She turned 17 only last Saturday, and she is getting prettier every day, but there must be moments when dark-haired, dark-eyed Marie Mulder is gripped by the startling suspicion that she may be over the hill. Miss Mulder, you see, is a girl distance runner and a good one, but the way things are in the girls' running sorority these days the pledges have to work like bunnies—uh, beavers—just to stay in place. The sport, at longer distances, is booming.
What happened at last week's Los Angeles Times Indoor Games at the Sports Arena furnishes a pretty fair example. Despite the fact that there were present at least two dozen men and boys who are sure to be on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, initially the best event of the evening promised to be, of all things, the women's 880-yard run. This is a race that not so long ago was thrown into the program to provide a change of pace from the more muscular grunts and groans of the males. But early last week Francie Kraker, the Michigan coed with the bright-blonde hair who held the U.S. indoor half-mile record for a week this winter, announced that she was staying home in Ann Arbor. Then Doris Brown, a slender Seattle schoolteacher, who now holds world indoor records in both the mile and half mile, announced that she was pulling out because the arches in her fast little feet were aching from overwork.
The withdrawals dimmed but did not destroy the race, which still included Canada's curly-haired Abby Hoffman, a British Commonwealth Games champion; Charlette Cooke, the strawberry blonde with a dancer's body who holds a wide assortment of U.S. distance records outdoors, and, of course, Marie, a heroine of U.S. track ever since, at 15, she came within a lunge of beating the Russians at the U.S.A.- U.S.S.R. dual meet way back in 1965. And now she was in the somewhat ludicrous position of trying to make a comeback at 17.
By race time Miss Cooke also was out of the starting lineup. She showed up at the track, sized up the competition and decided she was not yet in good enough shape to wrestle with it. She probably was right. Marie, who feels she must set a brisk pace because she lacks the natural speed to really zing out on the last lap or so, survived some unladylike bumping around at the start, before getting the lead on the first lap. Her quarter-mile time, as a result, was a slow 67.5, but she and Miss Hoffman really-stepped through the last quarter mile. With two and a half laps remaining, Abby bounded into a lead and held off Marie to win by 20 feet in the good time of 2:11.4. The third-place finisher was Kathy Hammond, and that was significant, too. She is 15 years old and has only been running a year and a half.
Miss Hoffman was ecstatic. "That's a Canadian record, you know," she chirped to a meet official after the race. "I'm planning to run faster later on this winter, but maybe we'd better fill out an application just in case."
Abby is a 20-year-old junior at the University of Toronto who gave up swimming at the age of 14 because she had not set a world record yet and was discouraged. If she can continue to compete south of her border she may yet attain her goal, but on the running track.
"The best competition in my event is right here in the U.S.," she said last week. "Your runners are getting right up there. But it's the same old story. Whenever you people put your mind to something you can do it. You've ignored the middle distances up till now."
The prospect certainly is for faster and more exciting races in these no-longer neglected events as the indoor season ends and the sport moves outdoors. In the last two years U.S. girls have taken to distance running with the same enthusiasm that others before them devoted to skiing and swimming. Last fall in California, for instance, over 300 women turned up to run in cross-country races each weekend. "It was amazing. I've never seen anything like it," exclaims Bobby Seaman, a former UCLA miler who now chairs the Southern Pacific AAU Long Distance Running Committee.
"I first began to notice the enthusiasm just before my family moved east from Sacramento in August 1965," says Miss Mulder. "All of a sudden a whole lot of girls were running in the meets, especially 12-and 13-year-olds. And now they are getting awfully hard to beat. Two years ago if I'd been able to run the times I'm running now I'd have won by miles. Now I don't even win, period."
One of the first reasons Marie isn't winning now is Mrs. Brown. Doris has come into her prime at the advanced age of 24. She keeps her 5'4", 108-pound figure svelte by training twice a day. At 5:30 a.m. she runs five miles around Green Lake Park, a recreational area in the residential north end of Seattle. From 7:45 a.m. until the middle of the afternoon she conducts physical-education classes at Kellogg Junior High School. At 4 p.m., she shows up on the track at Seattle Pacific College, where she earned her college degree, to do her more serious pace-and-sprint work.