Once they were so full of life. Now these children of Berkeley, their faces sallow, memories of the '60s dimming, huddle like barnacles on the jumbled sidewalks of Telegraph Avenue, close to the university. Spread out before them in this eroding oasis are displays of Indian jewelry, scrawled paintings and remnant clothing. They are trapped in the Age of Aquarius, tattered flower children. They seem oddly old-fashioned but still they wait for the revolution, for the Messiah, for something to happen.
As Ron Laird walks down this street, an almost prim figure, he appears to be misplaced. But he belongs. He belongs. He cadges sleep on an exercise mat spread on the floor of a friend's apartment half a block away, borrows vitamin pills, eats cheaply, trades frayed training shoes for his worn advice.
Ron Laird is a sports hippie, living only to compete, to move into the final straightaway, muscles numbed and heart exploding. Those last few desperate steps and then the finish line; relief and jubilation. His moment comes every four years in the Olympics. In the meantime he also waits. Ron Laird is 39 years old. Like Peter Pan, he will not grow up.
To others his vigil seems tedious, unwarranted. Although he is one of the most successful athletes in U.S. history, Ron Laird is virtually unknown. He is a race walker, a member of that curious band of athletes whose gait calls to mind an old car with broken pistons. Heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe. Most people have never seen a race walker in the flesh and do not feel they have missed anything because of it.
Thus Ron Laird is the curator of a museum without visitors. He has cardboard boxes of newspaper clippings and photographs, medals and ribbons; souvenirs that document his 69 national championships, his 81 records, his participation in four Olympics. In the boxes is proof that he traveled with 24 international teams, won a gold medal in the 1967 Pan-American Games and two bronze medals in world championships. These scraps of paper and bits of metal and ribbon certify that there is a Ron Laird, and he hoards them the way some people save their paycheck stubs. They show that he has been a top race walker for 23 years. Laird walks on, but does anyone care? People laugh at him when he trains, meet organizers refuse him expenses and a few fellow walkers label him an eccentric, an aberration, a kook. His is a cold street, and on it he has no address.
To locate America's most durable track athlete you send letters to various addresses, wait several weeks, then pick up the ringing phone and hear, "This is Ron Laird. Did you want to talk to me?" "He's sort of a vagabond," says Ray Lumpp, sports director of the New York Athletic Club. For most of Laird's career, the NYAC has served as his East Coast refuge. It has given him traveling expenses. When he is on the premises he can go into the bar during the cocktail hour, surreptitiously load a tray with peanuts, cheese dip and crackers and consume this poverty-level buffet dinner in front of the television set in a nearby lounge. Ron Laird has not worked since 1971, except occasionally as a handyman. He can make it on $3,000 a year—bunking in donated locations up and down the West Coast and in Mexico, working out twice a day, smearing petroleum jelly on sore feet and cushioning them with pads, nursing tight hamstrings, aging knees and a toe that needs surgery. All to get ready for the next Olympics. Every time Ron Laird is scraped off the underside of the sport, he grows right back.
For most of his adult life Laird has believed, like the English dramatist Thomas Dekker, that "Money is trash." Not surprisingly, Dekker lived a life of poverty and spent several years in debtor's prison. Laird does not pay his bills either, because he does not have any. He survives on a form of athletic social security. Last winter, for example, he lived in a cluttered house with Dennis Reilly, an enthusiastic walker and graduate student in architecture at Berkeley. Also in the house were two other students and Glenn Sweazy, a young race walker who was fourth in Canada's 1976 Olympic Trials. Laird earned his keep by giving advice, mapping out training routines, pacing his roommates through workouts and always bringing home a doggie bag of scraps from handout meals.
One day, as Laird fumbled about in his cardboard boxes, Sweazy, perhaps foreseeing his own future, said, "That's all you have, isn't it, Ron—just mementos?"
Ron Laird does not own a credit card, but he is in the
Guinness Book of World Records for most national championships won by a race walker. Henry Laskau, who raced in the 1950s, is in second place with 43, and Laird hopes someday to double that total. If he does there will be no shortage of documentation, because Laird is a compulsive recordkeeper and letter writer. He has diaries of his daily workouts over the last 15 years. When a journalist sought him out recently, he dashed off a seven-page handwritten letter highlighting his career, then apologized for not being thorough enough. He writes notes to companies ( General Motors) and personalities ( Muhammad Ali, Jack LaLanne) outlining his accomplishments and asking for the financial assistance he needs for high-altitude training in Mexico. He writes much but receives little.
Laird shows the journalist a letter. It suggests that Laird is not "normal," that he ought to reassess his values and reset his goals; join the community, so to speak. Has he ever considered therapy? The writer is a businessman and he concludes by saying he never supports projects that are not tax deductible. Ron Laird needs to become a tax shelter. "They all want to help a 14-year-old," he says. "If you're 39, they don't want to talk to you. It's not like I'm asking for $50,000, just a few thou' to keep the ol' legend going."