I'd never felt so confident," David Moorcroft would explain later, and so 354 laps into the 5,000 meters at the Oslo Games in Norway on July 7, the 29-year-old, modestly accomplished middle-distance runner from Coventry, England surged forth into the race of his life. He sped past the two Kenyans in front of him, Richard Tuwei and 5,000 world-record holder Henry Rono, and into the lead and soon had opened up yards and yards of late evening sunlight between them and himself. "I figured if I make it, great," said Moorcroft. "If not, I'll learn a lesson."
All 6,758 spectators in Bislett Stadium were in a foot-stomping, handclapping frenzy as they watched in disbelief. Moorcroft, a distant 57th (13:20.51) on the all-time 5,000 list going into the meet, was running at world-record pace. A dazed Ralph King, formerly of the University of North Carolina, who came in second, even mistook Moorcroft for some sort of rabbit. Said King, "I couldn't understand when I crossed the line why the clock had been stopped so early."
Moorcroft's goal had been to run 63-second laps and perhaps—just perhaps—break Brendan Foster's British record of 13:14.6. Challenging Rono's world mark of 13:06.20, set in Knarvik, Norway last September, was unthinkable. It would be task enough merely to defeat Rono, who the night before in Stockholm had run a 13:08.97, the third-best ever. But here Moorcroft was turning laps of 61 and 62 seconds and thinking of the world-record runs of countrymen Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, "which gave me something to aspire to," he said. On his mind, too, were images from Chariots of Fire, his favorite movie, whose sound track he had listened to every day for months while driving to his job as a community sports program director. As he entered the final 1,000 meters, with the din of the crowd exhorting him each step of the way, Moorcroft was in a position to do more than admire the grand history of British track; if he kept up his pace, he could add to it. If he finished under 13:06.20, Britain would hold every major world record from 800 to 5,000 meters, except the steeplechase.
But Moorcroft's legs were starting to hurt. For years he had been hindered by calf problems: The sheaths surrounding his muscles were too small and stiff, and when he ran, they didn't have adequate room to expand. His calves would cramp severely. An operation slicing open the sheaths corrected the condition last September and allowed Moorcroft his first winter of hard training since 1976 and some distinguished running this season, most notably a 3:49.34 mile, a personal best by five seconds. Still, under the strain of his effort in Oslo, his calves again throbbed. His chest ached too, despite the cool, dry air. So what did he feel as he entered his final 400 meters? "Euphoria," he would say.
Moorcroft's stunning 59 final lap brought him to the tape in 13:00.42. Second-place finisher King was more than 120 meters behind, and Rono, in fourth, was 35 meters in back of King. The crowd, said Moorcroft, a modest man, had been responsible for his glorious time—"worth two seconds a lap," he insisted. But his personal achievement wasn't so readily brushed off. The 5.78 seconds he had shaved from Rono's record was the greatest reduction in the 5,000 mark since Ron Clarke took 7.6 off Kip Keino's mark of 13:24.2 in 1966. Minutes later, when Moorcroft went to a pay phone and called his wife back in Coventry, a clutch of eavesdropping reporters grew impatient with his nonchalance.
"How's the wee one?" asked Moorcroft of his 14-month-old son, Paul. A pause. Then, casually, "I led all the way, pretty well."
One of the reporters could stand no more. "It was a massacre," he said. "Tell her!"
Thus had begun what would become a landmark week in track and field, with no fewer than eight world or American records tied or broken at meets in Oslo, Stockholm, Paris and East Berlin, including mile records by Steve Scott and Mary Decker Tabb, who several years ago almost had her career ruined by a calf condition very similar to Moorcroft's.
Of the record efforts, Moorcroft's was the most unlikely. Essentially a miler until the last two years—he was seventh in the 1,500 at the 1976 Olympics—Moorcroft had made a name for himself in British track circles well before either Coe or Ovett came to prominence. But those two upstarts, respectively four and three years younger than he, soon overtook him, and although he won the Commonwealth Games 1,500 in 1978, he inexplicably found it difficult to get an invitation to the 1979 Golden Mile in Oslo, in which Coe broke the world record for the first time. Moorcroft finished ninth in that race. After last week's race, Moorcroft was looking forward to a more esteemed place in British—and international—track and field. And, characteristically, he awaited a more tangible reward: A friend in Maryland had promised to buy him dinner at a Polynesian restaurant the two once had visited near Silver Spring if Moorcroft "could go break some world record." Moorcroft's run, surely, was some world record.
"He just went for it all the way," said Scott, who had been watching from the infield. Scott, who had lowered his American mile mark from 3:49.68 to 3:48.53 11 days earlier on the same track, now was intent upon breaking Coe's world record of 3:47.33. He admitted to being so caught up in that particular quest that in his last phone call home to his wife, Kim, in Upland, Calif. he had forgotten to ask for an update on the twists and turns of his favorite soap opera, All My Children. For Scott that's a serious lapse.
He narrowly missed his goal in Oslo with a 3:47.69, the second-fastest mile in history and, of course, another American mark. "The world record is going to go this year," said Scott. "I hope I'll be the one to get it." Likely he will be. He's won 17 of 21 races this year—the most unusual being a downhill mile road race in Auckland, New Zealand, which he won in a perfectly astonishing 3:31.25.
The star of the Paris meet two nights later, however, was that other U.S. miler, Decker Tabb. Deciding at the last minute to run on a freshly resurfaced track in Jean Bouin Stadium, Decker Tabb—who had taken 9.02 off her own American 3,000 record in Oslo with an 8:29.71—ran the mile in 4:18.08 to reduce by 2.81 the world mark held by Lyudmila Veselkova of the Soviet Union.
To put Decker Tabb's mile time in perspective, however, consider that it converts to a 1,500 of only 3:58.98; the women's world record for the 1,500, a more commonly run distance, is 3:52.47. The mile equivalent of that clocking would be 4:11.07.
To put Moorcroft's record in proper perspective, however, one only has to listen to him: "I'm completely stunned. I must get down to earth as quickly as possible."