Dick Buerkle ran 3:54.93 to break the world record in the men’s indoor mile in 1978, and earned places on the 1976 and 1980 U.S. Olympic teams. From age 12 onward, he had suffered considerable taunting from his classmates because he lost all the hair on his head to an auto-immune disease called alopecia areata. He reacted to these bullies by working harder than everyone else and being able to tolerate more pain. Training for competitive sports involves taking painful intense workouts that approach your limits and damage your muscles and then doing easier workouts for as long as it takes for your muscles to recover. Then when your body recovers, you take your next workout near your limits.
Buerkle’s response to the heckling crowds was to become one of the best runners of his generation. He later said that he was forever thankful to Michael Jordan for shaving his head and making bald cool.
Becoming a World Class Runner
As a high school senior, Buerkle went out for the first time for his school track team in Rochester, NY, and ran one mile in a very fast 4:28 and two miles in 10:01. He did not receive any college scholarship offers, but he must have had a lot of confidence in his running ability because he chose to attend Villanova College (now Villanova University), one of the top cross country and track and field schools in America.
While he was there, Villanova won the national cross country championships (NCAA) in 1967, 1968 and 1970, and was 2nd in 1969. Towards the end of his junior year, Buerkle was finally awarded a scholarship after being an All-American in track and cross country. My very close friend, Bill Rock, several years earlier, was a scholarship miler at Villanova, but you probably never heard of him because Villanova has had an incredible 45 sub-4-minute milers.
After college, Buerkle moved to Atlanta to take a job with Coca-Cola as part of an Olympic job-opportunity program and stayed for the next four decades. He worked selling contact lenses to support his family and continued to train and race, but was never paid as a professional athlete. The highlight of his career came in 1978 at age 31. Before a race, he called his wife and kids and asked them to watch him run in the CYO Invitational at the University of Maryland, but his wife stayed home in Georgia to save money to wallpaper the dining room. That night, he ran the indoor mile at 3:54.93, to break the world record for the event, which made the covers of both Sports Illustrated and Track & Field News.
Buerkle made the 1976 and 1980 Olympic teams, but in 1976, he came in a very disappointing 9th in the 5000 meters, and in 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Teaching and Coaching
In 1981, at age 34, he retired from serious competitive racing and became a TV reporter, a newspaper reporter, and a copier salesman. He started the “Dick Buerkle Running Show” on radio in Atlanta, but could not find enough sponsors. He taught Spanish and coached track and field and cross country in Dunwoody High School and later moved on to Henderson Middle School to win county championships in 2011 and 2012. He retired in 2014 at age 67.
In his 60s he appeared to have Parkinson’s disease, with loss of coordination, shaking, tight muscles and many other signs of nerve damage. He was eventually diagnosed as having a rare type of Parkinson’s disease called Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), and died from it at age 73.
Multiple Systems Atrophy
You have two nerve-muscle systems. You have the voluntary skeletal muscle system in which you decide in your brain to move a skeletal muscle, and you have an involuntary muscle system over which you have no voluntary control. Multiple systems atrophy means that the involuntary nerves are damaged so you can lose control of the nerves that:
• open and close blood vessels, so your blood pressure drops when you stand up and you faint or feel dizzy
• empty your bladder and colon, so you can lose your urine or can become terribly constipated.
• dilate penile blood vessels, so you become unable to achieve an erection.
• control your vocal cords, so you can’t speak clearly, have trouble breathing and develop sleep apnea
• make saliva so you develop a dry mouth
• control sweating so you can develop high body temperature
• control your eye muscles so you may develop double vision
The patient is also likely to suffer from muscle twitching and memory loss.
MSA often starts in 50-to-60 year old patients who look like they have Parkinson’s disease, with shaking, very slow moving and rigid muscles, and then go on to suffer poor coordination, double vision, difficulty walking and even loss of memory. There is no laboratory test that specifically diagnoses MSA. There are no drugs to stop the disease from progressing; at this time, drugs are given only to help control symptoms. The average patient lives 6-10 years after diagnosis, and they usually die from infections or starvation.
Other Victims of MSA
Johnny Cash, the world-famous guitarist and folk singer, and Nikolai Andrianov, the Russian gymnast who won 15 Olympic medals (7 gold medals, 5 silver, and 3 bronze) also suffered and died from Multiple Systems Atrophy.
It takes incredible confidence and competitiveness to drive yourself through painful workouts to be an elite endurance athlete. Dick Buerkle was one of the most driven and willing-to-tolerate-pain runners of his era. His bald head at age 12 may have had a lot to do with his athletic success on the track.
Richard Thomas Buerkle
September 3, 1947 – June 22, 2020