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It had been a prosperous year for U.S. distance runners, winners of two gold medals in the Olympics, and so the small recession they ran into last week at the Compton Invitational in chilly Los Angeles probably was to be expected. But the authority with which a pair of antipodal athletes, Australia's Ron Clarke and New Zealand's Peter Snell, beat their American opponents, seems to portend something far harsher than a recession. A first-rate depression might be more like it.
Clarke, who in each race chooses to face the agonizing challenge of a new world record, set two on his way to winning the 5,000-meter run. He lowered his own three-mile mark from 13:07.6 to 13:00.4 and his own 5,000-meter record from 13:33.6 to 13:25.8. Snell, who in each race feels challenged to maintain a reputation of invincibility, snuffed out a gang attack in the mile with a final lunge through the tape just when it seemed he might at last be beaten.
"Can you imagine two such different races?" asked the exhausted but vastly relieved Snell, whose time of 3:56.4 was matched by the runner-up Jim Grelle. "Clarkey in the 5,000, running all by himself, the complete master. Me in the mile, the so-called complete master, almost being mastered myself."
It was indeed a night of contrasts but, where Snell is concerned, this "almost" is probably as close to defeat as he will ever get again. The race launched him on a world tour that will end in August with his retirement from competitive running. It was also the race about which he was most apprehensive.
"I'm a wee bit disturbed about what could happen tomorrow night," he said before the race in the soft voice that is only a decibel above a Method actor's mumble. "I honestly think I could lose. You see, in order to prepare for two months of hard racing I've had to do a great deal of distance training. It's only in the last two weeks that I've been able to work on my speed."
There were five very good reasons why Snell, who plays his role as king of the mile with a subdued, uneasy fretfulness, should have been worried. He was to run against Josef Odlozil, the Czechoslovakian who had run second to him in the 1,500-meter run in the Tokyo Olympics, and four Americans, all of whom had posted mile times comfortably under four minutes. These were Jim Ryun, the boy who looks like a stork but who had won the mile in Modesto a week earlier in 3:58.1, two days before graduating from Wichita ( Kans.) High School East; Bob Schul, the Olympic 5,000-meter champion, who was stepping down to the mile to certify his claim that from one mile to 5,000 meters he is the fastest runner in the U.S.; and Jim Grelle and Cary Weisiger. Besides, the Americans had a plot.
"Snell is going to have a surprise," announced Schul, who is just beginning to round into shape after a winter in which his usually rigorous training was slowed by a knee injury. "In the past Americans have always run against each other for second place in these races. That's over. We don't care who it is, but this time one of us is darn well going to try to beat Snell."
The plan, partially abandoned during the race, was for Schul, Grelle and Weisiger to exchange the lead at each quarter, hoping that competitive rust and a fast early pace would deaden the sting of Snell's long and powerful finishing kick. Ryun simply planned to produce a winning kick of his own.
It was shortly after 10 p.m. when the runners stripped off their warmup suits for the start of their race. The crowd of 12,160, disappointingly small, shivered in the damp 58� air and so did the six milers. Snell, dressed in black shirt and shorts, stood on the inside lane, nervously shaking his massive legs. It is these that make the New Zealander look so formidable. His hamstring muscles stand out from the backs of his thighs like short lengths of fire hose. His calves are so large they resemble grapefruits.
At the start Weisiger raced into the lead and towed the field, with Snell striding comfortably along in fourth, through a 58-second first quarter. Then Schul took over for a quarter, and finally Weisiger again. But they had somehow allowed the pace to slow and at three-quarters of a mile the time was 3:01, at least four seconds slower than the three Americans had wanted it to be.