A legend in his own mind, Laird does not think he is too good for work, he thinks he is too good to quit. This persistent quality has cost him a wife, and perhaps his family. "My dad wants me to go back to school and get a job," says Laird. "I told him that I was too young for school, and I already have a job—15 miles a day." His mother and father, retired and living in Ashtabula, Ohio, refuse to watch him perform in the Olympics. They have not seen him in years and do not know where he lives. Told recently that Ron was in San Francisco, the elder Laird neglected to inquire how his son was faring. "It's hard to tell you anything about Ronnie," says Arthur Laird. "I guess he told you he was in the Guinness book. I checked it out and saw it there. But at 40, what is the future for walking? All that effort has gone into it, and I don't know what it has amounted to."
"Quitting and getting a job? It would be the easiest way out," says Ron, "but I don't want to melt into the crowd and become the average guy. A lot of people think walking is some sort of big plaything for me. It might be that way in some Olympic sports, but not in race walking. Basically it's very boring, just a hell of a lot of hard work. There are times when I'm out training when I say to myself, 'I just can't do it anymore. Give it up. Get a job.' I look at my life, and it all seems so unreal, like a dream, something that never existed. Training, racing, the traveling around the world. The fear, the anxieties before a race. It never existed. It wasn't me. It's as if I look at it through somebody else's eyes. I was never a gifted athlete. It was all just hard work."
Hard work. But what has it amounted to? Over the years the race walker becomes inured to the question. Resentment is his crown of thorns. Once, while competing, walker Jim Hanley was attacked by a Los Angeles policeman who thought he had burglarized a nearby church. Laird has been hit in the chest by a thrown beer can and bitten by a German shepherd. In Eastern Europe the sport has an enthusiastic following and, as a group, the Mexicans have recently become the best in the world, but by and large race walkers are an endangered species. The world loves a runner, but even in airports a fast walker seems out of place, a bit too purposeful, aggressive and rude. Walking too quickly is one of the faults visitors pin on New Yorkers.
Race walking would appear to be easier than running, but in certain ways it is much more difficult. A runner can soar, but a walker is chained by regulations that say he must be in constant contact with the ground, and that he must straighten his supporting leg during each stride, which results in that familiar Mae West movement of the hips. While moving faster than joggers, walkers, like harness horses, are always fighting the inclination to break into a run—which confounds long-distance runners. It is far easier to run an eight-minute mile than it is to walk one. Laird's personal best for the mile is a 6:14.4, and at the last Olympics the quickest race walkers finished their 20-kilometer race in under 1� hours, a 7:15-per-mile pace.
Certain institutions—the armed services, the church, even prisons—provide protection and solace for some, and, after much time spent in them, the rest of the world becomes alien. Ron Laird puts on his uniform and perseveres, sometimes training 110 miles a week, doing 300 sit-ups daily, lifting weights, stretching tight muscles, agonizing through 21-day fasts, driving a car that needs to be pushed to make it run, being laughed at by women and children. But he is in the
Guinness Book of World Records. And unlike the people who litter Telegraph Avenue, Laird can see his future. It is Moscow, 1980.
Recently Laird was taken to dinner in a dark, well-appointed restaurant, the type that shuts out the world. In restaurants families enjoy a night off from PTA meetings, Little League games and Three's Company. Businessmen cajole clients. Young lovers linger over wine. Laird has no time for any of this. He was married briefly in 1963, but his wife left when she realized that he could never love her as he loved race walking, probably arriving at this conclusion when he had her ride on his shoulders while he trained. To Laird the restaurant is only a place to refuel, to replenish what two arduous workouts earlier in the day have depleted. There is a salad bar, which is good, and a benefactor has offered to pay the tab, which is better. In anticipation, Laird has not eaten all day. None of the other patrons recognizes that there is a four-time Olympian sitting among them.
Once upon a time Laird was middle-class and average, as befits the son of a government civil engineer. As a youngster he was sickly, too weak to do a chin-up and no athlete. Baseball befuddled him. In track he could manage only a desultory 5:12 mile, so he dabbled in throwing the discus. He earned only one sports letter in high school. But he stumbled upon race walking at a Madison Square Garden meet in 1955, and that fit. Within five months he had defeated Henry Laskau in a handicap race. He was good, though in the currencies in which most athletes deal—money, clout, fame, a groupie at the dressing-room door—he was destitute. But he was rid of that awful appellation: average. And now those handsome, glib stars of his youth, those fair-skinned cheerleaders and prom queens, are adrift in the land of Liquid Plumber and lawn mowers, their own glory days long ago buried.
At dinner Laird visits the salad bar and patiently constructs a volcanic sculpture of vegetables and Roquefort dressing. If he does not leave room for dessert, he can take that home in a doggie bag. Laird's life-style dictates that he take what comes his way. He has lived in garages, in a house with a 92-year-old woman whose grass he cut in exchange for lodging, and in a basement apartment where, after workouts, he bathed in a sink. He has hitchhiked coast-to-coast to track meets. Once he created a r�sum� that landed him a job as a draftsman in Hamburg, Germany for a year. He has trained in a sweat suit during the hot, humid summer months on the grounds of a mental hospital in Norristown, Pa. In the winter he trained through tunnels connecting the buildings. The doctors and nurses thought him a patient. During his stay in the area he had 14 different jobs in three years, often being fired for skipping work to compete in races. During coffee breaks he did isometrics. Throughout his career he has denied himself the simplest pleasures. He shuns liquor and cigarettes and, with women, talks a better game than he plays. Recently, he drove 20 miles to a San Francisco park where 1,000 women were competing in a road race. Laird coyly acted as if he had stumbled upon the meet by accident while race walking. He asked for names and phone numbers as the competitors jogged by. "You should have smelled the perfume in the air," he says dreamily.
Such reflections keep Laird late at the restaurant. It turns out that his waiter is a former quarter-miler from Minnesota. When he learns that Laird is a four-time Olympian, the waiter first looks skeptical, then impressed. "I always wanted to be in the Olympics," he says, "but after school I gave it up. Where else could I run?"
"You should have been picked up by some national team and sent for high-altitude training in Mexico," Laird tells him. "In two years you would be Tarzan on the track. The Russians would never let you quit like you did."