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Three years ago in Boston a 17-year-old Canadian youngster named Bruce Kidd ran in a two-mile race against grown men and startled the stopwatches out of everyone by running it in 8 minutes 49.2 seconds—which is something like getting elected governor at the age of 23. No one had ever heard of a 17-year-old running two miles that fast before, and no one heard of it since, until last Saturday night in Los Angeles.
There, at the fifth annual Los Angeles Invitational Track Meet, a skinny little high school kid who will not be 18 until March 9 ran two miles in 8 minutes and 46 seconds flat, breaking Kidd's record and completely shattering, obliterating, squashing and otherwise doing away with any U.S. citizens' records for boys running in men's races.
The youngster, Gerry Lindgren of Spokane, had caught the attention of track followers three weeks earlier when he won a two-mile race at a San Francisco indoor meet in 9 minutes flat, which was more than 20 seconds better than the previous best two miles ever run by a high schooler. Times get tedious, but in Los Angeles last weekend young Lindgren broke his own previous best by 14 seconds—which meant that he had lowered the American high school record by more than half a minute in just two tries. He is the best distance-running prospect America has ever had. He is better than Bruce Kidd was at the same age. He is a senior in high school, and it is hard to think of a senior in college who is as good as Lindgren.
This does not mean, however, that he is the best distance runner in the world—not yet, anyway. Lindgren finished second in his 8:46 race in Los Angeles. Ahead of him by 35 yards at the finish was Gaston Roelants, a handsome Belgian with a mustache, the world record holder in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and the favorite to win the steeplechase at the Olympics in Tokyo next fall. Unlike most European runners who come over in the winter for a spot of racing on the boards, Roelants was in superb competitive condition. He said that just the week before he had won a five-mile cross-country run in Belgium over a course that was five inches deep in snow. Roelants is not only a fine runner and a true competitor; he has �lan. He used to be a cop—one of his superiors was Roger Mo�ns, one of the best half-milers ever to poke a spike into cinder—but a few months ago Gaston said farewell to the policeman's lot and became a liquor salesman. He has not disclosed whether he grew his mustache before or after he began selling ap�ritifs, but it certainly is a dashing bit of foliage.
Roelants was the man to watch in the race, but young Lindgren ripped away from the start with a veteran's poise and took the lead on the backstretch of the first lap. Roelants followed in second place, and Julio Marin, a Costa Rican who used to run for the University of Southern California, was third. The first American of college age was Danny Murphy of San Jose State, who ran fourth for half the race, and the first American old enough to have grown-up worries was George Young, running fifth in his first serious race since he came down with ulcers a year ago when he was an insurance salesman. Young gave up coffee and selling, became a schoolteacher, calmed his ulcers and resumed running. Watching Lindgren may bring back George Young's ulcers.
Lindgren set a brisk, steady pace, and the field followed. Pale, with a boyish face, he is only 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs but 118 pounds. One could not help but feel that he had taken the lead for a few laps just so the folks back home could see him on television. The crowd waited for Roelants to pass young Gerry, but Gaston the Belgian seemed content with the pace. When the time at the mile, the halfway point, was announced, the crowd understood why. Lindgren had passed it in 4:21.2, outstandingly fast time, a pace that would break Murray Halberg's arena record if repeated in the second half.
But that seemed Lindgren's high point, for Roelants moved up a lap later and took the lead away from the youngster. Marin moved past, too, and so did Young. Suddenly Lindgren found himself in fourth place. It seemed a shame but hardly surprising, and it appeared likely that he now would drift all the way back to last. But he held on to fourth place. With about four laps to go, Roelants picked up the pace and began to pull away. Young moved past Marin into second place. Then, electrically, Lindgren sprinted. He passed Marin. As Roelants opened his lead to 10 yards, Lindgren dueled Young. With a lap and a half to go and Roelants running away from the field, Lindgren slipped by Young and ran strongly the rest of the way home. The crowd roared its approval. Roelants, on his way to the arena record, a splendid 8:41.2 two-mile in his first U.S. indoor race, was almost unnoticed.
After the race a group of Los Angeles Belgians gathered around Roelants, kissed him on both cheeks and presented him with a huge bouquet of flowers. Gaston held the bouquet high with his right hand and jogged around the track as everyone applauded. That was nice. Young Gerry Lindgren, looking as fresh as a sprinter, wandered into the infield, grinning with pleasure. He waved at someone in the crowd and bent over to take off his track shoes. An older runner, wearing a U.S. Olympic sweat suit, walked past him and, shaking his head in wonder, patted him affectionately as he went by. That was nice, too.
Later, Lindgren said he had taken the lead from the beginning because "I like to run my own race. That 4:21 was a little fast. I was aiming at 4:22," he added, seriously. "But I didn't have any special time for the whole race. I just wanted to get below nine minutes."