Walter Mitty, alias Dr. Delano Meriwether (see cover), was still in the running last weekend, but he almost woke up from the dream. The Baltimore blood specialist who has given indoor track a shot in the arm this season with his astonishing performances in the dashes, stumbled coming out of the blocks in the semifinals of the 60 at the Times Indoor Games in Los Angeles. Despite a courageous rally, he finished behind Bobby Turner and Mel Pender, the eventual winner, and missed out on the finals for the first time in his brief and wholly improbable career.
Dr. Meriwether, who took up indoor track just last month when he ran in the National Invitational Meet in College Park, Md. (SI, Jan. 18), was the great favorite of the Forum crowd, just as he has been everywhere he goes. He was greeted by whistles, cheers and loud applause when he lined up for his heat. After his customary bad start, he was a full three feet behind at the midway point, but he came on to finish first. Unfortunately, he pulled his left hamstring in the process, and that affliction plus his stumbling start did him in in the semifinals. The following night in Louisville he pulled his right hamstring while winning his heat of the 70-yard dash and watched from the sidelines as Pender won the finals in 6.8, tying his own world record.
Will the injuries force Dr. Meriwether to give up track? "Even if I broke my leg or injured a nerve, I'd be thinking of running," he said stoutly. "It does two things for me—exercise and entertainment—and I'm not about to give it up. But I've been wondering how long I have left. You can't sprint the way I do—burn the last 20 yards—and expect to stay healthy or beat the good ones."
Even if he never ran another step Dr. Meriwether has compiled an extraordinary record this winter. Prior to last weekend, he had competed in seven meets, finishing first twice, second three times, third once and fifth once. His best time for the 60 was 6.0, one-tenth off the world record, and he won the 50 at the Boston AA meet, where he was chosen the outstanding athlete. More to the point, Dr. Meriwether has become the champion of millions of armchair athletes who know in their hearts they can knock a Bob Gibson fastball out of the park, kick the winning field goal with nine seconds showing on the clock or deck Muhammad Ali. In less than two months Dr. Meriwether has become an authentic folk hero: 27 years old, never a competitive runner until last summer, a distinguished medical researcher.
Dr. Meriwether is so new to track and so appealingly innocent that he doesn't realize what his presence means to meet promoters. Instead of demanding a first-class round-trip ticket, he gladly flies coach because he is delighted to be competing anywhere. His training time is ludicrously brief. When he can get away from his lab at the Baltimore Cancer Research Center, he has to train figuratively and literally in the dark. There are no lights on the outdoor tracks at Johns Hopkins or Morgan State, and there are no proper indoor facilities nearby. So twice a week, thrice if he's lucky, he sets off in the dark of night to run by himself. He has no coach to advise him, either. "To ask a coach to come out at night to see me run in the dark is a little ridiculous, needless to say," says Dr. Meriwether. "A coach could see very little and furthermore it's not safe to practice starts at night. I might get a volley in return."
The explosion of the starter's gun is still so strange to the doctor's ears that he had an acquaintance meet him on the morning of his race at the Forum last week to fire a blank pistol into the air. After nine rounds were expended in the empty arena, Dr. Meriwether announced that he had become accustomed to the sound. Up until then, he had heard a total of four rounds fired in practice. As he himself admits, his starts are atrocious. The gun goes off and away goes the rest of the field. Dr. Meriwether, who didn't choose to specialize in proctology, is left staring at five behinds. The main trouble seems to be his arms. "Both of them apparently go back together," he says. "I feel my pectorals tightening up and I think, hmm, that's odd for a sprinter. My deltoids should be more active." Starting is such a problem to the doctor that he has to think about routine procedures, such as which foot goes where in that strange contraption called the starting blocks. "I don't know when I make my biggest move," he says. "As far as when I catch my opponents, if I catch them, it's usually near the 45th or 50th yard, I think. Sometimes I never catch them."
Track nuts, who have watched Dr. Meriwether run, drool at the thought of what he could do with a little instruction. Jumbo Elliott, the Villanova track coach, saw him compete at the Knights of Columbus meet in Madison Square Garden a fortnight ago, and Elliott was both delighted and aghast.
"He's got to use his arms and move out of the blocks," Jumbo said. "If he does, he'll be fantastic. He's an economical sprinter—he doesn't have too much waste motion once he gets started, and he stays close to the ground. He has a light touch. I'd love to talk to him for just three or four hours."
Informed of this, Dr. Meriwether said in his very measured manner, "I certainly appreciate that. I respect him as a coach. I've heard criticism of my arm action before, and it's one of my real shortcomings. I did my internship at the Hospitals of the University of Pennsylvania, so I am familiar with the name Elliott. I followed Larry James during his career, and no doubt Elliott has a lot to offer. I am very happy to hear that he would be willing to give me pointers. I have a number of shortcomings. I may see him. It depends."
Somewhat to the doctor's surprise, rival sprinters have been free with pointers and praise. Says Dr. Meriwether, "Sprinters are supposed to be egotistical dudes who know they're good and have the right to feel they can beat the best around. But there have been no intimidating remarks at all."