The fastest field of milers ever assembled lined up across Fifth Avenue in front of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art last Saturday afternoon to run downtown before an estimated 100,000 spectators, the largest crowd ever to see a mile foot race. Their route would be from 82nd Street to 62nd—a straight but undulating course consisting of a total of three uphill blocks, eight level and nine downhill—under a canopy of Central Park beech trees, past the elegant apartment houses of Millionaire's Row and along a canted surface that, according to an informal survey, was strewn with 124 potholes and 22 manhole covers. "There's no gaping holes they'll fall into," said a city maintenance man. "I've run on tracks that were in worse shape," said Tom Byers of Eugene, Ore., one of 13 starters.
"An historic day," said Race Director Fred Lebow, Saturday morning. "It's tremendous," said former mile world-record holder John Walker of New Zealand. "Could be the biggest thing on Fifth Avenue next to the St. Patrick's Day parade," said Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland, the indoor mile world-record holder.
What they were talking about was the inaugural Fifth Avenue Mile, a commercially packaged, controversial, intriguing event concocted by Lebow, the 49-year-old president of the New York Road Runners Club. For all the optimism, no one knew quite what to expect from a mile race without turns. "In a straight-line race, you have no idea where you are," said Coghlan. "You've got to sprint from the word go." The predicted times ranged from Sydney Maree's "under 4:00" to Coghlan's "could break 3:50." Some even thought Sebastian Coe's 3:47.33 world record might be surpassed, although not officially broken in this, a road race.
A women's mile, run 25 minutes beforehand, served as a preview of the potential for speed and a pitfall the men would also face. University of Oregon junior Leann Warren's winning time of 4:25.31 was a personal best by nearly five seconds. The first-place finishers in two other preliminary races had also gotten PRs, but in all three events several runners, seeing the finish line from the crest of Lenox Hill, almost half a mile away, prematurely began their kicks and died.
October 4, 1981
At last, the field—conspicuous by their absence were Coe, who was at an International Olympic Committee meeting in Baden-Baden, and former mile world-record holder Steve Ovett, who had pulled out six days earlier pleading a virus—was sent off into a gentle breeze. The runners clustered immediately on the crown of the avenue, led by Coghlan, Ross Donaghue and Maree, and it was apparent that no one was holding anything back or playing mind games. "This was more honest than any track race I've ever run," Walker would say. "It was a sprint. Nobody cared about anyone else."
Maree and Donaghue carried the tight pack past the quarter-mile mark in 53.2, more than two seconds under Coe's record pace. "That time, it blew up my mind," said Mike Boit of Kenya. Originally, there were to have been pacing clocks every five blocks, but even had they been set up, they would have been ignored. "We couldn't have turned to look at them," Ireland's Ray Flynn said. "It was too intense a race. I've never seen anything like it."
Byers made a move at 74th Street, just before the halfway point, as the runners hit the lone uphill stretch. "My strategy was to break some people, but I ended up breaking myself," he said, not the last to so err. In the lead, Donaghue, Maree and Britain's Steve Cram were virtually abreast—and barely ahead of the 10 other milers. They reached the half in 1:52.8, now less than half a second ahead of record pace. A few blocks later, they all caught sight of the finish line.
Faces suddenly snapped taut with strain as the runners instinctively accelerated. Walker and Boit bolted up front with Cram. The brief incline had slowed the runners so that the leader was now behind Coe's pace, but on the downhill stretch between 70th and 66th streets they were making up for lost time. Then, all at once, as they entered the final 440 yards, those who had sprinted especially hard hit the equivalent of a marathoner's "wall."
"I've never gone into such oxygen debt," said Walker. Boit said, "It was so difficult. I could see the finish. I was sprinting as fast as I could. But I was not gaining ground." Quite simply, they all had kicked too soon. And in doing so they left the door open for Maree.
Pushed by the roar of the crowd, which was eight deep on both sides for the last 100 yards, the 25-year-old South African took the lead with 300 yards to go and steadily pulled away. He finished in 3:47.52, unofficially the second-best clocking ever, followed by Boit (3:49.59), who called it the toughest race of his life, and Dr. Thomas Wessinghage of West Germany (3:50.48).
While the runners all but raved about how exciting they had found the race, Lebow talked of holding similar events on San Francisco's Market Street, Chicago's Miracle Mile, London's Mall and the Champs-Elysèes in Paris. "Maybe, if we finally do decide to become a family in South Africa...Johannesburg," offered Maree.
"This was like a swimming race," said Walker, who finished sixth. "They don't have pacemakers, they don't play games and they don't care." Said Wessinghage, "On the track, sometimes the smartest runner may win. Here on the road, the best will win."