Jim Beatty: An All-American Miler
Fifty years ago on February 10, a short middle-distance specialist from North Carolina stepped up on the boarded indoor track at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and made running history. Three minutes and 58 seconds after the starting gun had sounded, Jim Beatty became the first human ever to go under 4:00 in the Mile indoors—an incredible accomplishment. The race was broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
While at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Beatty was an All-American for the 2 mile and 5000 meter events. He represented the United States in the 1960 Olympics and between 1960 and 1963 he broke four U.S. Mile records outdoors. In honor of Jim’s incredible and historic accomplishment 50 years ago, Bring Back the Mile via Duncan Larkin sat down with him to reminisce about the race.
Bring Back the Mile: It’s been 50 years since that magic night in Los Angeles when you became the first person to ever go under 4:00 in the Mile indoors. As you watch the race now, what kind of emotions do you feel?
Jim Beatty: Looking back on the race on February 10, 1962 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, to be very honest with you, I still feel like it happened last night and I was watching it on ABC’s Wide of Sports on Sunday, that next day. Part of that reason is that what I did accomplish on that particular occasion was to become the first man in the world to go under 4:00 indoors. Second, was that I set out to do it and then achieved it. Third, I wanted America to do it as I scoured our country and the world looking for fellow competitors who might have a shot at it. I thought it was time to bring it home. I wanted America to be able to do it and I wanted to be the American to do it. Consistent with that, now, when I am asked to speak about it, people want to see the DVD of the race and so I go through my spiel, my career, and at the very end, I bring them to the night of February 10. We show the race, and although everyone knows the outcome, everyone in the room stands up and cheers as if they were just seeing it live. It is still that exciting. I have a CD of it that I put together to listen to when I am driving somewhere to make a speech to get myself psyched up. I tell you: it might be 50 years, but it still seems like last evening.
BBTM: There was a moment in the race when you were running with Jim Grelle with more than a quarter to go and then you suddenly just took off, seizing the lead. Describe what was happening at that point.
JB: The real motivating factor at that particular point when I took over was fear. Fear, because in that third quarter, we were just losing time. I projected that it may be anywhere from a second to a second and a half. I knew that I would have to make that up somehow, but I recall when we went through the half-mile point the crowd was so loud I didn’t hear the half-mile split, so I knew I had to concentrate at the ¾-mile point to find out exactly what I had to run the last quarter in to go under 4:00. Again, the crowd was so loud again, the point person shouted out the time and I didn’t hear it. In reality, from the half-mile on I really didn’t know how fast I had to run. And that was the fear and motivation I felt. When I did take the lead, as you see on the DVD, I did shoot out like a rocket, and to be very honest with you, in every single stride, of that particular part of the race, I could not have run faster with each additional stride. Each time, I was going as fast as I could with each step.
BBTM: You knew that night that you were being filmed for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, correct?
JB: Well, yes. They had called our club president in Los Angeles that previous November to find out what our indoor schedule was. I had already talked to coach [Mihaly] Igloi in late September/early October that I wanted to be the first man to run an indoor Mile under four minutes. We had talked about charting the indoor schedule and he had already indicated that I should be at peak condition somewhere in the middle of February. That’s why he designated the L.A. Times meet as the one where I would go after the record. When ABC called out to our club, they told them that Jim Beatty was going to try for the sub-4:00 Mile. That’s the reason ABC was there.
BBTM: Did you feel more pressure once you knew the cameras would be rolling and a large part of the nation would be watching you?
JB: Ironically, I never did feel the pressure. I did not, because I was so focused and so determined and so motivated that even in the press conferences prior to that meet, we had already advised the paper press that I was going after it. There was a lot of pressure exerted just by the fact that it was known. It wasn’t going to be a circumstance that suddenly happened. In essence, I was putting pressure on myself. But at the same time, I was so focused and so determined to do it that I never really felt the pressure. My mind was on my goal and nothing else was going to deter it.
BBTM: What did you learn about that race about goal setting? It seems to be a classic example of someone saying they are going to do something, training for it, putting in the work, and then getting it done. What lessons from this race did you apply in your later life?
JB: I learned a lot, but not just from that race—from being in the arena itself, which I had been in since I was a school boxing champion then also as a two-time high school one Mile champion and from dominating the Atlantic Coast Conference in indoor, outdoor and cross-country running. Then, of course, joining the L.A. Track Club, and there was a lot I learned by motivating myself—not just to win, but to set records and be an American that set records that would tell the runners of the world that we were not soft, that we were could also train hard, that we could also train hard and also break records and also communicate that to college coaches and their athletes as well as high school coaches and their athletes. I wanted to set the example so that other American runners could follow. That was part of the goal and the mission.
BBTM: Bring Back the Mile is all about restoring the race to its former splendor. What does the Mile mean to you?
JB: I was recently at a speaking engagement and someone pointed out something extraordinary about the record in Los Angeles. Imagine going into a race where the world record is secondary. That’s phenomenal to say that a world record, particularly in a one Mile run, is secondary, because being the first is so much more significant and so much more powerful than breaking a world record, which had been subjected to a second tier. And I didn’t think about that for a long time. To me it remains significant in that I was the first one to do something. It spells out their life and is with them throughout it.
BBTM: What do you think of the future of the Mile? Where do you think that race is headed?
JB: I said a long time ago that I believe it could go under 3:35, given a lot of factors that might not come about. Let’s say you take a very tall runner who’s not a great athlete. He can’t play basketball or football, but he has the right combination of speed and stamina for middle-distance running. He’s a great competitor, which you have to have. He then sets goals for himself. With these new kinds of tracks, there’s no question it can go under 3:40. You need someone like the sprinter Usain Bolt from Jamaica—make him a little taller, perhaps. Give him the right middle-distance training and he can go under 3:40. I’m very much convinced of that. A lot of people don’t understand with middle-distance running you have got to have a good blend of inherited speed and inherited stamina. You have to combine those two and train—that’s what you need. But as to the future of the race, there used to be a time when everyone in the United States knew the one Mile run. They knew the 100-yard dash had the fastest man in the world and they knew the one Mile run as the test of endurance and stamina. They also knew of the glory of the one Mile run. People don’t know that anymore.
BBTM: You had mentioned the perfect Miler being tall. You were a shorter runner. Did you ever feel you had to make up for your height?
JB: No. Not really. I once told someone I never stood at a starting line and looked an opponent in the eye. I always had to look up. That was from the very beginning when I was in high school. It never factored into my mind as a detriment. Part of the reason was, as a reason, where I grew up, kids played all the sports in high school. I played a lot of basketball and was a point guard. I made an All-Star league in North Carolina. I was always a short point guard, but it never factored into my mentality. I always felt like there was a level field for all of us. One thing about me was that I was always a good competitor. It didn’t matter what the others thought. I was a good competitor. I always saw winning in front of me. I never saw losing in front of me—always winning. That’s a psychological trait that you carry with you from one sport to the other. I certainly did that in track when I ran the one Mile and two Mile.
BBTM: Describe the role of Coach Igloi in regards to your indoor Mile record. What was he doing before and during the race?
JB: Igloi’s modus operandi was always to never tell you what the strategy was before any race. Somewhere between five and fifteen minutes before the race, he would tell you what his plan was for the race. His plan was for you to execute. On that particular evening, he got Jim Grelle, myself and Laszlo Tabori together and then laid out the plan and also the times for each quarter mile. Igloi told Tabori that he would go first and run 58 to 59 [seconds] and I would take over and come in at 1:58-1:59 for the half-mile. Then Grelle would take over and get us to a three-minute three-quarter mile. After that, it was every man for himself.
Like I said before, when I felt the pace drop, I took over from the three-quarter mile point. But that was the way Igloi operated. He, of course, knew way ahead of time what he was going to do. He didn’t want to put any pressure on the athletes until right before the race. It was kind of a shock therapy and you were ready to go. At the time, I had just come back from Europe. I had a slight strain in my right buttocks from slipping in Warsaw, Poland. It wasn’t detrimental to my running, but I took some time off to just let it heal. I was just jogging. And so I came up to Igloi and told him what I wanted to do. I asked him a simple question. This was around early October. I said I wanted to be the first man to run an indoor 4:00 Mile. Do we have enough time to be in peak condition? Coach Igloi closed his eyes and he started charting my workouts. He opened up his eyes and in broken English, said, “We have time.” That’s all he said. He closed his eyes again and was going through the sequence once again of not just my races, but also my indoor seasons. Then he opened up his eyes again and said, “We will run under a 4:00 Mile at the L.A. Times Indoor Meet.”
BBTM: Great comments, and thank you, Jim Beatty.