A runner is a small-boned loner, built for flight and fantasy.
—DR. GEORGE SHEEHAN.
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.