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The People’s Champion: László Tábori

By David Monico, Bring Back the Mile

A car can speak volumes about a person, whether they gravitate to the simple, the reliable, the flashy or the fast. For five decades, a deep, cherry red 1967 Volkswagen Beetle has been a part of the life of one of the more interesting running careers in the world, that of Hungarian, László Tábori. Parked in a garage at the end of a non-descript cul-de-sac in a non-descript suburb of Los Angeles, CA, this 1967 People’s Car may define the simple, battle-worn, hard working, fast training, no-nonsense life he lived better than any other photo, award, medal or certificate that hangs on the wall of his Thousand Oaks home.

Tábori was the third man to break 4 minutes in the Mile in London in 1955. He also tied the 1500m world record with a time of 3:40.6 on September, 1955, equalling his teammate and fellow Hungarian Sándor Iharos. A 1956 Olympian at 1500m and 5000m, he went on to have a successful coaching career after defecting to the U.S. from the Melbourne Olympics. He trained 1973 Boston Marathon champion, American Jacqueline Hansen as well as 1974 and 1977 Boston Marathon champion, American Miki Gorman, who won back-to-back New York City Marathon titles in 1976-77, the last American woman to win New York. Later, he coached at the University of Southern California mentoring middle-distance athletes including 2012 Olympian Duane Solomon, while operating László Tábori Sports, a running specialty store in Burbank, CA.

I sat down with Lazlo, now 84-years-old, in February 2016 to discuss his life’s journey, but more importantly, our conversation provided a great window into the essence of running—the people’s sport as told by the people’s champion.

Kosice, Hungary: Home

I only had my own two legs; I didn’t like to go slow, so I began to jog and then later go faster and faster,” started Tábori in his unmistakable and endearing accent. His father a railroad worker and a country that had endured its fair share of war, the family didn’t make enough money for even a bicycle.

“My dad was working on the railroad, which had many warehouses storing dried food like corn, beans and peas. The food was difficult at the time in the mid-40s and late 40s, so I would go there with a sack, pick up two-to-three pounds of something, tie it up, go to another warehouse and pick up about the same amount. I could pick up four or five types of dried foods and take it home.”

“My mom would be standing at the front gate yelling, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, my son! They will shoot you, they will kill you for going into those places.’”

Tábori to this day smiles and chuckles a little much like any kid does in getting away with something that he probably should not have been doing. With up to 15 pounds of dried food Tábori would make this run between home and the railway: sowing the seeds of an undeniably quick and determined athlete.

The Shoe Factory and a Victory

With World War II ending and the Germans retreating back east from the western European front, Tábori would finish High School and find his way to a technical school a couple of hours away from home where he could pay his way by working in the shoe factory in the mornings and attend classes in the afternoon.

“There was no money. So, I went to the place where I could work and could support myself.”

He would enter his first race and win a 3 kilometer course adjacent to the river near the technical school he was attending. Three classes would line up with approximately 50-60 competitors.

“We started on this field with a big double barrel gun starting the race. We went out, made a left turn and another left turn before coming back home. Midway one of my friends was on a bicycle yelling at me, ‘OK, Latzo, you got 10 yards, 20 yards, you’re doing good’. I got scared that somebody was going to catch me. I was running scared. That was my first race and I beat second place by about 300 yards.”

“You know that training I was doing when I couldn’t afford the bicycle? I had to use my legs, so I did well. People were asking how I did it after, but I didn’t know! I didn’t know anything about running.”

Becoming the People’s Champion

Tábori left his Technical school with a 4:05 1500m best and joined the Hungarian Army in 1953, a mandatory requirement for every young man. As a running talent, he would be placed in Budapest with the legendary Honved Budapest running team. It was there that he would meet Coach Mihály Iglói and join teammates Iharos and István Rózsavölgyi  that would go onto amass national titles, 23 world records and influence a generation of runners around the world.

He would however become most famous of the group for becoming the third man to run a sub-4 minute Mile.

“It was a typical English day with rain coming down slowly. ‘Naci Basci (the athlete’s nickname for Coach Iglói), what do you want me to do?’ He mentioned to stick on the red headed guy, Chataway. When Chataway led a lap I was second, always behind him. With 300 meters to go, I moved myself into lane 2 and at the 250 meter mark I started to spring. Coming out of the turn with 100 meters to go, which we reached together, a small stadium of 50,000 people were yelling, ‘Chataway! Chataway! Chataway!’ After I finished and won outkicking Chataway, the whole crowd changed to ‘Bravo Tábori!’

Over the loudspeaker it was announced for the first time in history, ‘Three men under 4 minutes! Three men under four minutes!’

“Nothing gave me as much support or publicity like the Mile. I ran a 1500m world record. If I compare publicity percentage wise, I had 75% for the Mile and 25% for the 1500m. I had five world records behind me, including the relay, but the Mile gave lots and lots of publicity.”

With more accomplishments came greater fame, even in defeat.

“Kutz from Russia had the world record. So, Iglói wanted to set up Iharos to run the world record and I was to help. I would lead two laps and he would lead one. Naturally in the last 600m he would put 10 seconds on me and was way inside the world record.”

“At the ceremony they have gave Iharos first place on the podium and he received a big hand. Then in second was Tábori with a much louder applause. He turned and looked down to me and asked ‘how come you get more hands than I do?’ I looked back up to him and said, ‘Iharos, I’m better looking than you are!’ We had fun teasing each other.”

With a similar smile and laugh as he gave when recalling his exploits as a child running home with sacks of stolen food, Tábori had become the People’s Champion. His joy influenced all those around him; a trait that would serve him well over the next decade-plus of his life.

The Hungarian Revolution and the Melbourne Olympics

The excitement of the mid-1950s would be short lived as the specter of war would return to Hungary. Approximately 3 weeks prior to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Tábori and his teammates would wake up at their Olympic training camp about 100 kilometers outside of Budapest to the news that fighting had broken out between the Russians and the Hungarians.

“We had a really hard time to train. It was just 2-3 weeks from the Olympic start and I lived close to river hearing bullets flying overhead. Boom. Boom. You’re not sure if you were going to get hit or not. We lost a lot of training.”

“We tried to get back into the routine, but we lost lots of training. I said to myself, ‘I’m here, so I might as well run and whatever it will be, it will be.’”

Tábori would go on to place a respectable sixth in the 5000m final prior to his fourth place finish in the 1500m final. While Olympic success is often measured by three overly simplified medals—gold, silver and bronze—with three weeks of training lost and getting out of a battle-weary Hungary, Tábori sounded relieved and thankful for his performances.

Coming to America

In 1956, Sports Illustrated would sponsor Hungarians who wanted to defect to the USA from Melbourne. Tábori would land in America along with Coach Iglói without knowing any English, yet they would quickly develop a following and be joined by U.S. middle distance stars Jim Beatty - who would become the first man to run under 4 minutes indoors - Jim Grelles, Bob Schule and Bob Seamon.

“Five sub-4 minute Milers. How many coaches have five sub-4 Milers in one season?!”

Tábori would retire from running in 1962 with his next act in life proving to be almost as difficult as the one he left behind. In fact, his official bio has a line under 1957-62 that simply states “miscellaneous jobs”.

“That was a period where I was suffering. Between quitting my running and getting into the circuit to stay alive, learn and make some money to support myself. I had a really difficult time.”

It wasn’t until 1967 that Tábori got his second wind with an opportunity to coach the Los Angeles Valley College team and later post-collegiate road runners with the San Fernando Valley Track Club. It is at this intersection in his life that he purchased his beloved 1967 Bug, a fitting purchase for the People’s Champion. To this day enshrined on his personalized license plate is “SFVT2”.

Tábori would employ an incredible amount of care, yet maintain a simplistic, but intensive training philosophy for his athletes, fitting of a man content with a no nonsense, hard-working VW Bug.

“The coach can’t just write a workout and tell them to run. That’s bologna. The coach should be on the track from the first one to the last one. Even when we were running from the Valley college I would sit in my little Bug and drive to the North Hollywood Park.”

Elaborating on his training approach further, Tábori comments, “the 10,000 meters is six times longer than the 1500 meters. If somebody runs a 10K race it is only four times longer than a 10K. I figured if Iharos transitioned from a 1500 meter or 5000 to 10,000 meters with the interval work it will work.”

The care and work ethic that allowed Tábori to survive through the war torn 1940s and 1950s as well as excel as one of the world’s most celebrated athletes, defined him as a coach and friend well into the 1960s, 70s and beyond. Under his tutelage American Jacqueline Hansen, would go onto run two world bests in the Marathon and win the 1973 Boston Marathon title. Miki Gorman was also a 2-time winner in Boston (1974 and 1977) and the last American woman to win in New York City (1976 and 1977) while under Tábori. Countless others that Tábori trained would also find national success in addition to those he trained simply seeking personal success.

A Celebration of the People’s Champion

In summer 2015 a celebration was organized to honor Tábori’s 60th anniversary of his sub-4 minute Mile. Amongst the large gathering of family and friends present was Billy, his long-time VW mechanic and fellow hungarian as well as U.S. Marathoner Mark Covert, who would go on to maintain the second longest daily running streak in the world at 45 years.

“More people came than we expected. I had the Hungarian guy who does the VWs and I invited him. Mark Covert then says in his speech, ‘any time I see that VW my hands begin to sweat’. After he finished his story, Billy goes up and says, ‘I’m the doctor for that VW’!”

Tábori’s life’s journey ostensibly began with the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other to get from point A to point B a little bit more quickly. Too poor to purchase a bicycle and fighting for food in war torn Hungary, it was running that gave life meaning and purpose for a young, determined Hungarian.

Over thirty years later, it was another vehicle, one with four wheels this time, that allowed Tábori to battle a different type of personal survival in his newly adopted country of the United States. The People’s Car, Tábori’s 1967 cherry red Volkswagen Beetle that still makes his athlete’s hands sweat, is the perfect representation of the simple, battle-worn, hard working, fast training, no-nonsense life of the People’s Champion.

This piece was first published in METER, Issue 4.

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