Sunday mornings Ron Clarke drives out from Melbourne past Puffing Billy and up Ferntree Gully into the Dandenong Hills. He parks near a roadside general store and waits. Other automobiles arrive filled with men wearing running shoes and shorts. T shirts bear the names of nations, universities, beers. When their number reaches two dozen the men set off, trotting comfortably along the road's grass verges. Suddenly a runner veers into the bush and sprints away madly. The rest, Clarke among them, give howling chase. The trail, rich with loose rocks and tree roots, is overhung with brittle eucalyptus and huge wet ferns that Clarke, taller than his hurtling companions, catches squarely in the face. In half a mile the leaders regain the road and jog, listening to the stragglers, the thump of bodies against ti trees. The pack re-forms, gathers its strength and begins another wrenching charge through the forest. "I've been doing this since 1961," pants Clarke. "I don't care if I never set foot on a track again but I can't leave this."
The run is 17 miles. The road, with Australian bluntness, goes right at its hills, two-and three-mile stretches of rough gravel without a curve or dip or chance to rest. On the summits everyone wheezes and looks vaguely ill. "This is the best," says Clarke at the base of a mile of 30-degree pitch. "You know Dave Power, the bronze medal in Rome? He had to walk here." When Clarke has willed himself up and some color has returned, his voice is touched with reverence: "Such a hill. A brutal, magnificent hill."
Between 1963 and his retirement in 1970, Ron Clarke took part in 313 races over distances of half a mile to a marathon and won 202 of them. Along the way he broke 17 world records. If anyone were to reduce Jim Ryun's mile record of 3:51.1 by the 3.4% that Clarke wrung from the six-mile standard, he would do 3:43.2. Yet Ron Clarke did not win an Olympic or British Commonwealth Games gold medal and upon that omission he has been sternly judged.
Derek Clayton, once the world's best marathoner, trained with him. "I know Clarkey better than he does himself. No emotions. The man couldn't lift himself in the important competitions. A machine. The Olympics or a club race, it was all the same to him."
"He was gifted physically, his records prove that," says Coach Percy Cerutty, who attempted to advise Clarke early in his career, "but he had no real mental drive. When he came up against men with spirit, he let them beat him."
In Australia, Clarke has in fact become a symbol of promises unfulfilled, of excellence somehow gone to waste. " Ron Clarke?" asks the cabbie or the girl who brings your bitter. "Isn't he the bloke who never won anything?"
The kids are in bed. Ron and Helen Clarke, the latter a composed, capable woman with a soothing, mellifluous voice, invite friends over for an evening swim. After a few laps in the frigid little pool, Ron climbs onto one of the rocky ledges that make up the backyard. His Afghan hound, Shendi, attacks him with love. Since his retirement from racing Clarke has reversed the aging process. The graying crew cut has given way to thick, black curls that frame a face less drawn, less lined than the one that agonized through all those miles.
"I apologize for the mess this place is in," he says. Barbells and pulleys and sit-up boards that once had dominated the family room are being moved outside, displaced by a billiard table and a bar. "I've been too busy to see to things properly." He is general manager of Australia's largest sport-shoe company, he has three corporations (to receive royalties from endorsements and development of health and fitness products), a position on Australia's Film Censorship Board of Review and a newspaper column.
Despite the assertions of his countrymen that his racing character was flawed, Clarke, relaxing in the warm December night wind, is clearly not freighted with remorse. "That's over," he says. "The races blur. My God, most of the time it seems as if the competitive runner was another person." Reminded of the 10,000 meters he won in the 1969 U.S.- U.S.S.R.-British Commonwealth meet in Los Angeles, Clarke had to consult a log of his travels to satisfy himself that he ran in the Coliseum at all that year.
"I did not win the Olympic gold medal," he says, "and that has given rise to the idiotic idea that I was no good in real competition. My only contention, and I'm leaning over backward to be fair, is that because of the altitude at Mexico City I had no chance against the Africans, and therefore the critics' point that I was incapable of winning remains unproved. Personally, I have no doubt at all that I was the best 10,000-meter runner in the world in 1968. At sea level I would have won easily." With some finality he dives back into the pool.