Tacked on the door of room 124 in Sheehan Hall at Villanova University is a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover, but the face, that of a blond-haired young fellow, and the legend, "LEGS PATRICK: 3:59.3," are unfamiliar. This is not surprising since, until a few weeks ago, not very many people who lived outside of Baltimore, Miler Dave Patrick's home town, had ever heard of him. The Villanova students had, of course, and the photograph of Patrick that they had superimposed on the cover picture of pole vault record holder Bob Seagren (SI, Feb. 20) was their way of telling the world, "Watch out, Jim Ryun."
If this seems like so much undergraduate hyperbole, it is. Or is it? For a year now middle-distance runners have been living with the terrible realization that as long as Jim Ryun cares to run middle distances they are going to be second best. Lest anybody miss the point, the Kansas sophomore underscored it in his quiet, self-effacing way last Saturday at the Big Eight championships in Kansas City with a 3:58.8 mile, .8 second faster than his record on a 12-lap track set one year before. He came back 75 minutes later to take the half mile in 1:52, and all that whispered talk that Ryun, who had had an indifferent winter season, might have really had it suddenly died.
The theory is that Dave Patrick should have died, too. But anybody who believes that does not know Dave Patrick, who is just audacious (or naive) enough to think that races are for winning, records are for breaking and great runners are for beating. He set about proving his point with the start of this indoor season, and if the frenzied enthusiasm of his schoolmates seems premature, it may be only slightly so. His 3:59.3, for instance, was definitely no mirage. Patrick ran it in Madison Square Garden last month and, while the time shattered nobody's stopwatch, it was the first, and at that date the only, sub-four-minute mile run indoors this winter. It brought the Garden track crowd out of its lethargy and to its feet. But as impressive as that race was, his half mile in Baltimore a week later—1:49.1, a record for an 11-lap track—was clearly threatening. The ho-hum of Ryun runaways was at least being challenged.
David Allen Patrick is 20, one year older than Ryun. He has been knocked flat, he has miscounted laps and he has ignored the tactical plans of his coach. But, with only slightly more than two years of supervised "quality training" to his credit, he has finally begun to develop brute speed. Despite all his previous shortcomings, he has been a winner. What is more, he has been a winner with faster and faster efforts.
And there is the rub, if you can imagine it. Jumbo Elliott, the man who has had the job of feeding and caring for track whizzes at Villanova for 20 years, is terrified that Patrick will go too fast too soon. Steady but gradual development is what he has in mind, with a peak somewhere out there when it counts most—like next summer, just before the Olympics in Mexico City. Elliott's idea is fraught with logic, and his protégé Patrick is dutifully attentive. "I know I can go harder in training this year," he says, "but I don't want to burn it all out of me."
Good lad. He means it, too, but, ah, youth. The mind is willing, all right, yet there is something about people yelling at the top of their lungs that can send even the most experienced runners bolting off at the three-quarter pole. At the Track and Field Federation meet last month in New York, for instance, Elliott was standing right there, giving the easy-does-it sign. "I just caught him out of the corner of my eye," explained Patrick, "and I didn't know exactly what he meant." Perhaps not. And then there was that crowd yelling, "go, go, go," and before the coach's expression could slip from calm satisfaction to open-mouthed horror Patrick went. In fact, he went at the last quarter in 55.4, which was good for a 4:00.6 mile. The race was heroic and promising and crowd-pleasing but definitely not what Elliott had in mind—not yet.
Basketball was what Dave Patrick had in mind as a ninth-grader at Stemmers Run Junior High School outside of Baltimore—not that he showed much promise at it. But the game seemed a likely outlet for an energetic 13-year-old (he was 5'6" and weighed 125). Patrick's older brother, Leonard, who was a half-miler of some note at the University of Maryland then, knew that Dave was never, never going to dribble his way into college and suggested he try track. Dave said, "Why not?" and entered a cross-country race. He won it, and that was the end of basketball and the start of an unrelenting obsession with running faster than anyone else.
Patrick not only took to racing off across the wilderness but he began to spend long hours in the library, reading about celebrated dream chasers. He pored over books on running and even old record ledgers made his blood run fast. "I used to sit there memorizing times, analyzing them, comparing them. I couldn't get enough of it," he said last week. Quite naturally, Patrick took in every big meet he could get to. He saw Jim Beatty and Tom O'Hara go under four minutes indoors and his blond hair stood straight up.
Before he was finished with high school, Patrick had a 4:12.4 mile to his credit and enough injuries to keep his mother, his coach and a doctor in a continual state of agitation. Discounting the normal pulls and strains, he managed to fracture a foot in a cross-country race and, one day, to clomp down solidly on a horseshoe stake, running it into his leg just below his knee. Twelve stitches closed up the almost crippling wound, but young Patrick fouled up his recovery by running in a most unnatural fashion. His hip, as a result, developed a distressing habit of hopping out of joint, usually in the middle of a race.
Still, a 4:12 mile is nothing to sneeze at, and Elliott was happy to welcome Patrick on a scholarship to Villanova. By nature a most unassuming young man who even now seems slightly embarrassed by all the wild things eastern newspapers write about him, Patrick was not the type to expect huzzahs merely for showing up. And a good thing, too, for Villanova is a particularly tough place for young milers, mostly because they have to follow the toughest kind of act—Ron Delany, the Irish runner who was unbeatable for four years.
In grim truth, no one was clicking his heels over Patrick's freshman efforts. He did manage to get his time down to 4:09.6 before the year was out, but Elliott was expecting more, much more. It was a question of learning a whole new system. Elliott's idea of building great milers was, and still is, to send them sprinting off for short distances—"quality runs," he calls them—the idea being that endurance will get you there but it takes pure speed, especially in that last quarter, to win important races. Until he had studied under Elliott, Patrick's idea of preparing for his specialty was to run steady, formful laps, as many as he could manage. It took a year of frustrating speed drills before anything significant began to happen. Then, a year ago, Elliott snapped off his stop-watch and turned on his widest Irish grin. Patrick was not just doing half miles, he was running them, and suddenly Elliott knew that his willowy kid with the smooth style had a real kick.
It took more time, however, before Patrick realized just how good he could be. The first awakening came at the collegiate indoor championships in Detroit on a final leg of a two-mile relay last spring when he was handed the baton with 20 yards to be made up on the leader. He almost caught his man, got second place and won four more points for Villanova. At the NCAA outdoor championships Patrick went in the mile race, kicking out with that long stride (not as long as Ryun's but long enough for the race). With 440 yards left he turned on all that fine new speed and won it easily in 4:02.1. It was then that Patrick decided to take a course in public speaking.
But several weeks afterward came what could have been a psychological blockbuster for all milers not named Jim Ryun—Ryun's world-record 3:51.3. Just hearing the time was enough to send challengers scurrying off to investigate new specialties. Patrick, to make matters worse, was one of those aspirants who had the more unsettling experience of seeing Ryun's massacre, and his reaction was not devoid of logic. "That time is unreal," Patrick told himself. "Ryun is up there on a cloud all by himself and I don't know if I can get on it with him."
That was before Patrick had developed faith in his own speed. He ran in Europe last summer and gained more confidence despite the fact that almost nobody paid serious attention to him. Then this winter a triumph of note came in the Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden. Not that it was particularly formful. It certainly was bizarre, though. No sooner had the gun sounded than Patrick was pummeled by what obviously was an octopus jockeying for position. All was confusion when a stray leg sent him cartwheeling toward the Eighth Avenue exit. Fortunately the recall was sounded. It was better the second time, except somewhere along the line Patrick lost count of the laps and started his final kick at least a lap too soon. "When I realized I had counted wrong it was too late to do anything," he said later, "so I just kept going." Some mistake. He won the Baxter Mile by 12 yards.
Then came the race in New York in which student Patrick ignored teacher Elliott's traffic signs and, finally, the first sub-four-minute mile of the season, which came close to never happening. Elliott had called Meet Director Ray Lumpp to announce that Patrick was anxious to shift to the half mile. "You can't do that to me," wailed Lumpp. "You'll kill the mile." So back to the mile it was. The trouble was that Patrick had been readying himself for the shorter race with hard sprints and he came into New York with aching legs. No matter. He loves these noisy crowds, and former Villanova Miler Fred Dwyer told him just before the race: "If you hit the three-quarter pole in 3:02, take off." Patrick was 3:02.1 at the appointed place, having just passed Tim Daniel-son, the fine Brigham Young freshman. Patrick burst out in a sprint. Up came the crowd, blinkety-blink went the clock and pop went the tape.
Last Saturday, Patrick ran his slowest mile in many months: 4:09.4. No need to fret. First of all, he fell down the steps in Sheehan Hall the Wednesday before the meet, slightly spraining his ankle. Second, the field at the IC4A meet was just this much smaller than a King Ranch cattle herd, meaning that numerous heats were in order. And third, Elliott, who has an exhausting knack of winning this meet, decided to exhaust Patrick by entering him in the two-mile relay as well as the mile. It all added up to four races in one day. Patrick won a mile trial, brought his team into the relay finals with a 1:53.2 half, won the mile and 25 minutes later anchored the relay team with a 1:51.7 half, good enough for second place. Villanova won the meet, which was the point.
All this recent work and success has done wonders for Patrick's confidence. "I'm anxious to meet Ryun. In fact, after every meet I'm more and more anxious to meet him," he says, and that alone makes him unique among middle-distance men. This week he gets his chance in Detroit at the NCAA championships. Ryun will be running the mile, the half and possibly even a relay. Dave Patrick can choose his race. If he does not win he will give Jim Ryun the strongest challenge he has seen in a year and middle-distance compatriots can take heart in that. There must be some spot on the U.S.'s 1968 Olympic team for a runner who is only No. 2.