Archive for Sunday, April 25, 2004

Mayer: 50 years ago, Santee’s 14-mile challenge proved his greatness

April 25, 2004

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Who'd be nutty enough to challenge 28 half-milers to a 14-mile run along a busy highway? And boast that he'd win in a breeze? Which he did during the glory days of Kansas University track.

That would be Wes Santee, with the blessing and support of his fabled coach, the late Bill Easton.

In 1954, Wes and his Acacia fraternity brothers were kidding around about such a caper. Santee, never a shrinking violet, had his competitive juices flowing and involved Easton in the planning. The highly publicized trek along Highways 24-40 was set for a Saturday afternoon.

The 28 Acacias would run a half-mile each in relay style, complete with baton. The Ashland Antelope was to canter all by himself. The opposition was a long way from being Willie Off the Pickle Boat. At least two of them were KU varsity track teamers with 880-yard training, and several others had been good high school middle-distance performers. They prepped hard.

The race was to start in Tonganoxie and wind along "the old highway" (before the Kansas Turnpike), ending at Art Nease's Standard Service Station, which then sat at the end of the ancient one-span Kansas River bridge.

I was lucky enough to ride in Easton's station wagon, tailgate down and windows wide open so Bill could communicate with Wes. Thank heaven for decent, though cloudy, weather. As I recall, the driver was Bill's devoted wife, Ada, who mothered hundreds of Jayhawks and always was in the mix.

The Easton Express first followed Wes by several yards with Bill, all the while shouting advice at his gliding superstar with that incomparable prancing gait. Later, Bill maneuvered the vehicle ahead of Santee to make sure the path was clear of curiosity-mongers. He yelled a lot of clowns out of the way.

Hard to believe, but the loquacious Santee hardly said a word for most of the outing, saving everything he could in case the brothers got too frisky. They did from time to time, as the baton was passed from a fading carrier to a fresh and eager new one. They'd planned it pretty well, spotting their best men throughout the route to compensate for the gasping wannabes. Even young and pumped-up college kids find a half-mile a whale of a lot longer than they thought, at first.

Santee got a challenge now and then, but I got the notion he was toying with his adversaries. He was pretty much in front all the way despite promising spurts by the fresher Acacias. Near the end, he began to converse with Easton, as if he was just out for a Sunday stroll. Wes breathed a little harder than usual after his sprint, and I mean sprint, to the finish line at the end of the bridge. Quickly composed, he was more than ready for post-race interviews, something he relished.

As it turned out, Wes, who now resides in El Dorado and Eureka, averaged about 5:30 per mile, finishing the chase in just under 80 minutes.

If you follow marathoning, covering 26.2 miles, you know the great runners now win in about two hours and 10 minutes. That translates to around five minutes per mile. But such winners, most often Kenyans anymore, train long, hard and constantly. They cruise over smooth streets. Santee was a cross-country star, but the roadway shoulder along which he had to race was uneven, pitted and trafficked.

Wes' life never was in jeopardy because Easton rode shotgun with a vengeance. Marathoners run about twice as far, but their routes are smoother and training techniques have changed greatly. Remember, this was 1954.

When pro athletes in football and basketball have mile times to register to get in shape, anything under six minutes is considered excellent. These are sprinters and burners. Wes could be both, excelling at everything from the quarter-mile on up. Don Pierce, I and several other writers once tried to get a two-out-of-three match race over 660 yards between Wes and Kansas State Olympian Thane Baker. Thane was gangbusters up to the 440, and Wes was hard to beat from 440 on up.

We also tried to get Easton to have Wilt Chamberlain run an anchor 440 on a mile relay team at the Kansas Relays, but that never happened, either.

Santee beat the Acacians by at least a quarter-mile. He joshes that it might even have been a half-mile. His frat pals never could foil him. As a freshman, he'd been blindfolded and dumped on a country road outside Lawrence as part of a hazing process.

"They took the blindfold off, I looked around and it was the very place coach Easton had had us doing cross-country that week," Wes laughs. "I didn't say anything; I almost got back to the house before they did."

Wes, of course, has seldom been guilty of letting facts spoil a good story.

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Inducted into the Kansas Relays Hall of Fame with Santee last weekend was four-time Olympic gold medalist Al Oerter, the all-time king of the discus throw. There's great news about his heart condition.

Not long ago, it appeared Al would die, fast, if he didn't allow a heart transplant. He doggedly refused, seeking another route. Turned out he was suffering from cross-effects of overmedication with several drugs. Once that was ironed out, they put a fibrillator in his massive chest. At a solid 245 pounds, he has to watch what he eats and such, but he looks great and seems headed for a long, long life. Couldn't happen to a finer athlete and individual.

Upon accepting his Relays Hall plaque, Oerter quipped that it was somewhat demeaning being inducted with "a bunch of runners" -- Santee, Billy Mills, Jim Ryun and Glenn Cunningham.

Oerter said the greatest experience he had at Kansas was being part of outstanding teams where the athletes and coaches cared about each other and did what it took for team success.

They may seem scarce, but there still are people who think that way. May their tribe increase!

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