It was, in a sense, a meeting of misadventures. The dark-visaged foreigner who won the year's most heralded footrace wasn't in the best of shape, but his foe made a grievous error. The discus ring was slippery and the wind was wrong. The shotputter thought his form was awful. But this was a night when athletes thrived on trouble. As 40,000 impressed spectators looked on Friday evening at Los Angeles Coliseum, Discus Thrower Al Oerter and Shot-putter Dallas Long both broke world records, and New Zealand's Peter Snell ran America's fastest mile, whipping this country's best man at the classic distance, Dyrol Burleson.
It was two days before that thick-legged, muscular and normally super-confident Snell—the awesome holder of the mile and half-mile world records—had arrived in Los Angeles for his last U.S. appearance of the year. He flew in from Honolulu, where he had been working out for several days under the careful eye of his coach, Arthur Lydiard. He was not in peak condition, his training having been hampered by an inflamed tendon in his right knee.
"I had to bring myself up to a new peak for this race," he said later. "Our season is over. But I wanted very much to be ready for this one." He had not learned that Burleson would be in the race until early Wednesday when a sports-writer called him and awakened him with the news. He seemed a bit apprehensive at first; both Snell and Lydiard consider Burleson the best miler in the world—next, of course, to Peter Snell.
By race time Friday, however, Snell had calmed his fears and said that he was glad to be running against Burleson. "It would be a shame to come this distance and not meet your best runner," he added. Though Burleson had wanted very much to run against Snell, his entry in the Coliseum Relays was a last-minute surprise. Bill Bowerman, his coach, had not felt that the Oregon collegian was far enough along in his training to take on Snell, and Burleson had a race to run for his college team on Saturday. Finally, at 6 o'clock on Wednesday morning—Bowerman is an early riser who makes most of his decisions at dawn—the Oregon coach elected to let Burleson compete in the mile at Los Angeles.
Honey and pigeon feed
"I like this kind of race," said Burleson frankly the morning of the event. "I've got everything to gain and nothing to lose." He was having breakfast in the small coffee shop of the Sheraton-West Hotel: a healthy meal of two poached eggs and toast, plus a cupful of honey, his only bow to the dietary idiosyncrasy that so many runners affect. With him was his wife, Caroline, who was more intent on saving her English muffin than eating it. "She's a pigeon feeder," said Burley fondly. "After breakfast we'll walk across the street to the park and she'll give the muffin to the pigeons."
Then he explained his training program, and it indicated why he was not ready for Snell. It is a regimen that closely parallels Snell's—Bowerman and Lydiard being close friends who exchange training ideas. But since the track seasons are different in the U.S. and New Zealand the runners reach top condition at different times of the year.
"Early this year I started long slow running," Burleson said. "I work twice a day. You have to now if you want to be of world class. I start at 7 in the morning and run for an hour and a half and then I run another hour and a half in the evening, after classes. I'm just now changing to speed work. I won't be completely converted until the week of the NCAA meet.
"This is a long-range program I'm working on. I'm getting ready for the Olympics. Each year I'm a little stronger. Each year I start a notch farther up the ladder. Til break my routine right after the season, then start hard training again next January. You have to do more and more all the time." With that, he and Caroline went to feed a muffin to the pigeons.
It was cool and still at the Coliseum that night when the starter's pistol set the field of six off on the mile. Burleson was running easily with that long, fluid stride that moves him over the ground with the graceful economy of a trotting horse, while Snell was chewing away the yards in his powerful, pounding fashion. That neither led in the first three laps meant nothing.