It is only a matter of time—and timing—before Harry (Butch) Reynolds Jr. becomes the fastest runner ever to travel once around an outdoor track. At 23, Reynolds has talent and temperament in his favor. He showed last year that he has the natural ability to break the epic 400-meter record of 43.86 set in 1968 by Lee Evans at the Mexico City Olympics. Further, he has a single-minded competitiveness that makes him want to go for a record every time he runs.
But in track, particularly in an Olympic year, timing is everything. Reynolds knows that his obsession with Evans's record must be kept simmering so that it will explode on Sept. 28 at 12:55 p.m. in Seoul. "If I'm patient," says Reynolds, "I can get the world record and the gold medal in the same race."
On Sunday at the Jesse Owens Classic in Columbus, Ohio, Reynolds gave every sign that he has the discipline required for the long haul by winning the 400 meters in a restrained 45.55. Starting in Lane 6, Reynolds went out in characteristically smooth fashion, easing his 6'3", 177-pound frame into a monstrous 8½-foot stride. With his 22-year-old brother, Jeff, a senior at Kansas State, within a stride of him on the last turn, Reynolds accelerated into a strong but controlled finish to win by two meters. Jeff was second in 45.87.
"I ran about 80 percent effort most of the way and 95 percent coming home," said Reynolds after the race. "My goal until Seoul is to run well enough to win."
May 15, 1988
Holding back wasn't easy. Last year at the Owens, Reynolds ran a blazing 44.10. That was the best 400 time ever at sea level (Evans's mark was set at 7,350 feet) and the third-fastest in history. This year Reynolds's parents, Harry Sr. and Catherine, were in the stands on Mother's Day, along with a 20-person contingent from his hometown of Akron. And Ohio Stadium, where Butch, a former Ohio State student, has been a favorite of the crowd for two years, was bathed in 84° sunshine. Reynolds's every instinct was telling him to let 'er rip.
"I don't really want to give that yet," he said 48 hours before the race. But a little later his eyes flashed at the thought of the record. "If my body tells me it's there, I'm not going to say I don't want it," he said. Suddenly Reynolds was excited. "I might just take it out, wire to wire—now," he continued, smashing his fist into his palm for emphasis.
He caught himself and smiled. "I'm getting itchy," he said. "The waiting is so hard."
Reynolds did very little waiting last year. After having the 34th-fastest time in the world in 1986, he ran under 44.50 in the 400 meters eight times during 1987. No one else has surpassed that time more than three times in a career. Evans's record, which, along with Bob Beamon's 29'2½" long jump, is the longest standing in track and field, was beginning to look vulnerable.
But Reynolds's schedule of more than 50 races caught up with him last September at the World Championships in Rome. Drained from the long season and weakened by severe diarrhea, Reynolds finished third with a time of 44.80 behind Thomas Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánlebe of East Germany, a surprise winner, and Innocent Egbunike of Nigeria. On sheer will, a spent Reynolds passed two other runners down the stretch to get the bronze.
Besides paying the price for an overly ambitious schedule, Reynolds learned that he had to get stronger. "Butch's only failing is a lack of a veteran runner's strength," says Ralph Mann, the silver medalist in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1972 Olympics, who has done a computer analysis of Reynolds's biomechanics. "His talent is off the scale, but it's really still an immature, underdeveloped talent. When he gets stronger, he'll be able to combine the fluidity of Tommie Smith with the power of John Smith. His future beyond the Olympics is even brighter."
With that future in mind, Reynolds made some hard decisions after the World Championships. The toughest one was telling his coach, Frank Zubovich, who's retiring this December after 22½ years at Ohio State and has never won a Big Ten title, that he would leave school and not compete for the Buckeyes in the '88 outdoor season. "I would have loved to give Coach Zub that championship," says Reynolds. "But I had to think of my future. I had to get into a pattern of saying no, and that's never been me. I ran a few times last year when I didn't want to, and that's the thing that got me in the end. This is like a job now. There has to be discipline."
Reynolds mapped out a demanding regimen for himself. He decided to stay in Columbus, where he has continued to work under Zubovich. Long, slow interval training has increased his strength, and a weight program has given him five more pounds of muscle. At the urging of former hurdler Mamie Rallins, now the women's track coach for the Buckeyes, Reynolds has also been jumping rope to develop quicker feet.
The workouts have been balanced by a drastically reduced racing schedule. This year Reynolds entered only three indoor meets, winning one on a large track and finishing third on the boards at the Meadowlands. In his first outdoor meet last month at the Mt. SAC Relays, he ran an impressive 44-flat anchor leg in the 4 x 400 relay. "That was a little faster than I wanted him to go," says Zubovich. "But how do you tell a young guy with that talent not to run hard?"
It's not going to get any easier for Reynolds to hold back in the races he has left before the Olympic trials at Indianapolis in mid-July. On June 5, he hopes to meet Egbunike, who has nine sub-44.75 times and a best of 44.17, at the Pepsi Invitational in Los Angeles. Then in Oslo on July 2, Reynolds may get a chance to avenge his loss to Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánlebe, But revenge finishes a distant second to chasing Evans. Each time Reynolds enters the bedroom in his Columbus town house, he passes a hand-lettered sign that reads: HARRY REYNOLDS, WORLD RECORD. 43.81.
Reynolds has never met Evans, but in Rome he saw a tape of Evans's record race in Mexico City. "I saw his head moving all like this," says Reynolds, doing a perfect imitation of Evans's distinctive rolling motion. "I thought, that is not perfect form at all. But Lee was a brute. I'm the opposite. We both go about the same speed. I just want to go a little faster."
A moment later Reynolds stops his conversation to point out the clock on the Ohio Stadium scoreboard. The time is 4:38 p.m. "See, there are those numbers again," he says. "Four-three-eight. Somehow I look up every day at this time and see those numbers."
Reynolds isn't likely to be seeing them on an official timer for a few months. "This is still Phase 1," he said after the Owens. "Phase 2 will be the Olympic trials. And Seoul will be Phase 3."
If if works out that way, his timing will be perfect.