Unbeaten year ends with golden run

Bob Schul remains the only American runner ever to win a gold medal in the 5,000 meters. Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was a cold, windy day in Kentucky in the spring of 1964, so Bob Schul had gone indoors to find some shelter before his 2-mile race.

Schul was a 26-year-old distance runner for Miami University in Ohio. Though his name would be known across the globe by the end of the year, that day he was just an anonymous college athlete lying on a table in the training room before a track and field meet. When a runner from the Air Force Academy and his coach entered the room, they paid him no attention.

"His coach was talking to him about the race and he said, 'Well, there's no competition here today.'" Schul recalls. "'Just go with the guys for a while and break away and have a good race.'

"And I was listening to that and I thought to myself, 'Really?' I thought, 'Well, we'll just see what he can do.'"

So instead of going out with the pack, Schul jumped to the front. He broke away and left everyone, including the runner from Air Force, watching the back of his head.

"I won by quite a margin," Schul says. It might have been the last time anyone overlooked Schul on a track.

Finally healthy after mononucleosis and a calf injury in 1962 and '63, and in peak condition from a relentless training program that emphasized high-repetition speed work, Schul was primed for greatness in 1964. He went undefeated that year in races from the mile to 5,000 meters, beating some of the best runners in the world.

After excelling for Miami that spring, he had an even better summer and fall. He set the U.S. record in the 5,000 meters, broke the world record in the 2-mile, beat the Soviets' best in the annual U.S.-Soviet Union track meet at a packed Los Angeles Coliseum and won the 5,000 meters at the U.S. championships and separate Olympic Trials.

Then, on Oct. 18 in Tokyo, Schul became the first -- and still the only -- American ever to win the Olympic 5,000 meters, exploding with a final-lap kick to overpower one of the best distance fields ever assembled. It ranks among the greatest years ever for an American distance runner, yet on the 50th anniversary of his Olympic conquest it has been overshadowed by time and even the heroics of his Tokyo teammate, Billy Mills.

Mills' stunning win in the 10,000 meters days before is the event lodged in America's memory. Yet for Schul, what he did that year looks historic even from another century.

Says Schul, who's now 77, retired and living in Fairborn, Ohio: "The people who really understand track and field realize how good a year it was."

Building speed, stamina

The victory in Tokyo was set up about three years earlier when Schul was in the Air Force and stationed in California. There he met and began training with Hungarian coach Mihaly Igloi, who was working with the Los Angeles Track Club.

Igloi believed in intense, repetitive speed work for his distance runners. His runners often worked out twice a day. He'd had success in both Hungary and in the U.S., especially with American Jim Beatty, the first to break the 4-minute mile indoors. Schul became a disciple, and when he returned to school at Miami in the fall of 1963 he continued to use some of Igloi's methods and adapted others to his own needs as he served as his own coach.

Schul ran the indoor season for Miami that winter -- also doing outdoor training under the football stands because there was no indoor facility -- and went into the spring outdoor season healthy for the first time in a long while.

"I was in the best shape of my life," he said. "That I knew. I was doing workouts I had not done under Igloi. My body had come around to a point where it could do a tremendous amount of work. I never ran anything long, not the whole year."

In April, Schul incorporated a series of 20 400-yard track sprints into his regimen, doing them every other Sunday into the fall. He'd run 400 meters, walk 55 yards, turn around, jog back to the start and run again. His goal was to run the first three in 60 seconds each, then do the fourth in 58. He'd repeat the pattern until the 20th lap, when he'd go all out, aiming to hit 54 seconds.

When he was able to follow his plan his first time out and hit the 54-second target, he recalls thinking, "I'm in shape."

"I thought to myself, 'Well, I can probably do more than 20, because I ran 54 in the last one, but let's keep it there. It just came to a point where it gave me tremendous confidence knowing I could do it."

George Young, a four-time U.S. Olympian who won a bronze medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, trained often with Schul that year, particularly when Schul went out to California in the summer. He says Schul was businesslike in his training.

"It wasn't haphazard, like, you know, 'Let's see what am I going to do today,' or anything like that," Young says. "He was organized. He had a plan and he kept with it."

It was that training that separated Schul from the pack.

"He just trained hard every day," says Young, 77, now retired and living in Arizona. "There is no secret to anything that he did, other than the fact he was in better condition than most people were."

Prelude to Tokyo

Schul suffered from asthma and allergies, so the time in California that summer allowed him to train and race at his best. As the weeks rolled by, it was obvious Schul was peaking toward the Games.

His achievements:

• American 5,000-meter record: On June 5, he set the U.S. record of 13:38.00 at Compton in a field that included Beatty, Gerry Lindgren and Canadian standout Bruce Kidd. Schul broke the mark by seven seconds. With three laps to go, Schul and Beatty broke away from the rest. With about 300 meters left, Schul pulled away for the win. He ran his last lap in 54.6. His only regret: He fell short of the world record by about 3 seconds.

"They weren't calling lap times so we didn't know how fast we were running and I wasn't tired at all," he recalls. " I could have broken the world record easily."

• Racing the Soviets: The annual track meet between the U.S. and Soviet Union had turned into a big deal. Started in 1958, it continued through 1965 with the nations taking turns as hosts. On July 26, racing the 5,000 meters in front of a big crowd in Los Angeles, Schul and U.S. teammate Bill Dellinger finished 1-2 over Soviet standouts Pyotr Bolotnikov, the gold medalist in the 10,000 meters from the 1960 Games, and Kestutis Orentas.

• World 2-mile record: On Aug. 30, while running in front of about 300 people at an all-comers meet at Pierce Junior College just north of Los Angeles, Schul ran 8:26.4 to set the world mark. It was 3 seconds faster than the previous best by Michel Jazy of France.

Schul had asked Young to set the pace and help him break the record, and race organizers had agreed to move the race to early in the program so the cinder track wouldn't be chewed up. Then, as the runners got set at the starting line, the public address announcer told the crowd of Schul's intent to set a record.

"I looked over at George and poked him with an elbow," says Schul, laughing. "I said, 'That's pressure.'"

Also in the race that night were Mills and Norm Higgins, a top marathoner. Young set a great pace, and Schul took the lead with two laps to go. Because the announcer was calling out times, everyone present knew Schul was on pace for the mark. At the end of the race, other athletes lined the track.

"It was almost shoulder to shoulder down the backstraight," Schul recalls. "And they were just screaming at me."

When he broke the tape he wasn't certain if he'd set a record until someone told him. His eyes were so blurry from the exertion and tension he couldn't see an official's stopwatch held in front of his face.

• Olympic Trials: Because the Tokyo Olympics would be held so late in the year, it was decided to have semifinal Olympic Trials in New York in July with final trials at Los Angeles on Sept. 12-13. Schul won the first in 14:10.8 over Dellinger and Lindgren, then tied for first with Dellinger in the finals at 13:55.6. The two runners ran side by side on the final stretch with their trips to Tokyo assured.

Golden moment

As the Americans headed to Tokyo, Schul was picked by many to become the first U.S. runner to win the 5K. He agreed.

"I had told the press that I was going to win the gold medal," he says. "Some people said that was cocky and I said, 'Well, what should I tell them, I was going to lose the race?' I was extremely confident."

But the field for the 5,000 final would be one of the best ever. Six runners in the race had either held or would go on to set world records.

Jazy of France had speed, having won the silver medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and would set nine world marks at various distances. Germany's Harald Norpoth was one of Europe's best in the 5,000. Dellinger, who had set American records in the 5,000 and 1,500, and indoor world records in the 2- and 3-mile, had pushed Schul hard that summer.

Bill Baillie of New Zealand had set world records, including in the 20,000 meters. Kip Keino, the first of the great Kenyan distance runners in the Olympics, would win gold medals at the 1968 and '72 Games. Nikolay Dutov was the Soviet Union's best. And Ron Clarke of Australia, who won the bronze in the 10,000 meters days earlier, six times set world bests in the 5,000 or 10,000.

Conditions on race day wouldn't be world-record worthy, however. It rained through the race and the cinder track took a beating. The footing wasn't right for anyone.

"I remember slipping a couple of times," Schul recalls. "As I was pushing off I could feel it."

Clarke surged to the front early and let the others chase him. Schul was content to hang back just a few spots behind the leaders. As the final lap began, Dellinger and Jazy had moved to the front and Schul was in fifth, boxed in. That's when Schul slipped to the outside and started digging hard. Dellinger could sense his teammate was coming on.

"I was going after the win, so with 600 meters to go, I took the lead," says Dellinger, a three-time Olympian who would go on to be the longtime head coach of the University of Oregon track and field program. "I was worried about Jazy's kick. I could feel people coming up on me and I knew Bob was there."

With about 200 meters to go, Schul surged into third. He then blitzed past Norpoth and rapidly gained on Jazy, who was beginning to falter. As they came around the final turn, Schul broke free of Jazy and seemed to get faster down the final stretch, pulling away.

The next day, newspapers across the U.S. carried a photo of a happy Schul, his face turned to the sky, smiling as he crossed the finish line. His legs, shorts and bib number were drenched in the spatter of soggy cinders. His winning time was 13:48.8. Norpoth took the silver and Dellinger the bronze.

"I can remember finishing and thinking to myself, 'Thank God that's over,'" Schul says. "It was a lot of tension."

Dellinger, for one, knew Schul would come on strong at the end. The kick he showed that day was typical of what he'd shown all year.

"He ran the right race for those circumstances," Dellinger recalls. "He was good and he ran a smart race."

In the end, Schul also ran a very fast race. All that speed work, all those solitary 400 repetitions and all those two-a-day workouts gave Schul the stamina to sprint the final 300 meters in 38.7 seconds. He did the last lap in 54.8 seconds. On a wet track. As running great Bill Rodgers once pointed out, Schul's time over the final 300 was as fast as New Zealand great Peter Snell ran on a dry track to win the 1,500-meter gold at Tokyo.

Running writer and historian Roger Robinson, in an interview for New York's "Gotta Run With Will" video series this year, marveled at what Schul did and says it has been overlooked. He says Schul even outshines Great Britain's Mo Farah, who won the Olympic 5,000 meters at London in 2012.

"Everybody remembers Billy Mills, the American who won the 10,000," Robinson says. "For some reason they don't remember Bob Schul winning a brilliant race. And in some of the research I did, and I sat there and timed and timed and timed the finish of Mo Farah in 2012. Bob Schul, running on wet cinders in the pouring rain -- still a cinder track, the last Olympics on cinders -- ran his last 300 meters as fast as Mo Farah did in 2012 on [an] beautiful, impeccable, all-weather track."

Hoping for another gold medalist

Schul was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1991. The year after the Olympics, he won the U.S. 3-mile championship in an American-record 13:10.4.

After retiring from elite running, Schul became a coach, including several years at Wright State, and was a successful masters runner. He still regularly runs and rides a stationary bike. When he's asked about his accomplishments in 1964, he finds it hard to believe it was so long ago.

"Fifty years went pretty fast," he says, laughing.

One thing he can't understand is why no American has won the Olympic 5,000 since he did.

"We've got the population," he says. "We've got the kids in this country who run. We've got thousands and thousands, more than any country in the world. I just wonder how good their training is."

In 1964, there were no such questions about Schul's training, or his readiness. Finally healthy and primed through his association with Igloi, Schul couldn't be beaten.

Says Young: "He was just in fantastic condition."