Sprinter Lee McRae, who is among the world's faster humans and is perhaps the quickest out of the blocks, was at a friend's Pittsburgh apartment on his hands and knees one day last week. He and hurdler Calvin Holmes, a teammate on the University of Pittsburgh track team, were engaged in the so-called start game, a practice ritual in which a sound, any sound, is supposed to trigger burst down imaginary lanes. At the clap of a hand, the stomp of a foot, the drop of a cassette tape, McRae was up and moving before Holmes had even stirred.
Suddenly, without a triggering peep, McRae blasted out of his stance. For a second there was silence, and then the room filled with a very familiar sound, McRae's laughter. "Hah," he said between giggles, "now I beat the starter!"
McRae, 21, has quickly become known for racing ahead of all expectations, from starters' to his own. In fact—McRae's favorite expression when discussing important matters—as a sophomore in March 1986, he ran a world indoor best, clocking 55 meters in six flat at the NCAA championships in Oklahoma City to break by .02 the three-year-old mark set by Carl Lewis. Last year the 5'9", 171-pounder from Pembroke, N.C., also won the 60-yard dash at the TAC indoor championships in 6.06 and the 100-meter dash at the NCAA outdoor championships in 10.11.
Last weekend, two days after rug-burning Holmes, McRae was in Modesto, Calif., to, in fact, run for real. The meet was the S&W Modesto Invitational and, aided by a five-mile-an-hour wind, McRae finished the 100 meters in 10.10, best among a flock of promising collegians and good enough to qualify for the NCAA championships at Baton Rouge in June.
With a northerly breeze at his back on Saturday evening, McRae lowered himself into the blocks. At the sound of the gun he was up and moving, storming out of Lane 4 ahead of the rest of the field. Afterward, McRae called his start about 70% true, but by 20 meters the remaining 30% had been overcome as, bobbing slightly, he began to churn.
By the halfway mark McRae had said goodbye to the competition, only to tighten up over the last 10 meters. At that point, he often can't handle his own speed and must fight for control as if at the wheel of an accelerating sports car just hitting a slick stretch. But he held on to finish .16 ahead of Luis Morales of Southern Cal. "It was one of the better races I've put together," said a smiling McRae.
His performance impressed veteran Harvey Glance, who had the best overall time in the "open" 100 at Modesto with a wind-aided 10.03. "Lee's an extraordinary athlete," Glance said. "People say all he's got is a start, but that's a lie. If you run 10.10, you have a finish. Last year he was eighth in the world, and at his age, that's something for us to be frightened of. He's a force to be reckoned with in the 100 and the 200."
A double-gold medal candidate for the '88 Olympics, Harvey?
"Very much so."
During this winter's indoor campaign McRae defeated Lewis and Ben Johnson, his top two world-class sprint rivals, at 55 meters, defended his NCAA championship at that distance and set an American indoor record in the 60 at the World Championships with a time of 6.50. For the outdoor season he is concentrating on longer sprints to build strength and sustained speed. Earlier this month, McRae had warmed up for Modesto with a double victory—in the 100-and 200-meter dashes—at the Big East championships at Villanova. "After my freshman year, I've gone from D to, in fact, B," says McRae. "I can go to A in '88. It's within reach. I believe in myself. I don't care what anyone has run in the past. On days they're on the track with me, they've got to, in fact, beat me head up."
For a fast starter, McRae began awkwardly in track at Pembroke High. In his first sprint, he crudely snapped himself into the blocks, stumbled out of them in his Converse high tops, picked himself up off the starting line—and still won. Back then McRae preferred baseball and football—and eating—to track. As a sophomore infielder, he stole 15 bases, mostly standing up, before he quit the club rather than switch to the outfield. He gained some 1,500 yards as a junior running back, but was suspended from the team the year before for honestly answering a coach's query: What's more important, practice or hot dogs?
Though track wasn't McRae's favorite pastime, he stuck with it. He spent his summers during high school living 100 miles away from home so that he could run for the Durham Striders. On the summer junior track circuit he met his current girlfriend, Dana Roberts, who's now a long and triple jumper at Pitt. In his first national meet, the TAC Junior Olympics, he set two age-group records and won four gold medals. As a high school junior he also won the state 100-meter dash.
When McRae arrived at Pitt, coach John Vasvary knew he had a burner when his sprint coach, Steve Lewis, would coyly hesitate at revealing the freshman's times. "Rough draft, he was as good a sprinter as I'd ever seen," says Lewis. That start, though, was particularly rough—in rhythm, stride and body position. "It was," says Pitt half-miler Tim Manes, "the worst one I've ever seen." Recalls Lewis, "But at 80 yards he could turn it on."
Lewis smoothed out McRae's mechanics while tuning the runner's ear—usually geared to rockers Bob Marley and Spiro Gyra—to the drop of a nickel. "All sound has an echo." McRae says. "If I can pick up the sound while everyone else is picking up the echo, I can, in fact, get out ahead."
Such auditory hairsplitting got McRae going. He capped his freshman season with a 10.01 in the 100 outdoors, but the start was so good it had to be false and was called so. That got Lewis's attention. He told McRae if he worked harder, he could break a world record. "Hey," said McRae initially. "Get out of here." He lowered the 55 indoor limit nine months later.
Usually a carefree spirit, McRae takes his track seriously. At this year's Big East meet he, in fact, put down a hot dog to run a mile-relay leg as a last-minute sub. "Lee leads by example," says Vasvary, "although he can make some noise." At practice McRae meddles in everyone's business and gets under everyone's skin. But as race time nears, he becomes another person. "I was stunned," says equipment manager Walter McCullough. "Lee gags around all the time. But the day of the meet you're lucky if you can get a hello."
Compact and powerful, McRae has tremendous thighs and a large rump that seemingly connects directly to his chest. "A mesomorphic freak," says Pitt weight coach Ray Oliver. To try to add a finishing touch to his blazing start, McRae will lift weights, run 300s and 400s and cut down his indoor season. "If I can get my upper body stronger, it's going to be hard for anybody to touch me," McRae says. "It's time to venture on to the last 20 meters, to, in fact, shock the world with a complete 100."
Wilbur Ross, hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah's former coach, has computed just what that time might be. The numbers read, in order, 9-7-8. With three to five years before McRae peaks, such a summit may not be too unrealistic. McRae is just getting, in fact, started.
His thighs wrapped against an unseasonable chill, McRae won the Big East 200 meters.
McRae (Lane 4) prepared for the NCAAs by cruising in his 100-meter race at Modesto.
"Lee doesn't eat, sleep and drink track," says Dana. "That's what I like about him."