Eamonn Coghlan is not a superstitious man. Yet he kept a constant eye out for omens last week in San Diego, finding intimations of good luck in such things as a green bikini sighted during a training run along Mission Beach. There were, to be sure, explanatory pressures for this uncharacteristic behavior. The Jack in the Box Invitational mile would be run Friday in the Sports Arena. The four fastest indoor milers in. history would be in it, including Coghlan himself, holder of the 3:52.6 world record set in the same event in 1979. And Coghlan well understood that his record was in grave danger for a host of reasons that he swiftly enumerated: "The history of the meet, the crowd, the track, the point in the season and the men involved."
Of the 37 fastest indoor miles, 12 had been run on the 11-lap-to-the-mile track in San Diego, and that fact, Coghlan pointed out, had a way of turning a runner's hopes to palpable certainty. "The crowd has a voice like nowhere else," he added. "It can make it seem like you're running on a cushion of air." As well, the track is springy and its turns seem to be banked at the optimum angle for milers running 58-second quarters.
Coghlan's own season had begun modestly with a 3:59.1 mile in early January and a 3:54.3 three weeks later. In both races he was well beaten by Steve Scott. But at the Millrose Games in New York on Feb. 6, the old Coghlan kick returned, and he won in 3:53.0, the season's fastest time. "If the Millrose race had been in San Diego," he said flatly, "the record would have gone."
To improve his chances of breaking the mark in San Diego, Coghlan took strong measures. He called Phil (Tiny) Kane, who had been a teammate for three years at Villanova, and asked him to set the pace—1:56 for the 880. And he dug into his suitcase and drew out a white cotton racing shirt emblazoned with the large green M of the Metropolitan Harriers of Dublin, which Coghlan has run for since he was 12. "I needed a singlet for cross-country races in the fall, so Tommy Swift loaned it to me. Every time I wore it I won. When I didn't, I didn't. Before I came over here I offered it back, but Tommy said, 'It does you good. Keep it. But try to wear it when I'll see it on television.' "
March 2, 1981
Had the cameras been paying attention before the mile, Tommy back home might have seen seven remarkably distinct men trotting the Sports Arena corridors. Kane, whose best is 3:57.75, is a graduate student in business at Tennessee. He wore the red, white and blue of Athletics West and came onto the track coughing. "I had a cold," he would say after the race. "And I'd never been a rabbit for anyone. I'd only do it for Eamonn."
John Walker of New Zealand, once the outdoor record holder at 3:49.4, was tanned and fit, healthier than he has been in a year. Walker has had to endure a lot lately in the way of flu and other unkind cuts. "I rang up my wife last night." he said on the day of the race, "and she reported that my horse is sick and my dog was shot for chasing sheep." Earlier, he'd been driven from his hotel room by fumes and noise from a fire at a restaurant across the street. All this was put aside, though, as he spoke of important things. "Eamonn is ready for the world record," he said. "He has been running great times on bad tracks. He'll be under 3:52 here. Me? I think all these indoor tracks go round and round too long. On the tight turns it feels like you're sprinting the whole way."
Harald Hudak of West Germany seemed the least imposing figure. A halo of fluffy curls bounced about his head, suggesting youthful unreadiness. Yet last summer he ran 3:31.96 in the 1,500 in which Steve Ovett set the world record of 3:31.36.
Coghlan's countryman Ray Flynn, the year's most consistent miler, went to the line dark-eyed and pale. This would be his ninth race of 1981. Tanzania's Filbert Bayi, once the outdoor mile and 1.500 record holder, seemed faintly amused as he awaited the gun. He'd won this race a year ago.
Scott stood in Lane 1, breathing deeply, resolute. Scott had been two seconds behind Coghlan in the Mil I rose mile but had set a world indoor record of 4:58.6 for 2,000 meters the next night in Louisville. This night he meant to spend the strength that longer race had revealed in the cause of blunting Coghlan's kick.
Strangely, Kane, the rabbit, was made to start from the outside and so had to sprint high around the pack on the first turn to seize the lead. Once he took it from Scott after 80 yards he was flying. Scott held second, and the pace quickly turned the field behind him to a single file of Flynn, Walker, Bayi and, in sixth place, Coghlan. That was farther back than Coghlan cared to be. After 300 yards he advanced to fourth.
Kane intended to run each 160-yard lap in 21 seconds, or about a 58-second 440 pace. Because of his fast start the quarter was 56.3, but Scott had allowed a gap of 10 yards to open and his time at that point was 58.6. Coghlan's was 58.8. Kane had a friend on the infield calling lap times, and for three more laps he heard, "21...21...21." Both he and Coghlan had the same reaction.
"All I could think of was Jumbo [Elliott] calling splits on the outdoor boards of Villanova, where we learned all this." said Kane. Thus inspired by his distinguished past, he was still eight yards ahead at the half, which he turned in 1:55.5. Scott's clocking was 1:56.6, and Coghlan, now third, ran 1:56.7.
Then, instead of abruptly slowing, as rabbits almost always do, Kane drove steadily on, taken with a sudden ambition. "I thought of stealing this race," he said later, and the idea was clear on his face as he stretched his lead to 15 yards. "But then my legs and my cold brought me back down." The field caught him with four laps to go and, led by Scott, swept past.
By now the San Diego crowd, 11,512 strong, was up and screaming. "It was so loud you didn't really hear it anymore," said Scott. "But you couldn't resist it." He had a fixed purpose: to run so hard to the end that no man could possibly pass him. But within half a lap he was challenged by the rejuvenated Walker. Scott held Walker at his shoulder. At that point Scott's glowingly pregnant wife, Kim, shouted: "Keep him boxed. Oh, keep him boxed!"—meaning Coghlan on the inside. Nearby, Coghlan's glowingly pregnant wife, Yvonne, sat composed, trusting.
As they approached the three-quarters, where the time was 2:55.4 for Scott and. a record appeared certain. Walker drifted a foot or so too wide in one of the tight turns that so frustrate him, and to Kim Scott's horror, Coghlan shot through on the inside, taking second place. "It's hard to get by those big guys," he would say. "You have to take your opportunities where they come."
Coghlan needed position because he planned an early attack: "Steve had seen me sprint the last lap, or lap and a half at most, in our races this year. I figured going with two laps left would take him by surprise."
Scott didn't care when Coghlan tried to pass. "I didn't think at world-record pace he'd be able to make a move I couldn't hold off," he said.
But Coghlan seems to harbor an ability to accelerate no matter what the pace. With teeth bared he tore around Scott and into the lead with two laps to go. Scott had to let him by but hung a bare yard behind. Now the question amid the bedlam was: Had Coghlan used too much, too soon?
"I'll get him back," thought Scott with a lap to go, and his blue eyes were wild, his face twisted with trying.
But Scott's effort was no match for Coghlan's gifts. Down the last back-stretch Coghlan pulled away, sprinting without letup. "I hadn't heard the three-quarter time, but I knew from the crowd I was near the record," he said.
Near was hardly the word. Coghlan crossed the line in 3:50.6, having run his last quarter in 55.0. The time cut two full seconds off his world mark, itself deeply respected by anyone who has run on an indoor track. In the process he passed 1,500 meters in 3:35.6, breaking Walker's world indoor record of 3:37.4. Thus, in 24 months Coghlan has reduced the mile record by a total of 4.3 seconds. His 3:50.6 is the fastest mile ever run in the U.S., indoors or out, breaking Jim Ryun's 3:51.1, done in 1967. It's the sixth-fastest run anywhere.
Scott finished in 3:51.8, also under the old world record and naturally an American record. As the cheers went on and on and Coghlan was embraced by Kane, Scott slowly walked the backstretch, unseeing. "You did everything you could possibly do," he was told. Scott didn't even turn. Later he said, "I thought 3:52 would win. I did do my best. I'm satisfied." But of course he wasn't.
As Coghlan took his second and third victory laps, Walker led the applause, which seemed to momentarily embarrass the Irishman because this cheerleader of his had finished in 3:52.8. "It didn't feel that fast until the last two laps," said Walker. "I've learned what that last minute's insane noise of the crowd means here...it means the little sonofabitch is setting another world record."
Coghlan, cooled, startled the press by saying with an edge of seriousness that he was disappointed he had not got all he'd come for. "I already had the world record," he said. "So my goal for the season was 3:50. Maybe it was a bit farfetched." Maybe not. A luckier start, with less need to work for early position, and Coghlan might have saved enough to be six-tenths faster over the last 300. At any rate, he's back to being a pure miler after two years of training for the 5,000 meters. And he's back to dreaming. "Outdoors," he said, "I can quite clearly see 3:48."
"Those milers," said one fascinated observer. "They train together, they take each other to dinner, they work as a group. Now sprinters, we tend to be cocky, maybe a little nervous, when there are two of us in the same room."
The speaker was James Sanford, the 1979 World Cup 100-meter champion, now redshirting at USC while waiting for the school to get off Pac-10 probation. His remark was pointed because also pacing the arena was Stanley Floyd, ranked No. 1 in the world last year at 100 meters, who was undefeated indoors this year and had broken Houston McTear's 60-yard record by .01 with a time of 6.04 in Dallas in January. Floyd has transferred from Auburn to Houston and must wait a year before being eligible for collegiate meets. Thus, the two best U.S. sprinters find themselves, as Sanford put it, "unattached, but not detached."
They would race twice, over 50 meters and then, half an hour later, at 60 yards. The metric race would be a chance to go for the supposedly soft world record of 5.61 set by East Germany's Manfred Kokot in 1973.
Floyd had beaten Sanford a week earlier in the Los Angeles Times meet, but Sanford was conceding nothing. "Last year in the 100, before I hurt my hamstring, I felt like I could accelerate at the 30-, the 60-and 80-meter marks. It was strange, weird, and real nice. I think I'm rounding back into that form."
There are uncommon parallels between Sanford and Floyd. Both ran outstanding quarter miles in high school (Sanford's best is 45.77, Floyd recalls a 45.7 in a relay), both stress the outdoor season over the indoor, and both are charmers. Sanford sweeps people up with a gum-cracking, good-natured energy; Floyd with almond eyes, eloquent gestures with exceptionally long-fingered hands (he types 60 words per minute) and a grace that belies his 19 years. "I feel no enmity toward James," he said the morning of the meet. "People say we're archrivals. I think it's more like my followers in the East and his in the West have their differences. We don't."
Before the 50 meters they happened to take their warmup starts together, bolting away from the blocks so fast they seemed thrown by some invisible catapult. They walked back together.
"Hey, let's push each other forward," said Floyd.
"You bet," said Sanford.
"Get that record now."
"Hey, it's yours for the taking."
"Lord, we'll have to dead-heat."
They almost did. After they both came out low, Floyd had a slight edge through perhaps 30 meters. But Sanford came on to win by an inch or two, Floyd having felt a moment's twinge in his groin. The officials took a long time over the picture before announcing Sanford's time as 5.61, equal to the world record. Floyd ran 5.63.
Returning to the start, where the smoke of the gun still hung in the air, Floyd looked happier than Sanford, who seemed stunned. But Floyd's grin was one of clenched teeth. "What time is that 60?" he said.
"Started switching the gears like my old self," said Sanford. "I'm glad to be back."
"The way those men talk to each other," sighed Pat Connolly while her pupil, Evelyn Ashford, set her blocks for the women's 60-yard dash. "Listen to the women sprinters. No talk, just silent concentration."
It certainly was easy to pay attention to Ashford, clad in another of her clingy one-piece racing suits, this week's version being scarlet. Ashford herself attends the starter, who seemed to have found a solution to the problem of false starts in the dashes by firing his gun as soon as he said "set."
"I teach the long European-style hold," said Connolly. "This guy will bother Evelyn."
It wasn't evident, as Ashford was off even with the field, taking wide splayfooted steps at first and then pulling away smoothly. "According to all the laws of physics you don't want that wide start," said Connolly. "But she has always done it."
Ashford's time was 6.68. "Felt like a warmup," she said calmly before being attacked with hugs by two old friends, hurdler Patty van Wolvelaere and pentathlete Cindy Gilbert. There were shrieks and exclamations over her new suit. "Of course, now they talk," said Connolly.
Minutes later, in the men's 60, Sanford achieved a dash double, finishing in 6.07 to Floyd's 6.10. "You know, Stanley's not going to let this bother him," said Sanford. "He's still the world's fastest human to me, until somebody beats him at a 100 outdoors. I feel like we've begun a friendship tonight that's going to do a lot for both of us."
"It will. It will," said Floyd. "Like I'm going to get training."
It was purely coincidence that as they departed they passed Tiny Kane reflecting upon his rabbit work. "If you're going to do a job for a friend," he was saying, "it's good to do it right." Coincidence, and real nice.