Getting the right lane was the thing, man, and when Texas A&M drew No. 8, on the extreme outside, for the 880-yard relay final at the Drake Relays last Friday, everybody in Des Moines knew a world record was as good as run. The Aggies had the Mills brothers and that should have been more than enough, and now they had a jump on the clock on an extremely fast track, in ideal weather. In fact, everything except Coach Charlie Thomas holding the only stopwatch in town. Shoot, in a heat that morning A&M had decided not to push it and had sauntered around the Tartan track in 1:22.1—and that tied the world record. "And we weren't even trying," said Marvin Mills, the younger half of the brother act. "Heck, I wasn't running, I was just strutting. And brother Curtis was running around looking at the people in the stands and waving to his friends. And he's got a lot of friends."
All this stuff about the advantage of running outside wasn't discovered until a group of engineers with nothing better to do took out their slide rules and discovered that, on a quarter-mile track, while the guy in Lane 1 was running 440 yards, the guy in Lane 2 was running 443. And it got longer, three yards per lane, until the poor guy in Lane 8 was running 461. Ergo the stagger start. As the lanes move to the outside, each runner starts nearly three yards ahead of the man inside of him. In the 880 relay the stagger doubles, and that puts the runner in Lane 8 halfway into the turn, making the first and third legs straightaways, which is worth at least a second on the clock. Men run faster in straight lines than around curves. The world record for a 220 on a straightaway is 19.5; it's 20 flat around a bend. And so Friday there was A&M in Lane 8, ready to fly. Even the wind was cooperating. All day it had been blowing in gusts up to 12 knots. Now it dropped to near zero. Perfect. Then the esteemed officials of the Drake Relays almost blew it.
The horns of the public-address system came to life: " Kansas has scratched from the 880 relay. Edgar Musgrave, the clerk of the course, has decided that Texas A&M will move into Kansas' lane, Lane 2."
The Aggies were stunned. "No," said Donny Rogers, the freshman sprinter who would lead off, "I'm not moving." Then he decided to talk it over with Coach Thomas, who was acting as meet referee for university events. "I guess you can't do anything but move," said Thomas. Rogers picked up his starting blocks and went to Lane 2, from the middle of the turn to the start of it. "We're too tall to run well on curves," Rogers muttered. He's 6'3". Rockie Woods, the 9.3 sprinter who runs the second leg, is 6'3", an inch taller than Marvin Mills. The tallest is Curtis Mills, a tick shy of 6'4", who owns the world record (44.7) in the 440. He would run the anchor. Angrily.
"Well, we could have moved them to Lane 7," said Musgrave. And if there is a lane better than 8, it is 7. The danger of 8 is that it is against a wall. Fans have a habit of reaching out and grabbing at a runner. Too, fans use that lane as a trash can. But Lane 2?
"From time immemorial we have always exercised the prerogative of moving the farthest team to the vacant lane," said Musgrave. "It's in the interest of starting on time and finishing on time. We always are on time, and we're proud of it. It's a tradition here. We're running five minutes ahead of schedule. If we moved all teams one lane it would take 10 minutes. That would make us five minutes late."
And so, on time, the race began. Rogers ran the full curve in a blazing 20.9. "And you can't ask for a better start than that," chortled Thomas. Woods did his leg in 21.2 and then turned the baton over to Marvin. "It was a lousy hand-off," Woods said. "Marvin started off slow. I almost had to stop to hand it to him." No matter. Marvin, who has turned a 9.4 100, was blazing along at a 20.0 clip, and when he handed the baton to Curtis, A&M had made up all those three-plus-threes and was in the lead. And on the hand-off Marvin also spiked Curtis on the left calf, making his older brother no less unhappy.
"Well, Rockie had run up my back," said 18-year-old Marvin in defense.
"And you were on my back," said Curtis, who is 21.
Marvin laughed. "I wasn't on your back. I was on your leg."