Men’s Distance Running Comes of Age in the USA

The question must be asked, “When did distance running in the United States become par with the rest of the world?” If we look back in history, we can say the John Kelly did some marvelous things with his running, but only a small part of the world was competing at the time.

Then in 1952, Horace Ashenfelter, won the Olympic Gold in the Steeplechase. It was a break through for the United States, but even Horace would tell you he hadn’t expected to win. The rest of the world, mainly the Europeans, shrugged it off as an upset that can happen from time to time and they went back to dominating the sport. Other than the Europeans, the rest of the world was still in distance running infancy.

We didn’t have another break through until the 1960 Rome Olympics when Max Truex placed sixth in the 10,000 meters, running 28:50.2. For the United States that was excellent, but the rest of the world yawned and continued to dominate. New Zealand had now come on the scene, soon followed by Australia.

Truex had been coached by Mihaly Igloi and Max thought Igloi was the reason for his success. The fact is that Max, as my commanding officer, arranged for me to go under Igloi for two weeks in the Spring of 1961. In my autobiography,,”IN THE LONG RUN”, I talk about those two weeks and how it was the start of my drive for the Olympics.

The people under Igloi and the Club that was to be known as the, LOS ANGELES TRACK CLUB, would become the strongest distance running Club the United States had ever known. It all started in the early sixties. Leading this emergence was Jim Beatty who would be the person to chip away at the European dominance. Jim went on to set three world records at two miles and below and even more American records which included the 5000 meters which he ran in 13:45. His time in the mile of 3:55.5 would make the rest of the world take notice. When he broke the world record for two miles in 8:29.8, he became a contender for the 5000 meter Gold Medal.

There were other runners on the LATC who were running well. Jim Grelle was a very tough miler who broke the four minute barrier over twenty times. Ron Larrieu was becoming stronger with every month and I was learning how to race, as Igloi continued to work me increasingly harder.  In those years there were a few others in the United States who were doing their best to keep up with the LATC. George Young, the American record holder in the steeplechase at 8:38, was the most prominent and as the LATC was setting American and world records’, George and a few others were training harder to keep up. There is no doubt that Igloi and his runners were pulling the others along.  Buddy Edelen had traveled to England to train and he was becoming world class at 10,000 meters and especially in the marathon, where he was one of the best in the world. In 1964 he was slated to win a medal but a bad back would keep him from running his best.

In 1964, a mix of old and new runners would take over the U.S. running scene. Bill Dellinger would come out of hibernation and become a force. Gerry Lindgren, still in high school, would receive a lot of publicity and test the veterans. Young, Larrieu, Beatty, and Schul would continue to run well. No other American was given a chance of cutting into the dominance established by the rest of the world.  As 1964 progressed, it was apparent the US had closed the gap considerably in respect to the rest of the world. In the steeplechase, the US had three people in the top fifteen. Even though Young had the third best American time, he was the only one given a chance to medal.

In the 10,000 meters, Gerry Lindgren had the twelfth fastest time in the world with Billy Mills in twentieth and Ron Larrieu in twenty sixth. Only Lindgren was given a chance to place in the top five.  In the 5000 meters, Schul had the fastest time in the world and for the first time in Olympic history an American was favored to win a distance event.

So how did it all turn out. In the steeplechase, George Young finished fifth in a time of 8:38.2. In the 10,000 meters, Mills was the upset victor in 28:24.4 with Lindgren ninth in 29:20.6 and Larrieu twenty fourth in 30:42.6. In the marathon Edelen placed sixth in 2:18:12.4, Mills was fourteenth in 2:22:55.4 and Peter McArdle was twenty third in 2:26:24.4. In the rainy 5000, Schul won as he said he would do in 13:48.8 and Dellinger beat Jazy of France by a few centimeters for third in 13:49.8. Both given the same time.

Yes, we had some performances that were better than expected. Mills in the 10K and Dellinger in the 5K, but we also had some that did not go well. Lindgren had injured his ankle a week before the final and Edelen could not entirely rid himself of the back spasms.  In 1968, George Young, ran  a great race at Altitude in finishing third in the steeple and Jim Ryun ran well in finishing second in the 1500. Both were hold-overs from 1964.

After all these people had retired, the US fell on hard times. No one came forward to be competitive on the world stage until Prefontaine, Rodgers and Shorter came into prevalence in the seventies. When Shorter won the Gold Medal in the marathon and Prefontaine placed fourth in the 5000 in 1972, the US had regained some of what they had lost. Rodgers had placed twelfth in the marathon. Ryun, who was expected to do well, was tripped in the trial race and didn’t run the final. Shorter continued to run well in 1976, capturing the Silver Medal in the marathon.

In the eighties we had lost the ability to compete against the world. We had Henry Marsh in the Steeple who ran well but we were hard pressed to find anyone else the Europeans would say they thought could win against them. And the world was changing. The Africans were becoming a force. It had started in 1964 with Keino in the 5000 and Gammoundi in the 10,000 while Bekila was unstoppable in the marathon. Now there were many more Africans as they emulated Keino, Gammoundi and Bekila.

Now the United States has taken a back seat. Only Bob Kennedy is on the scene. Here we are the richest nation in the world and we can’t train enough people to be competitive. Was 1964 an illusion?  Why did we do so well? Was it pure luck? Anybody who has run distance races knows it is not luck. You might be able to stop a few hockey shots through luck and win a contest from someone who is superior, but in distance running you had better be well trained.

Or is it that there are more runners competing from around the world. No doubt world athletes are running faster, especially the Africans. But even if this is true, are we as a nation staying up? In 1964 all the athletes were running on cinder tracks and Schul makes the case that a race run on cinders at 5000 meters is about 25 seconds slower than running the same race on an all-weather track. That would mean Schul’s 13:38 is worth 13:13 on the all-weather track. A list would show the times in 1964 with the reduction for the cinder tracks over the all-weather tracks.

………………………………….CINDER…………ALL WEATHER ………1965 Better times

BOB SCHUL………………….13:38…………………….13:13                       13:10.4    3 mile
RON LARRIEU………………13:43…………………….13:18                        13:11.4    3 mile
GERRY LINDGREN………….13:44…………………….13:19                        13:04.2    3 mile
JIM BEATTY…………………..13:45……………………13:20
DANNY MURPHY………….13:49.2………………….13:24.2
BILL DELLINGER…………..13:49.8………………….13:24.8
BILLY MILLS…………………13:57.4………………….13:32.4                      13:12       3 mile

In 1965 most ran faster than they had done in 1964. And still the all-weather tracks were still in the making.Add :26 seconds for the 188 yards 4 inches to the three mile times to give a 5K time.  Prefontaine ran 13:22 which would place him fifth on the list. Since he ran on an all-weather track there is no reduction in time. Mills time in 1965 moves Steve to 6th best.  Why haven’t the US runners improved since the mid sixties. We should have ten runners and possibly more running below 13:10 for 5000 meters. Since that is not the case we should ask the question, “why?”

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