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.