What Rick Riley remembers above all is an unfamiliar helplessness: he couldn’t gain on anybody.
Here he was – never more fit, never more dialed into a race, never more aware that this could be his culminating moment on the track – and 300 yards from the finish he couldn’t pick up a step on the leaders.
In his subconscious, he was chasing the sub-4-minute mile. In reality, he was desperate not to finish third, or worse.
“There was not another ounce of speed I was going to be able to get out of my body,” he said.
But another 100 yards down the track, Washington State’s premier miler noticed that the leaders, Duncan MacDonald of Stanford and rival Roscoe Divine of Oregon, were beginning to come back to him. Finally, with maybe 50 to go, a sliver of daylight opened up between them, and Riley – so wispy he needed only the space between the door and the jamb – wriggled through and outsprinted them to the tape.
The details of that day in 1970 at UCLA’s Drake Stadium remain as vivid to Riley 34 years later as yesterday’s birdie is to the 24-handicapper. Not the least of those details is the time.
Three-59-point-2 – the only sub-4 ever run by a Spokane miler.
“I couldn’t believe it for a couple of days,” he said, “until I finally came home and read it in The Review. When Bob Payne wrote that I’d done it, then I’d done it.”
Those were the days – when the newspaper account and not an Internet buzz was validation, when track mattered and when the mile mattered most.
Riley, of course, had been a candidate to run sub-4 even as a teenager at Ferris High School, when he blazed his most famous race – his national prep record 8:48.3 for 2 miles. But injuries and the competitive and training demands of college racing at WSU took their toll for a couple of years, before he hit his stride again as a senior.
“I’d been chasing sub-4 all season,” he recalled. “I opened my season with a 4:03 at UCLA, and I ran 4:02 and change at Oregon where I got beat by Roscoe Divine. In the Washington dual in Pullman, I ran 4:02 flat pretty much unpressed, so I knew I had the race in me. But the next week at the Northern Division meet, I lost to Roscoe again.”
At the Pacific-8 meet at UCLA, the runners encountered less-than-ideal heat and worse-than-usual smog. The mile opened with a relatively slow 63-second first lap, followed by a pair of 60s.
“I wasn’t the fastest guy in terms of raw speed at the end,” Riley said, “but what worked to my advantage was that Roscoe had taken the lead with about 550 yards to go and was making his run from there. I was just able to maintain my kick just a little bit better.”
It would have been intriguing to see what more Riley might have accomplished as a miler, but he was forever a running generalist. After the Pac-8s, he was sixth in the NCAA 6 mile, then second in the AAU 3-mile. He never again ran sub-4 – his closest call a 4:01.6 in 1972 at the San Diego Indoor.
“I’ve always wished, in retrospect, that I could have run one at Eugene in one of those twilight miles with the rabbits and the atmosphere there,” he said. “I really think in the right conditions I had another three or four seconds in me.”