Road to Tokyo: Post-Olympics Competing in Finland, Norway, Russia, and Germany

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The global track and field enthusiasts have been treated to an incredible June and July track season featuring unbelievable races from the one mile to the 10,000 meters.

On June 9, 1965, Michel Jazy from France set a new one mile world record. Five days later, he set two more world records, the 3,000 meters on his way to setting the two-mile record.

In early June, Australian Ron Clarke set two world records, the three-mile record on his way to recording a new 5,000-meter world record.

On June 16th in Turka, Finland, Clarke broke his own world record for 10,000 meters: 28:14. His six-mile time enroute was 27:22, 4.2 seconds slower than his world record six mile.

Eleven days after Clarke’s 10,000-meter record, Gerry Lindgren and I set a new six-mile world record in 27.11:6.

If the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union), our national governing body, had honored my written request to have the track measured for the 10,000-meter distance, Gerry and I would have broken the 10,000-meter record as well.

But, whether we did or not, it still would have been better having a record attempt being decided on the track by two athletes competing to the depth of their abilities rather than by an AAU official’s comment: “This is America, Lt. Mills. We run yards, not meters.”

That still has me smarting. Patricia tells me to let it go and focus on my next world record attempt!

Although I am going to run several races in Europe starting in Helsinki, my thoughts return to focusing on just one race, the 10,000-meter run at Kiev, Ukraine, Soviet Socialist Republic on July 31, 1965.

My goal is to run a sub 27:40 10,000 meters. That is about the snap of my fingers more effort per lap than I ran to break Clarke’s six-mile record. It is very doable. Let’s hope it’s me and not Clarke who does it first. He’s fit and racing for time now. Race, rest, race, two or three times a week. This strategy sharpens you up and produces peak performance.

I am still training hard and racing tired. It is the only way I know, however, I will be rested, tapered and ready for my peak performance in Kiev.

I have been in Europe now for two weeks. Today, we are in Oslo watching Ron Clarke run the 10,000 meters. In a solo attempt for a world record, he runs 27:39.4, shattering his own world record. I was not surprised. Four days earlier, he also broke his own three-mile record with an astonishing time of 12:52.4. Gerry Lindgren finished second in 13:04.2 for a new American record!

On July 15th I raced a 5,000 meter in Norway. It rained all day, the track was slow, but I was very pleased with my winning time 13:41.4, a new personal best.

Finally, tomorrow July 17th, is my much anticipated 5,000-meter race with Harold Norpoth, Germany’s silver medalist in the 1964 Olympic 5,000 meters. It is raining; hopefully the weather improves.

Feeling low blood sugar and the need for inspiration, I do what has become habit. Grabbing my training and racing journal, my body finds its way to bed. Relaxing, my review of my training and racing experiences since arriving in Helsinki, Finland begins. It is an easy way for me to re-energize…

We left San Diego at 7:00 a.m. June 28th and arrived in Helsinki (time change) midafternoon June 29. My blisters feel raw, legs extremely tight and sore because of the hard track we raced on in San Diego. A one and a half hour massage followed by a sauna, then jumping into a very cold tub of water was invigorating.

Wednesday, June 30 is my birthday. I received an unexpectedly beautiful but humbling gift. My first race in the European outdoor circuit was against a very elite field of the world’s greatest 5,000 meter runners. Jazy, Clarke, Keino, Baillie, Tulloh Wiggs and my Olympic teammate Bob Schul. Schul, like me, was racing while exhausted and with aching muscles.

Clarke took the lead and set a pace within a second of his world record. Schul let go early at the 1,500 meter mark. Just before the 4,000-meter mark, I had to settle for a slower tempo. The lead pack began to pull away. This is where the gift came into play. Watching from behind, a very exciting race began to emerge. Jazy won in 13:27.6, just 1.8 seconds off Clarke’s world record. Finishing 8th, I still had a personal best time. Schul finished 10th.

My feelings were of being in awe of the runners ahead of me, but also being blessed and humbled, knowing that if healthy, one more month of conditioning and rested, Schul and I could challenge them for the victory. Just like last year in Tokyo! I am so, so close to being ready.

Next was a 3,000-meter race in Oslo, Norway on July 7th. Clarke won in 7:54.6. I placed fourth in 7:56.8, in a tight close finish. My blisters are almost healed and my body recovered. Training hard and competing tired, my time remains very respectable.

Yesterday, I was first in another 5,000 meter race again with a personal best time.

Finishing my review, my spirit is energized. I close my review by whispering: sub 27:40 10,000 meters, but add: ..and join Ron Clarke as one of only two sub 27:40 10,000 meter runners!

Today’s 5,000 meters against Harold Norpoth is on a track that is a muddy mess. It is an absolutely terrible day for racing. We are making our way to the start of the 5,000 Meters. Bob Schul, who is not racing, shocks me with his comment: “Norpoth is going to beat you! You do not stand a chance against his strong finishing kick. He has so much more speed.”

Jim Grelle hears him and comes over to me saying, “Billy, let me make a suggestion. On this muddy and wet track, try accelerating every lap. Norpoth has more 1,500-meter speed, but you have your great 10,000 meter strength.”

We make eye contact and Jim smiles knowing he just gave me my race strategy.

The starter gives the command, the pistol is fired.

My anxiousness takes me to the front. At the 300 meter mark of the very first lap, I accelerate and open a gap. Soon, runners close it. Every lap, I accelerate. Now it is just Norpoth and me. It’s difficult and challenging but I have faith in strength over speed on this muddy track. I accelerate again and again. Norpoth covers every move again and again! How much longer can I do this?

Doing another acceleration knowing they are taking a major toll on me, I smile simply because my mind says at least the front of my racing uniform is clean!

We are into the bell lap. Accelerating for the first 200 meters, Norpoth stays with me, a half a step behind. His left leg safely placed just outside of my right foot placement. For 50 meters, it seems as if we were both gathering for the final 100 meters, when Norpoth struck!

Instantly he is at my side and inching ahead of me. He is into his highly respected kick. I am digging deep, lifting my knees, pumping my arms and running as fast as I can. He is slightly ahead of me but cannot pull away. Fighting back, I surprisingly power my body a few inches past him as my chest breaks the tape.

Thanks to Jim Grelle, it was one of the most fun races of my career to date. Seeing Jim, just the nod of my head tells him how much his suggestion was appreciated. Speed vs. strength depends on how you implement them, but we agreed speed usually prevails.

Today is July 24th, we have been back in Norway for a few days. I just completed my last week of hard training and racing. Now starts my tapering, getting ready for a 10,000-meter world record attempt. Plus winning another 3,000 meters here in Norway today leaves me much more inspired. It was another personal best.

We are enjoying a late dinner at a very small restaurant. Our host has us introduced to the patrons as sub 4-minute milers and Olympic Gold Medalists. A young man approaches our table and says he has never met a sub 4-minute miler nor an Olympic Gold Medalist! We chat for a brief moment, and find out his band is performing in Oslo. Enjoying the casual moment with a few laughs, we exchange autographs. Our dinner is served, he leaves and I look at the autograph he signed for me: It was the first time I saw his name, but not the last time… the name: Mick Jagger!

Back at the hotel, I record in my journal: Good shape, just sharpen up, easy running from here on out with a few sprints. I record what I thought I could do under the worst weather conditions since my experience has been racing in the rain: 27:45! My subconscious mind whispers sub 27:40!

Monday, July 26, we leave Oslo for Moscow, Russia with a short 45-minute stop in Leningrad. Our plane is making its approach… I am extremely excited, next stop Moscow! Patricia is on the flight with the USA track and field team that lands in Moscow one hour before us. However, Jim, Bob and I are totally unprepared for what was about to happen in Leningrad.

An official boards the plane after passengers deplane and tells us we have made a big mistake! We are accused of trying to enter the USSR without a visa. Explaining we are on a group visa with the USA track and field team, we are informed the USA team is delayed 24 hours. The official again says: “You have made a big mistake!”

With armed escorts, we are taken to a drab looking hotel near the airport and confined under guard. We were allowed to do an easy 45 minute jog but had armed guards in a jeep accompanying us. In the middle of the night all guests had to leave their rooms while every room was searched. A couple with a child had disappeared! The next morning with no sleep, I wake up sick with a fever.

The good news is the USA track and field team will land in Moscow in four hours. We are back on the group visa. Arrangements have been made for us to arrive in Moscow at approximately the same time.

Controlling my emotions, Patricia and I give each other several big hugs. As we board a bus taking us to the hotel, she said, “Your voice sounds hoarse and your body feels feverish.”

At the hotel, our USA team doctor confirms I have a fever. He gives me penicillin. I break out with welts, having an allergic reaction!

Wednesday, July 28th, I still have a fever. Resting all day, I join Patricia midafternoon for a sight seeing tour. We decide to make our own way back to the hotel, after an armed guard grabs Patricia’s camera out of her hands and destroys all her film.

Patricia had written down our hotel name as we left on our tour. Approaching the street we thought our hotel was on, we looked for its name: Pectopah.

That’s when we realized Pectopah is the Russian word for restaurant! There was one right in front of us, two across the street and many as far as the eye could see! Eventually, we found our hotel.

On July 29th, the USA team including Jim Grelle and Bob Schul left on an early one and one-half hour flight to Kiev. Patricia and I were booked on a flight at noon, but had to check out of our hotel at 8:00 a.m. In the lobby, we had to wait and wait, eventually we were told our flight would leave at Midnight and arrive in Kiev at 2:30 a.m. July 30th.

An intourist guide would meet us and take us to our hotel. We arrived in Kiev at 2:30 a.m. and no one came to pick us up! At 6:30 a.m. a reporter from England arrived. He knew where the USA track team was staying. We rode with him to the hotel. There was no room available for Patricia and me until midafternoon. She slept in the lobby and I slept on a massage table most of the day. Another doctor told me I had a rather high fever and asked how long I have had it.

Early morning, July 31, 1965, my world record 10,000 meter attempt came crashing down. The medical staff informed me not to compete. I need to get the fever under control.

We lost the meet to the USSR and we’re all anxious to leave for Warsaw, Poland and West Germany. The USA team has two meets left against Poland on August 7 and the West German team on August 12 in Augsburg. Feeling recovered but very weak, I won the 10,000 meters against Poland and decide to race the 10,000 meters against West Germany. A sub 27:40 is still out of the question. My decision is to go for a new American record with no idea how fast it will be.

The command is given, the pistol fired, our race is underway. The first 3,000 meters I am just feeling out my strength. At 3,000 meters I take the lead and immediately settle into a very fast pace.

The field does not challenge except for Lutz Phillip.

We quickly make up for a slow cautious start and are on pace for new American and German 10,000 meter records. The German fans are ecstatic and encouraging their national champion on by stomping their feet while shouting: Phillip! Phillip! Phillip! Never have I heard such enthusiasm.

Four laps to go, I make a strong move. Lutz hesitates in responding. Immediately, my attack is on. Lutz continues to falter, but remains on pace for a German record.

Ralph Boston, the USA Olympic Gold Medalist in the long jump, is one of the most respected and loved Olympians on the planet. He senses his teammate Billy Mills may need some help after being sick and still a little weak. He jumps on the track and starts cheering: Mills! Mills! Mills! Others start to join in. I was overwhelmed with emotion and fall off of a sub 28:10 pace, but still keep a safe lead on Lutz.

The German fans, realizing Lutz and I will definitely break our country’s national records, decide to cheer for Lutz half a lap and me half a lap. Soon, they all join Ralph Boston, whose voice to me sounded like song, music, and dance. Mills! Mills! Mills!

Fighting back tears while running, I thank “the Creator of all that is” for the gift of friendships Patricia and I are blessed with.

It was simple and clear, records are great and made to be broken. Friendships, respect, and love are priceless. Realizing that meeting the quality people of the world, people like Ralph Boston and others is the greatest gift my God-given talent of running has blessed us with.

As I walked off the track going to the media tent, I knew what was going to happen.

Patricia was waiting for me. Holding her hand, my words were:

“There are moments of this race and moments of our short journey in sport at an elite level (Eleven months split over two years) that are priceless and sacred. It’s time for us to move on. It is just too difficult competing with hypoglycemia and border-line diabetes. Patricia, I will never be a world class athlete again, but with you, we will continue as a world class team.”

Leaning closer, I said: “We ran a good race.”

With tears in her eyes, she agreed.

 

The next and last Road to Tokyo series will be on August 8, 2021, the day of the closing ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The extinguishing of the Olympic torch ignites the flames of hope and dreams in many youth of the world.

Opportunities to promote global unity through the dignity, character and beauty of global diversity abounds!

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