Sir Tony Waldrop

Tony Waldrop

“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.”

11 thoughts on “Sir Tony Waldrop

  1. Joan Post author

    I am thrilled to post another comment from John L. Parker, author of Once a Runner:

    Oh, here’s another ponderable about Waldrop: I’m not sure exactly when they changed it, but if his 3:55.0 was on the *old* garden track, it had to have been worth about a 3:48 on a good outdoor surface, and probably a 3:52 on a decent 10 or 11 lap board track.

    I ran on it a number of times, including the Milrose Games, and it was SLOW. It was wonderfully comfortable to run on, but it was really soft. I think I even commented on it in *Once a Runner.*

    Makes Waldrop’s streak all the more impressive when you realize how good that 3:55 was.

    jp

  2. Joan Post author

    This from Tom Raynor:

    As a matter of fact I ran on that track a lot, probably two dozen races and countless workouts in the winter, because Virginia Tech bought the track in the late 70’s or early 80’s. Not only was it soft, moving it caused some leg jarring dead spots as well as some trampoline effects in the corners. Nothing better than seeing a good 600 meters ruined by runners in the outside lane being catapulted over the side!

    TR

  3. Joan Post author

    This comment from a friend and rival:

    Dan Shugars forwarded a copy of your Tony Waldrop interview to me. Very interesting (and very nicely written). He’s obviously a Type A “go-getter” person and so very different from me. He seemed to have treated running purely as a competitive sport rather than as a recreational activity (again, very different from me).

    Well run on Saturday [at the pumpkin run]. I’m glad I wasn’t in the race because you would have whipped me.

    When you figure out how to retire from running, please let me know. My creaky old body will thank you.

    Dave

  4. scott

    Hey Joan, glad to see you’re doing these interviews, always a good read. Mike would always tell me stories about tony in the tin can. hope all is well, God Bless!

    – scott.

  5. Rich Lyman

    I grew up in Chapel Hill and ran track for Chapel Hill High School and later attended UNC. Our high school had no track facilities and the University was kind enough to let us train on theirs. We were always in awe of Tony Waldrop and Reggie McAfee, particularly how hard they trained. God given talent means nothing without desire and persistence.

    They were approachable and kind, two attributes that I always remember when I’ve coached various of my children’s sports over the years.

    I witnessed one of those Tin Can workouts. The Can was a funky old place. The roof leaked, it was freezing in winter and hot as hell summer. But that board track was fast. If you hit the boards in the middle they would flex and actually lift your foot up on the rebound. We always liked running in there.

    In his senior year, Tony ran (as I recall) nine consecutive sub 4 minute miles which, at the time, was just incredible. Number nine was run at home on Fetzer Field and Tony had a bad cold and probably should not have run at all. But he came out of that back turn with that long stride and a singular purpose and broke 4 minutes one more time. It is one of the most amazing things in sports I’ve ever witnessed.

    People forget Tony was a Morehead scholar and his academic curiosity has taken him many places that running could not have done. His contributions to science and research will ultimately outweigh anything he might have done on the track. Critics be damned.

  6. Jim Kenney

    I enjoyed this walk/run down memory lane very much. I ran track and cross country for Maryland in the early ’70s. Tony Waldrop was most memorable person I ever competed against (from my position very far back in the pack). He had an unforgettable stride with a spring in his step that seemed “juiced” in a superhuman way. Thank God I don’t think steroids were a possibility back then. Today I googled his name just for fun and your article popped up. Glad to hear he is doing well. Interesting that he was so serious about the sport, yet abruptly quit in his early 20’s. My competitive days ended similarly. I wonder if he still runs casually for fitness sake?

  7. Wayne Foster

    I think of Tony frequently. I was a sophomore in high school (Asheville, NC) when Tony was a senior at Polk Central High. He and Ben Bailey (Enka High School) were the best runners I ever saw in high school or college. When I read the article and realized how Tony dropped out of the sport at an inauspicious time it reminded of how Ben also left early – and – while in great shape. He was in school in Florida running right at 4 minutes in the mile but, as the story goes, quit because his religious beliefs got in the way of running meets on Saturdays.
    At any rate, I ran against both of these fellows, admired them greatly, think of them often, and still day dream of what it would have been like to see them race against each other. I have no idea of who would have won!

    Wayne Foster

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