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But Only on Sunday: Ron Clarke

This is an excerpt from Runners on Running by Richard Elliott.

For years Clarke scoured the world for tough races. “I had a need, almost like a gambler's compulsion, to test myself against the best.” It didn't matter that he had raced hard the day before or that the local champion was lying in wait or that the distance was not his best. In 1965, to have a 10,000 put on the program, Clarke had to promise an Oslo meet promoter not only that he would break the world record in the event but would come back the next day in a featured 3,000 against fresh Olympic champion Mills. He set his world record, one that stood for seven years, and won the short race as well. But neither was in the Olympics.

Clarke changed his basic tactic in the last years of his career. He devised one that added to suffering: a full-bore sprint away from the field with a mile or more to run. “It increased the challenge. But in a way it was refreshing. I knew I could make it through. So instead of dreading those footsteps behind I wanted them to stay there because whoever was making them was killing himself.” If the footsteps were not there and Clarke had broken contact in this way, he was never beaten. He tried to sprint away in Mexico during the 10,000-meter race with a kilometer to go, but he could not escape the altitude natives who swarmed past on the last lap. Clarke finished sixth. Three steps past the line, for the only time in his career, he lost consciousness. When he awoke a few minutes later, an oxygen mask was pressed over his face. The Australian physician attending him was cursing the IOC for having permitted the Games at that altitude. “Oh, God,” he railed. “Look what the bastards have done.”

“I wanted to tell him it was all right,” recalls Clarke, “but I couldn't. My tongue was so swollen it filled my mouth. I couldn't speak for two hours.”

The Melbourne newspapers shouted CLARKE FAILS AGAIN.

Read more about Runners on Running, edited by Rich Elliott.