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Tallest, fastest and buggiest
Roy Blount Jr.
June 16, 1969
Jack Bacheler of Florida is not just the best U.S. distance runner, he also is the only one who is a constantly expectant moth-er
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June 16, 1969

Tallest, Fastest And Buggiest

Jack Bacheler of Florida is not just the best U.S. distance runner, he also is the only one who is a constantly expectant moth-er

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This Saturday at the Orange County ( Calif.) Invitational the two-mile run will feature the world record holder, Ron Clarke, and a fellow named Jack Bacheler. The meet will be extended through Sunday morning for the sole purpose of pitting Clarke and Bacheler in the 5,000 meters. All this, of course, is contingent on Bacheler showing up. Last Saturday at the Coliseum-Compton Invitational in Los Angeles, the 5,000 was delayed until 10 p.m. in the vain hope Bacheler would rush in from his brother's wedding in Ohio. And the Saturday before that the Kennedy Games in Berkeley, Calif. had to do without Bacheler because he was off on a field trip looking for spiders.

However, Jack Bacheler commands our attention for reasons other than poor attendance: 1) he is the best American distance runner, 2) he is so much taller (he is 6'6[5/8]" and weighs 165 pounds) than his competition that he looks like a crane running with quail, and 3) he has found an answer to the question of what to do while running 18 or 20 miles a day. He keeps an eye out for interesting bugs.

Bacheler's two strong suits are moths and the 5,000 meters. He is the fastest student of those insects over that distance, if not the swiftest entomologist, period, in the world. Not etymologist, as he has been classified by the U.S. Olympic press guide and The New York Times. If he were one of those, he could tell us that the word "run" comes from the Middle English ronnen, alter of rinnen, the Old English iernan and rinnan, the Old Norse rinna and some other things. As it is he can tell us more than most anyone else in either the scientific or the track-and-field community about Arctiidae Apantesis, a genus of red, black and white tiger moths of which he says, "They're kind of pretty little things." The particular moths he is studying in pursuit of his doctorate in entomology at the University of Florida are ones that he has raised in the laboratory from caterpillars. But he gets in some incidental research while running alongside the highways of Gainesville—whenever he spots an Arctiidae, or any unusual insect that doesn't look too elusive, he interrupts his workout to catch it.

The average track man collects a few bugs during his career, but usually to his chagrin and in his eye, nose or mouth, in the manner of an automobile grille. Bacheler has been accumulating insects on purpose since he was 5 years old, and when he discovers a caterpillar feeding on a roadside tree he either holds it in his hand the rest of the way, which must require a considerable professional detachment, or, if he is lucky enough to find a scrap of paper, wraps the caterpillar up in it and sticks it into the waist of his shorts. If it is a butterfly or moth that has been struck by a car, he picks it up carefully between thumb and forefinger by the tips of its wings and runs on, working his way steadily toward an almost certain Ph. D. in moths, two years away, and a possible gold medal, three years away, in the 10,000-meter run—an event usually dominated by smaller, inward-looking men.

In last year's Olympics, Bacheler finished a strong fourth in his heat in the 5,000 and was the only U.S. entrant to qualify for the finals. The night before the finals, however, he picked up, ironically enough, a little bug and he was ill for three weeks. "Actually I was relieved when the doctor wrote a note saying I couldn't run in the finals," Bacheler says. "You imagine yourself out there sick, a lap and a half behind at best, with U.S.A. on your back."

So he got out his net and made the best of the situation. "One day during siesta time," recalls Bacheler's pretty, expectant wife Jeanne, "there were people lying around and sleeping against trees, and Jack started pulling down limbs and taking things off, and I was putting things in my purse. I had all kinds of things in my purse—caterpillars and butterflies and moths...."

"I guess there's not much done in entomology in Mexico," says Bacheler. "I guess when people saw us taking pictures of moths and catching them they must have thought I was crazy. But 10 or 12 little Mexican kids started helping us, catching butterflies with their hands. At first a lot of the butterflies were in pretty bad shape after they grabbed them, but I taught them how to do it right."

At any rate Bacheler was undoubtedly the only athlete from any country to return from Mexico with "several hundred dead butterflies and moths and some things I probably shouldn't have brought into the country—some live cocoons." He hastens to declare that the cocoons' inhabitants, "if they had gotten away, would have been of no economic value"—that is, they would not have caught on, like walking catfish, or eaten anything valuable. "There are no host plants in the Gainesville area for that genus," he explains, "and anyway I kept them in the lab and when they hatched I killed them all."

But how do you sneak cocoons into the U.S.? "It's not too hard," Bacheler says. "You just put them in your laundry." Caterpillars are more of a problem. "When we were going through customs leaving Mexico," he recalls, "I looked over at a bush and saw a caterpillar I'd never seen before. So I put it into my zipper bag. Then, when we got into U.S. customs in Dallas, I looked down and there it was outside on the zipper. The bag wasn't quite zipped all the way, and I guess it saw the light. It was just sitting there or standing there or whatever they do. The customs inspector looked at it, and I looked at it and I said, 'Gee, what's that worm doing there?' Because you know an entomologist would never have said 'worm.' The inspector took it away. He just went walking off with it."

Whether running around from childhood chasing butterflies helps you in distance running is hard to say, according to Bacheler, who was attracted to insects long before he ever thought about track. "I can remember getting a cecropia moth at the age of 5, because my dad took some pictures of that," he recollects. "And when I was in kindergarten and the first grade in Birmingham [ Mich.], there would be many monarch butterflies all over this grassy field. I would catch them and put them in jars. I didn't make any attempt to label things then, as to place and when caught, but I did get a great number of insects—box on box full. It was a big operation but not very scientifically oriented. And then, after junior high school, it was kind of off and on. If I saw something unusual, then I'd keep it."

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