Filbert Bayi, the remarkable middle-distance runner from Tanzania, had vowed to make this indoor track season a learning experience that would profit him well later on in bigger races in the great outdoors. His five-week U.S. tour started in Madison Square Garden on Jan. 31 with a victory in the Millrose Games mile, but finishing first was incidental to his quest for racing knowledge. Training was the thing, he suggested, and if he broke the tape while running for experience, what was the harm?
Well, as John Walker and Rick Wohlhuter discovered last Saturday night in San Diego, a little learning is a dangerous thing. For Bayi has passed a cram course in indoor-mile strategy after just three meets, subtly revising his tactics while giving quality performances consistently. The indoor Bayi is a decidedly different runner from the impulsive African who set the track world on its ear outdoors: the astonishing front-runner who relished the idea of opening up 40 yards of daylight on the pack in the first half mile. Forced into a more conservative style by the tighter turns and shorter straights of the 160-yard indoor track, Bayi has mastered the concept of running with his rivals while distributing strength more evenly over the course of the race. And he probably has become a better runner as a result.
For strategic performance it is hard to imagine a better effort than the race Bayi ran in San Diego, a 3:56.4 victory that equaled the third-fastest mile ever contested under cover. To achieve that clocking, only a couple of ticks off Tony Waldrop's world record of 3:55, Bayi ignored the enticing early pace of a "rabbit" named Ed Zuck, put down the gutty challenge of Walker and ended Wohlhuter's string of victories at 26.
It is doubtful that Bayi could have accomplished any of those ends using his front-running style of last summer, and he was aware of this. A week earlier, after beating Walker by a yard in Los Angeles in 3:59.6, Bayi had said, "I think it is time I changed my tactics. I can't use the old ones indoors. My goal now is not a world record, but to learn to run indoors. People think that I must always go to the front, but I don't now like to lead all the way."
And in San Diego, the day before the race, he said, "I think I will have to go, like them, in groups, even if they wait to run the last quarter in :55. They would like me to run ahead, but I have to save my strength for the end. They are more experienced. I don't know indoors and I am just using this for training."
Everyone expected that Bayi would get his biggest training impetus from Wohlhuter, the Sullivan Award winner who holds the world records at 1,000 meters and 880 yards outdoors and who had run a 3:57.7 indoor mile almost by himself on Jan. 25. "Bayi's a challenge for me," said Wohlhuter. "I keep beating the same guys in the half mile all the time, and I need something new. This race is sort of an experiment for me. I want to see what I can do. It might be too early for me to face difficult mile competition, but I want to give it a shot anyway."
As for leading, Wohlhuter said, "I don't think I'll have to worry about that. I think Bayi may not lead in the beginning, but by the middle stages of the race he will. If he runs a slow pace, he'll play right into my hands. I'll bide my time, just waiting to jump on him."
Almost at the same moment Wohlhuter was discussing his plans for the San Diego mile. Walker was 3,000 miles away, running to a 3:58 victory in the Toronto Star's Maple Leaf Games. It was the fastest ever for the big New Zealander indoors, but that exertion, and a spectacular party following the meet, were expected to deliver Walker to the West Coast the next day weary and worn.
"What a party," said Walker with a chuckle in San Diego. "And afterward, it was impossible to sleep, because there was this great siren outside our hotel, a burglar alarm at one of the shops, and it rang the whole night. Then en route from Toronto we circled Chicago for two hours. I've had three hours' sleep in the last 48."
Despite the large debt he owed to Morpheus, Walker had something going for him. Sitting in section 15 in the arena was a loud, exuberant knot of sailors off H.M.S. Canterbury, a New Zealand frigate that put in at San Diego. Waving the Kiwi flag and cheering lustily, the Canterbury crew made Walker forget he was supposed to be dragging his anchor.