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Almost too warm for the swarm
Kenny Moore
July 18, 1977
Frank Shorter beat the heat and 5,999 rivals over the hills of Peachtree Street
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July 18, 1977

Almost Too Warm For The Swarm

Frank Shorter beat the heat and 5,999 rivals over the hills of Peachtree Street

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Fran Tarkenton, that revered Georgian, stood smiling and expectant in the Atlanta airport last week as a group of fans appeared to surge toward him. His expression turned to puzzlement as the crowd rushed by, unseeing, to greet instead a skinny, bearded man. Lasse Viren, Finland's double gold-medal winner at Montreal, had come to run in Atlanta's Peachtree Road Race, and the airport mob scene was a taste of what was to occur two days later when Viren was one of 6,000 who competed on a sultry Fourth of July morning. That throng, and others like it recently in San Francisco (12,000) and Chicago (5,300), attest to the vigor of the road-running boom.

Atlanta's race, 10,000 meters over the hills of Peachtree Street into the city's center, attracted the best field of the year. Viren would meet Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers for the first time since the Olympics. Defending champion Don Kardong of Spokane, who finished fourth in the Montreal marathon, was back, as was Atlanta Olympian Jeff Galloway, through whose cajoling these world-class runners had assembled. The most traveled contender was England's Chris Stewart, an antique dealer who had run road races earlier this year in Brazil, Puerto Rico, Iran, Afghanistan and Milan, Italy, in which an estimated 62,000 runners took part. "Order was best kept on the starting line in Teheran," Stewart said. "They had a tank with a cannon pointed at us."

Some attention to order was also required in Atlanta, where race organizers promised every entrant an accurate time and place and offered T shirts for those breaking 55 minutes—about a nine-minute-mile pace. To keep runners properly sorted out at race's end, 15 separate chutes were erected, each 80 yards long and designed to let 150 to 200 runners funnel through at a time. An organizers meeting was held in Galloway's running-equipment store, an emporium called Phidippides ("The name in running for over 2,400 years"), and all possible catastrophes were considered. "What happens if some turkey dies in a chute and we can't clear it?" asked one worrywart. A computer simulation showed that at peak flow as many as 12 runners would cross the finish line every second. "Twelve per second?" said Galloway's wife Barbara. "It's going to be like trying to put tags on raindrops."

On race day dawn mists rose slowly beneath the July sun, leaving the air dense with vapor. Frank Shorter, in drowsy good spirits, slipped from his bed in the Galloway home, skipped breakfast and, climbing into a car, pawed through a plastic sack. "One right shoe, one left shoe," he said. "O.K., we can go." Riding to the house where Viren was staying, Shorter spoke of the 20-kilometer race he had won in Chicago the day before. "A truck driver on an adjacent expressway watched the race and not the road," he said, betraying the runner's antipathy toward vehicles. "Terrific three-car pileup." Then Viren got in the car and he and Shorter compared tendon and foot injuries. "I haven't got your scars," said Shorter, "but feel this lump."

At the start, the best runners were seeded into the front row. Viren, glancing over his shoulder at the murmuring mass, took a position in the center of the road. When the gun sounded, he sprinted out hard—too hard, he would say later. After a downhill mile Ireland's Ed Leddy was in front in 4:15, with Shorter, Kardong, Rodgers and Viren close behind. After three miles Shorter and Rodgers had drawn away from a dizzy, heat-slowed pack. The temperature was now in the 80s and climbing.

Rodgers dearly wanted to win. "Here I was fresh and Frank had run a hard 20 kilometer yesterday," he said. "It really irritated me that he shouldn't seem tired." Rodgers clung to Shorter on the uphills and passed him on the descents, but up the last half-mile hill into Margaret Mitchell Square, Shorter pulled away to a 30-yard lead. This he protected with a good sprint into the finish at Central City Park. His time was 29:20, six seconds slower than Kardong's record, set on a cooler day. A disgusted Rodgers finished six seconds back, and Kardong held third. Galloway, running after a shot of butazoladin for a sore hip, placed seventh, and Stewart outkicked Viren for eighth. "I had no idea those hills would be so hard," said the Finn. Behind them came a thickening torrent of runners. Peg Neppel, the world-record holder at 10,000 meters, was the first woman in, at 36:00. "I'm glad I was hidden in all those men," she said, "because I was running like a grandmother."

Half a mile from the finish, a man with a number, obviously fresh and bent on cheating, came out of a side street to join the pack. Members of the crowd grabbed and held him until the time for winning a T shirt had passed. A man named Eddie Murphy towed his year-old son, Omari, the length of the course on a pillow in a little red wagon. When he turned to pick the boy up at the finish, he found him blissfully sleeping.

As the chutes filled, a few runners began to drop of heat prostration. Clusters of onlookers formed around the fallen, soberly watching medical attendants pack them in ice and administer saline solution. Sirens wailed as the most serious of the 60 victims, one with a temperature of 107�, were taken to a nearby hospital. No one died, but had the race been five or 10 kilometers longer, someone would have. Therein lies the peril of the running boom. "As road racing becomes the thing to do," said Galloway, "there are more and more people entering unprepared, often because of a bet in a bar the day before."

Race Director Bill Neace listened to the sirens and prayed that every runner would survive. "How do you limit this kind of field?" he asked. "How do you identify the ones who aren't prepared?" In the afternoon, when it appeared that the worst victims were out of danger, a relieved Neace declared, "Next year there might be two races—one at eight o'clock for the mob, one an hour later for the cream. That way the majority can be finished and cool and see the world-class runners race."

Shorter considered that fair enough. "Much better," he said, "than us watching them die before breakfast."