Even under normal circumstances, Doug Padilla resembles a timid fawn caught nibbling your nasturtiums. Warming up before the 3,000 meters at Saturday's Vitalis/U.S. Olympic Invitational track meet at the Meadowlands Arena, he looked positively chilled with fear. His hands were ice. "Have you seen the field?" he cried. "It's full of great milers. Jim Spivey is in it. Sebastian Coe is in it. He's never run in the U.S. except when he won the L.A. Olympics. And now he's here...in my race."
Padilla held (the tense may alert you to what's coming) the American indoor 3,000 record of 7:44.9. And he knew it would be attacked. "My roommate for the weekend, Brian Abshire, is going to try for a 4:07 [mile] pace."
That would be world-record pace, and a 3,000 world record would be historic. The indoor standard of 7:39.2 by Belgium's Emiel Puttemans has stood like a rock for 15 years. But Abshire? The Auburn physical-education major was a fine steeplechaser, but surely not the headliner in this field. He even had his own doubts. "The tendon in the arch of my right foot got sore this week," Abshire said. "I almost turned around in the Atlanta airport and went home." Padilla encouraged him, promising to rub his foot afterward, then immediately started regretting it. "He's either going to pull me to a great race," Padilla said on the way to the start, "or destroy me."
Coe really wasn't in the market for such heroic competition, having been out since last May with a sore Achilles tendon. He had hoped to use this race to break up a few weeks of warm-weather training in Tampa, where he has been avoiding a nasty British winter. Coe, who has set 11 world records from 800 meters through the mile since 1979, had never before run a U.S. indoor meet; his winters having been given mostly to conditioning. He peaks when it counts.
February 22, 1988
He had a time getting to snowy New Jersey. His plane from Florida was hours late, and then he and three others jammed into the back of a Newark taxi driven by a man who, according to Dr. David Martin, Coe's friend and physiologist, "spoke only Amharic." On the New Jersey Turnpike, at night, they had a flat. The driver kept them locked in the car while he tried to change it. He couldn't get the lug nuts off. They drove, clumping, down the back streets of Newark to a corner where there was a huge pile of wrecked wheels and exploded tires. "He's been here before," said Coe dryly. It was two hours before the tire was changed and they were safe.
Of the men causing concern to Padilla, Abshire would do the most damage. Barely two laps into the 3,000, he boomed into the lead and passed the 400 in 61.4. "There was supposed to be a rabbit," Abshire said later, a little impatiently. "That would have been nice." In fact, he outran the rabbit, reaching the mile in 4:10.6.
Abshire's closest pursuer was Kenya's Yobes Ondieki. Padilla, laboring, would finish fifth in 7:50.89. Coe, lapped with just under 400 meters to go, stepped off the track with 300 meters left.
Abshire surged dramatically away from Ondieki with just over 400 to run. The crowd rose at the sight of his late strength and shouted him home. He sailed through the finish in 7:41.57, lopping an eye-opening 3.33 seconds from the American record and recording the second-fastest indoor time in history.
He took it with distinct calm. "I'm not surprised, really," he said. "If I'd heard the splits, I could have gotten the world record. My training has been good, and I ran a 3:58 mile behind Marcus O'Sullivan three weeks ago at the Kodak meet. People ought to have known I was ready."
Ought to, but didn't. In fact, even if this didn't seem a breakthrough race to Abshire, it was an epiphany for U.S. distance running, the advent of a major talent. It also set the meet on fire. The subsequent races made the Olympic Invitational unquestionably the best of this late-igniting season.
Romania's Doina Melinte, undefeated this year, came to run, or so it was hoped. "If she really does understand English," said co-announcer Stan Saplin after a try at a talk with Melinte, who brought no interpreter, "then she's promised to break both the 1,500 and mile records in the same race."
Those would be Mary Decker Slaney's world indoor records of 4:20.5 in the mile and 4:00.8 in the 1,500. Melinte followed the strong pace of Diana Rich-burg and passed the 440 in 63.9 and the half in 2:09.3, then began her final drive at three-quarters and raced away at will. She missed the 1,500 record with 4:02.3, but took the mile with 4:18.86.
Then came the hard part, talking about it. "Is good running for me," she said. "No, no surprise."
Is she worried that she might be peaking too early in this long Olympic year?
"Yes, it's good for Seoul. There I not run 800, only 1,500."
O.K., but are you peaking too early?
"Yes, I go with happiness to Budapest for European Indoor Championships."
Sigh. We shall not know, until Seoul, if Melinte left her best races indoors.
But if it was loquacity, not opacity, you wanted, you had only to turn to the men's mile, where the pride of Cork, Ireland, one Marcus O'Sullivan, held forth.
He had won the Wanamaker Mile in 3:56.89 a week earlier with a rocket finish. Now he wanted to run hard for a whole mile. He put together an Irish syndicate to see to that. "Kieran Stack, a fellow Corkman, was to hit 57 and 1:55," said O'Sullivan. "Then Gerry O'Reilly was to go on to three-quarters in 2:55. Then I hoped to tack on a 57 or so for under 3:53."
Since his best indoors was (ah, that clue again) 3:56.05, it seemed a bold plan. It turned out to be modest.
World indoor record holder Eamonn Coghlan, out this season with a sore back, fired the gun. Stack led O'Reilly through the quarter in 55.9, too fast, but O'Sullivan wisely stayed back in third, in 57.6. At the half O'Sullivan was 1:56.9, a little slower than he would have wished, especially as two redoubtable milers, Peter Elliott of Great Britain and Jose Luis Gonzalez of Spain, the World Championships 1,500-meter silver medalist, were just five yards behind. Both were waiting for the Irishman to spend himself before the finish.
But O'Sullivan was actually saving. "I've never felt as easy in a fast race as I have tonight," he would say.
O'Reilly took the lead at the half and dutifully chugged on. "I started to trip over Gerry's heels," said O'Sullivan. "I was getting agitated, but I wasn't prepared to go until the last quarter."
O'Reilly hit the three-quarter mark in 2:54.8. Then he went wide, and the antsy O'Sullivan shot through on the inside. Now the world could see how fresh he was. The gap to Elliott quickly grew to 15 yards.
When firing the starting gun, Coghlan had thought, "I'm firing Marcus to my world record." That is (note the enduring tense) 3:49.78, the only sub-3:50 indoor mile ever run, set on this track in 1983. But O'Sullivan, finishing grandly fresh with a :56 quarter, reached the fine in 3:50.94, barely a second shy of the world, Irish, track and Villanova alumni record.
"It's proof that I have a good mile, a sub-3:50 mile in me," he said, tickled. "I'd been forcing my training, doing too much, trying to run both mileage and speed work at the same time. Finally I started to rest more, to space out the work, and the improvement came. And maybe it's good not to do 3:50 now. It will keep my appetite for outdoors."
And then there was, and is, and ever shall be Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who was drawn to this arena's swift long-jump runway. You could say her problem was one of appetite, too, for at the end of every runway there is a pit, and this one didn't extend much farther than Joyner-Kersee's target area near 24 feet.
Earlier in the day her archrival, Heike Drechsler of East Germany, had extended her own world indoor record by two inches, to 24'2¼", in Vienna. Jackie's husband-coach, Bob Kersee, didn't tell her, figuring she had enough to worry about just being brave.
"She's in the air and sees the end of that pit coming at her," he said after her first three jumps yielded a mere 22'2½", "and she throws back her arms and comes down like a guy sliding into second. Outdoors, where she knows there's a lot of room, she stays extended until she lands so she sticks in the pit and stays there, all her momentum used up."
Those were her orders for her fourth jump, and she whumped down at 23'½", breaking her American indoor record by two inches. "But I'm still dropping out of the air too soon," said Joyner-Kersee later. Given world enough and sand, she'll probably stay aloft for 25 feet.
"Indoors is such a circus," she added. Her words were of little comfort to the rueful Coe, who had no excuses save a lack of racing sharpness. "I guess it's good to be reminded of the cut and thrust of competition," he said.
"Apart from that," he was asked, "how was your visit?"
Coe thought it over and answered with a question. "Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"