This Marathoner No Silly Rabbit

To "rabbit" is an intransitive verb which, in track and field, means to sacrifice oneself, to take the heat for someone else--kind of like being on a minesweeper or cutting the barbed wire before an offensive. A "rabbit," the noun, denotes a self-effacing person who willingly subordinates his ambitions for those of another.

I guess the original rabbit in this country was John Alden when he was the forerunner for Miles Standish in pursuit of Priscilla Mullins. She would have none of it, you recall, bringing him up short with "Speak for yourself, John."

Well, a long-distance runner named Paul Pilkington spoke for himself at the Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday. He won. He was only supposed to cut the barbed wire, so to speak, for the more famed runners such as Luca Barzaghi of Italy, or Andrzej Krzyscin of Poland. He was a shock troop meant to blunt the opposition, then graciously step aside.

The use of a rabbit is a widespread if questionable part of track. These are kind of the sport's version of stunt men. They are not really part of the race, just decoys of a sort. Meet promoters habitually hire them in order to set up world records for the mega-stars. They are like the guys who set themselves on fire or leap off a cliff into a torrent below or crash cars for the film's leading men.

Paul Pilkington was a professional rabbit when he entered the L.A. Marathon. His role was twofold: set up the race for the registered stars and set a blistering pace that would con the less-experienced into using up all their energy--and oxygen--trying to keep up. He got paid to do that.

Pilkington was practically the Easter Bunny of the craft. He had rabbitted at the New York City Marathon, as well as those in Cleveland and Tokyo.

Traditionally, the rabbit is supposed to run an unrealistic pace until he has pulled the race along behind him and set it up for the serious runners. Then, he is meant to step off the track.

This is what Pilkington had been hired to do. But, along about the step-off time, the 16th mile or so, he found himself so alone in the race, he decided to keep running, at least until they caught up to him.

They never did. They were properly indignant when they did show up at the finish line to find that Pilkington had been there almost a minute before (in 2 hours 12 minutes 13 seconds).

It was rabbitry's finest hour. Bugs Bunny at the finish line chomping on a carrot and grinning, "What's up, doc?"

Pilkington, who was to have been paid only a couple of grand to set his false pace, wound up winning $27,000 and a new car.

Rabbitry has long been an integral part of track. But perhaps its finest hour came in 1954, when one of most-hallowed records in the whole world of track--the four-minute mile--came tumbling down.

The British medical student, Roger Bannister, had studied the four-minute barrier the way Jonas Salk studied polio--with a view to eradicating it.

The world had thought the sub-four-minute territory impenetrable--until Gunder Hagg ran a 4:01.4 in Sweden right after the war and lopped six seconds off the existing record. That, at least, put it in sight.

It remained tantalizingly out of reach for Bannister, who kept charts on vital capacity, oxygen debt, the amount of stress running put on the cardiovascular system. He edged closer until the barrier seemed to become psychological instead of physical.

It was then, the future Dr. Bannister found the answer. He chanced upon a colleague, another miler named Chris Chataway. Chris was a dedicated runner but well realized he would never become the miler Bannister was. Bannister had a 7-foot 6-inch stride, his heart and lungs were enlarged and augmented by repeated workouts. His pulse rate was 45. Suddenly, Chataway was not a competitor but an accomplice. He began to serve as rabbit for the man-with-a-mission, Bannister.

The legality of rabbitry has never been properly authenticated. Or even addressed. But, when Bannister began posting 4:02 miles, the British track authorities balked. They disallowed the time as a British record (even though it was). The Brits frowned on a non-competitive race fueled by a rabbit. Not what track was all about, they sniffed, adjusting their monocles.

Bannister ignored them. Then, one rainy afternoon, May 6, 1954, on the outskirts of Oxford University, Bannister assembled a small crowd and his personal bunny, Chataway, and another hare, Chris Brasher.

Brasher set the pace for the first two laps, 57.4 and 1:58 for the half. Then, he stepped off the track and Chataway took over.

Chataway slowed 250 yards from the finish and Bannister swept by him. He collapsed into the arms of friends at the tape. The time came over the loudspeaker: "3 minutes, 59 and 4/10 seconds!"

He had broken Hagg's record by two seconds. He had run the first under-four-minute mile ever recorded or not run by a guy fleeing a lion. The British Amateur Athletic Union had no choice but to accept it. They didn't want to be thrown into the Tower of London.

The use of rabbits has been endemic ever since. If the meet wanted a world mark, it employed a guy to step out suicidal fractions. It didn't always work. L.A.'s track impresario, Al Franken, recalls the time he hired a putative rabbit--and the guy went out on the track and began running second . "How can you pace the race from behind?!" Al demanded in some exasperation. "I couldn't catch him!" lamented the (ex) rabbit.

The first duty of a rabbit is to catch the leaders. This, Paul Pilkington had no trouble with. The second duty is, he must step off the track midway or three-quarters through. Pilkington failed miserably at this.

Fortunately for Roger Bannister, his rabbits knew their place. That's why he's Sir Roger today. Pilkington blew it. Just goes to show you--you can't get good help anywhere these days.

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