When Dick Buerkle stood at the starting line of an indoor mile race in College Park, Md., in 1978, he was in a new phase of his career. He had been a leading middle-distance runner but had fizzled out at 5,000 meters in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
He took a year off from competing and focused on a new challenge: winning at the mile.
“I’ve always wondered how fast I could run the mile,” Buerkle (pronounced BERK-lee) told Sports Illustrated in 1978. “There was only one way to find out.”
Before the race, at the Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, he ate his usual pre-race meal of a couple of peanut butter sandwiches and a bunch of Hydrox cookies.
And he won the race. Leading from start to finish, Buerkle held off Filbert Bayi of Tanzania, the favorite. With a time of 3 minutes 54 seconds and nine-tenths of a second, Buerkle narrowly eclipsed Tony Waldrop’s four-year old record of 3:55.
Two weeks later, Buerkle won the mile race at the Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden with a time of 3:58.4, fast enough to beat Bayi again and significant enough for Sports Illustrated to laud Buerkle on its cover as the “New Master of the Mile.”
The reign did not last long, however. Thirteen months later, the Irish runner Eamonn Coghlan cut two seconds off Buerkle’s record.
“Dick Buerkle was a great & hard working athlete & true gent,” Coghlan wrote on Twitter after Buerkle’s death, on June 22. “His world indoor mile record was the one I dreamed of beating.”
Buerkle died at his home in Atlanta at 72. His wife, Jean Buerkle, said the cause was multiple system atrophy, a rare neurodegenerative disorder. He received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in 2008, but it was later changed to multiple system atrophy.
Buerkle was slightly built — 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds — with a short, efficient stride that, as Neil Amdur of The New York Times once wrote, made him “look more like someone racing to catch a commuter train than a world-class competitor.”
Buerkle’s most noticeable physical characteristic was his total baldness; he lost his hair at age 12 because of alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder. The taunts he heard at track meets, as early as high school, helped fuel his determination to succeed.
“Michael Jordan was his savior,” Ms. Buerkle said in a phone interview. “When Michael shaved his head, Dick wasn’t taunted any longer. He had a purplish-blue Michael Jordan sweatsuit that was his favorite.”
Richard Thomas Buerkle was born on Sept. 3, 1947, in Rochester, N.Y., to Raymond and Margaret (Kelleher) Buerkle. His father owned a floor covering store, where his mother, kept the financial books; she was also a bookkeeper for other clients.
Buerkle got a late start in competitive running; he did not compete for his high school track and field team until his senior year. And he was a walk-on, without an athletic scholarship, when he joined the powerful Villanova University track team. But he wound up as part of the Wildcats’ N.C.A.A. national championship teams in cross country in 1967 and 1968 and indoor track in 1968.
During his junior year, he finished second in a two-mile race in Knoxville, Tenn., but by running in under nine minutes, he persuaded his coach, Jumbo Elliott, to finally give him his scholarship.
A year later, Buerkle was the indoor two-mile champion at the elite track meet of the IC4A, or the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America.
After graduating from Villanova in 1970 with a major in Spanish studies, he ran at top levels for more than a decade, showing versatility at one, two and three miles, as well as at distances of 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters.
In 1976, Buerkle won the 5,000-meter race at the United States Olympic trials but finished ninth in a heat at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. He qualified again at 5,000 meters for the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, but the American team did not compete after the United States boycotted the event because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Buerkle disagreed with boycott, ordered by President Jimmy Carter. “Of course, the boycott is justified if it can bring about peace,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, “but the way it was handled was obnoxious, underhanded, threatening.”
He left elite racing in 1981 and worked primarily as a Spanish teacher and track coach at middle and high schools in Atlanta.
He married Jean Brockwell in 1971. In addition to her, he is survived by two daughters, Lily and Tera Buerkle; a son, Gabriel; four grandchildren; three sisters, Anne, Teresa and Mary Pat Buerkle; and four brothers, Daniel, Robert, Joseph and Thomas.
As a top American at 5,000 meters from 1970 to 1981, Buerkle’s chief rival was Steve Prefontaine, America’s finest distant runner at the time. Competing in a two-mile event in 1974, Buerkle won decisively, breaking Prefontaine’s four-year winning streak at numerous distances.
Shortly after Prefontaine’s death the following year in an automobile accident in Eugene, Ore., Buerkle wrote a poem that he dictated over the telephone to a reporter at The Register-Guard in Eugene. It read in part:
And now it’s over just like that.
The hearts begin to bleed.
No more will dirt in London, Oslo,
Crush beneath your feet.
It’s up to other artists now
To make the tempo sweet.