On the day before his formidable two-mile victory last week in San Francisco over Australia's Ron Clarke, 20-year-old Gerry Lindgren sat in a Spokane television studio looking positively suave and even, to the surprise of those who know this wispy creature, saturnine. He was neatly pressed into a navy blue blazer with brass buttons and a button-down, blue oxford shirt, the ensemble set off splendidly by the crimson-and-gray tie of his school, Washington State University. But Lindgren never fooled anyone. Despite his occasional attempts to appear dapper, Lindgren gives himself away every time with his high, squeaky voice and the uncontrollable cowlick that sprouts upward from his thatch of dark hair. He has forged some notable victories—over the Russians, over the NCAA, over his own confounding allergies—but his engaging little-boy quality beams out stronger even than his desire to be first across the finish line.
At the Golden Gate Invitational indoor track meet in the drafty Cow Palace the courage and the pixie in Gerry Lindgren were on bright display for all to see. Not only was Clarke running against him, but also Jim Grelle, who had beaten Lindgren in a tactical two-mile race in Los Angeles last month and had, in addition, beaten Clarke over a fast two miles on the Australian's home territory last winter. A world indoor record was a strong possibility, but Lindgren said, "What I'd really like to do more than anything is just beat Ron Clarke."
Clarke had no designs on his own indoor mark of 8:28.8. In winning over New Zealand's Bill Baillie in Los Angeles a week earlier he had run a slow 8:41.8 and claimed he could not have gone a step faster. A 10-day attack of flu had cut into his training, and he was not yet back in condition. All he hoped to do, Clarke said, was win.
At the start of the race Clarke took the lead, but the pace was slow. Lindgren decided to move out. He spurted ahead to bring the estimated crowd of 8,500 to a roar. For the next 15 laps he held the lead, his face turning bright red and his tiny but muscular legs sizzling frantically over the board track. The quickened pace forced Grelle to drop out even before the first mile had been passed, but Clarke, deeply tanned and half a head taller than Lindgren, stuck behind him like an immense shadow. Then, with exactly four laps to go, Clarke sprinted out around Lindgren and opened up a quick two-yard lead.
"It was a gamble," said Clarke later. "I was tiring, but I thought by rushing in front fast I might discourage Gerry a little and also excite the crowd enough to give myself a lift." The tactic never had a chance. On the back-straight the next-to-last time around, Lindgren suddenly exploded past Clarke. With the crowd screaming encouragement, Lindgren kept stretching the lead as Clarke faded. He won by a comfortable 15 yards in the excellent time of 8:32.6.
"I can't believe it," exclaimed Lindgren after the race, looking bedraggled in a damp T shirt and bare feet. "Ron has always been an idol to me. I've raced him four or five times before, and every time he's left me in the dust."
It was exactly three years earlier in this same meet that Lindgren first asserted himself as one of the most appealing personalities in world sport. As a 17-year-old senior from Spokane's John Rogers High School he ran the two miles in the astonishing time of 8:40, six seconds faster than his own unofficial scholastic mark. Though he lost the race to Clarke, Lindgren so dominated the occasion with his fearless front-running that he shared the meet's outstanding-athlete award with Clarke.
"It was an amazing, rather unnerving experience," Clarke recalled as he prepared for an encore. "He was so little he couldn't have looked more than 13 years old. He was such a hero to the crowd that a tall bloke like me, dressed in a dark outfit, automatically became a villain. When I tried to pass him he wouldn't let me. Once I brushed him accidentally. The crowd booed so hard I thought they were going to come after me with clubs."
Clarke was impressed more by Lindgren's attitude than by either his performance or his popularity. "He didn't seem particularly excited about what he had done," says Clarke. "He had lost, and he was simply determined to train harder and to do better next time. I sensed that he was a very special breed of runner."
Lindgren has been something special since the day his running career began in junior high school with an afternoon newspaper route that could hardly have benefited his change purse as much as it did his legs. It was five miles long and took in only 11 customers. Gerry's family, which has four boys, could not afford a bicycle for Gerry, so he walked or ran the entire route each afternoon. His running career continued on into high school when Gerry abandoned the unprofitable newspaper business and followed his two older brothers onto the track team, all 117 pounds of him. It improved dramatically through school, despite the breaking and rebreaking of a metatarsal bone in his left foot. He even established something of a social phenomenon in the northern outskirts of Spokane where he lived. Several times each week packs of Rogers High School runners, led by the spirited, diminutive Lindgren, would go on long-distance excursions around town. Local residents began to think that young Lindgren had formed his own variety of Hell's Angels—on foot instead of on motorcycles.