The marquee event of the Kansas Relays was well under way when track announcer David Lile let the crowd know to ignore the runner in the black shirt.
“You’ll notice the guy leading,” he said early in the mile that Alan Webb would win in 3:58.9 with a kick. “He’ll drop off before long. He’s just a rabbit.”
This bunny was not named Bugs or Harvey, Holly or Kendra. According to the program, Adam Perkins was the rabbit running out of Lane 2. Of course, rabbits being what they are — nameless, faceless table-setters of the feast thrown for track royalty — the program was wrong. No matter. Rabbits’ names aren’t listed among a race’s finishers. They set a pace designated by the stars and then they peel off the track at a pre-determined distance. They are to track what sparring partners are to boxing, except their noses aren’t nearly as flat.
Roger Bannister used two pace-setters who dropped out of the race at different stages when he ran the world’s first sub-4-minute mile in 1954. The term was stolen from dog racing, which in 1920 began using a mechanical rabbit for dogs to chase at the start of races.
After Saturday’s mile, 62.5 percent of which he ran, 37.5 percent of which he watched, the rabbit was not munching on a carrot or running from a dog. His nose wasn’t twitching. He was putting on his sweat pants, same as the rest of the runners.
I introduced myself with, “Hello, Adam ...”
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Mark Thompson.”
In a Hollywood script he would have screamed with every ounce of emotion he could summon: “I’m not a rabbit. I’m a human being.”
Instead, he opted for politeness. Thompson, 30, coaches the distance runners for Oklahoma Christian University. He’s like the vast majority of extremely talented milers. His career goal, the carrot he dangles in front of himself, is to run a sub-4-minute mile. So far, 4:02 is his best. He had a different goal in this one. It was to set a pace that could give the winner a shot to break the barrier.
After he peeled off the track, he rooted for the other runners. Altruist? Well, not exactly. He was paid $300 to serve as the rabbit and could earn a $100 bonus if the winner eclipsed the 4-minute mark, another $100 if he broke the meet record. He took home $400.
“Not a real big fee, but I’m here coaching my guys anyway,” he said. “It makes for a good weekend, maybe get a couple of good meals off it.”
Depending on how desperately a meet director wants a record set and how prepared the elite runners are to go for it, the fees can get pretty high.
“There was one race I ended up winning the race and the guy they paid to pace the race got more money than I got,” Webb said the day before winning the Glenn Cunningham Invitational Mile. “It was because they wanted such a fast pace that you have to basically pay a guy who can almost win the race or be right up in the race to not race, to be up in front of you.”
Running from ahead the whole way is no way to win a race.
“You’re breaking the wind,” Thompson said. “You’re thinking about the time. You’re thinking about everybody behind you. It’s hard to describe, but when you can tuck in the pack right behind somebody and let somebody else dictate and just follow it’s one simple task and it’s easy.”
While Thompson was talking, Webb ran up to him, shook his hand and thanked him. A $100 handshake? No, but Webb did confess he once thought about tipping a rabbit. Webb benefited from the services of two rabbits when he set the American record for the mile.
“I was going to pay those guys out of my own pocket,” Webb said. “Nike ended up footing the bill. American record. They got their money’s worth. That’s how much I wanted to set that race up. I was willing to go into my own pocket to pay those guys.”
Thompson said meet director Milan Donley called him with the phone number of Webb’s agent, from whom Thompson received instructions on how to pace the race. He was told to shoot for “58-something, 1:58-something and 2:28 through a thousand (meters).”
From all his years of running workouts on the track and putting others through their paces, Thompson has a good sense of timing. Still, he used visual aids.
“When I stepped onto the track, I noted to myself there’s a scoreboard behind the line that has the time going and then there’s a clock up on top of the stands so I can see it on the other side of the track, too,” he said. “Each 200, each half-lap, I’m checking those and gauging off that.”
Thompson, who in college ran for the University of Arkansas, said he was one second off the instructed pace, but that was by design.
“Coming around the second lap I kind of glanced back a couple of times and I had four or five yards on them,” he said. “And so at that point there is no reason to run 1:58. I tried to ease off just a little to where they felt they could maintain a little contact with me and then pulled them through a thousand meters.”
When the scoreboard showed the race ended in less than four minutes, everybody in the place was happy, but not everybody had 100 reasons to feel so happy. Actually, Thompson had 101 (touchy number for rabbits, thanks to Dalmatians) reasons to smile at the end of the race. His assistant coach at Oklahoma Christian, Samuel Dech, finished fourth with a personal-record time of 4:05.95.
Thompson said he earned as much as $1,000 for serving as rabbit at an indoor mile over the winter. Webb was in that race, too. Thompson was so far out in front in that one, looking back, he wondered if he might have had a shot at contending if he kept going.
“Not today,” he said. “I was feeling it at a thousand meters. I was more than happy to step off the track.”
He was not about to try to become the Paul Pilkington of the mile. In the 1994 Los Angeles Marathon, Pilkington was Bugs Bunny to a pack full of Elmer Fudds. Fifteen miles into the race he was so far out in front he decided to finish. He won the race and reportedly took home a brand-new Mercedes Benz and $27,000.
Rabbits don’t always perform their jobs as expertly as Thompson did Saturday, according to Webb.
“One race I was in, there was a guy who slowed way down the last 100 meters of his job, and all these guys were tripping all over him, falling all over him,” Webb said. “They were like, ‘Dude, get out of the way. You’re ruining the race.’ ’’