In an age in which it seems grimly probable that the computer will displace man, it is comforting to have a Gordon Cooper prove that human intelligence is irreplaceable in outer space. Similar if lesser comfort was provided last weekend by a powerful New Zealander, Peter Snell, when he ran the third fastest mile ever. The finest miler of all time, Snell was only five-tenths of a second behind his own world record. He was also a living example of an old truth: there is nothing quite so impressive as self-determination.
Snell ran at Modesto, Calif., some 90 miles southeast of San Francisco, and he produced his superlative effort against a mile running machine—the Los Angeles Track Club. Coached by Mihaly Igloi, the LATC operates on the theory that if the correct buttons are pushed and the correct lap times calculated, a win and a world record will emerge almost automatically. The LATC has been right more often than not but, until Snell's thundering triumph, the old-fashioned method of combining pride, guts and strength with an instinct for making the proper move at the proper time had been almost forgotten—except by people like Snell.
There were four significant milers in the race: Snell, the world champion; Jim Beatty, the small, indefatigable American middle-distance runner who most people thought was ready to take Snell; his Los Angeles Track Club teammate, Jim Grelle; and Cary Weisiger, an outsider of sorts who, almost unnoticed by his compatriots, had been running some very good times recently. Grelle is a sensitive, nervous runner who suffers from migraine headaches—one kept him out of the Coliseum Relays a fortnight ago, where he might have beaten Snell. Weisiger, now a marine, receives his coaching by mail from Al Buehler, his undergraduate coach at Duke, whose system is a synthesis of the methods favored by Igloi and Arthur Lydiard, who handles—and sometimes influences—Snell.
In addition, there were George Jessup of Los Angeles State College, a 4:10 miler who was asked by meet promoters to run the first half mile in 1:56; and Bob Seaman of the LATC, whose role was to pile on a fast third quarter directly after Jessup's half.
Beatty was not particularly anxious to run against Snell on Saturday. He came to the race tired from a vigorous 5,000-meter run the week before against Murray Halberg, which he won. Never before had Igloi asked one of his runners to return within a week from so hard a race to appear against a competitor of Snell's class. He drove Beatty unmercifully in practice.
By way of contrast, Snell trained rather casually, although he had not been impressive in his maiden appearance of the year in the U.S., when he won an uninspired race against Dyrol Burleson in a fraction over 4 minutes at Los Angeles. "'He has been niggling at his training,"
said Lydiard before the Los Angeles mile. "The best thing that could happen to him is for some chap to do in his mile record. That might make him work. He has been running on the interest of the conditioning he built up when he really wanted to run. I don't know how long the interest will last."
Lydiard is not truly Snell's coach, in the sense that Igloi is the coach of the members of the Los Angeles Track Club. "I do not tell him what to do," Lydiard said in Modesto last Friday. "If he asks me, I help him. But he doesn't ask often. He is not as fit as he has been. But if an American is to beat him tomorrow night, he must run at least a 3:56. I feel that no American runner can beat him. His great quality is that he insists that he will not be beaten."
Although Snell is grateful to Lydiard for supervising his marathon training over the hills and through the sands of New Zealand, he does not feel that Lydiard knows quite as much as he does about the half mile and the mile. He believes that he has been able to combine what Lydiard has given him on distance running with what he himself knows about middle-distance running. It is not a preplanned to-the-fraction-of-a-second system that Snell admires. It is, rather, a system which depends upon Snell himself.
"I am not a time-trial runner," he says. "I am more of a racer. I run against the man, not the watch. If I am to run a very good mile in the U.S., someone will have to pull me along."
Thus the big mile race, which had been eagerly awaited for some two years, developed as a contest of temperaments and planning.