SI Vault
John Underwood
June 22, 1964
Little Tom O'Hara can go a mile in less than four minutes, and for hours without a halt. Hardly anybody is able to catch up with him—until he stops. Then his rampaging doubts do
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June 22, 1964

Running Is Such Sweet Torture

Little Tom O'Hara can go a mile in less than four minutes, and for hours without a halt. Hardly anybody is able to catch up with him—until he stops. Then his rampaging doubts do

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A mile runner does not run a mile, he bombards it with logic. He plots it, schemes it, calculates, bisects, barbecues and bakes it. He plots not only against the men who run against him but against the distance itself, because in the end, to be successful at his lonely project, he must be prepared to cross the finish line—to break the tape, if his itinerary is right and God is willing—at the moment his lungs turn to brimstone and his legs to apple butter. Cary Weisiger, a successful miler, schemed to upset Peter Snell, the most successful one a year ago, by beginning his kick (his stretch drive) an unnaturally long distance from the finish—600 yards or more. Weisiger became actually, physically sick at the starting line just thinking of the torture he was about to put himself through.

If by surgery you could expose the psyche of a miler, you would find such a complexity of hot wires and fuses that you would think you had lifted up your head in a terminal box. Milers are the same only in their primordial passion for the race (is it the pain they court? the purifying pain?) and in that curious, introspective, esthetic quality that makes each one appear to have been born in the gatefold of an old book. You half expect milers to blink in the sunlight. They are loners, with ruggedly individual theories and practices that, individually, they cherish. Dyrol Burleson, who has been America's best miler outdoors this season, strikes his fellow milers as being exceptionally evasive (one miler who is less guileful than Burleson wonders if he is just not very friendly). Actually Burleson is not so much taciturn as he is tactical. He was unsettled recently when it was revealed in print that he had been working privately at increased distances, up to 140 miles a week. "Gee, I didn't want that out," he said in his desperate, invasion-plan, loose-lips-sink-ships voice.

Any hiker can run a mile. It takes thought and maturity to be a miler. But most of all it takes passion, and a man cannot reason his passion any more than he can hold his heart in his hand or see love in a glass. What he can do is live with his passion or live it down (often the wise alternative) or put it to use in the form that it takes. "Why do I run?" asks Tom O'Hara (see cover), whose passion since his mid-teens has been to run great lonely distances. "Maybe a psychologist could tell me. Or a psychoanalyst. But why should I know? If I knew, then I might not run anymore."

A miler—a distance runner, if you please—is unique among athletes in that he will carry the solitary agony of conditioning into ripe old age for no reason, or for no better reason than to boast (behind a confirming grimace) of the shin splints he collected up at the Y yesterday afternoon. Question: "Why do you run?" Answer: "To run is reason enough." If the passion, together with the dedication and the sensitivity common to milers, is put into a meaningful physical package, then a byproduct—success—will arrive to forever complicate matters.

In the winter, running indoors, Tom O'Hara of Chicago, product of an unbroken Irish home and a few thousand miles of running over railroad tracks, along beach fronts, down alleyways, in empty corridors and around keep-off-the-grass signs, became the best miler in the world. Success had clearly set in. He won nine straight races, and in Chicago lowered his own world indoor record to 3 minutes 56.4 seconds. But today if Tom O'Hara sat down to breakfast with Dyrol Burleson he would be the second-best miler at the table. Burleson, who has been at the race longer, might tell him that this easily could be a temporary situation, that fortunes change, that it takes a heap of charting to chart 5,280 feet. It is more likely, however, that O'Hara will be allowed to simmer in his doubts. "Am I overtrained? I seem to be tired, you know?" O'Hara fretted in his still-small voice two weeks ago in Los Angeles. Burleson had beaten him for the sixth straight time. "I'm still learning. The pace. The start. When to kick. You know? Strangely enough I still have a good kick, regardless of the pace, if I just knew exactly when. Maybe I'm working too hard. If I make the Olympic team...."

The ifs that march in solid regiments through O'Hara's conversation are genuine, because he is a genuine Doubting Thomas Martin Ignatius O'Hara, a distracted centipede trying to decide which leg to use first. Milers are like that—they are so often left to their own devices. A steady C+ student at Loyola of Chicago, O'Hara worries over his progress as if failure would strike him down at every impasse. ("The irony is it took me four years of struggling with accounting to find out I didn't want to be an accountant," he said the other day.) A devoted subscriber to the Track & Field News, he pores over the agate type until his eyes burn, "getting tremendously encouraged, then getting tremendously discouraged." He suspects hidden breakdowns in his bodily functions. He wears Dr. Scholl shoes to protect his narrow, blistered double-B-width feet—and at a meet on a cool night he is not above trudging around the infield wearing an outsized overcoat over his sweat suit. Recently he has found he can wear away his peace of mind thinking about the tactics that always go wrong against Dyrol Burleson.

Well, for all that, Tom O'Hara will make the Olympic team, and on the day he runs a mile in 3:52 and makes the agate type—maybe even an asterisk—in Track & Field News there will be 300 people lined up to tell him how right they were. Dr. Ralph Mailliard, for example. Dr. Mailliard was O'Hara's high school coach at St. Ignatius in Chicago, and the first time he saw O'Hara run—frail, unimposing little Tommy O'Hara, the shy kid from Bucktown—he told him to start planning for the 1964 Olympics. That was in 1958. "I've never told a boy that before or since," says Dr. Mailliard, "but with O'Hara there was something—something there you could sense. Guts. Courage. Dedication. Whatever you call it. He never did better than a 4:20 mile for me, so I deserve no credit, but you could tell it was just a matter of time."

"O'Hara? O'Hara is like people who walk on nails and through fire," says Jerry Weiland, who is his coach at Loyola. "I don't teach him, I learn from him."

" Tom O'Hara," says Australian Distance Runner Ron Clarke, who saw him often last winter, "could run two miles—three miles, even—and break world records."

At Loyola, naturally the hotbed of O'Hara support, there is a modern new crucifix, a mosaic of glazed stones, in the faculty dining room. Father Joseph Pendergast, dean of arts and letters, advises visitors to be sure to see it. "And please notice," he says, "how much it looks like Tommy O'Hara breaking the tape."

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