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Original Issue


While the experts debate how an athlete can get ready for the sky-high Mexico City Olympics, Marathoner Buddy Edelen is finding out for himself in the thin, chill air of Colorado

I've never been very fast, but I've always had a lot of guts," says Leonard (Buddy) Edelen, who until last year was the fastest marathoner the U.S. had to offer. For the last 10 months Edelen (pronounced Ee-da-lin) has needed all the guts available in his wispy, 5-foot 10-inch body. After 28 years of breathing the good, thick air between sea level and 1,500 feet, Edelen has committed himself to a year of living and training in Alamosa, Colo., which is barely in the same atmosphere. Training for the marathon is tough enough work. Doing it in the oxygen-poor air available at 7,540 feet is simply compounding the agony. In case anyone has been allowed to forget, however, this is almost exactly the elevation of Mexico City, site of the 1968 Olympic Games, and Edelen is planning ahead. His progress—snaillike though it may be—is being watched closely by everyone interested in high-altitude competition, by coaches, officials and athletes who think a man must train his lungs to compete in Mexico City and by those who think the problem lies less in the lungs than in the head.

For Edelen, an extraordinarily resilient and optimistic Midwesterner (he was raised in Sioux Falls and graduated from the University of Minnesota), the experiment has been a revealing, if sometimes discouraging, one. Altitude aside, taking up residence in Alamosa is not a move to consider lightly. Its population of 6,205 is friendly almost to a man, and on the western edge of town is the surprisingly modern, trim and attractive campus of little Adams State College. But the town lies becalmed and thoroughly isolated in the center of the flat, 50-mile wide San Luis Valley with a year-round climate officially drier than the Sahara Desert, and winter temperatures that can drop to a crackling 51° below zero. That kind of cold can make it tough on a man who makes a habit of taking early-morning runs.

Until a year ago Edelen had never heard of Alamosa, which is not necessarily surprising. He went there to train and to earn his Master's degree at the behest of Fred Wilt, once a famed distance runner, now an FBI agent, author of several learned track-and-field publications and athletic adviser to Edelen and a passel of other runners. From 1960 to 1965 Edelen had been living in England (also on Wilt's advice), teaching in secondary schools and earning a reputation as one of the most formidable road runners in Europe (SI, June 1, 1964). He also finished a creditable sixth in the 1964 Olympic marathon in Tokyo.

Then last year mentor Wilt decided it was time for protégé Edelen to start getting ready for Mexico City. Adams State College not only has good training facilities—including a big, new, $1.6 million field house with an indoor track and special exercise rooms—but town and gown had combined to form a committee to promote the use of Alamosa as a pre-Olympic training site. Wilt correctly reckoned that Edelen, who dedicates himself to any project he is in as though it were his last effort on earth, would fit perfectly into the town's plans. With a phone call to the college Wilt secured for Edelen a position as a graduate assistant in the department of education and psychology. This involves at least 40 hours a week of study, research, taking classes and giving them as well. Edelen was an immediate hit.

"Quite frankly, I was scared to death at the idea of training at high altitude," he says. "I thought I might die of a heart attack or something. But I did want to try it for a year, to get an idea of how tough it was and how necessary it is if you hope to do well at Mexico City."

He found out soon enough. For the first three weeks he had nosebleeds, two or three every day. He attributes these to the dry climate as well as the high altitude. His pulse rate fell off immediately, from an already low rate of 40-to-44 beats a minute to 34-to-38. It climbed back to normal after four weeks. For the first three weeks he also found it impossible to run more than eight or nine miles without reaching a state of total, breathless exhaustion. In his sea-level days an eight-or nine-mile run, to Edelen, was hardly more than a warmup.

Only recently has Edelen been able to overcome one of the most painful symptoms of high-altitude running. "After a fast, high-pressure run I'd get cramps similar to those you get with dysentery," he says. "It felt as if my insides were being torn out."

The low supply of oxygen has had its most dramatic effect, however, on Edelen's all-out, timed workouts on the college cinder track. They seem to be taking place in slow motion. This is hitting Buddy Edelen where it hurts the most. "Would you like to hear about my two greatest training sessions?" he is likely to ask, peering hopefully at a companion through glittering hazel eyes. What he has to tell is not anything that happened recently at Alamosa, but how, back in England in 1962, after a three-mile warmup run. he once bashed out 20 quarter-mile sprints at an average of 62.5 seconds per quarter, recovering after each with nothing more restful than a quarter-mile jog in from two to 2½ minutes. This is a marathoner, mind you, not a miler. Or he will recount the time, also in England, when he churned out no less than 45 quarters at an average of 70.8 seconds each, jogging for only 60 seconds in between.

Edelen enjoys recalling these sessions of ineffable self-torture because, as the weeks go by in Alamosa, the memory of them takes on a dreamlike quality. In the world of thin air the lungs simply cannot supply the muscles with enough oxygen to keep them going full blast through a long workout.

"It's like spinning your wheels," says Buddy. "For example, one night I decided to run 12 quarters by the clock at an average of about 66 seconds. I felt I could cope with that pace. I ran the first quarter hard, checked my watch and found it had taken 72 seconds! I was finally able to force myself to do a couple at 69 seconds, but it was absolutely the fastest I could possibly go."

For the first few months his exceptionally long training runs were affected in a slightly different way: impossible at any speed. Until the middle of May he found it extremely difficult to build up to a run of more than 20 miles. On a recent Sunday morning, running for part of the time with three members of the Adams State track team—Bob Henry, who is training for his first marathon, Rick Vefadas and Tom Simmons—he covered 20.5 miles on the streets and highways in and around town, but it required two hours, 30 minutes. That is an average of 7:19 per mile. Only a year ago, in England, Edelen ran an official marathon of 26 miles, 385 yards in 2:14:34, an average of 5:08 per mile.

Some of Edelen's training difficulties can be attributed to the fact that for the last year he has been suffering from severe pains in the lower back. He is still able to work out early every morning and again in the afternoon, seven days a week, but his back hurts until he is thoroughly warmed up and then begins to hurt again when he is cooling down.

"When the alarm goes off at 6 a.m.," he says, "I know I've got to swing my feet out on the floor right away. If I don't I'll just lie there and talk myself into skipping the morning run."

Another reason for the lack of snap in Edelen's training times may be a daily schedule that would leave Hubert Humphrey limp. In addition to his 40-hour academic week Edelen dons an apron and works 25 to 30 hours a week at the Arapahoe Supermarket on Main Street, filling up the shelves and carrying out groceries for the customers. The salary he gets for this supplements the $150 a month stipend he receives as a graduate assistant. Thus, as a student, teacher and grocery clerk Edelen has put in a 70-hour week before even lacing on his running shoes. What's left for relaxation and social life would make a monk rebel.

"I don't mind too much," he says. "You'll find that there's one thing I don't like to do, and that's rest. I'd like to go out with girls again, but right now it's just as well I don't have the time. If I did I might get involved. If I got involved it would always be in the back of my mind: Is this cutting into my running? Then what would be the point of my going through all this?"

Competitively, Edelen's high-altitude training has not yet paid off. Until the first week in June he had raced nothing longer than 10,000 meters (6¼ miles). Running unattached or as a nonscoring unofficial member of the Adams State track team, he has beaten light opposition and set course records in various road and cross-country races in the mile-high Rocky Mountain area. In the big time he has fared less well. At the National AAU cross-country championship last fall in New York City (sea level) he finished 10th. At an indoor meet this winter in Toronto (elevation 245 feet) he finished sixth at three miles in a time of 14:10. At the National AAU indoor championships in Albuquerque (elevation 4,947 feet) he ran dead last in the three-mile and, though officially un-clocked, did not break 15 minutes. In early June, in his only test longer than 10,000 meters—a 15.2-mile road race in Sioux Falls (elevation 1,400 feet)—Edelen finished second, clocking 1:20:10. His back pains were still with him, however, and he almost dropped out on a couple of occasions.

"I've been making good progress in the last few weeks," Edelen said recently, "but the hardest part of training at high altitude is what it does to your confidence. Mine sometimes goes altogether. My training times have been so slow, and I haven't had enough real competition to know where I stand. But for distance runners I think this kind of training will be essential. What confidence will an Olympic runner have going to Mexico City if he hasn't tried running at 7,000 feet? It is rubbish to think that a distance runner can acclimate himself to that altitude in two or three weeks. Two or three months is more like it, and if my experience is any indication that isn't long enough."

Edelen's first tour of duty in Alamosa will end in August, when he receives his Master's degree. He then hopes to obtain a teaching job in England but plans to return to Adams State again in the fall of 1967. "It's been a tough experience so far," he says, "but I certainly don't regret it."

Nor does anyone else in Alamosa. Edelen is an active member of the pre-Olympic site promotion committee, which, thanks to a $16,000 grant from the state legislature and complete cooperation from the college administration, is making rapid progress toward its goal. The U.S. Olympic Basketball Committee has recommended to the Olympic Planning and Development Committee that Alamosa be chosen as the basketball team's pre-Olympic training site. The college also has formal requests from Canadian Olympic wrestling officials and Polish Olympic track-and-field officials that their teams, too, be allowed to work out in Alamosa before pushing on to Mexico City.

"Buddy's done an awful lot for us," says Jack Cotton, the athletic director at Adams State and chairman of the Olympic site group. "He's not only living the experience of training here, but he's awfully interesting and persuasive talking about it."

The town of Alamosa had only slight difficulties acclimating itself to the sight of Edelen acclimating himself. He presented a droll picture on his early morning runs through town, barelegged, but clad in a red-knit hood and four layers of warmup jerseys.

"I'd see him go by at 6:30 in the morning when I stepped outside to take in the newspaper, even when it was 30° below," says Dr. Dale Lorimer, an education and psychology professor at the college. "Look at that crazy guy out there. After a while I stopped worrying. I figured there must be no blood in him, just all bones and tendons."

One of the students in the course Buddy teaches on general psychology, a blonde named Vicki Crow, had worries of a different nature. She had seen him through the window of her home in town as he circled by on one of his long Sunday runs.

"I saw you several times," she said to him later. "It seemed like you were out there running all day long! When do you have time to go to church?"

"Vicki," said Edelen, eager to reassure her and perhaps grateful for the chance to so neatly describe the painful experience of long-distance training at high altitude, "I was closer to God out there on those roads than most people get to Him in a lifetime."