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Larry James and the 400

November 13, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Larry James died last week. He was one of my sporting heroes. His fellow 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Lee Evans are better known, but along with them he was one of the great US runners of the era, an era that just may have been the greatest in US history.

The context in which James became a hero to me was that I was a runner myself at the time. An awful one, but nonetheless a member of the high school track and cross country teams. My love of track began years earlier, when my brother, four years ahead of me in school, joined the track team at Westbury Junior High School in suburban New York and became the team’s top hurdler. I would go to every meet, home or away, sometimes getting to travel on the team bus. In retrospect, I was akin to the team mascot.

We moved to an adjacent village on Long Island in 1962, putting us in the Jericho School District. My brother continued to hurdle throughout his high school years, I attended the home meets, and the year after he graduated, which is the year I entered 9th grade, I went out for the track team. Ninth graders ran on some sort of JV team then, and I became a miler. Or maybe I should say I ran the mile. Given how I ran, few would have called me a miler. Friends (not on the team) got some odd pleasure out of making jokes about the runners who finished ahead of me having time to re-tie their shoes before I showed up. Ha ha ha. (I refrained from pointing out that at least I was out there running, etc. etc.) In the fall of my junior year, the school added cross country as a sport and I joined that team.

I got better and better, closing the gap with the top finishers in both the mile and cross country, but the fact is, I wasn’t meant to be a runner. I just happened to love the sport. One of the benefits of living in New York at the time was that there was a serious indoor track season, with about 5 major meets each winter at Madison Square Garden. The Millrose Games, which still exist. The K of C meet. (I didn’t have a clue what Knights of Columbus were or what they had to do with track. In fact, I still don’t.) The IC4A championships, which was a meet for college teams who were members of the IC4A. (The IC must be InterCollegiate, and a couple of the A’s must be Athletic Association.) Through these meets, I got to see some of the top runners in the world, including Larry James, who was a student at Villanova in the late 1960’s.

Then came the summer of 1968. I spent 6 weeks that summer in Ojai, California, attending an intensive summer science program for high school students (boys, specifically, the last year before the program became coed) that was held at The Thacher School. The program, whose official title is in fact the Summer Science Program, still exists, and Gail and I had the pleasure last July of attending its 50th anniversary celebration at The Thacher School.

We generally spent our time on campus, taking classes on calculus and physics in the morning, on astronomy in the afternoon, and observing on some nights. But on a Saturday in July, we had one of the greatest outings of my life. I loved telescopes. I had read for years about Mt. Palomar Observatory, home of the largest telescope in the world, with its 200 inch diameter, and Mt. Wilson Observatory, in the mountains above Caltech, with its 100 inch telescope and its large role in the history of astronomy. Mt. Palomar was too far for a field trip, down towards San Diego but Mt. Wilson was maybe 100 miles away, and that’s where we went for the afternoon. I don’t remember what we did for dinner, but as a bonus, we went to the LA Coliseum for the evening to see the 1968 US track and field Olympic trials. What a day! I would have been forever happy to have gone to just one — Mt. Wilson or the trials. But I went to both in the same half day.

As I mentioned, 1968 was a great year for US track and field. One of the many highlights was the arrival of Dick Fosbury as a star. He had just introduced a new way of doing the high jump, which came to be known as the Fosbury Flop, but I don’t think he was taken too seriously until then. He won the high jump and would go on to win the gold medal at the Olympics. Now everyone does the Fosbury Flop. It’s not special. It’s just high jumping. Bob Beamon must have won the long jump, but I have no memory of that. Surely no one imagined that three months later, at the Olympics, he would shatter the world record in what was probably the single most extraordinary moment of that Olympics.

And then there was the 400m race. Going into the summer, there were three great American 400m runners: Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, Larry James. And it seemed pretty clear, as I recall, that this was the correct ordering of them. I was in awe of Tommie Smith. As you know if you have run a 400m race (or 440 yards, as was common in high school and college at the time), the last 100 is a killer, especially if you make the mistake of running the first 200 like it’s a 200m race and then realize, as you keep running, that you’re out of gas.* Even the best runners would look good through the final turn and then lose it on the straightaway. The thing about Tommie Smith is, he seemed to run the 400 like it really was a 200. He just kept going, never seemed to struggle on the closing straightaway. No one ever ran the 400 like him.

I may be wrong in my memory, but I’m pretty sure the trials went just as my ordering suggests. Tommie Smith won, Lee Evans was second, Larry James was third. Here’s the thing I haven’t mentioned yet about Larry James. He may only have been the 3rd best 400 runner in the US (and the world), but he was the most graceful. He was thin and he moved beautifully. I could have watched him all day. (I just checked the Frank Litsky obituary that I linked to earlier. He writes that James “ran with a floating, almost feathery stride.”)

And here’s the thing about those trials. Shortly after they took place, it was decided that there would be a do-over. I don’t remember the details, but it had something to do with the fact that the Olympics would be at high altitude in Mexico City and the trials were at sea level, so they should be done again at altitude, and so they were, at Lake Tahoe. It still seems unbelievably crazy. The tradition had been, and remains, that the top 3 finishers in an event make the team, and the top 3 thought they did, but now they would have to compete again for their spots.

Somewhere along the way, Tommie Smith decided not to do the 200m/400m double at Mexico City. Maybe the scheduling of the two made this impractical. He was, mind you, and I don’t think anyone disputed this, the best 400m runner in the world. But he didn’t compete in it. The three American participants in the Olympics were Lee Evans, Larry James, and Ron Freeman. It should come as no surprise that they finished 1-2-3, in that order. Evans set one of the most famous world records in track history, running 43.86, and James was not far behind at 43.97. Evans’ record is famous because it lasted for just under 20 years, until Butch Reynolds broke it in August 1988. That was in fact the first time anyone ran the 400 in under 44 seconds besides Evans and James in the 1968 Olympics. In other words, just as Evans’ record held up for 20 years, James’ time remained the second best time ever for 20 years. In addition, they combined to win the 4x400m relay in a world record time that also lasted for many years.

As for Tommie Smith, he won the 200m gold at Mexico City, with John Carlos third. He remains best known for his black-gloved salute (along with John Carlos) during the medal ceremony, but we should remember as well how magnificent a runner he was.

1968. An awful year in many ways, but a great year for track, and for Larry James. I will always remember him.

*Speaking of running out of gas, I’ll say more about my track career. After the cross country campaign in the fall of my senior year, I decided that in the spring I should drop down from the mile to the 440. Partly this was out of my admiration for the great generation of 440/400 runners around at the time, partly so I could lose by smaller distances. I didn’t do too badly. I wasn’t competitive or anything like that, but I ran times I was pleased with. The one low point came in our meet against Carle Place. This happens to be the school that my cousin went to, and he was one of the top 100 yard sprinters in the state. He would go to the state semifinals later that spring, the spring of his junior year. It was a home meet for us. My aunt and uncle showed up, to see their son and to see me too. The coach decided to enter me as the 440 runner in the relay event they had then that involved several different sprint distances. It opened with the 440, then maybe had two runners run 110 apiece, and the final runner doing a 220, for a total of two laps around the track. I was up against Carle Place’s top 440 runner. And I was determined to do well, to keep within sight of him so my 3 teammates could maybe close the gap and win it. He went off fast, and by golly, so did I. I was within a foot of him every step of the way. For 220 yards. The only problem was, I was going at top speed. And he wasn’t. I was pretty much finished at 300 yards, early in the second turn. Coming into the straightaway, I was worse than finished. I don’t know how I ran the last 80 yards. Then again, maybe I wasn’t running them. I was just waving my arms and legs in an imitation of running, but I was in slow motion. I couldn’t breathe. I made it to the line and passed the baton off, but that was the absolute worst moment in my track career. Had I run my ordinary race, he would have built a good lead, but nothing like that.

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