Richard Benyo: Articles and Columns

Runner’s World

March 1979

Runner's World Midnight Invitational

Many of the world's best runners lined up on a perfect night, on a perfect course, with records on their minds.

The sun had just slipped behind the hills on Dec. 28 and the streetlights had been turned on in Los Altos, Calif. Along Main Street leafless trees stood in military-like rows; they were decorated with white Christmas lights that, coupled with the small shops and restaurants, gave the town a storybook look. Holiday shoppers hurried about, bundled against the unseasonably cold temperature.

Two runners stood at the corner of Main and First streets, waiting for a light to change so they could cross the intersection. One matched the military-like row of trees, the other the storybook ambience of the town. Frank Bozanich, a Marine Corps captain and one of America's top ultramarathoners, is built around an abundance of hard muscles; Don Ritchie of Scotland, a slim, frizzy-haired world record-holder at 50 miles, 100 kilometers, and 100 miles, looks like someone Santa Claus would enjoy having in his employ.

The two ultra-distance men were in the unlikely role of doing homework for one of the country's more important shorter road races, the Runner's World Midnight Invitational Race, a five-mile, three-loop run through Los Altos on New Year's Eve. The previous year, with breath frosting in front of them like race horses, Duncan Macdonald had narrowly edged Bill Rodgers for one of the few losses Rodgers would suffer during his incredible two-year road-racing domination.

Bozanich and Ritchie had studied the maps of the course, but they wanted to take a run over it, looking for any possible advantage against the likes of Brendan Foster, John Walker, Lionel Ortega, Craig Virgin, Alberto Salazar, Matt Centrowitz, and other stellar road racers who were either already in the area participating in National Running Week or would arrive in the next few days for the prestigious event.

The light changed and Bozanich charged across the street, ignoring the car that tried to beat the yellow; when he noticed the onrushing car, he raised his fist at it and the car stopped. Ritchie crossed several steps behind Bozanich. They moved at a swift pace, keeping to the sidewalks. On New Year's Even, the streets would be barricaded and the runners would have more room to swing wide around several oblique corners on the course. They proceeded down First Street to the Polaroid repair center, turned left for 50 yards along Lyell, then left again to head northeast on San Antonio Road, the busiest street in town. Just beyond the Shell station they took a 90-degree left onto Edith Avenue, a long straight with a very slight incline in the final two blocks before the course turned left onto First Street. Once on First Street, the course took a 90-degree left to send it down State Street, where it ran nearly to San Antonio, taking a right to head up Main Street (lined with the barren trees decorated with white lights), where it again intersected with First. The course resembled a triangle that someone had punctured with a finger on one side.

Frank Bozanich was trying to build his spirits by talking about some of the speed he'd developed as a quarter-miler years before. "It's pretty flat," Don Ritchie summarized. Bozanich realized he wouldn't have the speed to match most of the road racers and almost in frustration, he headed toward Los Altos Hills to get in some additional training mileage and to verbally assail any dogs stupid enough to bark at him. He anticipated a rough road on New Year's Eve.

At 7:00 p.m. on New Year's Eve, race director Len Wallach arrived at the intersection of First and State streets. He met with the Palo Alto Audio-Visual Center personnel who would set up the public address system. The Los Altos Public Works crews, under the direction of Ken Haukom, had already installed extra lighting at the start and finish line, causing the intersection to look like a movie company on location doing night shooting. The blaze of light could be seen from blocks away, and already runners were beginning to gather in the chilly night.

Most of the runners were staying warm at Rickeys Hyatt House in nearby Palo Alto. A bus was scheduled to bring them to the start an hour before the race.

Grete Waitz, world record-holder in the marathon and winner of two Nurmi awards the previous night (one of them for best female runner of the year), had been running double workouts most of the week. In the morning mist, she would run up busy El Camino Real, her strides long and strong, her breathing almost inaudible. "I'm looking forward to the run but I won't be able to race hard," she said earlier in the day. "For me it's just a norm race. I've been training twice a day all week and I'm a little tired from that and all the interviews, filmings, workshops, and autograph sessions, so I'm really not well prepared." An English teacher from Oslo, Norway, Grete and her family had run into problems on their flight to America, circling London for nearly eight hours while Heathrow Airport was fogged in. They had arrived a day late and the jetlag was still causing some weariness. Smiling but obviously tired, she made a simple analysis of the reason she would not win: "I don't know what shape Marty Cooksey and Julie Brown are in, but I think perhaps the race means more to them than it does to me."

Indeed, Marty Cooksey and Julie Brown, both enjoying their best marathon year, looked fit. There was a special swiftness to their final training runs and Marty seemed relaxed while Julie seemed characteristically keyed up.

At the finish area along First Street in Los Altos, the 25 reserve police officers Runner's World had hired to monitor the perimeter of the course, were being briefed. By 9:30 they were positioned, with marker cones and barricades near them to block off the streets for the start of the race. As they were being deployed, the University of Oregon's Alberto Salazar and Rudy Chapa arrived, picked up their number packets and began loosening up. "With a field like this, with guys like Brendan Foster and John Walker, we'll have to go out as fast as we can," Chapa said. "That's our plan--to go out fast and hard."

At 10:00 p.m., the chutes were assembled and the start and finish lines were laid down with yellow tape on the streets. The crowd was starting to build near the start and finish lines, eager to see some of the world- and national-class runners. Some of the bystanders, who kept moving to keep warm, sported New Year's Eve hats and noisemakers, some had traditional elaborate party hats, most wore running shoes.

The bus arrived and a large group of runners disembarked. The call went out for the invited runners to pick up their number packets at the finish line. Salazar and Chapa jogged down a darkened street as former Illinois star Craig Virgin arrived. Like a racehorse, Virgin began prancing back and forth. Brendan Foster and John Walker walked up First Street joking with each other and complied when a youngster asked for an autograph.

Photographers and film crews bustled about, doing last-minute interviews with several of the runners. Masters runner extraordinaire Fritz Mueller stretched against a truck; he was nervous, excited, and very concerned about his chances of a good performance. Miki Gorman ran into people she knew every few yards and they exchanged embraces.

The crowd was growing rapidly. The previous year the start and finish lines had been at the intersection of First and Main streets, which were wider and offered more space for spectators. State Street is narrower and the crowd was already pushing into the street.

The first call for the Midnight Invitational went out at 10:30. Frank Bozanich and Don Ritchie went past at a jog, trying to loosen up, Frank still muttering about wanting them to make it a 50-miler next year.

The second call for the runners to pick up their numbers and to get themselves to the starting area went out 10 minutes later. The men's race would start at 11:00, with the women's starting five minutes later. The crowd was becoming almost unmanageable.

At 10:50, the final call went out for the men. Like nervous felines, the runners milled about, their collective breath rising in a cloud above them. Some of the runners had already shed their sweats while others kept them on as long as possible. The crowd pushed off the curbs on both sides to get a better view; some spectators had climbed light posts, while others found vantage posts on window ledges and the shoulders of friends.

Wallach held up a map of the certified five-mile course for the runners to see. He went over the features of the course one more time. It was 10:55 and counting. He pointed out a small repair patch in the street in front of them that they should avoid. He mentioned the fact that in order to accommodate drainage, the cross streets that they would encounter had slight dips in the street surface. He asked for questions. The field replied with some snide remarks about turning on the heat. Someone in the crowd commented that Salazar wouldn't have to worry about heat stroke, referring to a nearly tragic situation at the Falmouth Road Race in the summer where a priest had been called to administer the Last Rites to Alberto.

There were last-minute predictions on who would win. Many touted Brendan Foster as the man to beat. Others picked John Walker, who had sailed through the five-mile Fun-Run at nearby Foothill College in Los Altos Hills that morning in 27 minutes. With the second-fastest 10,000-meter runner of all time and the world record-holder in the mile, many runners talked of keying off them. However, many of the racers picked either Salazar, Chapa, or Virgin due to their road-racing experience.

As the starting time neared, the cold was all but forgotten. The tension and electricity being generated by the chilled runners was producing as much candlepower as the additional lighting along State Street.

Len Wallach raised the starting whistle to his lips and the 100 runners were off amidst the roar from the crowd that formed a human barricade along State Street. A second later, however, there was chaos. Lionel Ortega, winner of the 1978 Nike/OTC Marathon, went down. Other runners tripped over him but they all bounced up immediately, including Ortega. "I should've jogged the start," Lionel said, "because there was a dip in the road and I didn't see it. I tripped over it and rolled and a bunch of guys went over me. I got up and got going but I didn't have the speed to stay with Salazar and Chapa."

"I got tangled up with some legs at the start," Frank Bozanich later said. "Ortega went down and bounced right back up. When he came up he turned to look behind him to see if he was going to get stepped on. Somebody said, 'Go, man, go,' and he took off."

While the runners involved in the mishap were sorting themselves out, the leaders quickly asserted themselves. A lead pack of four came up Main Street with a host of pursuers falling behind.

The four were, as expected, Brendan Foster, Alberto Salazar, Craig Virgin, and Rudy Chapa. Foster was in the lead and pushing the pace, hoping to discourage the other three. The four went through the first mile in a blistering 4:15, Chapa's prediction that in order to be in it, they'd have to go out fast, was proving accurate.

As they sped through the first mile, the women were lining up on the starting line and getting their final instructions. Many of the spectators had rushed across to Main Street to see the men take the turn up First Street although there were still enough people left on State Street to be five-deep along the entire length. Wallach blew his starter's whistle for the women five minutes after the men started.

Grete Waitz immediately took the lead down State Street and toward Main. Derek Clayton, world record-holder for the marathon in the 1960s, who would be running in the Midnight Fun-Run, stood on the corner of First and Main streets, watching Waitz stretch out her lead over Julie Brown. "Grete's good," Clayton said. "She runs like a man. There's no wasted motion." She flitted around the corner and was gone into the gloom of First Street, with Brown and Marty Cooksey trailing.

As the rest of the women passed the intersection, a commotion began a block away, near the finish line area, as the men's leaders came out of the shadows and headed toward the bright intersection where the finish chutes were. The announcer gave a running commentary as Foster, Salazar, Chapa, and Virgin passed. Former Oregon star Matt Centrowitz and Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo's Jim Schankel were in fifth and sixth place respectively, trying to catch the leaders, but falling slightly back on each step. No one was going to catch the leaders if they kept pushing the pace like they were.

The field was breaking up as the leaders flashed past the intersection of First and Main. Clayton's comment was simple: "They can't hold that pace for five miles. Can they?"

In the middle of the pack, a race-within-the-race was going on between Don Ritchie, Fritz Mueller, and Frank Bozanich. "That Mueller's a fast one, isn't he?" Ritchie would say after the race. "He went around me and then I went back around him. I kept saying to myself, 'He's supposed to be a masters runner. I can't let him beat me.' He's strong."

Grete Waitz extended her lead and moved smoothly through the intersection again. Julie Brown was still in second and Marty Cooksey remained third, but the gap was widening. Teenage sensation Roxanne Bier was fourth and 43-year-old Miki Gorman fifth, with Sue Munday trying desperately to catch Miki.

As the men came through the well-lit intersection at First and State, Salazar had moved into first, with Virgin hanging onto his shoulder. Brendan Foster was falling back and his breathing was labored. Chapa was having more success hanging with Virgin and Salazar, but he, too, was losing them just a bit. As they went through the First and Main intersection, passing many of the women runners they'd overtaken, Salazar and Virgin were locked together as though yoked to an invisible wagon - a very fast wagon.

The spectators were beginning to move to the finishing chutes, where a paper banner had been stretched across the street. The public address announcer kept up his running commentary as the women frontrunners went down State Street for the beginning of their final lap. From several blocks away, the announcer reported to the crowd that Salazar and Virgin were leading. Spectators pressed upon each other but the front line somehow managed to keep the crush back from the street as Salazar and Virgin flashed into view.

Salazar and Virgin were side-by-side, Virgin, a grimace of pain and effort on his face, pushed desperately to catch Salazar. Salazar, wearing number 90 below his Oregon singlet, sprinted with a wry grin on his face and leaned forward as he threw up his arms at the banner. Virgin reached his gloved hands for that extra inch he needed and hit the banner Salazar had broken before it had a chance to flutter to the ground. Both were clocked at 22:13, an unofficial world and American record for five miles. Salazar walked slowly through the chute, Virgin, wearing his Saint Louis Track Club shirt (he had recently defected from the Athletics West organization), gasped for air as he made his way through.

Seven seconds later, Rudy Chapa came through the chutes, with Great Britain's Brendan Foster 12 seconds behind him. In rapid succession, Matt Centrowitz, Jim Schankel, Benton Hart, and Gary Tuttle finished. John Moreno and John Walker crossed the line in 23:02 and 23:04 respectively. Before the race, Walker predicted that he'd do "about 23:00."

Officials and spectators helped racers through the chutes and into the darkened street between State and Main, where they could walk out some of the stiffness. As runners pulled on their sweats, more and more runners continued to cross the line. Don Ritchie edged Fritz Mueller by a mere two seconds (25:33 to 25:35), placing 58th and 59th. Frank Bozanich finished 61st with 25:42. "It's been years since I placed 61st in a race," Bozanich said. "This is just about the fastest damned field I've ever seen." His observation was repeated often in the chutes. Runners were pleased and in some instance ecstatic with their times, although their elation was tempered somewhat when they checked their overall place.

While the men were comparing their times and their places, the women's leaders were finishing their third lap. Grete Waitz, wearing an all-red uniform, came flashing into the lights, well ahead of the rest of the field. She crossed the line in 25:28, an unofficial world record. Julie Brown took second place with 26:19, Marty Cooksey third in 27:23. Roxanne Bier came in fourth with 27:58, while Miki Gorman was fifth with 28:02 and Sue Munday sixth with 28:05.

While the remainder of the runners finished, the top finishers had regained their breath, and were making statements echoing that made by Jeff Wells during the race itself. "Next to Fukuoka, this is the best road race I've ever seen," Wells said from the sidelines. (Jeff was nursing a sore Achilles tendon and elected not to run.)

"I really enjoyed it," Lionel Ortega said, despite the fact that he'd gotten off to a less-than-fast start. "I'll definitely race here next year. The late starting time was a problem. I didn't know when to eat and so I felt a little sick out there because I ate late. I usually don't eat before a race. But I'll know how to handle it next year."

Salazar probably said it best. "It was a great race," he said. "I really liked the course, although it was a little dark in spots. It was a super-fast race. I wasn't sure where the finish was and Virgin almost outleaned me at the tape. I enjoyed it. I had fun."

While the speedsters compared notes, the 4000 runners taking part in the Midnight Fun-Run lined up for the midnight start. Many of the runners who had just clocked personal records lined up beside the fun-runners to run the course again. They want to run for fun now that they'd run for time. "It was fun," Alberto Salazar repeated again and again into the New Year.

It was.