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It is a very cold Saturday morning, November 30, 1963, as an international field of runners lined up for the start of the USA National AAU Cross Country Championship race in Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx, New York.
There is an unusually large number of spectators embracing the cold weather, enthusiastically awaiting the race that is being called a duel between 20-year-old phenom Bruce Kidd, a Canadian student attending the University of Toronto majoring in Political Science, and Peter McArdle, a 34-year-old New York bus mechanic. Bruce won the USA Cross Country Championship race in 1961. In 1962, he selected not to defend his title; instead he journeyed to Australia for the British Empire 6 Mile Championship race, where he won, defeating a star-studded field. McArdle, who I found out had recently become a U.S. citizen and would definitely provide much needed experience and depth to the USA distance running movement, won the USA Championship the last year, 1962.
Now the fans anxiously awaited the two champions defending their titles against each other.
I am 1 of 3 Marines competing in the Championship race. There is Lt. Guy Harper, a very promising middle distance runner, but the 10,000-meter is a distance just beyond his strength. Also joining Guy and myself is Capt. Alex Breckenridge, a 1960 Olympic Marathoner. His strength was just beyond the 10,000-meter distance.
My goal remains the same — run with the leaders, finish in the Top 3 and be the first USA citizen to finish. This now meant beating Peter McArdle.
A Loss for the Nation
We hear the command “SET” as the starter raises the starter pistol, but the USA Cross Country Championship race and my Olympic quest both seem so insignificant when we as a nation are struggling to accept and understand the news announced to the world on November 22, 1963 at 12:30pm that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. He was pronounced dead at 1:00pm.
It was said it would be years later before our nation would begin to understand the profound political and cultural impact it would leave us with.
The starter’s gun fires — the race is underway!
Very early in the race, Bruce and Peter take charge. I feel comfortable and surprisingly strong as I refocus and follow in third. I witness their moves testing and challenging one another. What little did I know I would have the best view of the entire duel between Bruce and Peter.
We climb a very challenging, steep incline before we start down back into the park’s flat ground. They make a strong move, I hesitate, and they quickly build a lead on me I can’t close.
However, I stay close enough to watch the duel turn into a classic battle as the two sprint down the last 400 yards with but a yard between them. Bruce won by four tenths of a second. I finished third.
To my surprise, Peter McArdle chose not to accept the invitation to compete in Brazil. He wanted to focus on his training. It was then announced that Lt. Billy Mills USMC was accepting the invitation to represent the USA on Dec. 31, 1963 in the St. Sylvester Midnight Run in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Christmas of ’63
The next 4 weeks of training went by so quickly and my training was coming along exceptionally well. I averaged 66 miles of hard training a week even though I ran out of powdered protein. It would be at least a month before I could afford another supply of protein. $222.00 a month of basic pay for a 2nd Lieutenant with a family had me feeling guilty buying the protein for myself. The important fact is I am ready for Sao Paulo Brazil!
It was now Christmas Day, December 25, 1963. Patricia, 8-month old Christy and I just returned from church to open our Christmas presents. I have been enjoying our family time relaxing and I am already packed for my trip to Brazil the next day.
Thank to Patricia’s mother, Pat, we had extra gifts for Christy. However the one she loved the most was from Patricia with Santa’s help. It was a white stuffed bunny rabbit purchased with S & H green stamps provided by Santa.
Santa gave Patricia a skillet because Billy was tired of boiled eggs. To my surprise, Patricia (again with Santa’s help) gave me a month supply of powdered protein. Our lives were filled with hope, love and dreams. We were blessed.
It is December 26, 1963 and I am on a night flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil. I feel like I am catching a cold. Why would our Track and Field governing body have to book me on an all-night flight?
We touch down in Sao Paulo and I am thrilled to see Pat Clohessy, an exceptional runner and friend from Australia who had just graduated from the University of Houston, was also competing. Pat would be returning to Australia to train for the Olympics with the great Ron Clark, the world record holder in the 10,000-meter run.
My plans were not going well. Besides being sick, over the next few days, I also contracted food poisoning.
The Midnight Run
It is now December 31st, 20 minutes before midnight, 400 runners line up for the St. Sylvester Midnight Run. We run out the old year and run in the new year.
I am lined up next to Pat in the front row. The gun goes off and as I take my first step, the runner behind me places his foot on the heel of my shoe. My shoe comes off. I fall, start to get up and am knocked over. I find my shoe, untie the lace, put my shoe on, tie the lace and stand up, finally ready to run, but 100+ yards behind every one… except my friend Pat Clohessy. He was standing there waiting for me.
Pat finished 9th, I was 14th. As we parted, he simply said, “You bloody bloke. If you can get your head together, you will be tough.”
We said hopefully we would see each other in Tokyo.
As I returned from Sao Paulo, Brazil I had no idea what the Marine Corps would do about transferring me to Camp Pendleton, California to train for the Olympic Games. All I knew was that I was out of chances to prove myself through my races. But, I was determined to stay the course. I could fool a few people in Tokyo.
See you next month.