At five o'clock on a winter afternoon in Southern California's San Fernando Valley the sunset is out of an MGM musical—apple-green sky blending upward to turquoise and wisps of salmon-colored cloud floating over the black silhouette of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Near the foot of the mountains, in a scruffy junior-college football stadium, 30 members of the San Fernando Valley Track Club—school kids, CPAs, housewives, firemen, doctors and college students—await the order to begin their 2�-mile warmup jog.
The stadium lights suddenly blaze, erasing the spectacle in the western sky, and the coach barks in a Hungarian accent, "O.K., you guys, let's go. Five big laps." As the runners move off in a bobbing bunch, a small, pigtailed figure in a light-green warmup suit dashes out from under the grandstand and onto the field in pursuit.
Jacki Hansen, 27, the fastest female alive at 26 miles, 385 yards, is late for her workout, but her coach, Laszlo Tabori, the third man ever to run a sub-four-minute mile, chooses to overlook the transgression. His world-record holder has just returned from Hawaii, where she completed her sixth marathon, winning the women's division, and in a few days she will leave for a race in Brazil, a virtual sprint of 8,900 meters. His goal for the moment is just to keep her fresh. No need to pack in the miles.
So for two hours Jacki Hansen runs 220s, 440s and 660s as Tabori prescribes them, varying in tempo from rolling to rhythmic to driving, interspersed with jogging recovery laps.
Five years ago Hansen was a mile-a-day jogger, without a coach, a training schedule or a goal. She had competed in the 100 and the hurdles since high school, but with limited success and less encouragement. "I was not a natural," she says. "In high school my coach wouldn't even take me to the city meet."
She was fortunate to have a coach at all in those days. She had been a member of the first track class for girls ever set up in a Los Angeles city school, but by the time she got to L.A. Pierce Junior College the opportunities for girl runners had shrunk. Track was being handled by a golf teacher who turned over the coaching, such as it was, to Hansen and a friend. "And the farther you went, the worse it got," she says.
When she arrived at Cal State-North-ridge, a four-year college in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, Hansen was the only woman who wanted to run. "They told me I could go out and run every day, and they'd give me a grade," she says. By 22, going to school and working for a living and having no one to run with had just about finished her as a competitor.
In the fall of 1970 the turnaround began. While jogging a loop around the campus at Northridge, she met Judy Graham, a miler. They began running together regularly, and before long Graham introduced Hansen to Tabori, who had defected to the U.S. along with many other Hungarians following the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and was then coaching the men's cross-country team at Los Angeles Valley College.
The next spring Hansen began to work out with Tabori at L.A. Valley. It was Tabori's first experience coaching women, but his team, made up of Judy Graham, who eventually ran a 4:48 mile, Hansen, whom he assigned to the mile and half mile, Becky Dennis and Sue Kinsey, took second at the AAU championships the next year. "They had to get used to me and my ideas," he said. "Interval training, training constantly. It took a while."