Tag Archives: Steeplechase

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?”

In memory of Bret Hyde

International class Steeplechaser, Bret Hyde, age 41, lost his struggle to Lou Gehrig’s disease on Sunday January 14, 2001. He was buried in Post Falls, Idaho the following Friday morning with the Fairchild Air Force Base Honor Guard giving him honor for service to his country.  Bret had been diagnosed with the disease on September 2 of 1998 and for the twenty eight months he fought for his life, he showed the same courage he had shown in his races.

As I stood watching the ceremony in this small cemetery, with a few hundred other friends, the snow was falling lightly on ground that was already white and the pine trees held the snow on their bows. On any other day it would have been a beautiful site.

An hour earlier we had attended a memorial service where I and Rob Langstaff, his friend since boyhood and once a member of the Racing Team I coached, spoke to the overcrowded room where hundreds of friends and family had gathered.

I came to know Bret when he and six other Air Force athletes came to Wright Patterson in 1981
specifically to train with the Racing Team. He had just graduated from the Air Force Academy where he had run well in the Steeplechase with a best time of 8:43.4.

As I watched him over the next few weeks, I found he had little natural speed and his fastest 400 meters was 56 seconds. This was a problem and would be a factor as he trained to become one of the best in the world.  What he did have was a strong work ethic and a drive that reminded me of my days with Mihaly Igloi and the athletes who had that same drive. It wasn’t long before he was on twice a day workouts, six days a week with a long run on Sundays. We were on the track on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings, as well as Saturday mornings. That left him with nine (9) workouts of runs of various distances and tempo. It was not easy as he still had his eight hour job with the Air Force. But he had a goal and that was to qualify for the Olympic Trials in Los Angeles in 1984. He told me he would do anything I asked. He was true to his word. To be a top runner the athlete must be able to push their body even when they are hurting. When other runners back off to run in a comfortable state Bret was able to push his body and run in a discomfort zone.

That is not easy and takes courage to accomplish. And courage he had and he showed that in race after race. It was also apparent that other runners in the workouts were able to learn from Bret. Others saw how dedicated and driven he was and tried to emulate him. It was the perfect situation for me and I was able to use Bret to make him and others better runners.

When Bret arrived in Dayton, Susan Overholser, had been with the Club for many years. I don’t knowhow long it took but it wasn’t long before the two were dating. Over the months I watched the courtship evolve into marriage and eventually two fine boys were added to the family. Bret became a husband and a father and for those of us who watched the transition, it was what we expected. Susan and Bret were the perfect match and you could tell they loved each other very much. Bret had been a leader on the track and he carried that over to his private life. Leadership came easy to Bret, it was just the way he was. Others expected him to lead and he did in an unpretentious, easy style.

As the months passed he became a better hurdler and could take the water jump with less effort. He was now beating people who had beaten him in college. But still the basic speed was lacking. There was no way I could change his muscle tissue but I could enhance what he had. We talked about changing to the 10K but his size was against him for he was 6’ 4″, 177 pounds. Not good for a 10K runner, and we would continue in the steeple. Before long, Bret had become one of the best Steeplechasers in the Nation and he made us proud of his accomplishments.

By the time 1984 rolled around, Bret was ready to run well and in the TAC championships he placed second and was going to the Olympic trials. When, at one time, he had wanted to take part, he was now a major player. In the trial heat I told him in order to make the final he couldn’t allow the race to be slow. His best chance was to use his strength and not allow a lesser athlete with good speed beat him in the last lap. He ran perfectly and made it to the final. With a days rest he stepped on the track with nothing to lose. Again his instructions were to force the pace. He led most of the race until the final lap when those athletes blessed with speed went by him and he placed eighth with a time of 8:27.59.

In his career he beat many athletes because of his determination and because he was able to get the most out of his body. And through it all, Bret never said, “What if.” What if I had more speed. He accepted what he had and would tell me after losing a race, “I really tried.” There was never any doubt in my mind that was the case. I never saw him give up. He never gloated over a victory or dismayed over a defeat. He understood that all he could do was his best.

As his disease progressed he was in a wheelchair and his last email was sent to me, Susan told me it took fifty minutes to write three sentences. But even then he joked about it. In his last weeks he was no longer able to eat by himself or talk and he could hardly move a muscle in his body. Finally he made the decision to end it all. No more food though tubes. No more medicine to keep the blood clots from forming. No more anything, he told his wife Susan, communicating in a way only she could understand. A neighbor who had been with him through this ordeal told me Bret was not afraid to die. That does not surprise me as his courage was part of his being.

Susan, who had been his nurse, is now going to take classes to become a nurse. (In 2008 Susan became a nurse and is working in that capacity.) Paul the eldest son, age 15, is a runner as is Seth who will be 13 in February. (In 2009 Paul is finishing college and will go into the Air Force as he has been in the Air Force program for his four years.)(Seth will be starting his Junior year in college in September of 2009)

Gene, Bret’s father, kept a scrapbook and the boys will be able to show their children the feats of their grandfather. They can be very proud of his accomplishments.  As I stood in the cemetery and watched as the Honor Guard folded the American Flag with precision, the snow continued to fall. Two Air Force Buglers stood off in the distance and once the flag was folded one of the buglers began playing Taps and the other would echo the notes. The sound came through the pines, so beautiful with the snow on their branches. When the last haunting sounds were heard there was a Twenty One Gun Salute and then an Air Force Officer carried the folded flag to Susan, and with words of thankfulness for his service to his country he presented her the flag.

A tear rolled down my cheek as I thought of this friend. Bret had shown courage in his races and over the past two years Bret would show that courage in what would be the toughest race of his life. There is no doubt he was able to do that. It is hard to understand why Bret would have to undergo this ordeal. We say it isn’t fair. Of course all who knew him will miss him. He was a friend, a competitor, a son and most of all a loving husband and father.  And now that Bret is with his God, I, like so many others can truthfully say, I am so glad he came into my life. Our paths had crossed, but the time was far too short.