Dave Wottle inherits a tradition of nearly manic hardiness. Olympic champions in the middle distances have seldom spared themselves discomfort in the pursuit of cardiovascular betterment. "Seek pain. Embrace suffering." said Herb Elliott of Australia, who set a world record in the Rome 1,500 meters. He trained barefoot over sand dunes. New Zealand's Peter Snell, who won the 800 in Rome and four years later in Tokyo took both the 800 and the 1,500, ascribed his supremacy to hundreds of 23-mile mountain runs, efforts that sometimes left him weeping on his coach's front lawn. More recently, Kip Keino has converted his Kenyan heritage of exertion at high altitude into two gold medals.
Thus an observer comes to the tidy prairie village of Bowling Green, Ohio with lofty expectations. What new scourges has the 22-year-old Wottle, the Munich 800-meter champion and former co-world record holder, added to his training? What is the new step forward that last month enabled him to run an astonishing 3:53.3 mile in Eugene, Ore. and become, behind Jim Ryun (3:51.1) and Keino (3:53.1), the third fastest miler in history?
It seems two steps back, into high school. "I sure hate to work out," he says, a knobby, attenuated Prince Charles—he is 6 feet, 141 pounds—speaking from within the orange sack that at Bowling Green State University passes for a sweat suit. "If I had to train on my own, I'd fall apart. I wouldn't do it." So every afternoon during the season just past he ran with a mob of other orange sacks, first warming up with three miles across the campus, a quiet ivy and brick settlement that is indeed surrounded by miles of horizontal green. Consider the spectacle. The elbowing gaggle of 18 or so is led by American steeplechase record holder Sid Sink, now a graduate assistant coach. "I'm sensitive about this being my sixth year in a row in such conservative, protected surroundings," says Sink, "but not sensitive enough to leave. Every runner here takes strength from the group." Wottle, in the pack, also takes pushing and murmured abuse. His strong voice rises above the jumble. "All right, you guys, quit your razzing."
At one point in the workout, Wottle says, "I'm a funny-looking runner. I'm always upright and I come down hard on my heels. My sweats wear out at the ankles where I kick myself. At least I've learned to relax my upper body. I used to press my tongue really hard against my teeth, and that made my neck hurt. And my arms are high. I started that in high school to make this muscle." He displays a formidable bicep. "You know, I don't picture myself running like that. I picture myself as a picture runner."
Wottle is beautiful only when he kicks. His arms drop lower, and his surprising strength of torso (he can bench-press 180 pounds) churns him into another gear. "The key is the arms," he says. "When I kick, all I do is concentrate on driving with my arms."
On the track for interval running, Wottle twice surges to the front of his cluster of fellow middle-distance men but otherwise is content to chug along in second or third. "This is the easiest way for me to run," he says. "I've never set the pace in a fast race and only a couple of times in slow ones. If I take the lead before the last 100 yards, I freeze up. I just can't do it." Then he gives voice to what must be the Kicker's Creed: "If you beat a guy eight out of 10 races, then you're better, even if your best time is 4:08 to his 3:51. I can't express the feelings of a front-runner like Ron Clarke, but if he didn't win the big races, he wasn't the better runner. I know I could never run like he did when he set records, going on after you've got it won, really hurting yourself just for the time."
When Coach Mel Brodt senses enough intervals have been run, he directs everyone to the showers. "This kind of team running lets me watch everybody's responses to the work," he says, "but it has some drawbacks. Dave hates to plan his workouts. I have to tell him what to do. That isn't much good for building the kind of independence a man needs when he's off racing in the Olympics."
Fortunately Brodt was on hand in Munich. "It was a question of security. I hadn't seen him since the Trials, and he'd picked up a knee injury. I assured him that he'd snap back, that his stamina from distance running the previous fall and winter would see him through." Brodt seems a man of lightly suppressed merriment. "Now this fall all David did was give speeches. I don't know what I'll say if he gets hurt again."
"There is a limit to what I can do without running myself down," Wottle insists. "I only work out hard three times a week. I really prefer to have the pain three days instead of seven." Sink considers Wottle's loathing of workouts an asset. "I ran every morning last year," he says. "Dave came out maybe three of five. Yet he made the Olympic team and won the medal. I stayed home. It was, shall we say, aggravating, and all the more so because he was right. He ran as he felt. I did a lot of that work just to satisfy my head. It tore the rest of me up."
Wottle is unsympathetic with those who find moral undertones in running. "A lot of guys feel they deserve to win because they trained the most. They're wrong. You shouldn't do more than the optimum. Winning has a lot to do with your gifts. Besides, I don't think you should devote your whole life to the Olympics. If you win, you win. If not, O.K., you tried."