Last Friday night, in East Tennessee State's Minidome, Eamonn Coghlan, Steve Scott, Don Paige and Ray Flynn, all of whom would be competing in the mile in the Eastman Invitational track meet the next night, were on the infield with a TV crew playing an informal version of To Tell the Truth. "My name is Eamonn Coghlan," said Coghlan. "I'm the world indoor record holder in the mile." He passed the microphone to Scott. "I am Reilly O'Eamonn...I mean Eamonn O'Coghlan...I mean...." Paige took his turn, followed by the Irish Olympian Flynn. "I'm the real Eamonn Coghlan," said Flynn. "You can tell from my accent."
Roughly 24 hours later, Flynn was back in the Minidome, wishing he had the real Eamonn Coghlan's famed finishing kick instead of his brogue. It was the sixth and final lap of the mile, and Scott was at his heels. Coghlan and Paige were 10 and 15 yards back, respectively—not far enough.
The race had turned into one of history's least likely world-record challenges, one that, because of technicalities, couldn't possibly produce a world record. The East Tennessee State track, it turns out, is both too large and too small to be legit. At one-sixth of a mile, the flat Tartan oval, while marvelously quick, is nearly 75 yards too long to qualify as a regulation-sized indoor track. And because the curb is inside the track's inner lane rather than on the lane's edge, the track comes up about four yards short over a mile.
Neither of the track's stigmas seemed to bother the milers, who had come to Johnson City seeking nothing more than a good speed workout and a chance to assay their early-season fitness. "This is kind of a fun meet," said Scott. "The people are real friendly, and there's less pressure. It's good to see a meet like this, in a smaller town. This hasn't been a very good year for indoor meets." What Scott was alluding to was the financial vortex that has pulled down a number of well-established events, including New York's Olympic Invitational, the Muhammad Ali Games and Maryland's CYO meet. With new sponsorship from the Tennessee Eastman Company, the four-year-old Eastman meet (formerly the East Tennessee Invitational) seems as financially stable as any of the survivors.
January 19, 1981
Ironically, the meet's primary lure is precisely what was precluding a record mile: the oversized-undersized track. "A college coach knows he can bring his kids here and they can get their qualifying times for the NCAA early in the year," said meet director and East Tennessee Coach Dave Walker. Last weekend more than 1,000 athletes showed up, though until NCAA qualifying standards are published, few of the college runners will know if the Minidome track was quite fast enough.
Although interminable heats—owing to the huge fields—prolonged the action, there were several quality performances before the mile. Brenda Webb, the tiny schoolteacher from Knoxville, blew off everybody en route to a 9:53.20 victory in the women's two-mile run, and 19-year-old Leo Williams of Navy barely scraped the bar three times at 7'6", after having clinched first place at 7'4¼". Emmit King, a late entry, ran the 60 in 6.21 to beat Olympians Harvey Glance and Mel Lattany for his second win in two meets.
The feature event, however, was unquestionably the mile, though the mere suggestion that Coghlan's 3:52.6 record might be broken, even unofficially, so early in the season sounded preposterous. At the only major U.S. meet before the Eastman, the Runner's World Classic, which was run on a dreadfully slow track in San Francisco, Scott had barely broken four minutes and Flynn and Paige had failed to. Coghlan hadn't raced indoors at all and had been hampered in his outdoor work by terrible weather in Dublin, and none of the four milers had been doing interval work to build his speed. "I'm unsure exactly where I stand," said Coghlan, "and that's part of the reason I'm here. It's about time to find out and start sharpening up."
His rivals, too, spoke of their uncertainty and based their race strategies on it. Scott would start off slowly and then begin to move up on the second or third lap—if he felt strong. Paige, like Coghlan, would stick near the front as long as he could. Flynn planned to force the pace all the way, hopeful that his opponents might tire and lose their stinging kicks.
Flynn, 23, from County Longford, was clearly the most intense about the race. One of a succession of Irish runners to attend East Tennessee State (1974 Boston Marathon champion Neil Cusack was one of the others), Flynn is a hero in Johnson City, a quiet town on the eastern fringe of the Appalachians where the climate and topography aren't drastically different from that of Flynn's home county. "I've come to love this area and its people, and I want the meet to come off well for them," he said, without sounding as smarmy as the words seem. His friends Coghlan and Scott had shown up principally as a favor to him, and as late as Friday evening Flynn was in his tuxedo, helping out as a meet official while all those heats were being run off.
The Eastman mile was also a chance for Flynn to finally nail, on his home turf, the runners who had consistently beaten him over the years. Despite personal bests of 3:56.5 indoors and 3:55.3 outdoors, he'd never escaped from Coghlan's shadow in Ireland or established the world-class credentials of the U.S.'s Scott and Paige. In the Moscow Olympics he'd missed an opportunity for recognition by finishing sixth in his 1,500 heat after cutting down too much on his training mileage in the previous weeks. For much of the time since then, he'd been pointing to this meet.
So when the gun sent off the milers Saturday night, Flynn and East Tennessee State junior Ben Turpin, the race's rabbit, moved immediately to the front. Turpin's task was to carry the pack through the quarter in about 58 seconds and the half in 1:57. If he could somehow maintain that pace for three quarters, all the better.
Coghlan stayed within a stride of the two leaders, who hit the quarter in 58.5. Peter Lemashon of Texas-El Paso was fourth, with Paige a close fifth and Scott a few steps farther back. As they completed the second of the six laps, Scott was straining. "They announced, 'Four laps to go,' and I couldn't believe it," he said later. "I felt like we had already finished that many."
But Scott bulled forward, catching Paige and Lemashon before the next lap was completed. He hit the half-mile mark in 1:58.1, a full second behind pacesetter Turpin but only .3 in back of Coghlan. Turpin was now spent; he pulled off the track and left the lead to Flynn.
At three quarters, it was still Flynn, running the race of his life in 2:57.6. Coghlan was only a few yards behind and Scott was close, but Paige had faded 15 yards off the pace.
With the final lap, the crowd of 9,000 was on its feet, the roars for Flynn resounding in the vast arena. Scott had slipped past Coghlan into second and was running down the leader. With a spurt he was past Flynn on the backstretch. "I've lost so often to Scott in the past," Flynn said afterward, "that I figured it was over. But then I realized that Steve wasn't going anywhere. People were screaming, 'You've got him!' "
Flynn came wide off the last turn and drew closer, but not close enough. At the tape the gap was still two yards.
Scott finished in 3:54.50, a time that would equal seventh on the alltime indoor performance list had it not been for the paradoxical track. Flynn finished in 3:54.73. Paige was 3:57.52, and Coghlan, who had turned to clay over the final 200 yards, did a 3:59.10.
"Well, now I know exactly where I stand," said Coghlan, who previously had lost to Scott only twice indoors. "I found out on the last lap." Paige, at least, had one prospect to console him: his soon-to-be-announced ranking as the world's top 800-meter runner of 1980, ahead of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett.
"After I went by Ray I died," Scott said. "If he'd made a slightly stronger move, he'd have caught me." The crowd was thinning as Scott had the last word. "Maybe these marks won't count because the track's so long, but...." He paused. "It was kind of fun."