“The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon,” Thoreau noted mournfully, “or perchance a palace or temple on the earth, and at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a wood-shed with them.” The writer returns to these materials, these passionate subjects, as to unfinished business, for they are his life’s work.
– Annie Dillard
Four years ago I wrote a story for Running Times magazine called “Distant Heroes: An Athlete’s Search for a Graceful Exit.” In it, I catalogued the post-racing lives of three great American distance runners (Jack Bachelor, Bob Schul, and Jim Beatty) while I belabored the point of how do I, personally, get off the stage.
Just short of receiving the big hook from behind the curtains, I did manage to find my way off-stage and on to peace as an also-ran after The Olympics. But one facet of this time in my life is still nagging at me: what about the rest of those runners I was going to interview?
In my original proposal for Distant Heroes, I listed twelve athletes I had hoped to research. Next in line was the spectacular and mysterious miler from the 1970’s – North Carolina’s own, Tony Waldrop. When I went to pull my notes from the desk drawer that had been closed for over four years, I felt a thrilling wave of relief and promise that now, finally, I would tell Tony’s story … before its too late … before someone breaks his 31 year-old NCAA Indoor collegiate mile record.
Some say Nate Brannen, from the University of Michigan, broke the record last February when he ran an FAT (fully automatic timed) mile in 3:55.11 at the Reebok Boston Indoor games. Waldrop’s 1974 hand-timed record of 3:55.0 from the San Diego Games technically converts to an FAT time of 3:55.14, but officially stays at 3:55.0, the NCAA record.
Either way, 30 years is an impressive run for any record. I wondered if Tony, himself, was proud that his 3:55.0 had survived all these years, so I made an appointment to ask him – in person. To get to his office at UNC (where he is currently the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Studies) I had to weave my way through a maze of parking attendants and secretaries. This is an important man, I thought.
He greeted me warmly, saying, “I am glad to serve as one of the old guys for an interview,” but stared at me with the steely eyes of a 20 year-old. Realizing this was not going to be a stroll down memory lane, I cut to the chase: “We all thought Alan Webb would break your NCAA record. What do you think about that record still standing?”
Waldrop responded, matter-of-factly, “Well, I wish it had been broken years ago. When I set the record it was a wonderful feeling; it was great for a short period of time yet it means nothing to me now. It would mean something to someone else.” Later, he added, “So many years have passed since I was an athlete that I no longer think of myself as that individual, and it’s almost as if it’s someone else. I’ve put that part of my life behind me.”
Waldrop put running behind him in dramatic fashion (critics might even call it rude). In the spring of 1974, during his senior year at the University of North Carolina, he ran an amazing string of 11 sub-4:00 miles which included a world indoor record at the San Diego games, a Penn Relays mile record, and the collegiate record. He was the heir apparent to Jim Ryun’s miling crown; he was on the cover of Track and Field News; he was on his way to Olympic glory. In short, Waldrop was it… but then, suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, he walked away from the sport and never looked back. No explanations. Nothing. Just like that.
“Do you ever ask yourself what might have been?” I prodded.
“When I decided to quit I got a lot of nasty mail. People said, ‘You’re going to regret this someday. You’ve only got a short period of time when you can do this, etc.’ and I only had about 15 seconds where I ever regretted it. I t was during the 1976 Olympic final and I was downstairs in the basement studying for a chemistry exam. I turned the T.V. on to watch the 1,500m and when John Walker sprinted that last 15 seconds for the win, I regretted not being there because the race was set up just the way I like to run. But then I went back to studying chemistry.”
Well, that explains some of it. Tony Waldrop was never just a runner. He was a Morehead Scholar from tiny Polk County, NC who went on to become a professor of molecular and integrative physiology with specialties in cardio-respiratory physiology and neurobiology. He was certainly a student of more than the sport of track-and-field, but, still, he wrote some hellacious work-outs for himself.
“Everyone wants to know how you trained,” I asked. “There’s a tall tale that has gone around which says you once ran a workout by yourself on the indoor board track – 10 laps to the mile – with no one timing you, and …”
Waldrop interrupted, “I’ll tell you the real story. It was over Christmas break and there were only a few people around (some pole-vaulters or jumpers, I think). I ran 3 times one mile with a lap jog (less than 200m) in between. All three were under 4:00, but I refused to do that in practice, so I slowed up on the homestretch of each one.”
“Good gosh! And you did this coaching yourself?” I continued, “Where did you get your information?”
“Made it up, I guess. I would do strange things like the sprinters’ work-outs and it would irritate them having a distance guy with them.”
”What’s your 400m PR?”
“Right around 46.0 … but I seldom took a watch. There were two important elements in my training: 1.) I ran two-a-days to give me a base, and 2.) I always knew when I needed to rest (because of the high intensity).”
“I ran how I felt,” said Waldrop.
And then one day he felt he didn’t want to run. In a Sports Illustrated interview from 1974, Waldrop reflected on how he thought he was losing touch with the things that really mattered to him, “I haven’t read a good novel lately or gone to a campus play or concert. I’ve really fallen behind in the journal I keep about the things I see around me. The travel, the attention, and the pressure to do well have made me very tired.”
What’s so rude about that? Isn’t a body allowed to say, “I’m tired”? I guess the reason track fans wrote nasty letters is because everybody wants a hero. Tony was queued up and ready to be our next running star, another Jim Ryun or Billy Mills, when HE decided he didn’t want to be anyone’s hero. He wanted to be himself … once a runner, now a scholar, always a thinker.
I asked one more question, “Can’t you just say after all these years … damn, I was fast”?
Tony softened, just a bit, and confessed, “I can remember flying back from San Diego after breaking the world record and – you know, from the airplane window, you can look down and see tracks – feeling quite good. Here, I had done this.”