Fred Sowerby, the quarter-miler, is undefeated this indoor track season.
He won at the Lehigh Games and the Towson Development Meet, where he set a personal record. He set a U.S. record at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and a meet record at the Richmond Jaycees. He had the third-fastest time ever in winning the Olympic Invitational and last weekend won the Philadelphia Track Classic and the Edmonton Invitational in Alberta.
Pretty good? Sowerby thinks so. So do his wife Caroline and sons Brian and Fred Jr. The twins, Tanya and Terrence, are impressed. The 14 men and nine women on Sowerby's track team at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore are proud, as are the 34 women on his D.C. International Track Club.
Colleagues at both his jobs are pulling for him because Fred Sowerby is not just a great runner. He's a 33-year-old great runner.
Quarter-milers generally drop out of competition in their 20s. Once in awhile one makes it past 30. They run an assortument of distances, all in the quarter-mile or slightly longer range. Most recently, Sowerby has competed at 600 yards and 400, 500 and 600 meters. He said he is ranked No. 1 in the world in three of the four: 600 yards and 500 and 600 meters.
How does he keep going, running distances that are the logical province of fleet men a decade younger? "I figure I have two feet, just like they do," he says. "It's a mind thing."
People familiar with the indoor track game say a couple of factors help keep Sowerby on top. One is a gift: a natural explosive speed on the track that shoots him by opponents he has to pass. Another is his ever-expanding savvy: he knows the "boards" and has mastered the tactics and strategy of running the tight, indoor courses.
And there's one other thing. "I have a big ego," says Sowerby.
Being an amateur runner is more than just running swiftly. Sowerby believes the travel and the need to stay constantly in shape are burdens that knock most runners out of the game before their biological time.
It is 1:30 a.m. and a slashing snowstorm is burying Interstate Rte. 95. Sowerby has WKYS turned up slinky-loud on the Cordoba's stereo. Everything is on schedule, as long as he can keep driving.
The Philadelphia meet is over. Sowerby's UMES runners are threading their way back to Princess Anne, near Ocean City, in a station wagon. The four-woman mile-relay team from D.C. International is heading home in another car and Sowerby, having made sure everyone is in the right vehicle, is driving his car to Bladensburg, where he'll spend the night. He has a 9:40 a.m. flight from Baltimore to Toronto, where he'll catch a plane to Edmonton, where he has a race at 7:30 p.m. It's a killer schedule, but it's nothing new.
In 1979, for example, Sowerby ran in the Melrose Games in New York on a Friday night, ran in Ottawa on Saturday and Montreal on Sunday, winning all three races. He flew back to Washington on Monday to catch a flight to London, where he ran on Wednesday, winning again; from London he flew back to New York and then on to Winnipeg, where he won his race Saturday.
Sometimes everything works, sometimes it doesn't. This night the snow keeps piling up until cars begin appearing along the I-95 berm, abandoned. Sowerby slows the car to a crawl north of Baltimore and arrives in Bladensburg just before 4 a.m.
He's up again at 7. The flight to Canada takes all day. He finally arrives at Edmonton Airport with 40 minutes to race time at a track 40 miles away. He calls race organizers, who delay his event. He arrives at 7:35, warms up for 25 minutes and wins the 400-meter race in 48.42 seconds.
Sowerby is back in Princess Anne at 1:30 Monday morning, in time for a few winks before leaving again at 6 a.m. to attend a track writers luncheon in New York as a prelude to the Melrose Games. Busy.
Who is Fred Sowerby? He emigrated from Antigua in the Leeward Islands 12 years ago, but bears only a mild accent. He has high cheek-bones, a coal-black beard and a body hard as spring steel.
Two years ago he left his job at a Washington bank and moved to Princess Anne to become assistant director of student activities at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. And men's track coach. And women's. And cross-country coach. He also stayed on as founder, coach and director of D.C. International Track Club, which has turned into an all-women's organization, except for him. He keeps in touch by phone.
Beyond all that he's an athlete.
At Philadelphia they delayed the start of the 600-yard race five minutes while Billy Olson went for the U.S. pole vault record. Sowerby, in maroon shorts, waited patiently. Olson missed. The four runners dropped to the blocks. The starter's gun popped.
Sowerby, on the inside lane, let all three opponents go past him. On the first turn he regained the lead with a burst and never gave it up. As he shot past the press box five yards ahead of David Patrick of the University of Tennessee, Sowerby was straining and blowing with a half-lap to go.
"He's gonna lose it," somebody said.
"Not Fred, he's too smart," said someone else. Someone else was right.
It was a classic Sowerby win, though the time of 1:10.35 was unremarkable. "Other people accelerate on the straightaway and coast through the turns," he had said before the race. "I accelerate on the turns and coast on the straightaway." And so he did.
What kind of coach is Sowerby?
"Hard, man, he's a hard coach," says Greg Thomas, a member of the UMES mile-relay team.
"I tell the kids, 'I'm an old man, but you can't whip me,'" says Sowerby.
He's training young athletes, but it's hard to avoid the notion that they are training him. "It's like a family," says Ian Daley, his prize quarter-miler at UMES. "We're like his coach when he's working out, telling him what he's doing wrong, pushing him."
And Sowerby concedes that a big part of his success in this, his best year, is because he has the UMES runners right behind him, challenging him at practice and cheering him at meets.
"I told you," he says, "I have a big ego."
His track coach at Murray (Ky.) State, where Sowerby had a modest track career, wonders how good a coach Sowerby would be, with that ego to satisfy. "I don't know how he'd handle other men," says Bill Cornell. "I wonder about his patience."
Last year, after more than a decade in this country, Sowerby took U.S. citizenship. One of his proudest achievements is the U.S. record he set this year at Saskatoon: 1:18.34 in the 600 meters. As a noncitizen he was ineligible to set U.S. records.
This year he hopes to make the U.S. national team for the first time. And the prospect of the Olympics in 1984 is not beyond his imagination.
"John Werner from Poland ran a 44.2 in a relay at Montreal in 1976, and he was 38," says Sowerby. "Willie Davenport got a bronze medal and he was 33. I'd like to be in a position to try to make that team."
At the same time, his mind wanders to another goal: building a coaching dynasty someplace.
"I've accomplished a lot with running. Now I want to do it as a coach."