A tale of two cities

Feb. 25, 1980
Feb. 25, 1980

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Feb. 25, 1980

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A tale of two cities

Eamonn Coghlan won L.A., Steve Scott Houston, but Mary Decker outdid both

The plan was simple. After Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland, Dr. Thomas Wessinghage of West Germany and Steve Scott of the U.S. finished the mile in last Friday's Sunkist Invitational meet in Los Angeles, they would warm down, be driven to a waiting Lear jet and fly to Houston, there to run in a "Miracle Mile" the following afternoon at the Brooks Invitational in the Astrodome. "And then we'll all sit down and watch Mary Decker steal our thunder again," said Coghlan, whose premonitions, as we shall see, were eerily acute.

This is an article from the Feb. 25, 1980 issue Original Layout

Even before the milers got on the track in L.A., the meet had been a splendid one, with Henry Rono running the fastest two-mile in the world this year (8:21.7), Mike Boit the half-mile (1:48.6) and Franklin Jacobs high jumping 7'6", a 1980 American best. Rono, who married his high school sweetheart in Kenya in December and then raced like the Rono of old in New Zealand and Australia in January, misread his meet schedule and so found himself sitting in the stands five minutes before the two-mile. The start was delayed so that he might get his spikes on. Using the first mile and a half as a warmup, Rono found himself trailing Larry Lawson of the Santa Monica Track Club. Then, exploding past Lawson, he was suddenly lithe and powerful in the turns, alternately grimacing and blowing hard through pinched lips as he drove on and on. Within three laps he had an 80-yard lead. Rono covered the last half mile in 1:59 and put 11.3 seconds between himself and runner-up Jerald Jones, also of the Santa Monica TC. "I am very happy with the time," he said. "If I had been warmed up, perhaps I could have done 8:15."

Rono's countryman, Boit, followed with his sparkling victory in the 880. "Someone stepped on me at the start," he said. "I do not like that." As a remedy, Boit led wire to wire and seems to be returning to the form that made him the Montreal Olympic co-favorite at 800 meters with Cuba's Alberto Juantorena. That was before the African boycott took him out of the 1976 Games, so naturally Boit has been asked to address a lot of Rotary clubs on the subject of Olympic boycotts. "I am asked what Kenya will do," he said. "I don't know. I think we are more Westernized than we are Easternized, so we might follow you out. But it is unpleasant, always to be thinking about it and have nothing to do about it."

At one point both Jacobs and Mike Tully were doing all they could to get world records in vertical jumps. Jacobs had the high jump bar set at 7'8¾", a full two feet above his head, and took one respectable try at it after consultations with at least three coaches scattered around the Sports Arena.

After winning the pole vault at 18 feet, Tully went for 18'6½", a centimeter higher than the recent indoor world record of the U.S.S.R.'s 19-year-old Konstantin Volkov. He missed twice and said, "My run is dying at the end. I think I could make it if I weren't exhausted." Then he ran at it again and almost surprised himself, barely scraping the bar off with his chest.

The first half of the mile was fast and even, with Malcolm Cleary of the Santa Monica TC leading, in order, Coghlan, Tanzania's Filbert Bayi, Steve Lacy of the Angels Flight Striders, Wessinghage and Scott past the 440 in 57.8 and the 880 in 1:57.2, compared to splits of 58.5 and 1:57.0 in Coghlan's world-record run of 3:52.6 in San Diego last year. But then the rabbit, Cleary, though looking strong, abruptly stepped off the track, leaving a startled Coghlan in the lead. He looked to his right for Bayi, who indeed wanted to take the pace, but stumbled slightly before accelerating. It was a lap of the 160-yard track before Bayi could get in front. In that time Coghlan hesitated. "The pace has to be kept even," he would say later in acknowledging these as the moments when a new record was lost.

With three laps to go, Lacy charged ahead. "I felt good. I was going to take my shot. But I was worried about not having enough speed," he said. The three-quarter mile was passed in 2:57.1, and with 250 yards to run, Coghlan sprinted hard and at once proved Lacy's fears correct. Scott then came out of fourth, and the only question over the last lap was whether he could catch Coghlan.

Scott took the last turn perfectly, going slightly wide and shooting down the slope into the straightaway. Coghlan has said after winning races, "There was more kick left had I needed it." He needed it now and, sure enough, it was there. Open-mouthed and eyes skyward, he hit the tape still a couple of feet ahead of Scott. Their times were 3:52.9 and 3:53.0, respectively, the second-and third-fastest ever run indoors, and an American record for Scott.

"I should have gone all out on the whole last lap," he said while Coghlan trotted a circuit or two of joyful relief. When they shook hands, Eamonn Coghlan's first words were, "Well done," and surely the commendation extended to Bayi in third with 3:54.5, his best ever indoors, and Lacy in fourth with 3:55.6. The times augmented the satisfying impression of a bravely fought, competitive race, and there this story might sensibly have ended, except for those promises to appear in Houston. Coghlan tempered his happiness with the win by imagining runners lying in wait for the morrow. "Just remember," he said. "John Walker is already asleep by now."

As scheduled, Coghlan, Scott and Wessinghage, who had placed fifth in 4:00.6, quickly got to the airport, where they learned that the jet promised by Brooks Meet Director Ron Stanko was snowed in at Boulder. "They said take a commercial flight," reported Coghlan. "One that was to leave at midnight and was delayed to 1 a.m. The clerk said even that was chancy. I decided to skip the meet. My heart was not in abusing my body." Coghlan returned to his hotel while Scott and Wessinghage kept their airport vigil. They finally took off at 2:30 and reached Houston just after 7. Wessinghage was a good sport. "Five years from now I can meet Steve Scott and say, 'Remember that night we flew to Texas?' and we'll laugh."

When Coghlan got back to his room, Stanko was on the phone from Houston. According to Coghlan, "Stanko said that 'Everything depends on you,' that the TV contract with CBS specifically stated I had to run or the coverage could be cancelled." So Coghlan slept four hours and, still in his sweat suit, caught an 8:15 a.m. plane to Houston. On board, he permitted himself a modest interruption of his usual good cheer. "I knew something like this would happen," he said over his tray of eggs and waxen hash browns, his first food in 18 hours. "The Miracle Mile: if it comes off it will be a miracle." Alighting, he was handed a message to take a taxi to his hotel because his promised limousine had been in an accident.

"Did you know that would happen?" he was asked.


"Will there be any other disasters?"

"Possibly," he said. "Very possibly."

The appeal of the Astrodome to these beleaguered milers lay in its expansive, five-laps-to-the-mile track, which had not been used for a major race in six years. The prospect of such men as Coghlan and Scott meeting New Zealand's Walker, 3:52.1-miler Craig Masback and Villanova's NCAA 800- and 1,500-meter champion Don Paige had allowed Stanko to sell CBS on televising the race, which to accommodate TV was then moved to precisely 4:48 in the afternoon, several hours before the balance of the program. Perhaps 2,000 people were on hand that early, most of them runners from the day's high school, college and Masters' races, and they filled only 20 or 30 rows along the backstretch.

While the travelers were weary, Walker had had a case of food poisoning earlier in the week and had not completely recovered. Thus, when rabbit Gene McCarthy set a pace of 58.9 and 1:58.8, only Ireland's Ray Flynn went along. Walker was at least 12 yards back in third at the half, with Coghlan, Scott and Paige trailing. In theory Houston's 352-yard track, because it is banked, should permit faster times than even a full 440-yard outdoor oval, which is flat in the turns. But in practice it had its drawbacks. "It's just not well-built," said Scott. "It's uneven and bouncy in places and dead in others. It might have been better if they'd left it in storage and marked off lines in the dirt." For his part, Wessinghage tried to run on the seams of the blue plywood.

Flynn led at the three-quarter mile in 2:58.5, but Scott went past on the last backstretch, followed quickly by Paige, who looked eager to pounce. "I thought I'd get him," said Paige. "I felt great." Off the final turn Paige drew even, but Scott fought back as Coghlan had done the night before, driving his arms low. His torso twisted with the effort, and on his face there was a fierce grin. "That was blood and guts, the last 80 yards," he would say. "Those close finishes are exciting. It almost doesn't matter who wins, it's just battle." Scott, who is seldom outleaned, won this one by a few inches in 3:54.20 to 3:54.22. Walker was third in 3:55.3; Flynn fourth in 3:56.5; Masback fifth in 3:59.5; and Coghlan seventh in 4:01.7, his first loss in an indoor mile since 1977. "I couldn't even get motivated," he said, his most dismal prediction having come to pass. Then, looking around the nearly empty stadium, he said, "People are going to be really upset tonight when they come to the meet and ask where the mile is."

But, also as Coghlan had foretold, Mary Decker would give the fans a mile to remember. "Even pace, even pace," she repeated to herself as she laced on her spikes for the race that evening. A week earlier, in a blaze of nervous excitement, she had run the first 440 in 60.8 in her world-record 1,500 in New York and had slowed near the end because of it. Now she just wanted to begin at a pace she could hold. But at the gun she left two lesser opponents standing and flew into an ever-widening lead. At the 440 her time was 60.6. "I heard that, and I told myself, 'Oh no. I did it again.' But it didn't feel fast," she said. She swept on, maintaining an effortless balance despite the lumpy surface. The half was 2:05.2, the three-quarter 3:12.3. The beauty of her run, a gift in this dusty space, lifted the crowd, which in turn called her into a strong sprint over the final 150 yards. She finished the mile in 4:17.6, which was 4.1 seconds better than her own outdoor world record and a gaudy 10.9 seconds faster than Francie Larrieu's indoor world record. Yet the performance qualifies in neither category, because it was not run outdoors and the Houston track is too large to be acceptable for indoor records.

Decker, however, could not generate much more than mild amusement at the frantic nit-picking of the statisticians. "All I care about is finding out what I can do," she said simply. "This is the equivalent of 1,500 meters in 3:59 or 4:00, which is what I want to be consistent at. Twice in eight days is consistent, isn't it?

"The reason I'm running so well is just that for almost a year now I've been able to train consistently. I've never done that before. My coach, Dick Quax has been my example, teaching me how to live a more measured life, to direct my energy into fewer, deeper channels."

Asked about the difficulty of the race, Decker hesitated before saying, "I don't know what to say because, honestly..." and here her voice took on a touch of self-consciousness, "it's almost like the faster I go, the easier it becomes."

Decker can certainly run the mile far faster than 4:17.6. Understanding her training and potential as she now does, she knows this full well. Yet, because of the wisdom gained from incessant injury, she shies from saying it. Others, however, are not blind. "That woman," said Masback, "has brought the day of the female four-minute mile years closer."

PHOTOFour in the lineup for the Sunkist were Bayi, Cleary, Scott and Coghlan.PHOTOKicking strongly, Coghlan came on to beat Scott (far left) by only one-tenth second.PHOTOTully really got up for the Sunkist—to 18 feet.PHOTOJacobs cleared 7'6", America's best jump so far this year.PHOTODecker wasn't the only one bug-eyed by her mile.PHOTOAfter his airport vigil, Scott flew into Houston and nipped Paige.