Billy Mills and Bob Schul, those two distinguished American Olympic champions, sat, more pressed together than they really cared to be, in the stands at Oslo's Bislett Stadium. They were watching Ron Clarke of Australia begin a 10,000-meter run.
"Track looks a little soft," said Mills. Indeed, in the opening laps the backs of Clarke's tanned legs were taking on a coating of moist, black grit. The day was July 14, 1965, a few years before artificial surfaces came into widespread use. Clarke was running on Bislett's aged cinders.
Mills and Schul both had won gold medals in the Tokyo Olympics the year before, in the 10,000 and 5,000 respectively. Both had beaten Clarke, whose kick often betrayed him in big races. Clarke's forte was a hard even pace. They had come out on this gray evening, they said, because they wanted to see Clarke go after a record.
Clarke had no patience with the idea of pacemakers, so after a mile he was well ahead of his only competition. Ireland's Jim Hogan and Denmark's Claus Boersen were running simply to satisfy the International Amateur Athletic Federation rule that any race in which a record is set be a bona fide competition. Clarke already owned the world record for the 10,000—28:14.0, set a month earlier—but he wanted to drive it far below 28 minutes. In addition, officials had made sure that there were three timers at the six-mile point, 376 yards before the finish. The mark for six miles belonged to Mills and Gerry Lindgren. At the AAU championships two weeks earlier, Mills and Lindgren had tied in 27:11.6, a time superior to Clarke's 10,000 best.
"He's going to break 27, you know he is," Schul said to Mills with calculated glee. Schul had a way of going over one's psychic armor with a dental pick, scraping for nerves, prying up loose plates. He grinned a buck-toothed grin. Mills didn't look at him.
It was getting noisy. The atmosphere had been electric from the gun, and now the crowd had begun a rhythmic applause and chant, exactly matched to Clarke's footfalls. In response, he picked up the pace. Immediately the crowd adjusted its own tempo to hold him there. This wasn't an early version of the wave, with just those nearest the runner shouting him on. The entire stadium chanted his every stride.
Clarke was running each kilometer in 2:45, each mile in 4:25. "He's going like a bat," said Schul. "I bet he does take your record. What do you want to bet?" Mills gave him his stoniest stare.
There were 21,100 people in Bislett Stadium, a near-capacity crowd. The concrete stands completely enclose the arena, and the track has only six lanes instead of the more usual eight, so it seemed to Clarke that the crowd was blasting its surging, staccato demands right into his ear.
"Running by yourself, with no competition, all you have to rely on is your rhythm," he would say many years later. "When the crowd's rhythm is in unison, it can keep you going long past where you'd stop if you were alone."
The rolled cinder surface gave way under Clarke's spikes. He had to run wider and wider to stay on firm footing. Each time he came into the homestretch he had to cross a little groove worn where steeplechasers rejoined the track after taking the water jump. Once he stepped in this inch-deep gully and felt his leg threaten to buckle. He was tiring. He was past the halfway point. The crowd howled on. He was holding the pace.