One would figure that, in the nature of things, few spectators would pay much attention to our three-man track team. Logic at the time persuaded me that the fans cared only for winners, such as Wes Santee in the 5,000 meters and Parry O'Brien in the shot put, and would completely ignore the stragglers. Such, I learned, is not the case. Everybody loves a winner, but everyone also loves a loser—especially if he turns out to be a real loser.
Many fans and competitors who were at Berkeley in 1952 probably still remember the trio from Carleton who seemed to be in every event on the program. "Each time I looked up," Ted Wheeler told me kindly many years later, "there was one of you cats in the yellow shirts finishing last."
The next week we were at the National AAU meet at Long Beach, eager for revenge. I was entered in the 10,000 meters and the steeplechase.
From the standpoint of the number of competitors entered, the difference between the NCAA championships and the National AAU championships in the 10,000-meter race was astounding. At the latter, some 45 runners milled around at the starting line, waiting for the starter's gun. That the first three finishers would go to the Olympics did not entirely explain the phenomenon. It would seem that long races are especially popular with out-of-college athletes. Once a man receives his B.A. degree he is intelligent enough to realize that if he can't run faster than an opponent, he may be able to run farther.
"Only 15 runners will be permitted to finish," the starter informed us. "As soon as you are lapped you will be thumbed off the track. The last 15 to survive may continue to run after they have been lapped." I didn't like the way he emphasized the word survive. I also decided that under those ground rules there was no sense in pacing myself. I would run as hard as I could to try to hold onto that last finishing position.
Everyone else had the same idea. The gun exploded and the runners slammed together in a pack, each trying to make sure he would achieve at least 15th place. I found myself locked in somewhere near the middle of the pack, but after a few turns around the oval, the runners began to stretch out in a long, thin line of colored shirts and shorts. "Get moving!" Bruce hollered at me as I staggered by. "You're in 24th place!"
At two miles I heard someone counting: "Ten-oh-three...ten-oh-four...ten-oh-five...." Good grief, I thought, gasping for air, I'm within a few seconds of my best-ever time for the two miles—and four miles to go. Blowing and reeling, I was still fighting for survival in 19th place. Others, however, had been equally imprudent in pacing themselves. One by one the runners in front of me had begun to falter and clutch their sides. I slipped into 15th place somewhere after the third mile. Before I had eaten up another half-lap, the trio of Curt Stone, Fred Wilt and Horace Ashenfelter loped rhythmically past me on their way to Helsinki.
Having now earned the right to finish the race, I began greedily to eye 14th place—then occupied by a stocky runner wearing the royal-blue shirt of the Los Angeles Athletic Club. I plotted my move carefully. Matching him step for step for several laps, I waited until we came to the home straightaway during the fourth mile and then put on a blazing kick, hoping to suck from him the will to go on. The crowd cheered. I clutched my narrow lead around the turn, only to see him come past me in the backstretch. Again the crowd responded with a roar. Once more, putting on steam, I passed him on the homestretch, only to have him pass me on the backstretch. Each move on our part inspired applause from the spectators. "Go get him, Higdon!" shouted someone on the homestretch side as I moved ahead for the third time. The crowd on one side of the field cheered for me, while the other side rooted for him. If an alert vendor had come prepared, he could have sold at least two dozen pennants with my name on them. For more than a mile we maneuvered past one another, back and forth, jogging around the turns and sprinting on the straightaways—until finally, in front of my partisan group, I failed to respond to my rival's challenge. As I slowly lost ground, my supporters in the crowd emitted an audible sign of disappointment and returned their attention to the struggle for first place—or went out for hot dogs.
Curt Stone crossed the finish line to a wave of applause. A while later I crossed last to an equally enthusiastic hand. The crowd, I decided, cheers only the winners and the losers. I wondered if I would ever be good enough one day to slip into the relative anonymity of the middle ground.
The next day I ran the 3,000-meter steeplechase again and lost, though I did not lose my dignity at the water jump.