Monday, January 4, 2010

Dick Buerkle: Unexpected World Record Holder

When Dick Buerkle graduated from Rochester, NY's Aquinas Institute in 1966 he had a modest 4:28 mile PR, hardly a time to generate scholarship offers from any top-notch university. Eleven and a half years later, on January 13, 1978 Buerkle set the indoor world record at that distance, running 3:54.93 in College Park, Maryland. So sure was he of breaking the record that night that he telephoned his parents to urge them to come to the meet, saying he was going to break the world record. That same year he won the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games, beating Filbert Bayi and generating the Sports Illustrated cover above. By one unofficial estimate, only four men, two of whom (Bannister and Landy) were also world record holders, made a more drastic improvement in his mile time from high school PR to career PR:
                    HS PR   all time PR   improve
Roger Bannister     4:52.0     3:59.4     52.4
Scott Strand        4:50       4:00+      50
Liam O'Neil         4:50       4:02       48
John M. Landy       4:43.8     3:58.0     45.8
Dick Buerkle        4:28       3:54.93    33
Brian Culley        4:51       4:19       32
Tom Byers           4:21       3:50       31
Finn Pincus         4:53       4:22+      31
Paul McMullen       4:21.5+    3:51.7+    29.8
Dave Wottle         4:22       3:53       29

Buerkle competed at Villanova as a walk-on for three years without a scholarship, earning one finally as a senior after breaking 9:00 for two miles. He was a three-time NCAA All American while at the school, finishing 3rd at three NCAA finals: at the 1969 and 1970 indoor 2 miles, and at the 1970 3-mile outdoors.
Despite the mile world record effort, the Wanamaker mile win, and the SI coveer declaring him the "New Master of the Mile," Buerkle was more acclaimed as a 5000 meter runner. Between 1970 and 1981, Buerkle was ranked among the top 10 Americans at 5000 meters 7 times, and was top ranked in the USA in 1974 (when he was ranked #4 in the world) and 1976. He was ranked #2 in 1980 and #3 in 1973. He competed at the 1972 US Olympic Trials (see photo below, with Buerkle in 6th place) and came back to win the 1976 Olympic Trials at 5000 meters and make the 1980 Olympic team as well. In January of 1974 Buerkle broke the 4-year unbeaten streak of Steve Prefontaine when he defeated Pre decisively over two miles at the national CYO meet in College Park. Buerkle finished in 8:26.2, a full seven seconds ahead of Prefontaine.


  1. I missed my one chance to meet Dick Buerkle, at my high school! He came by to meet our cross country team, and I had another engagement. He has always been one of my favorite great American runners! God Bless him and his family.

  2. He was my son's teacher in elementary and one of the nicest people you will ever meet.

  3. I ran a practice 3 mile with him at RIT in Rochester, NY in 1974 or 1975. He was a friend of my coach Peter Todd. He was amazing.