Tom O'Hara is a shy, unassuming fellow whose most outrageous boast is a claim that he weighs 131 pounds. He has broken the world record for the indoor mile twice this winter, yet he still has the uneasy feeling he is a boy running against men. A shambling redhead with the posture of a consumptive filing clerk, he merely looks like a boy. He is, in fact, the best miler in the world, with only one real weakness—he doesn't believe it.
Last week in Chicago this lack of self-confidence cost Tom O'Hara at least two seconds in the Bankers Mile—and a chance to run even faster than Peter Snell's world outdoor record time of 3:54.4. Not that O'Hara's race was anything to be ashamed of. With 160 yards to go, he smoothly shifted into a sprinter's stride and ran away from Jim Grelle, his closest rival, finishing in 3:56.4. The time was the fastest ever recorded for an indoor mile, breaking by .2 second the record O'Hara had set just three weeks earlier in New York. But he could have gone faster and would have, except for the improbable fear that Grelle, no longer in his class, would outkick him in the last lap.
All week long the Chicago Doily News, sponsor of the meet, had been promising its readers a record. So excited had the local citizenry become that the high school basketball tournament, annually the breeziest conversational gambit around the Loop, was upstaged by O'Hara, now known affectionately as Mousemeat to his flock of new fans. Even the mayor himself, Richard J. Daley, had to scrounge for tickets to the meet, which had never sold out before. Quite obviously O'Hara knew what was expected of him. The pressure was enough to keep a seasoned trouper in an agitated state, not to mention an insecure one, and O'Hara's coach, Jerry Weiland, tried desperately to ease his star runner's state of mind. Facing reporters with the hangdog look of a man who had just invested his life savings in an Edsel agency, he assured everybody that "Tom's a tired boy. All we're after is a win." Then, remembering his obligations as a promoter, he added: "Of course, all his friends and family will be there. He'll give you a good run."
Privately, Weiland thought it quite probable that O'Hara was going to set an indoor record and, more privately still, he was not a bit sure that Snell's outdoor time was safe. But he studiously refrained from expressing his innermost thoughts within earshot of O'Hara, who has a history of reacting to such news with sleepless nights. "Don't even think of records," Weiland told O'Hara. "We've got a whole outdoor season ahead of us."
Having thus informed O'Hara of his lack of interest in a world record, Weiland immediately began planning for one. "We're going to try something different," said Weiland. His stratagem was to send O'Hara out of the gate like a sprinter for 25 yards. Traditionally O'Hara strides casually behind the field, moving up on the leaders in fits and starts before positioning himself for the last quarter dash. His early foot, Weiland figured, would startle Canada's Jim Irons, imported as a pacer, into a faster pace. "Tom will lead the field around the first turn," Weiland said. "Irons will have to hustle to take over the lead in the backstretch." At that point, as Weiland saw it, O'Hara would be in second place instead of way back in the pack. He might save a second, possibly two, with the quick dash, and he would conserve energy he might otherwise expend passing the entire field.
While Weiland was scheming, O'Hara was training. The routine was comparatively casual, coming nowhere near the 120 miles he usually puts in at the dingy old Chicago Avenue Armory each week. On Tuesday, for instance. O'Hara ran a series of 220-yard dashes, 40 of them to be exact, each in 31 seconds, with 90-second jogs between them. He ran a smorgasbord of distances on Wednesday, a couple of 660s, some 220s, a few half miles and ended up with brisk 440s. On Thursday, O'Hara just went out and ran off 10 miles straight, a distance that does not even make him breathe hard.
By midweek, Weiland knew pretty well what he wanted of Irons during the race: a 58-or 59-second quarter, two minutes at the half and 2:59 at the important three-quarter mark. "I'll settle for a three-minute three-quarter," Weiland said, "or even a 3:01."
The entry of Grelle may have helped Weiland make up his mind. Word had arrived suddenly from California that Mihaly Igloi thought his runner was ready for a big race. "I am most anxious to meet O'Hara again," Grelle said, "and I am ready to go under four minutes." When Tom O'Hara heard the news he turned several shades paler than his ordinary complexion, which is approximately the color of cream cheese. "Ah, we don't care about Grelle," Weiland told him. "You know you can beat this guy." Indeed, O'Hara had beaten Grelle, exactly a year ago in the same Chicago Daily News Relays. He trotted off reassured.
Despite his brave pose, Weiland was concerned. "There are six milers running today who are great," he said. "Snell, Jim Beatty, Dyrol Burleson, Cary Weisiger, O'Hara—and Grelle. They are all a little fearful of each other."
On Friday morning Thomas Martin Ignatius O'Hara attended a class in morality and business (he is an accounting major), where he took down the lecture nearly verbatim, "to keep my mind off the race," he said. O'Hara then went home to nap the afternoon away and hide from the army of people shoving press credentials at him and asking such questions as: "What are you planning to eat for dinner?" He had, in fact, a rather alarmingly large piece of halibut, one boiled potato and assorted vegetables cooked and served by his mother.