As my friend Jack Bacheler and I entered the track for the final quarter mile of the Olympic Trials Marathon, the crowd jumped to their feet. With only one spot left on the 3 person marathon team, most expected a race to the finish. I glanced behind us one more time to make sure that no competitor would catch us and told Jack that he was going to Munich–but he didn’t hear me. The roar of the crowd was overwhelming and empowering as we ran stride for stride toward the finish.
Fourteen years before, I was a fat 13 year old entering a new school that required athletics after school. The “lazy kid grapevine” told me that the track coach was the most lenient–you could jog to the edge of the woods, goof off (out of sight from the coach), and jog back at the end of the period. I didn’t like exercise but, as fate would have it, met some kids that were funny. At first I tried to keep up with them to hear the jokes.
I wasn’t an instant star. It took 4 years of hard running before I finally qualified for the Georgia State High School championships. I continued running at Wesleyan University without an athletic scholarship, but didn’t achieve any NCAA overall ranking. It was during Vietnam and I drew a draft number of “3”. I was not good enough to apply to one of the armed service track teams so I served on a ship in the Navy. When my service was over in 1970, I decided that I would try to qualify for the Olympic Trials race. My times were so much slower than needed, and this was unlikely. But I was looking forward to the journey when I first met Jack Bacheler.
Rumors spread that a new track club was forming in Florida, the FTC. The Florida Track Club was a vision of University of Florida track coach Jimmy Carnes. He had offers of support from area businessmen including Gatorade inventor Dr. Robert Cade (who helped us travel to key competitions). But 1968 Olympian Bacheler gave the club legitimacy while he worked on his doctorate. The first time I met Jack I liked him. He was fun to run with, but focused on steady improvement through hard work.
Like me Jack had not been an instant running star, but had made the previous Olympic team. A friend during college days, Frank Shorter, had joined Jack a year before and had already become a leading candidate for the 1972 Olympic team. I cannot understate the power of these mentors at this stage of my running. I continued to make steady improvement until February of 1972 when I qualified for the marathon trials in a major time improvement.
Frank had arranged for he and Jack to train at altitude for 2 months before the ’72 national championships, which were 2 weeks before the Olympic trials. When they invited me to join them, I didn’t hesitate. I was probably about 12th on the national rankings of marathoners. My plan was to run in the national championships in hopes of achieving a qualifying time to get into the 10,000 meter race. I needed to improve by over a minute so this was unlikely.
During most of the hard workouts at Vail, I could not keep up with my teammates. But even when struggling, I was inspired to do my best when running with Jack. When he sensed that I was motivationally challenged he always said something that made me laugh or gave me hope. I drove from Vail, CO to the Nat’l Championships in Seattle. Conditions were perfect for distance running. My training had paid off and I qualified to get into the 10K race.
I knew that I didn’t have a logical chance of making the team in the 10K. Even after my surprise improvement in Seattle, I was probably ranked about 10th—and only 3 qualified for the Olympics. It was over 90 degrees at the start of the race so I decided to just get through it. I was in last place through 4 laps and then passed someone. Because many of the runners had started too fast, and I did not, I found myself catching up to the stragglers, passing one, then another. I played a game with myself, guessing when I would pass the next person. With about 6 laps to go in the 24.5 lap race, I decided to see who was ahead and was shocked to see that it was only my two teammates, Jack and Frank.
Jack was struggling, probably from lingering fatigue and I passed him and finished second. Even on the hot day, I had run under the Olympic qualifying standard. I cannot express the joy in this unexpected accomplishment, but this was tempered by what happened to Jack. Coming down the 80 meter homestretch, Jack was in third place. But the crowd was encouraging the local favorite, John Anderson (son of the Mayor). Jack was weaving under the fatigue and bumped John on the way to John’s 3rd place finish. An official called a foul on Jack and disqualified him from the race.
I knew that Jack could strengthen our team in Munich if he could qualify. So I offered my services as a pacer during the marathon trial, one week later. This was my specialty and I looked forward to the chance to help my friend, while improving our Olympic chances. Jack had set a tone of cooperation and support for one another in the FTC and it was time for me to give back.
We started in the lower half of the pack and moved up every mile until, at 21 miles, there were only 2 runners ahead of us. Jack was not feeling good and so now I became the cheerleader. I had had a great mentor as I talked Jack through some low moments.
It was an overwhelming moment for me. This former fat kid was running in the Olympic Trials, in a tie for 3rd place. But the best part was bowing to my good friend at the finish so that he could finish 3rd. My victories in races like the Peachtree Road Race and the Honolulu Marathon don’t come close to the lasting joy of helping a friend.
In the Olympic Marathon, two months later, our team finished better than any in Olympic history: Frank Shorter 1st, Kenny Moore 4th, and Jack Bacheler 9th.