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"Yeah," the waiter replies, "but for me it was time to quit." The boy is saying that he wants to lead a "normal" life. There it is. Normal.
The waiter walks away. "The most important thing to me is health," says Laird. "People have the choice, health or wealth, and most take wealth. I've had friends drop dead on me. That's scary. Friends from high school. Most people are into making money and accumulating things. I go out for a super workout and I knock out those hostile, poisonous emotions. When my wife left, I doubled my workouts. I don't know how people get through life without it. No wonder there are suicides."
Laird has been nominated several times for the Sullivan Award, amateur athletics' version of the Oscar, and a race-walking magazine once named him Athlete of the Decade, but a few of his fellow competitors are embarrassed by his zeal. There is also a possibility that Laird survives because race walking is not that sophisticated in this country. Nationally there are probably only 300 hard-core walkers. Todd Scully, who has set U.S. records at several distances, competes in street shoes. Age is not an infirmity because the sport is less demanding on the cardiovascular system than many others. In 1967 60-year-old Larry O'Neil won a 100-mile race with a record time of 19:24:34, rubbing off all his toenails in the process, and the best race walker in the world over the past two decades is Vladimir Golubnichy of Russia, who has been on five Olympic teams and is 41 years old. This takes diligence. Laird is able to go out on those stifling summer days, when even the birds sit motionless in the trees, and walk for more than four hours. He envisions himself competing and improving for another decade.
"Nothing has mattered in the man's life other than race walking," says Elliott Denman, who gave Laird much of his initial guidance on technique in 1955. Denman is now 44 years old, still a recreational race walker, and a sports columnist for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. He sees Laird as an enigma. "He has given up a normal life in the sense of working and raising a family," Denman says. "I can't think of any other athlete who has devoted himself the way he has. I guess he's reached maturity, but I don't think he really grew up. Someday it might strike him that he's missed out on other things in life."
In the restaurant Laird is finishing his meal. His companion had finished 40 minutes earlier, about the time Laird dispatched his acre of salad and started on soup. "I forgot something," says Laird, folding his doggie bag. "I once got something from race walking. A judge let me out of a parking ticket because of it. I didn't have money to pay the fine, so instead of sending me to jail he let me give a speech at a high school. I gave a speech and got paid a parking ticket."
Next day Laird is on the track in Berkeley. He has already done 10 miles during a morning workout, and now, in dwindling afternoon light, a chill temperature and a fine mist, he is going to do some speed work. On the track a nationally ranked sprinter is working on his start. Parked nearby is the sprinter's Mercedes, bought. Laird grumbles, with illegal payoffs from meet organizers. Off to the side several young sprinters loll about, chatting. "See how hard speed guys work?" says Laird derisively.
It is here on the track that Laird is most comfortable. People recognize him and ask for his autograph, and he signs it patiently, laboriously adding the figure of a small walker to the signature. Make no mistake, he is extremely likable. The worst that people can say is that he has missed out on some things in life. And despite his peripatetic nature, he is always able to find a home with friends.
Of course, those friends are race walkers, too, immersed in a sport that draws the eccentric and iconoclastic. Apparently it also fosters an almost compulsive urge for wandering. In 1937, a Venezuelan named Julio Berrisbertia went on a four-year walk over 20,000 miles. Dave Romansky trudged door to door to raise money to make the Olympics in 1968.
Laird finishes his workout in darkness, and a curious girl, interested in learning the race-walking style, approaches him. The athlete is delighted, at both her gender and attention. He begins a dissertation on the benefits of walking, theorizing that its twisting motion is good for the body's "vital organs." It is one of the recurring subjects of Laird's frequent exhortations. Others are: the need for subsidization of athletes and Laird's superlative qualifications for being named a national race-walking coach. He fantasizes about meeting and marrying a rich girl who will not mind holding his stopwatch. "I'm looking for a wealthy, well, not really wealthy, just well to do, girl who would like to get into race walking and travel the world," he says. "You've heard of a ski bum? Well, she would be a race-walk bum."
Just now Laird is not in superior competitive condition. He is 15 pounds overweight because he treated 1977 as if it were a throwaway year, letting his training deteriorate. This has been his style. After failing to make the 1972 Olympic team because of an injury, he went 3� years without winning a championship, then won the three-mile walk in record time at Seattle in 1975. At the AAU championships in 1976 he set a record of 21:09.4 for 5,000 meters and subsequently made the Olympic squad that year. It is easy to tell he is not in top condition now because his eyes do not have that glitter of emeralds set in deep, hollowed-out sockets. This ethereal appearance comes from pushing one's body several levels beyond what it was built for. Walker Todd Scully's eyes shine like that, and in this year's indoor season he walked in record-breaking time.