By Kyle Merber
March 7, 2017
If you are anything like me, then you are normally hiding in the stall about 20 minutes out from the gun. You can hear the echoes from the call room as the officials continually warn the field that it’s now actually their last chance to assemble. Meanwhile you’re in a quarter-life existential crisis wondering if three consecutive years of maxing out your Roth IRA is enough to retire on. But then you remember that fun fact your high school coach told you one time when you were nervous before the county meet back in 2006: There are 1.3 billion people in China who don’t give a shit about how you do in this race. Now I’ll do you one better! Even if you’re one of America’s brightest stars performing on the biggest of stages, track fans still won’t care!
Maybe some will care today. But a few years from now? They will have moved on. And a few years beyond that? No one will remember your name or any of your accomplishments. Apparently our sport does a very poor job of passing the lore down from one generation to the next (unless you came up with a few catchy quotes about poor racing strategies.) In running, it’s all about what have you done for me lately and we seemingly have a stronger obsession with the potential of an athlete’s greatness than celebrating the accomplishments once they are actualized.
In my opinion, the bar to qualify oneself as a track nerd is too low. Just because you know who Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers are isn’t impressive. That’s like thinking you’re a hockey historian because you know how to properly pronounce Patrick Roy’s name. I have been having some fun as of late with my teammate, Ford Palmer, because he has no knowledge of anything that happened in track and field prior to 2014. We have been watching some classic race videos together and it’s been enjoyable to blow his mind. Maybe I can blow yours too?
Here are 5 incredible runners and performances that have gone unknown to most millennial track fans:
Joe Falcon wins the 1990 Oslo Dream Mile in 3:49.31
Falcon was one of these incredible athletes who unfortunately, due to some injuries and bad luck (like falling in the ’92 trials), never made an Olympic team. But he is the 5th fastest American miler on the all-time list thanks to an incredible performance in Norway. Peter Elliot of Great Britain had run 1:42 that season, Abdi Bile of Somalia was a world champion and had run 3:30/3:49 and it had been a while since an American was beating the premier milers in the world.
For some perspective, gold medalist, Matt Centrowitz Jr. has not eclipsed this mark yet. And I am also pretty sure he could not match Falcon’s supposed bench press of 290 lbs.
Watch this race! The coverage is extremely well done and leaves something to be longed for on modern broadcasts. Shout-out to Al Michaels on the call.
Rick Wohlhuter’s Whole Career
I wasn’t entirely sure how to pronounce Rick’s last name because people talk about him so little that I’ve never actually heard it said out loud. Rick looked a lot like Prefontaine, but was much less vocal and that’s why we aren’t saying Pre looked like Wohlhuter.
Rick qualified for the ’72 games in Munich, but really excelled in Montreal where he ran six races in seven days to grab bronze in the 800m and then took 6th in the 1500m. He set the world record for the 880y run in 1:44.1 and the 1000m in 2:13.9. That 1000m record is still the American record and is the longest standing current U.S. outdoor record according to a non-fact checked Wikipedia page. I guess Rick didn’t stay in the sport after retiring, and maybe that’s why he’s so rarely spoken of today.
Watch the ’76 Olympic 800m and be completely baffled by the two-turn stagger which I couldn’t find a video documenting that ever happening in any other games.
Jack Fultz takes the 1976 Boston Marathon
How does a 2:20 marathon make this list? Well, Jack Fultz won the Boston Marathon that day despite temperatures north of 100 degrees. Since 1976, it has taken at least a 2:14 to win Boston, but that year over 40% of the field didn’t finish. Ask someone to name the Americans who have won the oldest annual marathon in the world and you’ll get Meb, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar and the more knowledgeable will remember Amby Burfoot’s victory. But it was Jack Fultz who was the toughest guy in the race that would go down as being known as “The Run for the Hoses.”
Without knowing this for sure, I’d imagine he’s among last winners, if not the last winner, to cross the finish line in his college singlet, as he was 27 years old and finishing his degree at Georgetown following a stint in the US Coast Guard. Today he is a sports psychologist and coach of the Ivy League team that heads to the Izumo Ekiden each October to compete against Japan’s finest collegiate athletes. He was surprisingly not that mad at me for averaging 5:02 pace for 6K in 2013, but he sent me a lot of emails about returning the uniform – which I eventually did.
Julie Ann Brown’s Range
Ask your friends to name a female athlete who has run two-flat for 800m and also posted a 2:26 marathon. I bet they can’t and I don’t blame them because I wouldn’t have been able to either until I did some research after realizing this article would be potential Tumblr rant-material if I didn’t include at least one woman. (Lisa Rainsberger winning Boston and Chicago twice was also on my list, but figured one Boston victory was enough.)
Julie Ann Brown competed for UCLA and then Cal State University, Northridge and she had collegiate national titles in the 800, 1500, 3k and XC. She would go on to be the first American woman to win the IAAF World XC championships in 1975. And some young guns may not realize this, but the Olympic Marathon wasn’t contested on the female side of things until 1984. Brown was the 2nd place finisher at the U.S. trials behind eventual Olympic champ, Joan Benoit Samuelson. If you’re really new to the sport, then it may shock you to know the women didn’t have an Olympic steeplechase until 2008.
Horace Ashenfelter Takes Olympic Gold
Unfortunately it’s really tough for us to keep track of the Olympic heroes that came pre-Internet and live television because libraries are big and the Dewey Decimal System is confusing. But before the Kenyan domination of the steeplechase, we had a gold medalist in the event out of Pennsylvania. Horace set the “world record” in 8:45 for the event in Helsinki. And I know what you USSR fans are going to say, “blah blah blah, Vladimir Kazantsev would have won if he didn’t injure a tendon in the water pit with 700m to go!” But guess what? Part of the steeplechase is landing without getting hurt.
Horace is apparently still kicking it in New Jersey at 94 years old and according to NJ*NY TC assistant coach, Tommy Nohilly, his cousin recently got a beer with the ’52 Olympic Champion not too long ago. My dream is now to one-day meet an unassuming old man at a bar and shrug off his claim to be an Olympic gold medalist because I think I know a lot about track only to eventually Google his name and realize I am ignorant, just like all of you.
Oh, and when he won that medal, he was also an active FBI agent.
After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.