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Original Issue


Marty Liquori, the first American in four years to beat Jim Ryun at a mile, has become everybody's long-distance target

Now his weekends are always the same. The towns are different and so are the arenas, but the monkey is always there. It appeared last month in Philadelphia, at Convention Hall. He is warming up backstage, doing stretch exercises, his right leg hooked over the back of a chair, the head going back, then down to the left knee. His lips are pulled tight. A friend walks up. "Congratulations," he says. "I hear you were just named the top miler in the country."

Marty Liquori grimaces. "In the world," he says.

In front of him is a pool of vomit, the price of someone else's overexpenditure or lack of preparation. It is a dismal setting: garbage in the corners, dirty floor, scarred bricks, great lengths of rope hanging ominously from the rafters, as if waiting for those who fail.

"How ya doin'?" someone asks.

"Just standing here brickin' it," Liquori says.

"You worried?"

A grin. "I really didn't want this to be a big race. But now I'm standing here, my pulse's fluttering, my heart's jumping, and I think I just swallowed 25 butterflies."

"It's going to be like this from now on," the friend says.

"Yeah," Liquori says. He shakes his head. "I can't take any races lightly like I used to. I guess the monkey's on my back now. But why?"

The why—and the monkey—came seven months before, on an overcast day at the NCAA track and field championships in Knoxville, Tenn. when Marty Liquori, until then just another promising young miler from Villanova, looked over his right shoulder and saw 10 yards of Tartan track between him and the runner in the powder-blue jersey and pink pants who had dogged his footsteps for 300 yards. Liquori turned, raised his fists, shouted an imprecation, broke into a smile and became the first American in four years to beat Jim Ryun in a mile race.

A week later he had another win in the AAU mile when Ryun quit; then in late July he ran an outstanding 3:37.2 in the 1,500 meters in Stuttgart, a race in which he reinjured his tender arches and ended his outdoor season. Still, at the age of 19, Liquori had run the fastest 1,500 meters of the year, the equivalent of a sub-3:55 mile, and established himself as the best miler in America, if not the world. The only other contender is Kipchoge Keino.

"That smile," Marty Liquori's mother would recall after the NCAAs. "It was only the second time I've ever seen him break into a smile like that. The other time was when he got his first bicycle." The bicycle, a three-speed English racer, was a Christmas gift in 1955, when Marty Liquori was 6. It lasted three years and has long since been replaced by a series of Thunderbirds. But the boy's taste very much foreshadowed the man's. In a sport, and a race, often given over to asceticism, he is something of an imp, choosing to live a life of existence rather than essence. "If someone ever stops to write about me," he said some time ago, "I want the people who read it to know I am not just another crew-cut runner who goes around a track all day."

He is strongly influenced by Herb Elliott's book, The Golden Mile, and often talks about its author. "You can see how he enjoyed life," says Liquori. "I want people to know that I can bust, too." So, like Elliott, Marty Liquori tells about free and uninhibited running coming from a free and uninhibited man. And he worries that through it all—his life with the monkey—the greatest problem will be saving his human qualities in the crusher of competition.

His instincts and pleasures are still, in the best ways, those of a child. He is early Beatle—simple, innocent, exuberant, at times mischievous, a zany guy moving through a series of zany scenes at double speed. A Hard Day's Night. Miami. Sitting around the pool of the Doral Country Club four days after first beating Jim Ryun, four days before he will have to run against him again. He sips beer from a paper cup. "I know everyone will be watching me now," he says. "And I have to be careful not to come on too strong. But I don't want to turn into a recluse, either." Then the blue eyes flash, he puts down the beer, pulls up his blue shorts and does a series of flips off the high board. "He's crazy," says teammate Dick Buerkle. "And scared of nothing."

Cut. He is hiding behind a tree just off Lancaster Pike on Philadelphia's Main Line. As an old lady stops her car for a light, he and two others jump out, tie a string of empty beer cans on her back bumper, then double up as she drives away.

A succession of quick cuts. The afternoon of a race, lunching on blintzes with strawberries and sour cream. The night after a race, in the corner of a pub, imitating W. C. Fields. The night of a banquet, appearing in a double-breasted fur overcoat. The first day of school at Villanova last September, walking into class with a full beard.

"Look," he says, "I'm a normal college kid. Just because I'm a runner doesn't mean I have to spend my life as an advertisement for clean living."

"A lot of other runners live in their own little world—live, sleep, eat and drink track," says Frank Murphy, an Irishman and ex-teammate of Liquori's at Villanova. "But Marty has other hobbies as well. A good European attitude. I mean, he knows how to go his own way, have a good time and a good laugh. He knows how to relax."

But the moments alone and chances to relax become increasingly rare. Sideburns and bell-bottoms make him a freak; torn blue jeans and a sweat shirt make him a slob; a beer makes him a drunkard; one late night makes him a debaucher. After his loss last month to Keino in the Philadelphia Track Classic they said he was over the hill, not training, drunk every night. Some even suggested he not be invited to any meets until he got back in shape. Yet six days later he won an easy 4:02.6 mile at the Millrose Games. "Winning that was like stepping right out of hell," he said.

Later he would come back to the monkey. "I must admit," he said, "that events are causing me to withdraw a little bit from everything. Why, there was a time, just a while ago, that anything I did was taken with a grain of salt. I mean, I could go to a party without any clothes on and it wouldn't get much further than the people there. But any little thing now is liable to get blown up way out of proportion.

"I don't know why people react. The athletes really haven't changed that much. Those of yesterday—all those Jack Armstrongs—were doing the same things we're doing today but in private. They were shackled by the ail-American image. After they were through playing they all wanted to get a job doing shaving commercials. And nobody was smart enough to ever think of shaving off a Fu Manchu. They wanted to make sure the Silent Majority was on their side."

"You know what bothers people?" says Dick Buerkle. "It bothers people that Marty's the typical northern New Jersey, New York City-type champion. He's got the typical attitude. Always bulling you. Always on your back. Always chattering, busting you. Anything he does he does with chatter. Playing basketball on the playground, he chatters. Shooting pool, he chatters. Running track, he chatters. Down in the city half of it is talking your way to the top. If you only do it physically, you're just another winner. And there are a lot of those around. Marty's a winner in more ways than one. A winner plus. A winner with personality."

When he entered Newark's Essex Catholic High School as a 110-pound freshman, Marty Liquori was thinking of anything but being a track champion, let alone the best miler in the world. Like any boy in any city, there were dreams of glory in basketball; then maybe baseball, perhaps even bowling. He went out for cross-country only because the basketball coach demanded it. He had no interest, he remembers, and less knowledge. He didn't bother to read about track or runners. He couldn't name one. But when more than 200 freshmen showed up for basketball practice, he went back to running. "I was the smallest kid out," he says. "It was dumb to even think about basketball."

He didn't stand out in track, either. "At that point I just let them go by themselves," recalls Fred Dwyer, who would coach Liquori into becoming the third high school four-minute miler. "I let them delineate the ranks themselves. Marty? Oh, skinny. Obscure. I hate to use the word nonentity, but he was close to that."

The summer following his freshman year Marty Liquori fell in love with track. While others played, he ran 70 miles a week along the Jersey shore. He returned to school, trained, but still was so skinny Dwyer wouldn't let him run a competitive mile until late the next spring. "When I told him he had to run the half," Dwyer says, "he looked at me with fire in his eyes. He wanted to run the man's event. When I finally let him, he did 4:18. I knew we had something."

But in his junior year he tore ligaments in his right foot and could get his time for the mile down only five seconds. As a high school senior in 1967, he had mononucleosis during the indoor season. Yet at the Penn Relays he did a 4:04.4 and began the frustrating quest to break four minutes. First came a 4:01.1 at Compton, Calif.; he finished third and traded his prize, a transistor radio, to the winner, Jim Ryun, for a Polaroid camera. The next week a 4:00.1 in San Diego; he beat Dave Patrick and won a television set, and his father, cheering, ripped his pants. Finally, two weeks later, came a 3:59.8 in Bakersfield, Calif. It was the day Ryun ran a world-record 3:51.1, and few noticed Liquori, 70 yards back, in seventh place.

"I didn't realize it when I started," Liquori says now, "but running fitted my personality. Maybe it's selfish, but I'd rather be a champion miler than be on a championship football team. I get more satisfaction knowing that, say, no one will drop a pass that I may throw. If I blow it and lose, I know it's 100% my fault. And if I win, I know it's 100% my doing."

Which, with Marty Liquori, is what it always comes down to. There are certainly no extraordinary workouts; he is often beaten by teammates at Villanova. Nor are there spectacular quarter-mile or half-mile times; his best open half is a mediocre 1:50. His most evident qualities are simple: consistency in training ("You have to forget what days like Christmas and Thanksgiving mean," he says) and instincts on a track that make him the smartest distance runner competing today.

But even these considerations become secondary to the person and the character, rooted back in Newark, in the days of slicked hair, pegged pants, yellow-on-yellow shirts with the high-roll collar and amateur rock 'n' roll bands with names like the Echoes and the Countdowns. "It was tough getting along," he remembers. "You had to look cool. Or at least think you were cool." It was a time and a place where you needed a hustle to not only be recognized but to survive. The chrome hubcaps were reversed, and the car, with a perfect red paint job, got waxed twice a week. No matter that you couldn't drive. It was part of the education of self-preservation. Says Liquori, "I would say that I learned to depend on no one but myself."

"He's proud of himself," says Coach Dwyer. "And that covers a multitude of virtues."

Slowly the hustle—and the confidence that came with it—carried over to track, and now it is laughing on the starting line or eating blintzes or drinking beer. "Someone who puts himself on the spot, withstands the pressure and comes through," says Liquori. "I guess that's a hustler." His friends call him The Hustler or The Shrew or The Gangster, all with a certain amount of amazement, a certain amount of respect. "Only in very, very isolated moments will he show any worry," says Buerkle. "Like maybe we'll be walking along and he'll drop something like 'You know, they're all after me now' and that's it." Buerkle pauses, then shrugs his shoulders over something he cannot fully understand. "I don't know. I really don't know if he doesn't think at all. Or if he just doesn't think of losing."

The same idea comes up again and again. From Pete Petersons, coach of the Southern California Striders: "I don't think Marty knows what worry is." From "Jumbo" Elliott, his coach at Villanova: "I always call Marty my cool cat." Another teammate, Chris Mason: "With Marty, running is like driving a car. When you set out you know you're going to get there, though a lot of people will get in your way. He knows at the beginning of the race, if he's ready he'll win."

And finally, from Liquori himself: "I wouldn't mind if track were the kind of thing where someone put up $1,000 that he could beat you, and you just went out and settled it between the two of you. Raced to see who was the best in the world—and for a little bit of money, too." Still, almost unrecognized by even Liquori, the monkey has popped up here as well. Motivation changes from merely desiring success to fearing failure. And the honors already won don't seem so important now; there is more thought—and worry—about those not yet attained.

These are emotions Liquori doesn't often expose. Those close to him say he never complains and never seems to worry. When he talks about the new pressures words come slowly, with restraint. "It's frightening," he will admit, "but I've already gone too far to turn back." He plays with a glass, sucking the melting ice. He wipes the sweat from his forehead. "Guess I'm not as cool as I thought I was."

The monkey. "Sure I think of defeat. I think of it every day, and that's what makes me get out of bed. It's like a bad dream. Yeah, there's more success I want, but proving last year wasn't a fluke drives me harder than any anticipated joy of winning.

"My father always told me that no matter how well I do, I'm never going to be the best, that someone will always be around to beat me. That's why track drives me crazy. You have to keep going. A victory lasts one night, and the next morning you're zero-zero again. Victory is never as exciting as it should be.

"And, of course, inside, I can't help but think of Munich and the Olympics. I can almost imagine how Keino felt in Mexico City. I can't even watch films of that race without getting goose pimples and everything and really anticipating. I can almost imagine what it would feel like. But there's always the fear, because I can just as easily imagine how it would feel to work that long—then fail.

"That's one reason why I really hated to see all those bad things happen to Jim. Because I know that some day the same thing is liable to happen to me."

The snow along the side of the road has turned to between-storm ugliness, and the few flurries that fall do nothing to cover the gray. It is cold and the wind blows, but Marty Liquori is protected, riding inside a car. He is moving through the hills and woods of what all Villanova distance runners have come to call their Frolic Loop. In the summer it can be charming—10 miles by the backyards of some of the Main Line's most splendid estates, past a duck pond, a creek, goats and cows and may include even a stop to pick wild apples. But in winter it turns depressing, and as Liquori reaches the top of the hill he says how later that afternoon, when he gets to that point he will swear at the top of his lungs, "cursing the cold, cursing the wind and most of all cursing myself for being such a damn fool to be out there."

He drives past an artist's house, a refurbished mansion really, set far back in the trees. Then another barn where, he says, the goats stay on the coldest days. He turns left, down Darby-Paoli Road, past a field where, if the cows are grazing, you can run along screaming and have the whole herd follow you to the end of the pasture a mile ahead. He smiles. "I have to laugh when I think of all that's happening," he says. "In a way I think I've put the whole world on. I mean, I was just a skinny little kid, and everybody who used to watch me run around the neighborhood must just be sitting back there thinking to themselves, 'Not Liquori. Not that runt.'

"Sure it can be a hassle. But I'm putting it over. And the whole thing is quite a kick." Then, heading home, he laughs again, this time harder.


A WINNING HAND is extended by Marty Liquori to an also-ran in the Millrose mile.