Getting to the top these days is not so much a climb for mountaineers as it is an exercise in pyramidal logistics. A large expedition, growing smaller as it moves base camps higher, heaves and strains to place, ultimately, one man on the peak.
For almost a year now the same technique, with necessary variations, has been used by the Los Angeles Track Club. Entering as a team of four in the same race, say the mile, they take turns pacing each other through the first three-quarters, then look to one man for a record. The man in every case is Jim Beatty, and the record, twice during the past fortnight, has been Peter Snell's world mile standard, 3:54.4. In London and Helsinki, just three days apart, Beatty ran two magnificent miles—the two fastest ever run by an American—but at the end of both he was still searching for fulfillment. Even for an organization miler, passing Snell was becoming as frustrating an experience as climbing Mount Everest.
The Los Angeles Track Club, coached by Mihaly Igloi, had gone to Europe frankly in search of records, but from the start a cloud seemed to attach itself to the party. Before the first race at 2,000 meters in London, the heavens opened wide. Beatty, with Jim Grelle, Bob Seaman and the aging Laszlo Tabori, found himself splashing around in ankle-deep water. It was typical English fare, like fish and chips and tea. Doughty Yorkshire runner Derek Ibbotson squished to victory while the Americans, all except Seaman, earned themselves a scathing press by dropping out after two laps for fear of pulling muscles. "Inexcusably bad sporting manners," snorted the London Daily Herald's Peter Lorenzo.
It was also wet in Oslo, the next stop, but there, on a heavy track, despite several days of missed training, Beatty managed 3:39.4 for the 1,500 meters, the best recorded time this year. At Avranches, France, where rain had saturated the track, too, Beatty next clocked 7:54.2 for 3,000 meters. The time, 1.4 seconds short of Gordon Pirie's recognized world record, has been bettered by only three men.
Remarkable as these races had been, it was the mile Beatty and Igloi were interested in. Back in London, the rain finally held off. It was cloudy but warm and Beatty privately was beginning to talk of a "miracle mile." Igloi, whose training methods are so mysterious that Seaman stopped writing down his workout schedule because it didn't make any sense to him, was as inscrutable as ever, but one sensed he was thinking of a record, too. "Any country I can make good runner," he explained to reporters. "Everybody said the American runner is lazy, don't work. Now the American distance runner is the best in the vorld." Only British track expert Norris McWhirter was doubtful. He firmly predicted 3:56. "Beyond that," he wrote, "you are delving into the realms of human possibilities."
When the Los Angeles team came to the starting line there were a few boos, the residue of bad feeling from before. It quickly drained away. The run was one of the finest ever seen, although Snell's record remained tantalizingly intact.
Igloi wanted a scorching 55-second first lap, a 1.56 half and a 2.55 three-quarter. What happened instead was that Seaman, who led at the first quarter as intended, clocked 57.9, and those three seconds were never made up. Grelle led the second lap, hitting the half in 1:58.3, and Beatty took over at the third, in 2:58.8. On the last part of the back-stretch Grelle moved in front again. Beatty shot around him at the finish of the turn and beat Grelle by two yards and two-tenths of a second in 3:56.5.
As if for a moment sand had stopped running through an hourglass, three other runners followed Beatty and Grelle under four minutes. An Englishman, Stan Taylor, came third and Bob Seaman fourth, both clocking 3:58. Another English athlete, Mike Berisford, was fifth in 3 minutes 59.2 seconds. Only the Dublin mile in 1958, when Herb Elliott set his record of 3:54.5 and four other men cracked four minutes, can compare with it. Beatty's time, like his 1,500-meter mark in Oslo and his 3,000 meters at Avranches, set a new American record. "If somebody had jumped at the last lap," says Beatty, "it might have been different."
The team flew to Helsinki, where Igloi said, "After London race, maybe somebody tired. But I think everybody O.K." Everybody was. The plan for the mile was similar to that at London. Seaman was told to do a 55.5 first lap, Grelle 60 or 61 on the following quarter and Beatty to get past the three-quarter mark in 2:56.
Conditions were excellent that night. At the gun, Seaman leapt away, but he was so anxious that after 220 yards he lost contact with the other runners. "I didn't want to screw up a record attempt," he explained later. He whipped past the quarter in 54.6. Grelle then went to the front and ran an immaculate second lap, hitting the half in 1:55.4. Beatty, as planned, was first at the three-quarter mark, but he was a fraction slow in 2:58. His real mistake, though, seemed to come in the middle 200 yards of the last lap. He slowed up too much, and despite a surging finish in the last 100, he was not fast enough to beat Snell's record. His time, 3:56.3, was two-tenths of a second better than his London mile. He was now the fourth fastest miler in history. Grelle came second in 3:58.8, and Finland's Olavi Salonen third in 3:59.1. Beatty marched back down the track, needing desperately to know what he had done. "What did you get, what did you get?" he kept asking anyone who might have clocked his time. And then he knew that his personal Everest was still beyond him.