Middle distance man Tom Byers running hard to shed 'rabbit' label

Middle distance runner Tom Byers feels he's been labelled, and rather unfairly at that.

''As they say, the media can make you or break you,'' he observed recently, ''and unfortunately, in this country being called a rabbit has kind of hurt my reputation.''

In track and field parlance, a rabbit is someone who sacrifices his own chances for winning to set a mean, early pace, often burning out in an effort to create the right conditions for a record time in the race.

Byers, though easily recognized with his mane of blond hair, is determined to change his image, and took a major step toward doing so on one of New York's famed thoroughfares earlier this month.

Competing in the Fifth Avenue Mile, Tom cashed in on the exposure that comes from outkicking two premier milers in a nationally televised, mid-Manhattan footrace. Finishing in Byers' wake were American mile record holder Steve Scott , former Olympic 1,500-meter gold medalist John Walker, and Sydney Maree, the winner of last year's inaugural Fifth Avenue Mile.

The victory came as an interesting prelude to the race Byers is really aiming for - Saturday's invitational mile in Eugene, Oregon. Track aficionados had originally circled Sept. 25 as the date on which British rivals Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett would square off in one of their rare confrontations. But Coe and Ovett have bowed out due to physical problems, and Scott, upset with meet organizers, is boycotting the race.

What may salvage the event is Byers' emergence, plus the last-minute entry of Maree.

''I consider Eugene my biggest race of the year. I'm peaking for it,'' said the transplanted Ohioan who now runs for Athletics West and, consequently, will be the local favorite. ''It's not important to me that either Coe or Ovett be there, because Eugene's my home now and I owe the people there a good effort, say a sub 3:50. I want to prove it isn't only Britons who can run great miles.''

Byers' best clocking to date is 3:50.84, which he turned in at Koblenz, West Germany only a week before his New York heroics. The time, while hardly that of a rabbit, is still more than a hare's breadth off Coe's mark of 3:47.33 and Scott's US record of 3:47.69.

Byers, however, says he is running hungry and confident of improvement. Other Americans may have worn themselves out in Europe, but Tom spent most of the summer recovering from a knee problem. ''I didn't get back to full training until the second week of July,'' he explains.

Normally, Byers would have been traversing the Continent himself, since he is now an established star in Europe, more so than in the US.

His fame was secured there last year, when he stunned track watchers and earned a reputation as a rabbit who wouldn't quit. In Oslo he pulled Ovett and Scott through the first two laps of a 1,500 meter run, then held the lead the rest of the way for a shocking upset. On at least one other occasion, in Stockholm's Dream Mile, he threatened to stump the stars again, before fading with 500 meters to go.

His ability to push the world's top runners endeared him to meet promoters, who want to see records broken.

They rewarded his efforts with expense money, a luxury for a runner whose times didn't automatically qualify him to compete.

''Europe is a very expensive place to travel, and when you haven't run the required qualifying time, you have to pay your own way,'' he explains. ''As long as I was in good shape, though, meet directors would guarantee me a spot in every mile.''

Byers prefers to call the task he performed pacesetting rather than rabbiting. He also points out that most every runner does it at some time or another and that the job is no lark.

''Being a pacesetter is very taxing, both physically and mentally,'' he says. ''You have to run about a 56-second quarter (mile) and hit about 2:24 at the 1, 000 mark, plus you're breaking the wind for the other runners. The mental strain comes from the pressure that's on you to run at just the right pace. Quite often, the pacesetter will just step over into lane 2 after he's done his job and jog into the finish.''

Byers capitalized on his rabbiting assignments to re-establish himself as world-class runner at the ripe age of 27.

Since his days at Ohio State, Tom's running fortunes have fluctuated like the stock market. The Track and Field News once described his performances this way: ''Some days he can beat the best runners in the world, but on other days he couldn't win a race if he was the only one in it.''

As a college freshman in 1974, he finished last in the NCAA mile finals but wound up ranked fifth nationally in the 1,500 meters. In 1976 he came in ninth in the Olympic Trials, but after very little to show for the next several years was beginning to be written off by track observers.

Then, in 1980, he began a comeback that has been furthered by his move to Eugene, where, as a soon-to-be graduate student at the University of Oregon, he joins a stable of excellent distance runners on the Athletics West club.

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