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A Man Who Runs Like a Child
Merrell Noden
March 09, 1998
Overcoming the effects of a horrific accident taught miler Paul McMullen to race for joy
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March 09, 1998

A Man Who Runs Like A Child

Overcoming the effects of a horrific accident taught miler Paul McMullen to race for joy

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A man with childlike hobbies, miler Paul McMullen I built a snowman this winter in his front yard in Ypsilanti, Mich. In truth, it was more of a snow giant, 11 feet tall, with sticks for arms, eyes made out of coal and a five-gallon bucket of snow for a top hat. "I just about gave myself a hernia getting that up there," he says with a laugh. People came from all over the neighborhood to have their picture taken beside McMullen's behemoth. After the snow had melted everywhere else in town, that giant snowman was still standing.

In his still blossoming career as a miler, the 26-year-old McMullen has demonstrated a similar stubborn refusal to disappear. After winning the 1,500 at both the 1995 national championships and the '96 Olympic trials, he cut off most of his second and third toe on his right foot while mowing a neighbor's lawn just weeks before the 1997 nationals. (Mowing grass to relax is another McMullen pastime; he volunteered to trim untidy lawns while racing in England, France and even Atlanta during the Olympics.) He spent last fall learning to run again, finding ways to compensate for the lost power and balance. He has done this amazingly well, finishing second in the mile to Laban Rotich of Kenya on Feb. 13 at the Millrose Games in 3:57-46. Last Saturday afternoon, as he went to the starting line for the mile in the USA Indoor Track and Field Championships at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, McMullen was bent on achieving two things: He wanted to improve his personal best of 3:56.63, and he really wanted to beat Steve Holman, America's fastest active miler.

A competitive race between the two was something the sport desperately needed. With Carl Lewis retired and Jackie Joyner-Kersee almost gone, track and field in the U.S. is in the midst of a major changing of the guard. Craig Masback, the new CEO of USA Track & Field, took pains to describe the Atlanta meet as a showcase for the next generation of American stars. He found one in willowy high jumper Tisha Waller, who sailed over 6'7" on her third try to break Coleen Sommer's 16-year-old U.S. indoor record by a quarter inch. Waller, whose endless legs and close-cropped hair make her look like a Giacometti sculpture come to life, has no interest in being a full-time athlete. She teaches fifth grade at Livsey Elementary in suburban Atlanta and last year was named the school's teacher of the year. "On school days I go nonstop from seven in the morning to seven at night, eat dinner and fall asleep," she says. "But I teach my kids about this all the time: It's what you call making sacrifices."

But as captivating a performer as Waller is, Masback knows that track fans have a special affection for the mile, and he would dearly love to find an American runner the likes of Jim Ryun in the '60s, Marty Liquori in the '70s or Steve Scott in the '80s. No such star has emerged in the '90s; in fact, U.S. milers have actually regressed. No American runner reached the final of the men's 1,500 at the last Olympics or world championships. Scott's U.S. outdoor mile mark of 3:47.69 has stood for almost 16 years, and no one has looked capable of even getting close to it.

McMullen is an intriguing contender, and he's already a local hero. On July 4, 1996, soon after he'd won the Olympic trials, he invited the 12,000 residents of Cadillac, Mich., to watch him work out on the high school track. It was a blustery day, but 5,000 people showed up, forming a human wall around the track that shielded him from the wind and chanting, "Go, Paul, go!" as he ran. With his broad shoulders, strong jaw and wavy dark hair, he looks like the star of a '50s beach movie or the football player he once was. At Cadillac High he was a tight end and strong safety who relished making hard tackles. Though a tad less aggressive now, he contends that money has made U.S. runners soft. "It can distort your work ethic," insists McMullen, who sounds at times like a Marine sergeant, at others like a New Age philosopher. "A lot of runners travel to where it's warm in the winter. I stay in Ypsilanti, where it's cold. I've trained when it was 22 below. I think it builds character. My body goes through the rigors of the seasons, and when the weather warms up, I'm in sync with nature."

The mile was the most highly anticipated race of the meet, with McMullen facing Holman, the top-ranked U.S. miler, with whom he's nurtured a prickly rivalry over the years. At the 1996 Olympic trials McMullen appeared to go out of his way to stare Holman down. After Holman finished 13th in the final, McMullen's wife, Jill, called him a "choker."

The race in Atlanta was their first championship showdown, with the winner almost certain to take on the bothersome mantle of America's Next Great Miler. At the gun Holman sprinted wide up the banked turn to grab the lead, and the pair soon opened 10 yards on the field. With McMullen looming over his shoulder, Holman ran the first half mile in 1:56.7.

"They are a study in contrasts," says half-miler Rich Kenah, Holman's college roommate at Georgetown. "Paul feeds on emotion, while Steve is the introverted thinker."

Holman has always been one of the sport's more cerebral souls, a student of politics and history who sometimes chooses his words so carefully you want to jump in and help him finish his sentence. He sometimes seems trapped in his own mind. "Steve gets strength from being introverted, but it also can hurt him," says Kenah. "He has no outlet, and the pressure gets greater and greater."

Despite being the fastest U.S. miler in each of the past four years, with a best of 3:50.40, Holman has crumbled again and again at the national championships, hampered by injury, illness or self-applied pressure. At times it has been painful to watch as he struggles to run as well in the U.S. championships as he invariably does on the European circuit. "For a while it was something I was ashamed of," says Holman, who has been consulting a sports psychologist. "But everyone has struggles. It's how you deal with them."

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