For Kerry O'Brien it was to be the most momentous occasion of the season, the two-mile race in which he planned to set a new indoor world record. Ah, poor Kerry! Whenever he reaches out for something special, he ends up with a handful of bad luck. All last week, when he wasn't being chased from a golf course as just another jogger, he was having $60 lifted from his wallet while being fitted for a pair of slacks. And when he was finally allowed on a golf course, as a golfer, he hit two shots and the skies opened and he was drenched. The first fairway of the Torrey Pines Golf Course was the only place in San Diego where it rained that day. "Blimey," said Kerry O'Brien. Then, on the night before the race, he opened a Chinese fortune cookie and read, "You will lose through unusual happenings."
"That does it," said Mrs. Shirley Franken, the wife of meet promoter Al Franken, who had volunteered to drive O'Brien to Tijuana the next morning. "That place is creepy enough. With Kerry's luck, we'll never get back."
Knowing that his fortune was running true to form, O'Brien was easily disuaded from going to the den of Jos� Baba and his 40,000 thieves. "If this were just an ordinary race," he moaned, "nothing would be happening." It is only during the extraordinary that O'Brien has his hapless moments. Such as at the Olympics in Mexico City, when he ran into high altitude and two keyed-up Kenyans. Stamina is the 24-year-old Aussie's longest suit, but in Mexico he staggered home fourth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase behind Amos Biwott, Ben Kogo and George Young of the U.S.
"I was so upset," O'Brien said. "Here's Biwott, fat and with a terrible technique, up on the stand getting the gold medal. I felt like shooting him. All I could think of was how badly he ran, bouncing out of the water like some bloody ox. And that horrible time: 8:51!"
It took an 8:45 to qualify for the Olympics. Four months before, Young had run an 8:30.6 to win the AAUs. O'Brien had a lifetime best of 8:29. Last year he set the world record with an 8:22.
The week after his record run O'Brien was in Scotland for the Commonwealth Games. That little black cloud was also in Scotland. "Here I am leading," O'Brien said, "and on the next to last lap, I fall. My foot slips in my shoe, I hit the hurdle and I land 12 feet away on my rib cage. All I can do is cover my head and hope I don't get spiked. I guess that's what makes me so determined. How long can you ask an athlete to be around and ready?"
To stay ready O'Brien, who is married and a PR man for Coca-Cola in Adelaide, runs at least 100 miles a week, most of them at a punishing pace. "He's a killer," said Kerry Pearce, an Australian out of the University of Texas at El Paso. "He'll run 10 miles in 51 minutes."
In 1968 Pearce set the indoor two-mile record (8:27.2) and then faded from sight. Last fall he decided to quit track. Then he decided to give it one last try. Pearce is cast in the mold of another Aussie, Ralph Doubell, the Olympic 800-meter champion. Both are single. Both would rather run into a bar than out on a road. "More people drink than run, so there must be some good points to that, too," said Doubell. "Right on," said Pearce. "Before, track was just a way of paying for my education. That's why I wasn't giving 100%. And when I set the world record I cut my time from 9:24 to 8:27.2 in just 13 months and I was content. This year I made up my mind I wanted to see about this record, to see if I really did it or just freaked it. Surprisingly, I'm working real hard, running 17 miles a day, and enjoying it."
Going into last week's race in the San Diego Sports Arena, where he had set the record three years previously, Pearce had seven victories in 10 indoor outings, including a two-mile in Seattle last month in which he tied his world record.
In February of 1969 George Young equaled Pearce's two-mile mark in San Diego and a week later in Philadelphia set the indoor three-mile world record. Then he quit. Said Young, "When you are 31, have two kids, have been to three Olympics and have two world records and no money, it seems kind of foolish to continue."