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....
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."