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George Young — October, 2012
George Young won the Bronze Medal in the 1968 Olympic 3,000 meter steeplechase in Mexico City, Mexico’s high altitude with a time of 8:51.8. He competed in four Olympics, in 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972, the only U.S. runner to do so in the amateur era. At the Olympic Trials, George won the steeplechase in 1960, 1964 and 1968, placed second in the 5,000 meters in 1972 and won the 1968 Olympic Trials Marathon in his first attempt at the distance. In 1968 he set two world records in the indoor 2-mile (8:27.2) and 3-mile (13:09.8). George set American Records in the steeplechase multiple times and in the 2-mile, indoor 3-mile, 5000 meters and 4x1500 meter relay. At age 34, he became the oldest person in the world (at that time) to run a sub-4:00 mile, with a time of 3:59.6. George raced collegiately for the University of Arizona with best times of a 4:11 mile and 9:11 two-mile. At Western High School in Silver City (NM) he was a quarter miler and a member of the New Mexico State Champs in the mile medley relay. His personal best times include: mile - 3:59.6; 2-mile – 8:22.0; steeplechase - 8:30.6 and 5000m - 13:32.2. George coached for over 25 years at Central Arizona College. In 1988 he led his team to the 1988 NJCAA cross country title and he was named the coach of the year. George's Hall of Fame inductions number at least ten and include the University of Arizona HOF in 1968, National Track and Field HOF in 1981, NJCAA Track and Cross Country HOF in 1996 and, National Distance Running HOF in 2003. His 1975 biography is ‘Always Young.’ George and his wife, Nancy, reside in Casa Grande, Arizona. He was kind to spend an hour and a half on the telephone in September, 2012.
GCR:Let’s start with your achievement as the first American runner to compete in four Olympic Games which you did in 1960 in Rome, 1964 in Tokyo, 1968 in Mexico City and 1972 in Munich. With the perspective of four decades and especially since you did this during the amateur era, what does this accomplishment mean?
GYI didn’t pay that much attention to it as I was doing it as it was a matter of my being in good condition, I was running well and I was able to work it into my family schedule and my work schedule. I just felt like I was in good shape and didn’t want to lose it as long as I was having fun and running well. So I just kept it up, enjoyed it and it was like a hobby. It wasn’t a job to me as I enjoyed it.
GCR:When observers evaluate athletic careers, they often look at championships and records. Multiple times you set the U.S. steeplechase record, you set the American two mile record with a time of 8:22.0 and in 1969 broke world records in the indoor two and three mile events. You won four Olympic Trials events and a handful of U.S. Championships plus an Olympic Bronze Medal. How do you evaluate your own running career?
GYI look at it as giving the best effort that I could and I loved it. I have some bad feelings about running some stupid races, especially in the Olympic Games, but on the other hand I don’t want to look back too much, whether it was good or bad. I have to live with the results and can’t live in yesterday. My mother always taught me that when you do something you should always do the best that you can. That is probably one reason I stuck in there as I was getting better every year and kept running faster races at different distances every year until I was 35 years old. I figured that obviously I still had more and each year I worked harder and sure enough I improved some more. When you are doing that well, why quit?
GCR:For Olympic athletes a lofty goal is to medal and the ultimate goal is the Gold Medal. What are your thoughts on earning a bronze medal in the 3,000 meter steeplechase in 1968, but most likely missing out on the Gold medal due to the high altitude of Mexico City?
GYI don’t dwell on that a lot. The Olympics were held in Mexico City which in my opinion was a stupid decision made by the international Olympic Committee to appease some countries. Basically it just wasn’t fair. But I couldn’t dwell on that as that was the city where I had to compete and I had to prepare as best as I could. We stayed up in Flagstaff at altitude and trained there and so I ran about as well as I could have. I can’t look back and feel bad about it as you have to accept the results for what they are and not worry about it.
GCR:When you saw that the first five finishers in the 10,000 meters were all runners who had lived at high altitude and that the best in the world, Ron Clarke, was left in their wake, how did this affect your approach to your race?
GYI knew where the competition would come from. I had to convince myself that I was as prepared as I could be and to go out and meet them head to head.
GCR:It seemed like the race played right into your hands with its slow pace and then you took the lead with 300 meters to go. How surprised were you when the altitude caused you to hit the wall and then that the two Kenyans, Biwott and Kogo, were able to pass you?
GYI had trained enough at altitude to know that there is a point at which the speed you are going will affect you more than it does at sea level. Looking back, maybe I should have waited longer – I don’t know – but there was a wide open space and I took it. I didn’t know if I could hold the faster pace all the way to the finish as there is a point where you can’t hold the speed. I don’t agree with people who think that if you train at high altitude you will race a lot better at low altitude. I think the ideal situation would be to live at high altitude but to get on an elevator for your speed work at sea level and then to do your long runs at high altitude. When I hit that fast pace I was hoping I could hold on and I just didn’t have quite enough to get to the finish line.
GCR:When you were on the medal stand with your Bronze medal and they played the Kenyan National Anthem were there feelings of what might have been?
GYI wasn’t the happiest person in the world. I trained and trained for it for years and years and was put in a situation where I probably didn’t have a chance to win. I was happy to get a medal, but I had to get over my disappointment and the next day was a new day, a new time, a new world and that’s when I decided that I was in good shape so I went back and ran some fast races.
GCR:That was your third Olympic Games, so let’s go back eight years to 1960. First, how exciting was it to make your first U.S. Olympic team and to realize that you were an Olympian?
GYI was probably the most surprised person at the Olympic Trials at Stanford Stadium. The night before the race I was reading the San Francisco newspaper and they had predictions for the races. They listed the top 12 and I was picked to place 11th. This didn’t surprise me as the fastest steeplechase I ran before then was a 9:07 or 9:08. I was in the army and had just finished infantry officer training at Ft. Benning and spent a few weeks at Ft. Lee Virginia, fortunately with top steeplechaser Deacon Jones. I figured this was my last race. I convinced myself before the race that afterward I was going to Korea so I might as well run the best race I could.
GCR:You weren’t one of the favorites at the 1960 Olympic Trials, so what were your expectations, what was your strategy and how shocking was it when you were able to pass Deacon Jones and Phil Coleman for the victory?
GYMy strategy was to get into fourth place in the middle of the race and to possibly outkick somebody to get to third place. That is the way my plan went. When I caught Tom Oakley, who was one of the favorites, it kind of pepped me up. When I passed Deacon I really got pepped up. Before I knew it I was sprinting past Phil Coleman to the finish line. I was pumped and ran an 8:52 or something which was a lot faster than I had ever run and I think it was an Olympic Trials Record. There were like 80,000 people in the stadium and they were going wild. I didn’t know what to think. My first thought was, ‘What am I going to do now?
GCR:In your preliminary heat in Rome you tripped over a last lap barrier and narrowly missed advancing to the final. How disappointing was this and do you think you could have been a medal contender?
GYThat was terribly disappointing. I was feeling good and took a pretty nasty fall with about 300 yards to go. I got up and still had a lot left and came up on the Russian runner who beat me, but not by much. I do think I could have been a factor in the finals as Deacon got sixth. I wouldn’t have been a Gold Medalist, but could have been right in there with the top runners.
GCR:What are some of the best memories of your first Olympic trip?
GYThe city of Rome was fantastic as were the stadium and the Coliseum. The practice field was lined with statues. When we went through the tunnel into the main stadium it was beautiful. To walk from the village across the Tiber River we went across an old bridge and the setting was fantastic.
GCR:Leaping ahead to the next Olympic Games, after a bout of pneumonia how much help was it to train with eventual 5,000 meter Gold medalist Bob Schul as you prepared for the Tokyo Olympics?
GYIt’s always good to have someone to train with. Training with Bob was good as I had been training in the desert basically all by myself. Training with someone else helped me to evaluate if my training was hard enough. Bob didn’t do anything that I couldn’t handle. The workouts weren’t so tough that I couldn’t do them. But they were different and change was kind of nice. I took some of his ideas in training and utilized the ideas from the other coaches and athletes I had trained with.
GCR:Did you have anyone who was your ‘sounding board’ or were you just getting ideas and synthesizing them into your training plan?
GYAt that time Coach Cooper had done a good job of preparing me and I was on my own at that point. My idea of a hard workout was one where I either threw up or got cramps. In the end it made me a stronger runner, but I didn’t have anyone I bounced ideas off of until later when I got together with Coach Fox in my hometown of Silver City, New Mexico. He was a math teacher, but he was also a coach who drilled me with training methods and helped me to get my training under control. I had always trained as hard as I could and it was probably too hard. Training with Bob Schul also helped me to get my training under control. My experience as a runner is that my training methods were learned from others. I was able to pick up a lot from Bob who had learned from Igloi. I talked to the Oregon runners and learned from them along with Ted Hayden, the Chicago track coach who was very good. I also got to know the Russian coach, Gaber Kirovko, and we talked training so I learned from him. I spoke with Percy Cerutty about his training and I meshed it all together.
GCR:You had a sound plan to aim for the Silver Medal in Tokyo behind the overwhelming favorite, Belgium’s Gaston Roelants. Did the fresh memory of Billy Mills’ amazing 10,000 meter Gold medal possibly influence your decision in mid-race to abandon your strategy and to race for Gold?
GYI’ve often kiddingly accused Billy of waylaying my plans. I was so excited when he won his race since we had trained together and were good friends. I talked with Peyton Jordan before the race and we agreed that no one would beat Roelants for the Gold so my plans were to go for the Silver. Gaston took out the pace and I was feeling good just like I knew that I would. But I ran a stupid race when I took off after him. Maurice Harriet got the Silver medal and I had beaten him previously. But it was my entire fault – I had to live with that decision which was a poor one on my part trying to run after Gaston.
GCR:Most people don’t realize that you also qualified for the 1968 Olympic Marathon by winning the Olympic Trials and then finished 16th in the Olympic Marathon. Describe how it felt running such a long race distance at a slower pace and some of the highlights and memories of these two marathons.
GYI hadn’t changed my training methods at all for the marathon. Billy Mills and I both had young families and were living in Flagstaff. I had a recreation job during the summer that helped pay my expenses. Billy and I had been training together and Billy suggested a change of pace to get away from having to take care of our young kids. Each week we had been going on a 16 or 17 mile run. Billy was following my training schedule and told me that the training was much harder than what he did before the 1964 Olympics. We decided to run the Olympic Marathon Trials and I told Billy that I hadn’t run a marathon. He said to just run along with him. The course was five 5-mile laps with a tail end. We ran along and the guys kept getting further and further ahead of us. He had a lower back problem and with about a lap to go he said, ‘George, I can’t go any further. My back is killing me. You can pick it up and go after them now.’ I said, ‘Wait, wait,’ but he couldn’t go any further. I took off and lo and behold I dragged the other runners in and it proved to me why the marathon had been relegated to slow distance runners who were too slow to even run the 10,000 meters. I had realized before then that sub-4:00 milers would destroy marathon records as foot racing is a matter of speed. The fastest runner wins if he does enough training. I had a lack of experience which cost me at the Olympic Games as I was in the top ten late in the race. I hadn’t consumed enough liquids and, even though I was running at a pace which I could handle, I got cramps in both legs from my hamstrings down to my heels with about 4,000 meters to go. I had to hobble in due to my lack of experience and not having anyone to tell me what I needed to do. All I knew was to go out and race.
GCR:You retired from competitive running as you got into your thirties, but came back and prepared for the 1972 Munich Olympics at age 34. What caused you to aim for another Olympics and why did you switch events to the 5,000 meters?
GYI had laid off from running for a couple years and when I received a Fellowship to work on a Doctoral degree at Northern Arizona University, Coach Hamberlack had a couple of good English runners, Sliner and Selby, and he asked me if I would run with them. So I did and on the long runs I was feeling super. So I felt like I could get in shape pretty quickly. The more I trained with them the more I thought - what the heck, this isn’t bad, I haven’t lost as much as I thought I had. Looking back - I should have been running the 5,000 meters all along. I had good leg speed. I’m not that tall, so I was an adequate hurdler who had to work to get over the hurdles, not like some of the long-legged Kenyans who stepped over the hurdles. With my speed and endurance I should have stayed with the flat race, the 5,000 meters, and I may have been more successful.
GCR:You pushed Steve Prefontaine at the 1972 Olympic Trials in the 5,000 meters and you both broke the American Record though he pulled away on the final two laps to win. How tough of a competitor was Pre?
GYI knew that he was a tough competitor. I was pretty sure that I could stay with him but didn’t know about the end because my conditioning compared with where I was I 1968 was not too close. I was training well and training hard but my average times on my repeat 400s which is how I evaluated my condition weren’t as fast. I knew that I wouldn’t have the kick I had in 1968. If I was in the condition I was in 1968 I would have beat him. I stuck as close as I could and when he kicked I realized I didn’t have it yet.
GCR:Unfortunately an injury didn’t leave you at your best for Munich. Was this just another in a line of misfortunes of race tactics, altitude or injury that always seemed to leave you shy of having it all come together for a perfect Olympic moment?
GYNot being able to run fast at the end of the Olympic Trials 5,000 meters was my downfall as when I went back to flagstaff I immediately increased my conditioning. I was doing more hill work and, unbeknownst to me, I had hurt my lower back which was causing pain in my groin and my legs. So I actually lost conditioning after the Trials instead of gaining conditioning. Like I say, if you look at who won the Gold Medals in distance races for the U.S., they just happened to be in the right race on the right day at the right time. Bob Schul and Billy Mills were prepared and it all came together and both won. If you look at their races before and after, they were good, but you have to hit it on that day.
GCR:The Munich Olympic Games were marred by the terrorist hostage taking and killings. Describe your memories of this tragedy and its effect on you, your teammates and others.
GYIt just ruined the entire atmosphere of the Games. We just wanted to get it done and get out of there. An odd experience is that Jim Ryun and I went out to train that morning and the gate was locked to the soccer field where we did our morning runs. So we climbed over the fence. When we came back and started climbing the still locked fence, there was a German with a submachine gun who stopped us. We did have our badges to he checked them and let us in. It was really sad as from our rooms we could see the terrorists taking the Israelis out of the village and on television we saw the events at the airport and the explosion.
GCR:What are some outstanding memories from your four Olympic Games from the Opening or Closing Ceremonies, the cities, the people or other highlights?
GYAt the first Olympics in Rome, as I mentioned, I was still wondering what I was doing there with all of these athletes I had read about. Here I was trying to figure out what I was doing there. The Opening Ceremonies left me not knowing whether or not I wanted to participate as they are very long and involve a lot of standing – plus when they release the doves you might get crapped on! Nothing stands out that was really super. Someone like Avery Brundage would give a big speech to open the Games and they lit the torch. It was alright, but my thoughts at that point were that I should be focusing on my best training and getting the proper rest and food. I saw a lot of athletes who made the team and then went down the tubes as it was just their goal to make the team, their training went downhill and their racing went to pot.
GCR:Did you watch many other track and field events, attend other Olympic sporting competitions or hang out with any athletes from the U.S or foreign nations?
GYI didn’t really get to know many athletes from other nations as I was focused on my competition and my nutrition. We had to train and get proper rest. I tried to be very careful not to overeat as there were great cafeterias with wonderful food choices. It was all-you-can-eat so we had to be careful. I didn’t do as much touring as was available because my thoughts were that I didn’t go to the Olympics to be a tourist or spectator. The only time I did touring around was if I had time when I was done racing.
GCR:You ran a sub-4:00 mile at age 34 which and at the time were the oldest to do so. How important was it to run this fast in order for the pace to feel more comfortable at the 5,000 meter distance?
GYI actually had to beg them to let me into that mile race which included Tom Von Ruden, Jim Ryun and quite a few other top guys. If I hadn’t been in the race I don’t know how well they would have run because I took off with a lap to go and took the lead as they were running a tactical race. Four guys went by me and I finished fifth, but I broke the four minute mile which is why I was racing that day. Looking back I wish I had raced some mile races back in 1968. I realize now that when I broke the four minute mile I wasn’t in the shape I was in 1968. I think that if I had raced a mile in 1968 I easily could have run 3:55 or 3:54.
GCR:After the Munich Olympics you ran professional track for a couple of years. How did you like the pro tour and its competition of camaraderie and competitiveness?
GYWe all got to be pretty good friends which in a way took away somewhat from the competitiveness. Running for money didn’t have the same effect for me as running competitively against my opponents. All of us were running in every race, eating together, travelling together and we got to know each other. I thought that this running for $500 was not all that it was made out to be. It didn’t turn me on. I hung in there and ran as best as I could and made a few bucks, but it wasn’t appealing to me psychologically. I didn’t get as pumped up for the races as when I was just running races in one of the big outdoor coliseums or exciting indoor arenas.
GCR:Let’s take a look at when you started running as a teenager. Did the mid-1950s excitement of John Landy, Roger Bannister and Wes Santee’s aim to break the four-minute mile attract you to the sport?
GYI was attracted to running in high school but not to longer races like the mile. When I started running on the track team we didn’t do a lot of training. We would just run a few laps and I was maybe the only one dumb enough to run the mile. The coach didn’t have anyone to put in the mile so he put me in it one time and I slogged through it. Basically after that I was a quarter miler on relay teams.
GCR:At Western High School in Silver City, New Mexico what races did you run and what are some highlights?
GYIn New Mexico high school meets we had the mile relay, mile medley relay, distance medley relay and half mile relay. I had enough leg speed that I could run the quarter on all three of them and run on the half mile relay. I probably ran in the low 50s for the quarter mile. They never really got an official time on me but my fastest time was probably at the State meet in Albuquerque when we won the mile medley relay. It was a big deal for us, but obviously I wasn’t going to get a scholarship and I wasn’t considered to be a distance runner.
GCR:How did you decide to attend the University of Arizona?
GYI made a decision to go to the University of Arizona in Tucson because my girlfriend at the time, who was a year behind me in school, was going to go there since her sister and friends were there. I just got a job there and walked on. My folks had enough money for my tuition, but not for anything else.
GCR:How did you progress from just attending school to running cross country and track?
GYOne guy suggested I go through fraternity rush and join a fraternity. I didn’t even know what a fraternity was. They told me if I did that and got picked up that I might be able to get a job washing dishing that would pay for my room and board. Sure enough I joined a fraternity, got a job washing dishes and paid for my living expenses. All of the freshmen pledges at that fraternity had to run in the intramural cross country race. I was in good condition because my family lived out of town and if I wanted to get to town I had to walk or run. So I ran in my old Converse basketball shoes. I loved basketball and had played a lot of basketball and football in high school. I got in the intramural race and won it. The track coach, Coach Cooper, came up and thought it would be a good idea if I went out for cross country. I told him that number one I didn’t know what cross country was and number two I couldn’t do it because I had to work a job as I didn’t have enough money to pay for my education. He told me he would get me a job. He got me all sorts of jobs. I unloaded freight cars and groceries at night, worked at the dog track, had a job handing out towels, jocks and socks at the gym, lined the football field and gave out tickets at the basketball games. I stayed busy and enjoyed it. So that’s how I started running at Arizona.
GCR:What was your training like when you started at Arizona and did you get fast as a distance runner quickly or was it a consistent four years of improvement?
GYWhen I started out I would just go with the cross country runners and do what they did. I didn’t find it to be difficult and my freshman year I ran a 9:52 two-mile. I still wasn’t very good, but I hung in there, kept improving and ran a little bit faster every year. My senior year I was in pretty good shape. I had confidence, but didn’t consider my running as anything special. That year I ran a 4:11 or 4:12 mile and a 9:11 or 9:12 two-mile – something like that. I just followed whoever set the pace and outkicked them. I never lost a race that last year.
GCR:What were some of the important training sessions which fueled your collegiate improvement and helped you to transition from being a quarter miler to a distance runner?
GYOverall I don’t remember that the training was that hard. We would do a lot of repeat quarter miles. Coach Cooper also had us do repeat 1,320s and I hated them. When I coached years later I didn’t have my guys do them as I feel that everything on the track should be faster than race pace and 1,320s are not so you might as well be on a long run. At Arizona for distance training we did five to seven mile runs on the road. We completely took the day off before a race. Our training was only once a day. Coach Cooper certainly didn’t over train us but I was getting stronger and stronger. I wasn’t training for the Olympics, just for our meets and to help pay my way through college. I was just having a good time.
GCR:What was Coach Cooper’s influence on you in terms of your running progress and transitioning to a top U.S. distance runner?
GYHe was very good - if it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t have been running. Back then an athlete could only compete on varsity and be eligible for the NCAAs for three years. Since I was on varsity all four years I wasn’t eligible to run at the NCAAs my senior year. Coach Cooper felt bad about that so he said we are going to collect enough money in town to send me to the 1959 national AAU meet. He said I deserved another race as I had run so well. I had my doubts but he said I should go and that I should run the steeplechase. I said, ‘What is that?’ We didn’t have it then in college. He introduced me to it and fortunately we had a runner who used to run for the New York Athletic Club with Horace Ashenfelter – his name was Fred Shepler. He worked with one of the big electronic companies in Tucson and knew a little bit about the steeplechase. He helped me out and I went to Boulder, Colorado to run the steeplechase. Fortunately, Silver City, where I grew up, was a mile high city which benefitted me.
GCR:You came out of nowhere to finish second at the AAUs in the steeplechase. Could you describe how that race transpired?
GYI was so scared that I didn’t even want to go into the cafeteria to eat – there was Parry O’Brien and all of the guys I had read about in Sports Illustrated and I was embarrassed to be there. I got in the race and I’m convinced that everyone in it just wasn’t good enough to run the 5,000 meters or 10,000 meters. I had raced against Max Truex who was a senior at Southern Cal when I was a sophomore and he was the number one 10,000 meter distance runner in the United States. I knew who he was but we had never talked with each other. So I was racing, the runners were scattered around as some were getting lapped and I didn’t have a clue where I was in the field. I even thought that if I stepped off the track no one would even know the difference. About that time Max Truex called out, ‘George, you’re in second place – keep it up!’ I was so pumped up that Max knew my name. I ended up in second place and that qualified me for the US-USSR dual meet and the Pan Am Games. There are some things in one’s life which change your entire future and that race was one of them.
GCR:You burst upon the scene in the steeplechase and were a surprising victor at the 1960 Olympic Trials. Did you like the steeplechase right away?
GYNo, I didn’t like it at all. I was initially convinced that everyone was so much better than me that I couldn’t compete with them.
GCR:It often takes a tough opponent to help us reach our potential. Did you have any favorite competitors or adversaries that really helped to push yourself to the limit?
GYIn college one that helped me a lot was an Australian athlete who went to Arizona State named Alex Henderson and he was really good. He was better than I was but I didn’t care. In both cross country and track I would go after him and stick with him as long as I could. It used to make him mad in cross country as I would go out strong and he would come up on my shoulder and bump me. That just made me mad and I thought, ‘One of these days I’m going to beat him,’ but I never did. It’s interesting that my senior year at the Conference meet I was ready for him but he didn’t run because he had blisters. I often thought that he knew I was going to be after him that day. Internationally I loved to run against Ron Clarke. That was the pinnacle of competition as he held many World Records. I didn’t care who it was in a race – I picked out the runners I thought were the best and I tried to beat them.
GCR:If you were racing at the level you were in the 1960s and early 1970s and there were the sponsorship opportunities to make a living that there are today, what do you speculate would have been the effect on your running career?
GYI don’t know but I’ve often said that I don’t think I would have enjoyed that. When I ran I went out every morning and ran seven and a half or eight miles in less than 45 miles. In the afternoon my warm up and interval training might be another seven miles total. All together the total time I trained each day was a little more than two hours. What would I do with the rest of the day now? Back then I had a job teaching, I had a family and I was building a home. I kept busy and enjoyed it. I just don’t know what distance runners do now as professional runners with the rest of their day. I was running 100 miles a week so I guess maybe a runner could do even more mileage.
GCR:The 1960s was a time when track and field was very prominent in the American media. Why is it that track and field is not on the radar of most Americans now except during the Olympics?
GYBack then I could run in an indoor track meet on Saturday and then come home and watch myself run on tape on Sunday on ABC’s Wide World of Sports on a regular basis. So track meets were available for kids and adults to enjoy viewing. The Millrose Games in New York, the Los Angeles indoor meet and the Cow Palace meet in San Francisco were always all sold out. It was really exciting because of all the publicity. Now pro sports have taken over and with all of the money they pay to be televised. The NCAA doesn’t care about track and field or cross country. Other sports have fallen by the wayside in college too like wrestling, swimming and gymnastics. The NCAA just has these sports because they feel it is necessary but the attention isn’t there anymore. It isn’t important because of the emphasis on money. Television and pro sports have basically killed any interest we used to have in track, cross country and other Olympic sports.
GCR:Who are some of your favorite competitors from back during your running days?
GYI enjoyed getting to know Ron Clarke. Tommie Smith was a good friend. Obviously, Billy Mills was a close friend of mine. Another was Bill Dellinger. Jim Ryun was a very good friend. When he made the Olympic team in 1964 his folks were concerned about him being a young teenager We went to the same church so they asked me if I would watch out over him. Well, Jim didn’t need any watching over at any rate. I enjoyed his friendship and rooted for him throughout his running years. I remember watching Gerry Lindgren and Jim Ryun run their first race against each other at the Cow Palace. They were both young kids. Ryun was a big kid, got tripped and fell down. He was very disappointed. Jim was very special to me as was Billy Mills. They were great to just sit and talk with. It was nice being around all of them, but when people ask me now why live in Casa Grande, Arizona as there isn’t anything there for distance runners, I feel that is great for me as the people who know me here just know that my name is George.
GCR:What are your thoughts on training with a group since you spent so much of your time training alone?
GYI didn’t have many close running friends because I didn’t live near them. People kept suggesting that I move to where there were runners to train with but that didn’t interest me as I liked to train by myself. I didn’t think anyone was training as hard as I was or could push me any harder. I was so in tune to my workouts that I was mentally running races against other runners in my workouts. If someone else was running with me it was a distraction.
GCR:Following your running career, you coached at Central Arizona College and led your teams to over a dozen championships, including the 1988 national title in cross country. How rewarding is it to help others succeed and to reach their athletic potential compared to your own personal accomplishments?
GYWhen I first started at Central Arizona I was coaching everything from 100 yards to the shot put to the pole vault. I had a good mentor, Al Van Hazel, at Casa Grande High School who was a successful football and track coach. He was one of the best hurdle coaches in the nation so I learned a lot about hurdling. He was also a very good weight man so that helped me. The things I learned about distance running in particular I had copied from other runners and coaches so I thought it was imperative to pass those along to my runners. I trained them hard. If you talk to my runners they will tell you that I was a hard coach though I hope now that they appreciate it.
GCR:How much more difficult is it to instill in others the necessary discipline, focus and mental toughness?
GYSometimes it is very disappointing because there were young athletes that had more talent and speed than I had but they weren’t mentally tough. It was sad that I couldn’t always bring everything out of some runners so that they ran at their capabilities. But I never quit trying. What is rewarding is that now I have runners I coached who will call me or visit me.
GCR:Let’s get your opinion on a number of training elements based on your personal knowledge as an athlete and from coaching others. What are your thoughts on how much mileage to run when building base endurance and adding speed work?
GYIt’s a hard question to answer because there are runners like Jim Ryun who weren’t your normal high school runner. Beginning runners have to get an initial base and kids these days may never have had to walk or run to school or town. They have ridden in cars their whole life and so there are wide varieties in condition for new athletes. My feeling is that if a coach is at a school for many years he will establish the amounts of mileage that a new freshman can do and then if training keeps up a natural progression. Back when the theory of long, slow distance came out we had a lot of long, slow distance runners. The thought is that you have to have the distance to be strong so that you can do speed work. Other coaches would start speed work after a few weeks. ‘Do they get sore?’ I would ask and they would say, ‘Yes.’ My runners didn’t because I would give them speed work right when we started training. They were sore the first few days, but then were used to it and didn’t get sore.
GCR:Quarter mile repeats were an integral part of most training programs back in the 1960s and continue to be to this day. What are some of the main points you would like to make about using repeat quarters, or 400 meters, for distance runners?
GYOne important item I learned from Jim Ryun’s coach, Bob Timmons, was to record what my runners were doing so that I knew what they each could handle. Coach Fox would have me doing 12 quarter mile intervals with a minute run rest in 70 seconds in August which I thought was ridiculously slow. Nine months later I was doing them in 59 seconds which was difficult, but achievable because we improved gradually. Your mind and body both tell you that you can do it.
GCR:How did these speed sessions indicate overall fitness and influence others factors of your coaching philosophy?
GYWhen I would periodically time my long runs they were getting faster and faster without any more effort. Why? Because my body was in tune to faster speed work on the track. Long runs became easier and easier and then faster and faster. They both go hand in hand and that is my basic philosophy on how distance runners should be coached. Coaches need to know what their runners can do in a workout comfortably and then the coach must push them and motivate them to get faster and faster. If they do so, then their races will get faster. I knew when my runners were going to run better or worse because their workouts were excellent predictors. If they were goofing around, partying or losing sleep their workouts weren’t good and neither were their races. The results spoke for themselves. Then I would use it as a teaching tool so the runners understood that they had to have good workouts to follow up with good races. Workouts are where it’s at. I enjoyed working out and enjoyed working out hard. It was a good feeling to go home after a good workout that was maybe my best ever, to take a shower and then to feel good the rest of the day.
GCR:How important is running on soft surfaces and what mix of soft surface running and road running should be implemented for high school and college track and cross country runners and adults training for road races?
GYIt’s nice to have a golf course or dirt road to run on, but I trained on a lot of paved roads. I did so because knew that my pace would be a lot faster than on a sandy trail. I preferred a firm surface when I trained hard. When I ran on beaches I only did so at low tide when the sand was nice and firm. Some people would suggest that I run in soft sand and even wear combat boots to get tough, but you couldn’t go very fast or far! You can only train on soft, sandy surfaces for so long because you can’t get the endurance effect. Herb Elliott used to run up sand dunes barefoot, but it was after his long runs. And he was doing speed work and strength training by doing them fast. If I’m taking a rest day or getting ready for a race and there is a soft surface to run on I will use it. But day in and day out I run on a firm surface where I can keep a steady pace.
GCR:How important is the mental part of training and racing and developing the ability to endure increasing levels of discomfort?
GYI think a lot of that comes back to your ability to focus during your running. When runners are out on a run laughing and joking they aren’t really into concentrating on what they are doing. That’s why I liked training by myself. I could get myself pumped up during a workout to run faster and faster and I realized that is the same thing I would have to do in a race. You have to be so focused and so excited about your race that you can accomplish anything you want to do. It’s hard to explain as the ability to control your subconscious mind is something else. When your subconscious mind tells you you’re hurting, what do people do? They slow down. Not me. When I’m hurting and my subconscious mind tells me to slow down I think, ‘No – I’ve got you just where I want you now.’ And then I pick up the pace. Sure enough, what happens is that you can overcome what your subconscious mind was telling you was uncomfortable. You have to overcome that pain level and destroy it. You have to get to the point that your subconscious mind cannot make you slow down just because you feel a little pain. I just tell myself, ‘If I have this pain then that other guy must be about ready to die.’
GCR:You were inducted into at least ten Halls of Fame including the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1981, the Mt. SAC Relays Hall of Fame in 1987 and the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in 2003. You also were named the National Junior College Athletic Association coach of the year in 1988. Is it both rewarding and humbling to be so recognized?
GYIt’s nice but if it never happened it wouldn’t have bothered me. It wasn’t the reason I was out training. I was enjoying running, it was satisfying, I was happy with most of my results and the times I wasn’t I couldn’t do anything about. So the recognition was nice, but I sometimes humorously will tell people that they got down to the letter ‘Y’ and didn’t have anyone else so they inducted me!
GCR:What did you do for fitness and what is your current exercise regimen?
GYMy priority right now is painting the house! (laughing) I don’t run every day now, but I do continue to run or walk every day – seven days a week. If I’m walking I do a steady pace of about 17 minutes a mile for about 45 minutes and then I add some weight training, pull ups and stretching exercises. When I run I don’t go very fast. I tell people that I used to time myself to see how fast I was running and now I time myself to see how long it takes me. I try to stay out for a length of time because cardiovascularly that is the most important for me. If I timed myself on a route I used to do when I was much faster it would be pretty depressing so I know better than to do that. But it is important to me that regardless of the weather I do some exercise every day.
GCR:What goals do you have for yourself in fitness and other aspects of your life for the upcoming years?
GYMy goal is to try to maintain a level of fitness that makes me feel good about myself and where I don’t gain too much weight. I look at myself in the mirror and I don’t look too bad for 75 years old. That is important to me. I don’t have any other goals. I do have a problem in that I don’t have any cartilage in the socket between my femur and my hip bone which can be pretty painful at times so I take an Aleve and keep on going. I’d just like to be able to keep doing my daily exercise.
GCR:What are the major lessons you have learned during your life from your youth, the discipline of running, coaching and any adversity you have faced that you would like to share with my readers?
GYDon’t look back, which is probably an old cliché. Also, don’t say, ‘I’ll get started tomorrow,’ as you might not be here tomorrow. Try to make every day you are here on earth a good day and a successful day. If you do you will sleep better at night. Like my mom said, if you are going to do something, then do it to the best of your ability. Also, if you start something, then finish it. It’s all pretty simple advice.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/Interests: I like to fish. I’ve been playing golf for quite a few years. I’m not very good at it and have reached the point where I know I won’t be good, but I still enjoy golfing. I tell people that I have a lot of stress in my life because when I get up in the morning I don’t know whether to go fishing or play golf
Favorite moviesWhen I grew up I preferred westerns and old war movies. There aren’t any good westerns anymore that John Wayne is gone. I grew up and remember World War II, so growing up in that atmosphere made lots of winners and people who wanted to win
Favorite TV showsWe used to watch many television shows like Bonanza, The Rifleman and other western shows but now my wife and I watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune
Favorite musicCountry and Western music like songs by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Marty Robbins
Favorite booksI do a lot more reading now than I used to. I like western novels that are easy to read and where you know that the good guys are always going to win
First carA 1949 Chevy Coupe that I could work on myself. I could raise the hood and put in spark plugs, points and condenser and change the oil filter. My dad had a car parts store so I understood a bit about cars
Current carA 2008 Ford F150 4-wheel drive pickup truck. I appreciate it and wouldn’t trade it for any other vehicle
First JobsWe worked all of the time when we were growing up. If we didn’t have a job of our own, then dad had us work in the parts store sweeping the floor, washing the windows or dusting shelves. If we were at home mom had us help cleaning the house or digging up flower beds. We couldn’t just lie around the house. It was before television so we always had to stay busy. When I was old enough I fought forest fires in the Hila Wilderness area, the first wilderness area in the United States. Back then they just hired us, gave us tools and sent us out with no training. I’m surprised we made it through okay
FamilyMy mom and dad were very important in my life. My mom was the toughest person I ever met. She was strong and took very good care of us. Mom was a good cook and we probably ate better than people eat now. She had to remake a lot of clothes for us from clothes that neighbors gave us. Mom used to tell me, ‘You can be anything you want to be if you set your mind to it,’ and that was my attitude with my running. Dad worked until he was 80 years old and provided for his family, so I had a very good upbringing. My older brother, Ted, passed away a couple years ago and we just came back from visiting my sister, Jonell, who is a few years older. I have a younger brother, Terry, who lives in Houston. My folks were from Texas so our names had to have a ring to them – my brother was ‘Teddy Ray,’ I was ‘George L’ and my younger brother was ‘Terry Glen.’ My wife is Nancy. She has a son and a daughter and I have a son and a daughter. Nancy’s daughter has four kids. My son has one kid and my daughter has two boys
PetsWe don’t have pets anymore. I had one dog, a half Spitz and half Samoan named Sassy, who ran with me for many years but I had to put her away when she was 18 or 19 years old. She looked like a wolf. She was small and probably lived a long life because she ran with me every morning. We had one other dog that we liked pretty well and someone either stole or killed him so I decided to have no more pets
Favorite breakfastWe eat healthy breakfasts now, but I like good old sausage, eggs, hash browns and toast
Favorite foodI like Mexican food like tacos and enchiladas. I still like to cook out steaks and I love barbequed ribs. I like everything – even liver and onions (his wife, Nancy, exclaimed in the background, ‘Not very often!). I love salty food but try to stay away from chips. By the way, salsa is hard to beat. I also love green chili – we get them from Hatch, New Mexico – roast them, freeze them and put them away for the winter
Favorite beveragesI drink a lot of water. I like to have a beer. I pretty much quit drinking pop and try to stay away from sugars
First running memoriesThe first time I ever remember running a race was when I was in the seventh grade in the 50 yard dash. I don’t know if I got last or next to last, but I didn’t do very well. We had a so-called little track team and had two or three track meets. We probably trained for only two or three weeks before the meets
Greatest running momentMy first Olympic Trials at Stanford when I won the steeplechase and made my first Olympic team
Worst running momentThe 1964 Olympic Games is the one I lose more sleep over than any other. I wake up sometimes saying, ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid’
Childhood dreamsI wanted to be in the army. I had an uncle who was in the army in World War II who was in about six major invasions. I was mesmerized when we went to the movies on Saturdays and they showed news clips of the war effort. I just knew right away that with one of my favorite uncles in the service that I wanted to be in the army
Funny memoriesThere were times where I barely made it to an indoor race in time. Once I had to dress in the cab on the way to a race at the Cow Palace in San Francisco because my plane was late. Then I had to beg the guy at the gate to let me into the Cow Palace and I just made it to the starting line on time
Favorite places to travelI love the beach at a little place in Mexico that we visit. There is no telephone, no television and no newspaper and we’re right on the beach. I can surf fish in the tide and run or jog on the beach. It’s very enjoyable