Ah, we were good once. Among the 15 leathery runners now bucking the wind on the first backstretch of the Bud Light Legends Mile in Eugene, Ore., a couple of weeks ago were four who had pushed out the envelope for the whole human race. Together, they had forged six world records in the mid-'60s. Jim Ryun set three in 1966-67 (the 880, 1,500 and mile); Gerry Lindgren established the six-mile mark in 1965; Bob Schul broke the two-mile in 1964; and Tracy Smith ran a world best in the indoor three-mile in 1967. The starting gun had been fired by Peter Snell, who set the 800 and mile records in 1962 and reset the mile mark in 1964.
But now the group that had stretched the limits for all humanity was just a gathering of old guys trying not to embarrass themselves. Willing a sore back not to seize up on him, Smith led through the first quarter in 65.5. Ryun labored stiffly in sixth. I could see it all from my vantage point in eighth place and wondered how decrepit I looked, compared with the years when I had run well enough to finish fourth in the Munich Olympics marathon. Obviously none of us had transcended our years. We had run faster than this in high school.
Surely that is why the idea—let alone the spectacle—of Masters races can be troubling. People want to honor distinguished careers, but they want them to end cleanly while athletes are still near the peak of their powers. We don't hold physicists to that requirement. But with athletes, it seems, as the legs go, so does the significance.
"A mile for guys over 40?" asked a curmudgeonly editor. "It sounds like a convention of Edsel owners." However, as we ran, the crowd of 6,400 at Hayward Field bathed us in ovation. Granted, they hadn't come to see us alone. The race was incorporated into the University of Oregon's annual Twilight Meet. But in a way completely apart from why they used to cheer, they were still with us. It seemed they understood that our minutes, as measured with stopwatches, are numbered. And the minutes are picking up the pace. A year back in the third grade seemed to take half a century. A year in college took a year. A year now just about lets your root-canal work heal. A year when we're 80....
June 21, 1987
Let's just say that the people seemed to understand that if Ryun and the rest of us once marked how fast men could run over a bunch of arbitrary distances, now we may be used to judge a rate of decline to which even the most resistant must submit. To the extent that we hold on, there is hope. I, however, would not provide much reassurance. After a quarter, I fell steadily back to finish 14th in a galling 4:48.3.
The Legends Mile had been hailed as—what else?—a coming of age. Ryun had just turned 40, the minimum for entry in Masters races, and promoters see his becoming senior running's Arnold Palmer. Lindgren had dropped out of sight for seven years, choosing a visibility level to fit his humble standing with the law and with himself (SI, May 18). His return, prompted in part by an unrequited love for the mile, drew added interest and made vivid how varied were the roads we had traveled in the last two decades.
Ryun and Smith, for example, had raced well and then put serious competition aside in favor of family and labor in the fields of the Lord. Smith had been a Presbyterian youth director in Bishop, Calif., although he recently resigned to devote himself to running for at least a year. Ryun has become a kind of roving witness to the Almighty's power to say, "Lighten up." Ryun may be the most dutiful man alive. Throughout his career, he felt driven by his and others' expectations, and the burden grew heavier as his performance declined. Always religious, he found comfort in his God and now is duty-bound to tell people about that. With its blatant show of mortality, Masters running should be a fertile venue.
An opposite approach was represented by the man taking the lead from Smith at the three-quarter mark. Damien Koch of Fort Collins, Colo., (Oregon '67, with a lifetime best of but 4:09) is still rangy and loose, still wild, still impulsive to a fault, still drinks a six-pack after a hard run and stays out all night. "How else do you get to be a legend?" he asks. Until last year he was women's track and cross-country coach at Colorado State (1986 taxable income: $2,900).
The evening before the race Koch had approached Ryun's angelic 16-year-old daughter, Heather, and said, "Hey, you drink beer don't you? Come on, it's happy hour."
"Agh, no" said Heather, recoiling. "I'm underage. And I hate beer."
"Well," said Koch, winking lewdly at her parents and seeming to symbolize the tenacious energy of sin, "just wait until you get to college."
Of course, all Koch really embodied was that part of us that simply refuses to grow up. There was no running boom when we all started. We happily burned our energy doing something with no tangible benefit for others. Maybe a few friends, a hard run and some beers are the only satisfactions that have ever seemed real to some of us. Call that the Damien Koch memorial pathway. His has been a life without evident concern for money, security or fame. Suddenly, what had seemed an adolescent fixation has turned into a lesson for us all. He never had to come back to racing because he never left it.
Koch led Smith past the half-mile mark in 2:12.5. In the crowd Heather shook her head in disbelief. Bill Stewart of Ann Arbor, Mich., ran third. Four years ago, at age 40, he set a Masters record of 4:11.0. He was followed by Al Swenson of Wolcott, Conn., and Web Loudat of Albuquerque. Ryun was still sixth.
Koch, Stewart, Swenson and Loudat couldn't come within 100 yards of Ryun 20 years ago. That's another disturbing thing about Masters racing. The best of us then may not be the best now. That doesn't happen in Masters golf, in which the best seniors were among the finest touring pros. But Ryun's losing to Koch? That's like Palmer's being beaten by a club pro.
Lindgren struggled along in 10th. Earlier in the week he had strained a groin muscle, and now, because of unfamiliar spikes, his left Achilles tendon seared him with every step. "I should have gone out harder," he would say. "I might not have done any better, but the guys would have had a better race."
Lindgren's voyage away from his past reached a partial conclusion a few hours earlier. His devoted coach, Tracy Walters, had acted out his seven-year dream by walking up behind Lindgren in a hotel lobby, grabbing him in a bear hug and lifting him high like an oversized steel head. After an instant's struggle, Lindgren allowed himself to be caught.
His mother, Eleanor Lindgren Roullier, sat in the stands, quietly weeping as the Legends Mile neared completion. Afterward, mother and son would seem tiredly at peace, chatting about what had gone on in the family during Gerry's seven-year absence. "This has been so wonderful," said Eleanor at their parting. "I thought I might never see him again."
Apparently we will see more of him. His 11th-place finish in 4:39.6 did nothing to cool his boyish ardor. "Don't you think we can be milers again?" he asked. "I do. I do. Everyone here has pulls or bad backs. We'll just have to use a lot more ice than before."
Stewart, grizzled and fierce, led at the three-quarter mark in 3:19.6. Then Swenson shot past him. The only man able to go with him was Loudat. Loudat was third in the 1967 NCAA steeplechase and has always lived in New Mexico's altitude, having taught math to Albuquerque 13-year-olds for 16 years. Long of the Koch school of riotous life enhancement, he has been something of a seeker as well. "Turning 30 was devastating," he would say. "Especially for a child of the '60s. Remember when you couldn't trust anyone over that age?" He spent his summers in Europe, including one on Mikonos, coming to terms with how he was going to be required to five on beyond the cutoff point.
Loudat was easily the least spoiled of our number. In the bullpen before our introductions he was shivering. "I was never good enough to get an invitation here," he said, eyes fiery. "This is a fantasy come true." It was even more than that because Loudat sprinted powerfully away to win the race in 4:20.89. Swenson was second in 4:21.75. Koch held third in 4:26.35, and Smith was fourth in 4:27.15.
We took a communal victory lap. Of two things, we were immediately conscious. First, the Masters master was Ray Hatton of Bend, Ore., who had finished 13th in 4:45.1. He is 55 years old. Second, the sight of a slender, dignified black man beside the track reminded us that all our labors were academic. Mike Boit of Kenya, the bronze medalist in the 1972 Olympic 800 meters, is surely 40, or close to it, but has no record of his birth. Annually he runs the mile in well under four minutes. Only sweet charity keeps him from massacring all other Masters milers.
As we jogged past the wood-canopied main grandstand, Koch mimed the chugging of a beer. "Did you see that?" cried Heather Ryun. "Can you imagine what his insides look like?"
"Can you imagine," said her mother, Anne, "what his brain looks like?"
Her father, warming down from a seventh-place finish in his first track mile in 13 years—"I just didn't know what to expect," he said—was disposed to kindness. Fatigue can make common ground for the most disparate of people. Too, Ryun was enormously relieved that Eugene's north winds hadn't filled the air with the Willamette Valley grass pollen that had wrecked a race of his in this meet in 1971. "We prayed daily to be spared that," he said.
Ryun was interested in what legal obligations yet hung over Lindgren's head, especially because Lindgren had assured the press that everything had been cleared up years ago. Not quite. He still owes some $2,500 to the county of Ventura, Calif., for the support it provided to a child he swears he did not father. Ryun reacted to the sum. "Gerry can run a couple of road races and pay that off," he said. "He's got to do it for his peace of mind."
"Yeah, but you know Gerry," I said. "If he believes it's a matter of principle, it wouldn't matter if it were a buck 89. He wouldn't pay. You can say, 'Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's,' but for Gerry there is only one right and one wrong."
Ryun was quiet and then said, "Gerry hasn't changed." Ryun spoke gently. How could a fellow old guy not understand another's refusal to submit?
Loudat was at pains to express what he saw as a windfall. "I only won because it was my day," he kept saying. "The pace was right, and some better guys were hurt. Tracy Smith might still beat me eight out of 10."
In this he saw the future. "Our bodies are so unreliable now that they can't be counted on to work consistently anymore," he said. "That will make Masters running more exciting. It will be like horse racing now."
The remark conjured a vision of a thundering pack of gray-coated animals, all born to run, all hewing to the one standard that we can always meet, going our hardest, racing until we drop. "In that sense," said Ryun, "It doesn't matter that we're all held together by adhesive tape and old memories."