climbed up and sang, and again he was knocked away. Then Eleanor came running in, trying to defend him. When the blows finally ended and Myrl Lindgren had stormed out, there on the chair stood Gerry, red-faced and furious, screaming out his song. "Open all the windows! Open all the doors!..."
The scene reaches across his life. In being torn from his mother's womb, he had learned animal pain. Now, in this home's unpredictable strife, his consciousness worked at forming who he was. He blamed himself for the fighting. He was at the center of it. If he were not here, it would not happen. Each new skirmish hardened the idea into an inner sword. Never in his life would he be sure of his own values.
Nowhere in his cauldron of feelings was there the instinct to fight back. He sensed two traps. He had no strength, so he could not win. And if he fought, he would be caught up in fighting, in the thing he hated. So he would endure the pain and not be reached by it. He would stand and sing, but he would not fight back. And in the singing he would insist on how the world ought to be. He would will reality.
Lindgren says he was afraid of his father and came to avoid him. Myrl Lindgren denies the incident and says he was never unnecessarily hard on him. He asserts that the issue was Eleanor's favoritism toward Gerry. "I tried to push him to responsibility," Myrl says. "The trouble was, the wife and I were trying to hurt each other. We both did a good job of it. The kids were in the middle."
Growing up, Gerry was not on intimate terms with his brothers, Lyle and Mickey, two and four years older, respectively. In school, people laughed at him. So he played for laughs, accentuating his voice with unearthly yodels, adopting a pun-filled manner. "I think I got a lot of it from watching The Bull-winkle Show," says Lindgren now.
He ran everywhere, at a time when this was thought abnormal. In junior high Gerry did a 2½-mile afternoon newspaper route on the run, then ran with the track team at Shaw Junior High. "Later he wouldn't get his driver's license," says Eleanor. "He said he didn't want to get lazy and stop running. But he'd run miles and miles and then wouldn't take the garbage out. 'Mom,' he'd tell me, with that sparkle, 'it's the short trips that kill a guy.' "
When he reached high school, Lindgren found, at long last, a father figure. Tracy Walters, track coach and guidance counselor at Rogers High, was a man of commanding warmth. He preached hard work and discipline. Lindgren imprinted on him as he had on no human. "I was enraptured," Lindgren says. "He filled my head with ideas a wimp should never hear. He had an athletic code of honor that I was really ready to adopt. Live to make the world a better place. Be unselfish."
Lindgren insists that it was Walters who at first encouraged him to run less to win than to be an exemplary stable-mate. But Walters, now 56 and retired to a vigorous orchardist's life, says that might have been in Lindgren's thoughts, but he didn't put it there. "The idea of telling someone he'll never be good himself, just a good example, is foreign to me," Walters says. "That's the worst thing for a guy like Gerry to hear."
Walters held to the rare belief that it was fine for a boy to work as hard as a seasoned man. "You cheat yourself if you don't go all out," he told his students. Here, at last, was someone asking for what Lindgren could give: the endurance of pain in exchange for a new reality. Running would be his song.
He trained in every weather. His runs were escape and mastery combined. "I could never get used to the feeling that I, a kid with absolutely no athletic ability, could force my body to go so surely," he says. "I was in ecstasy."
The rapture made him feel purified. Again and again he had to go through this fire. Always he had to burn in order to feel worthy. When he ran, ran supremely hard, he was a changeling.
He found a friend. "There is no greater gift to a runner than a running partner," says Len Long, now a high school teacher and championship cross-country coach in Spokane. He is classically gaunt and a head taller than his old teammate.
Long called Gerry "Lingerman," and they goaded each other into maniacal workouts. "Hard intervals in the mornings, racing ten miles at night, running in cloth wrestling shoes until they fell off our feet, with no acknowledgment that volume of work causes injury," Long says, putting the heel of his hand to his forehead. "It was ridiculous. Gerry was immune to heat, cold, hills. I died off at everything."
Only Lindgren's prodigious recuperative powers kept him from being crippled. Even so, he had two stress fractures in his first two years of high school.
"He was known as the funny little guy who even mowed the lawn while running," says Long. "He liked that. It was his persona. He wasn't like Jim Ryun, who avoided fame. He enjoyed it. He was somebody. And making his mark in running gave him the confidence to try other things."
Enter girls, a trainload of girls. "He was always happiest when he had a lady friend," says Long. "His screwy personality adapted well to flirting. He knew hundreds of girls, from all of the schools. A lot of our summer mileage was in what Gerry called 'girling workouts.' He would say, 'I'll come over and see you on Saturday,' to a number of girls, and then we would run between their houses, and after four or five you got a sideache because of all the punch and cookies and potato chips. Later in life, though, his inveterate flirting was an irritant. Even after he married, he would still caress the hand of the girl giving change at the register."
His first state championship cross-country race, around Seattle's Green Lake in 1961, was, like Lindgren himself, a jumble of the comic and heroic. Four hundred runners sprinted away from the start, and in the melee someone pulled Lindgren's shorts down. By the time he got them up, he was buried in the pack. He ran extra yards over higher ground in order to reach the front. But once he was in the lead he found himself fighting through hundreds of ducks and geese that had moved in off the lake. The other runners let him flail, buffeted and bitten, to clear a path. Lindgren held on to finish second, a revealing success.
But he had a different view of this success than anyone else. "I couldn't make it understood that what was memorable was those damn ducks," he says. "Friends and even coach saw only my high finish." They saw his merit. He would not.
This was the beginning of a deepening cycle of self-effacement. The next spring, as a high school junior, Lindgren outkicked a runner named Jim Simons to win the state mile, and felt "ashamed."
"Jim was a senior," he says. "He deserved to win. I felt I'd cheated him."
His peculiar logic had become airtight. If he won, he was unhappy, for he had defeated others more worthy. If he lost, he was unhappy because he lost.
"I missed that," says Walters, looking back. "I mistook it for modesty. He was never a great taker of compliments. He relished the competition and strategy, but not the victory itself."
Even running 8:40 for two miles indoors, faster than anyone his age (he was 17) had ever run, could not convince Lindgren of his athletic worth. "If I'd seen someone run 8:40 when I was in junior high, I'd have thought it superhuman," he says now. "But when I'd run it, "I didn't think it was such a big deal because I wasn't a big deal."
Then he beat the Soviets, and came to glory. And when he read the newspaper stories, he cringed. "The more distant from me people were, the more they seemed to attribute my success to something in a secret place, deep inside my cells," he says. In other words, they called him talented. But talent meant merit, and he instantly rejected the idea of that. He rejects it still. He believes he accomplished what he did because of intelligent goals, devoted work and staunch belief. Other people may have talent. He may not.
A year later, when the NCAA ordered him out of the AAU championships, the pressures were remarkable. "Run that race," Lindgren recalls his Olympic coach, Bob Giegengack of Yale, cautioning him, "and you'll never get into another NCAA school." He got 300 calls a week, one of which included a threat to burn down his mother's house if he ran.
Lindgren, in turmoil, went to Walters, who told him only to follow his "heart. Lindgren's heart, naturally, said to stand and sing and take the consequences. "Had I been normal, I think I could have bowed to all the pressure," says Lindgren. "But I had a mission."
He ran. Mills, the Olympic champion, got in front and resisted Lindgren's every attempt to pass. They hit the home stretch together. "I suddenly felt guilty," recalls Lindgren. "Billy had led, Billy had been tough. It was wrong to steal his just reward. Mentally I let up. But when he was beside me, my selfish, Totten attitude returned, and I poured it on all the way to the tape."
Though Mills outleaned him, both were credited with a world record 27:11.6. When a friend gushed, "I'm so impressed that you broke that record," Lindgren replied, "Well, I didn't like it much. It was an Elvis Presley." Once he had used puns to parry derision. Now they deflected praise.
Lindgren's great victories confirmed the lesson of his life. He became convinced that if he gave of himself wholly and perfectly, he must succeed. Not may succeed. Must. Guaranteed. "He was used to miracles, you know." says his mother.
But the world seemed to grind away at him. His ulcer flared. His Achilles tendon cost him the '68 Olympics. Then came Dare to Be Great. A concerned Walters got an accountant to sit down with Lindgren and discuss the ethics of selling franchises to sell franchises. "Gerry brought along a Turner man," says Walters. "And it was an ugly meeting. Gerry and I were at a distance then."
"He had a great knack for justifying what he wanted to do," says Lindgren's estranged wife, Betty. "He didn't like conflict. He would run from it. In a way, it's simple. He never grew up."
Lindgren had met Betty Caley at Washington State. "I didn't like him at first," she says. "I thought he was a pest." But she could sense his need. "He grows on you, T guess," she says. "That goofy flirting." They were married in 1970, and had their first son, Steven, the next year. After the accident that kept him out of the Munich Olympics, says Betty, "Gerry couldn't make it back up to world class. He was constantly disappointed about it."
They were a strange pair, a cockeyed optimist and a practical woman who couldn't understand his striving and thrashing. "Everything was positive or negative," she says. "He didn't see that he needed me to keep his feet on the ground, only that I was being negative. There wasn't a thing we didn't look at differently."
Betty put up with Gerry's habitual flirting and his way of casually stringing together business trips. "Once he was supposed to be gone for a week, but ended up spending a month in Australia or New Zealand," she says. "I got used to it, but I sure didn't tell anybody what he was doing. I liked being married to him. I liked being home with my kids. But it seemed sometimes that he was living a double life."
In 1974, the Lindgren family was in Oxnard, Calif., where Gerry managed a Straw Hat Pizza restaurant. A second son, Jeremy, was born there.
"Then one day in 1976," says Betty, "he didn't come home."
Some months earlier, Lindgren had been served with papers charging him with fathering another woman's child. "I went to the Ventura [Calif.] County courthouse to read the complaint," he says. "On the dates I was alleged to have gotten her pregnant, I had been in Japan. The prosecutor told me to forget it." But the authorities soon came after him again. He treated it the way he had before. He stripped it from his consciousness.
The woman, Paulina Oseguera, had given birth to a daughter, Griselda, on Aug. 21, 1975. In fact, that was the only date listed in the complaint. On Dec. 14, 1976, upon Lindgren's default, a judgment of paternity was entered, and Lindgren was ordered to pay $75 a month in child support. But by then he had disappeared.
Efforts to reach Oseguera for this story were unavailing. But Lindgren says, "I never slept with her. I never met her. I wasn't guilty. It was negative. I ignored it. I thought it was a joke. It wasn't real." He also says, "Even though it was not true, I was morbidly ashamed. I felt people would believe it. I couldn't even tell my wife."
A couple of months later Betty, who learned about the paternity suit secondhand, traced him to San Francisco through his contact with a running magazine, and they were reunited. Lindgren was contrite. He promised to do better. They moved to Tacoma, and he opened the Stinky Foot.
"We lived there four more years, had our daughter [Mandy], and then he decided to go again," says Betty.
Lindgren says that his marriage was crumbling. "Betty had gradually turned religious," he says. "God had told her I shouldn't run anymore. I resisted that."
"The kids loved him," Betty says. "My deepest heartbreak is that my boys [now 16 and 121 don't know him. And even though his priorities were out of whack, I never asked him to stop running."
The deciding factor, Lindgren says, was the long arm of the law. Washington's Pierce County pursued him for the child support owed in California. He served 10 days in jail in 1978—he told Walters it was the most peaceful time he had had in years—but never submitted a blood test nor did he file a legal challenge to the California ruling. He did not have a lawyer. Predictably, his was a psyche quickly overwhelmed by contact with the judicial system. "I hate the idea of lawyers," he says. "I have a complete lack of faith in the system. Here were all these horrible people with absolutely no interest in right and wrong. Just their constant adversary wrangling.
"It would have been easy to pay $75 a month," he cries. "Betty said I was an idiot not to just live with it. But I couldn't. I wasn't made that way." He was made to run.
In January 1980, he took a bus to Los Angeles, where he provided himself, by means he will not discuss, with new ID in the name of Gale Young. "I didn't choose the name," he says. "It just worked out that way."
He brooded over abandoning his children. "I thought of the sadness of kids I've seen, when their parents fight and fight," he says, remembering his own childhood. "It was easier, in my mind, not to prolong things." He had decided that it would be best if they grew up with one parent, and peace.
"I'm sure Gerry figured the world would be better off without him," says Walters. "And maybe he wouldn't think his wife, kids and mom would be devastated, or his coach absolutely out of his mind with worry. I know his mom worried about him washing up on some beach."
Oddly, Lindgren uses a similar image, but as a metaphor for a fresh start. "I've always thought if I were dropped onto a desert island, I could learn the language, make myself useful and survive," he says. "In this case, changing environments would be as simple as changing shoes. I had no joy in it, but I knew I could do it. I wasn't running well, and people never paid any attention to me aside from my running. I didn't think for a minute it'd cause hardships."
Of course, it did. After his departure the store descended into bankruptcy. Betty Lindgren now works part-time at a dry cleaners and is a substitute teacher. Her children's questions about why their father left remain unanswered.
Thus Lindgren cast his fate among strangers. Perhaps, for him, there had never been anyone but strangers. "One reason disappearing appealed to me," he says, "was because he, Gerry Lindgren, the name, the image, was bigger than I was. His reputation had grown into a superhuman's." That was anathema. "To me, my name was ruined the first time I ran well. It wasn't me anymore."
He got on another bus in mid-1980, woke up in downtown Houston and found a job at a Burger King. After a time, he says, he was a candidate for the store's manager of the year. "My style was 'Be fast, not serious,' " he says, with the old sparkle. He also says that while he was living in Houston he had a blood test, on the advice of a friend, and sent it, through channels, to Ventura County. Authorities there, however, say there is no record of such a test in the file.
He says he didn't move to Honolulu until late 1982, though local observers swear they saw him earlier. He still bubbles about his first business. "A friend in L.A. made water-filled inner soles. I called them Hawaiian Happy Feet and sold 'em out of a cart by the International Marketplace. 'Are your feet sore? Walk on water!' " Over the years, Lindgren worked at several other fast-food outlets and at Goodwill Industries. Lately, he has gotten into wholesale jewelry. He says it was little trouble to go unrecognized. "A few times people, reporters I guess, called about finding me. I just said they had the wrong number."
A movie producer tracked him to Honolulu, hoping to include Lindgren in the making of Running Brave, Billy Mills's film biography. "I never knew that," says Lindgren. "Once a lady took my picture at Goodwill and sent it to my mom. That was the only real recognition."
He moved frequently and left no forwarding addresses. There were girlfriends, but he told none of them of his past. He covered his trail with fabrications, a fundamental irony for a man on record as believing so staunchly in truth.
In late 1983, Dan Weaver, a reporter for The Spokesman-Review, located a young woman named Dolly who said she was Gale Young's girlfriend. She said her boyfriend had left when she thought she was pregnant; it had turned out she wasn't. Dolly identified a picture of Lindgren as Gale Young. Lindgren swears she was not his girlfriend but the girlfriend of a roommate.
At about the same time, Walters went to Hawaii. "It haunted me to think of him alone," the former coach says. "My quest is to sneak up behind him, and say I love him." Walters patrolled Honolulu's tracks and parks but never saw him. "I conceived of him as a victim of his coach," Walters says. "I hear myself in his words. I did tell him to leave the world a better place. I did set him great tasks. But he didn't remember the part about not being afraid to make mistakes and learn, to forgive yourself and go on."
Always Lindgren ran, or tried to. Often his savage track workouts left him with strained thigh muscles. Clarke, a coach, marveled at his furious effort. "Occasionally someone would ask if he was the Gerry Lindgren," says Clarke. "He used to deny it. But recently he's said a soft little yes. I think the closer he gets to being able to compete well, the more willing he is to acknowledge who he is." Running as identity. His first and best song.
It would not be Lindgren if his "exile," as he terms it, were without its wacko touches. He called his mother once, to say he was all right. "But it was the middle of the night and he used such a strong Australian accent that it threw me off-balance," she says. "I hope I told him I loved him enough."
Eventually, some of that message seeped through. Lindgren began to wish to reclaim a few bits of his old life. When I called last fall, he was ready to take a run. When it became clear to me that he still revered Walters, I gave the coach his phone number. "I have chills hearing that he's finally made contact," Walters said.
Walters called Lindgren with an emotional outpouring of good wishes. "Oh coach, coach," said Lindgren. "It's such a relief to hear you." At Walters' urging, Lindgren said he would hire a lawyer to negotiate a settlement of the old child-support obligation, or, if possible with a blood test, to overturn it. "If he is innocent," Walters says, "what a travesty it will have been. What a travesty if he's not."
Lindgren acted upon what must be everyone's occasional, idyllic daydream: to cancel the past, to remake life from scratch. For most everyone else it's just that, a daydream. But once you know something of what led Lindgren to be the curiously crazed character he is, you know he hasn't cancelled anything. His story is one of estrangement, of a man cut off, by his own hand, from self, from others.
And so the fundamental mystery persists. Is he suffering? He appears not to be. He can speak of his interest in operating a restaurant catering to children without apparent regret that he has no contact with his own children. "Maybe he hurts so much that he cannot bear to think of them," says Walters, who hopes Lindgren is moving toward a reconciliation. But a letter that Betty sent in March to Lindgren's current address was returned to her, unopened.
Lindgren's exile may be delivering him into a kind of battered wisdom. "I live a very sedate, homebody life now," he says. "I enjoy nature. I am without social or political activism. Before, I was money-oriented. Now I realize that it doesn't matter. If I can eat well, and sleep, that's enough. I don't need a sea view and a big lawn."
He reflects a moment. "If on my deathbed I can say I've helped and given something, O.K. If I can only say I got it all for myself, that would be terrible. I'd be dying in hell."
Surely he will never escape his defining contradiction. He wants to do some service. Yet he wants to retreat from those he would serve. And by retreating, he may continue to wound.
Lindgren turned 41 in March and says he intends to race contemporaries Jim Ryun and Tracy Smith on the newly popular masters circuit. His first chance will come May 16, in the Bud Light Legends Mile, on the same Eugene track where he held off Smith and sprinted into the spotlight 24 years ago.
"I'd like to run, and run really well, to show age is no barrier," he says, his voice edging into the old song. "And maybe talk to kids afterward about how if they believe and work, they can do anything. And then...then ideally I could go 'Poof....' "
He tosses up his hands, as if filling the air with magic smoke. "...And be back in my secret, simple place."