Racing Past

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Lon Spurrier: Profile

“You’re under the record! Keep going!” And Spurrier did just that.

More Than 60 Years Ago: a Golden Era of 800-Metre Running Remembered

Sixty years ago the supreme track test of speed, stamina and sensitive tactics, the 800 metres, underwent a transformation. The World record, which had been held by Rudolf Harbig, of Germany, since 1939, was at long last beaten, and by two runners in the same race. When Roger Moens, of Belgium, and Audun Boysen, of Norway, became the first men to break 1min 46sec in Oslo on 3 August 1955 their achievement was rightly hailed as one of the most important in the advance of athletic standards. The record was no great surprise, though the margin was. Moens had run 1:47.0 five weeks before and Boysen 1:47.4 the year previous, though neither had won the European title. Yet they very nearly could have been upstaged earlier in 1955 by a man who a few months earlier had ranked only the World

To almost everyone’s amazement an American, Lon Spurrier, had earlier in 1955 beaten the record for 880 yards (804.67 metres). Spurrier’s time of 1:47.5 compared very favourably with Harbig’s metric 1:46.6, and what a to-do there would have been had the new record-holder run just a few tenths of a second quicker! He would thus have been faster en route than Harbig, but as there were no time-keepers stationed at the 800-metre point no one would ever have known for sure! Spurrier’s story is a most interesting one of an athlete who – rarely for that era in the USA – continued competing after graduating from university and thus realised his full potential on the track.

He had been a very capable half-miler at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) but had been constantly hampered by injury and illness. After tying for 3rd place in the NCAA (national collegiate) Championships 800 metres of 1952 and placing 5th in the decisive US Olympic trials, he was again 5th in the NCAA finals of 1953 and 1954. On tour in Europe with an AAU team in the latter year he ran 1:51.1 for 800 metres in Oslo. His best time remained his metric 1:50.6 from 1952, when he was still aged only just 20. Had he retired when he left university, he would have been just another classic case of a young American athlete lost to the sport long before his prime.

Instead, he continued training under the guidance of the famed UCLA coach, Brutus Hamilton. The affinity between athlete and coach was even closer than might have been expected because both had been born in the mid-Western state of Missouri – their respective home towns (Hamilton’s was named “Peculiar”!) 1,600 miles and 1,800 miles from Los Angeles. Spurrier’s birthplace was Cass Township on 27 May 1932, when he was christened Lonnie Vernon, but he was brought up in Delano, California, as one of the seven children (five boys, two girls) of John Spurrier, who owned a newspaper distributorship in the town, and his wife, Golda. Lonnie graduated from high school there in 1950, and he grew to a perfect middle-distance runner’s build of 6ft tall (1.83m) and weighing 159lb (72kg).

Spurrier’s motivation was two-fold: the Pan-American Games would be held in Mexico City in March 1955 and he needed to impress the US Air Force authorities before going into the service that he was a good enough athlete to warrant special consideration as an Olympic Games candidate. His choice of the air force may well have been inspired as a tribute by the fact that a boyhood friend, Jimmy Escalle, had been reported missing in action while serving as a pilot in the Korean War in 1950. Mr Escalle’s nephew wrote a biography of his late uncle, entitled “Unforgotten Hero” (Taylor House Publishing), in which Lonnie Spurrier’s family childhood is vividly described.

A personal best 1:49.6 for 880 yards in Los Angeles in February 1955 was good enough to get Spurrier into the Pan-American Games team, where he finished 2nd to team-mate Arnie Sowell at 800 metres, times of 1:49.86 and 1:50.51, with double Olympic champion Mal Whitfield in 4th place, and Spurrier then was in the winning 4 x 400 metres team (3:07.43), taking over for the second stage from J.W. Mashburn, with Jim Lea and Lou Jones to follow. The day previously Jones and Lea had both broken the 400 metres World record, 45.4 (45.68) and 45.6 (45.78) respectively.

The full story of Spurrier’s subsequent World record was told most graphically by Bert Nelson, co-editor of the Californian newsletter, “Track & Field News”, which justifiably described itself (and still does) as “The Bible Of The Sport”. Nelson sent a special report to the McWhirter twins in the UK for publication in their highly-regarded monthly magazine, “Athletics World”, which in those days merited the same status in Britain and elsewhere as “TFN” throughout its regrettably brief existence from 1952 to 1957. Here is what Nelson wrote:   

“Berkeley, California, March 26. Lon Spurrier achieved track immortality today with a magnificent 1:47.5 clocking which set a new World record for the half-mile which must have taken Europeans even more by surprise than it did Americans. This was no Bannister finally cracking four minutes; no Whitfield whittling away a few more tenths off his own mark; nor even a Derek Johnson fulfilling widely heralded promise. This was a bolt from the blue, for to all but a few keen and close followers of the sport Spurrier was just another runner, if not completely unknown.

Yet this drastic lowering of the 1:48.6 record shared by Mal Whitfield and Denmark’s Gunnar Nielsen was neither a fluke nor totally unexpected. Spurrier was confident of his ability to do the trick and had actually planned his race for 53 to 55 seconds for the first lap and 1:48 for the finish. And those few who were close to Lonnie, and who have followed his career with all its ups and downs, felt that a record was imminent.

Conditions were ideal. Spurrier was running on his home track at the University of California, from whence he was graduated in February. It is the Berkeley track that Herb McKenley calls ‘the best middle-distance oval in the World’, and the one on which he ran his reigning World record 440 yards in 46.0 back in 1948. The weather was warm and windless. And while there was no one in the race to urge him on neither was there anyone to complicate matters.

A bit tight and doubtful before the race ”probably from nervousness”, Spurrier knew that he was right within 50 yards from the start that he had left so smoothly. Down the full 220 straightaway sped the 22-year-old blond, hearing coach Brutus Hamilton call out “twenty five” as he passed a red flag planted at the furlong mark. His lead ever increasing, Spurrier was running beautifully as he passed the quarter post in 51.6secs. Then came the true test, that third rough 220 where races are won and records broken.. But Lon never faltered. Picking up only a few cries of encouragement from 2,500 fans, he again headed for the red flag. Hamilton glanced at his watch, which would have read 1:19.3 had he stopped it. He yelled out, “You’re under the record! Keep going!” And keep it up Spurrier did, finishing in good style and showing little sign of fatigue”.


The race was part of a three-way match between San Francisco Olympic Club, UCLA and Santa Clara Youth Center, and Spurrier won by a huge margin as the 2nd-place finisher, David Pratt, was timed in 1:52.9. An hour or so later Spurrier ran a 46.3sec 440 yards relay leg, and Bert Nelson reported, “The time could have been even faster had he not slowed behind an opponent for a while on the last turn … so easily did Spurrier complete his double that records at 400 metres and 440 yards do not appear to be out of his grasp”. It was a bold prediction as prior to that date Spurrier did not have a single quarter-mile time “off the blocks” of any international merit to his name, and the World records stood at 45.8 metric by George Rhoden and Herb McKenley’s 46.0 for yards. Spurrier’s year-by-year best performances at 800 metres/880 yards had been as follows: 1950, 2:01.6y; 1951, 1:56.9y, 1952, 1:50.6m; 1953, 1:52.1y; 1954, 1:51.1m.


Back on the same Berkeley track 20 days later Spurrier set his sights on the World record for 1000 metres of 2:19.5 held by Audun Boysen but fell substantially short at 2:21.3. Maybe the reason was that his attentions were divided that day. Time-keepers were also in operation at the 1000-yard point and Spurrier passed that in 2:08.5 to improve on an ageing World and US record of 2:09.3 set by Charles Fenske in 1939. Actually, the 1000 yards distance had been dropped from the IAAF list soon after another American, Elroy Robinson, had run 2:09.7 in 1937. In any case, the indoor 1000 yards best remained superior to Spurrier’s outdoors as in February his Pan-American Games conqueror, Arnie Sowell, had run 2:08.2 to equal the time by Don Gehrmann in 1952. It was neatly coincidental that in setting his record Sowell beat Boysen, the outdoor 1000 metres record-holder, by 10 yards.


At the end of April 1955 Spurrier went off to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, to begin his officer flight training, with a confident prediction by coach Brutus Hamilton to encourage him. “Lon will do as well again or better when he’s right and conditions are as right as they were for his record”. At the AAU Championships in high-altitude Boulder, Colorado, on 25 June Spurrier was 5th in a sensational 880 yards final – 1 Sowell 1:47.6, 2 Tom Courtney 1:48.0, 3 Billy Tidwell 1:48.1, 4 Lang Stanley 1:48.6, 5 Spurrier 1.48.7. Then in Kingston, Jamaica, on 11 July Spurrier lost to Stanley at 800 metres, 1:47.6 to 1:48.3, and at 440 yards did not live up to Bert Nelson’s expectations (exalted expectations, perhaps) but ran 47.2 to rank equal 11th in the World for the year.   

Off to Australia for an Olympic sneak preview

The US Air Force clearly had faith in Spurrier’s Olympic potential because they gave him leave to go off on tour to New Zealand and Australia at the year’s end, accompanied in an AAU team by sprinter Bobby Joe Morrow and shot-putter Parry O’Brien. The three of them swept through a series of NZ meetings, each winning two events at every outing, and though there was little real half-miling opposition – Peter Snell would not start to make his mark for another two or three years – Spurrier set an all-comers’ record of 1:49.3. Running a mile seriously for the first time he held on to rising stars Murray Halberg and Bill Baillie for three laps before finishing some six seconds down on Halberg in 4:08.4. In Australia the racing was keener and he beat Merv Lincoln narrowly at 1000 metres, 2:23.7 to 2:23.9, and John Landy even more narrowly at 800 metres, 1:51.8 for both on a cold, wet and windy day at Geelong.  

Back in California Spurrier started the 1956 domestic season with a 1:51.9 half-mile at his favoured Berkeley track on 14 April, having earlier lost at a mile to Don Bowden, 4:08.2 to 4:09.4 (a year later Bowden would become the first American under four minutes), but was then beaten the next Saturday at 880 yards by Lang Stanley, 1:48.7 to 1:49.6. Spurrier ran his fastest 400 metres in mid-June, 46.9, but was then 4th in the AAU 800 metres – Sowell 1:47.6, Gene Maynard 1:48.2, the evergreen Whitfield and Spurrier both 1:48.4. The “do or die” US Olympic Trials were held the following weekend and Spurrier got the vital 3rd place – Courtney 1:46.4, Sowell 1:46.9, Spurrier 1:47.6, Stanley 1:47.9, Whitfield 1:49.3. Eight of the nine fastest ever US half-milers had taken part in the event !  

The pre-Olympic season’s rankings were as follows: Courtney 1:46.4, Boysen 1:46.4, Sowell 1:46.7, Moens 1:47.2, Brian Hewson (GB) 1:47.5, Spurrier 1:47.6, Derek Johnson (GB) 1:47.7, Lajos Szentgáli (Hungary) 1:47.8. However, Moens and Hewson were absent; Moens as part of Belgium’s protest against Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising, and Hewson opting for the 1500 metres. Szentgáli, the European champion, was not surprisingly deeply affected by events in his homeland and went out in the semi-finals.

Courtney and Sowell shared the pace-making in the final, though not necessarily in collaboration, but when they entered the final straight together they were strongly challenged by Johnson. The prospective outcome was so aptly summed up by the McWhirter twins in their masterful report of this event historically dominated by the English-speaking nations as the following question: “Was this to be Britain’s sixth or the USA’s seventh Olympic victory?”  Courtney prevailed by the slightest of margins, 1:47.7 to 1:47.8, followed by Boysen 1:48.1, Sowell also 1:48.1, Mike Farrell (GB) 1:49.2 and Spurrier 1:49.3.

That result was no doubt somewhat disappointing from Spurrier’s point of view, but he nevertheless had finished his track career in style. In one of the final “warm-up” meetings before the US athletes left home for Australia he had shared in a World-record 4 x 440 yards relay of 3:07.3 in Los Angeles on 1 November (Charley Jenkins 47.8, Spurrier 46.5, Tom Courtney 46.4, Lou Jones 46.6), but the US selectors brought in J.W. Mashburn, who had placed 4th in the US Olympic Trials 400 metres, for the Games relay instead.

If the modern regulations by which all six squad members receive medals had then been in force Spurrier would be a gold-medallist now. Still, that relay contribution gives him the distinction of being one of only two athletes who have held World records at both 800 metres or 880 yards and 4 x 400 metres or 4 x 440 yards. The other is the 1912 Olympic 800 metres champion, Ted Meredith, also from the USA. Another of the US relay gold-medallists in 1956, sprinter Leamon King, had also graduated from Delano High School and the town claimed to be the smallest community in the US with two Olympians that year.

There was more relay success to come in the final meeting of Spurrier’s career. At the British Empire-v-USA match in Sydney on 1 December the US team ran 7:23.0 for 4 x 880 yards to beat the previous best of 7:25.2 by the Southern Pacific AAU earlier in the year. By chance, the same lead-off man in each case was not a half-mile specialist at all but one of the first two Afro-Americans to represent the US in the Olympic 1500 metres, Jerome Walters. He opened with 1:53.4 in Sydney followed by Spurrier 1:50.4, Sowell 1:49.2 and Courtney 1:50.0. The all-GB Empire team was run right out of it, and in a report for the British magazine, “Athletics Weekly”, Derek Cole wittily wrote that “ a new World record was edged unobtrusively into the books”.

There was very nearly another World record to finish on – or, at least, a World “best”. Spurrier was called up again for the US medley-relay team (440 x 220 x 220 x 880) and took over for the closing half-mile stage seven yards up on Australia’s unexpected Olympic 800 metres finalist, Bill Butchart, But Spurrier was understandably leg-weary, and Butchart was inspired, winning by the narrowest of margins in the fastest ever time of 3:22.6   

Spurrier qualified as a jet pilot in the US Air Force and rose to the rank of Captain. After completing his service, he went off to Harvard Business School, where the assistant dean was Guinn Smith, who had won the Olympic pole-vault title in 1948. Like Spurrier, Smith had served as a pilot and Captain in the Army Air Corps during World War II,  being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Spurrier worked in financial management on Wall Street and then  married and moved back to California. He and his wife, the former Ida Blue, had two children. He lived to the age of 83, dying in San Pablo on 23 June 2015.  

Footnote: my thanks to Cindy Stinger, of the US Olympic Committee, for her help.

World All-Time Top Ten, 800 metres, end of 1956

*880 yards time less 0.7sec



Roger Moens (Belgium)



 3.  8.55


Audun Boysen (Norway)



 3.  8.55


Tom Courtney (USA)


Los Angeles (USOT)

30. 6.56


Rudolf Harbig (Germany)



15. 7.39


Arnie Sowell (USA)


Berkeley, California

16. 6.56


Lonnie Spurrier (USA)


Berkeley, California

26. 3.55


Lajos Szentgáli (Hungary)


Berne (ECh)

28. 8.54


Lucien Demuynck (Belgium)


Berne (ECh)

28. 8.54


Derek Johnson (GB)


Berne (ECh)

28. 8.54


Billy Tidwell (USA)


Boulder, Col. (AAUCh)

25. 6.55


Note: USOT US Olympic Trials; ECh European Championships; AAUCh US AAU Championships.


1 Comment

John L Spurrier 12th February 2022

He had been a very capable half-miler at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) but had been constantly hampered by injury and illness.NO ! He went to University of Calif Berkely. As did Lon's coach, Brutus Hamilton, coach at University of Calif, Berkely.

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