The rabbits at last Friday night's Vitalis/Meadowlands Invitational track and field meet did what rabbits do best: They multiplied. In each of three middle-distance races in which a world record seemed possible—the men's and women's miles and the men's 3,000—one rabbit wasn't considered enough to keep record aspirants on pace. So Ray Lumpp, the meet director, provided two. But those cwazy wabbits: They ran too fast, they ran too slow, they bumped the runners they were supposed to be helping. And for all of the scheming and straining, none of the world records fell.
That was a little surprising, because the Meadowlands track, 10 laps to the mile, was built for speed. "This is by far the fastest track on the U.S. circuit," said Marcus O'Sullivan, who had designs on the world indoor mile record of 3:49.78, which was set on this track six years ago by O'Sullivan's fellow Irishman and Villanova alumnus Eamonn Coghlan. "Our circuit isn't like the one in Europe, where you've got a number of fast tracks. This is the only one. I can't go back out and try again next week. That's why I'm glad [Said] Aouita's not in the race. If he were, we'd both be so concerned with winning that maybe there wouldn't be a fast time."
Not everyone shared O'Sullivan's point of view, for the Coghlan Mile, as it was officially named this year, had promised to be a compelling race. It was to have pitted O'Sullivan, who a week earlier had won the mile at the Millrose Games in a scarily relaxed 3:54.27, against Aouita, the outdoor record holder in the 1,500, the metric mile. The prospect of their meeting had track fans drooling. "I almost wish I could watch it," O'Sullivan said earlier in the week.
But when Lumpp told Aouita that O'Sullivan had run a 3:50.94 mile on the Meadowlands track last year, the Moroccan balked. According to Lumpp, "He said he just wasn't ready for a fast mile on a small track." Aouita asked to be moved into the 3,000, in which he would try to break the world record of 7:39.2, set by Belgium's Emiel Puttemans in 1973. Lumpp obliged, explaining, "I didn't want an international incident." Besides, with O'Sullivan and Aouita in different races, it was possible that records would fall in both.
February 20, 1989
O'Sullivan and Lumpp spent the week rabbit hunting. They wanted someone who could pace O'Sullivan through three quarters in 2:53. First they talked to John Hinton, the former University of Virginia miler who set the pace in the Millrose 3,000, but Hinton had a terrible case of the flu. They tried Johan Boakes, an Englishman studying at Arkansas, who had run 2:52 in a time trial the week before. But Boakes also got sick. At last they settled on Sean O'Neill of Ireland, who would lead O'Sullivan past the 880 in 1:55, at which point David Ryan, a graduate student at William and Mary, would take over. "If I feel good and I get the right pace," O'Sullivan said, "I know I can do it. The question is, Can I do it tonight?"
O'Neill ran the first quarter in 56.3, with O'Sullivan close behind. That was perfect. The pace slowed to 1:55 at the half, but when O'Neill swung wide to let O'Sullivan by, Ryan, the hare-apparent, was behind the man he was supposed to be leading. "It hurt to have to take the pace from five laps out," O'Sullivan said later. When he passed three quarters, in 2:54, O'Sullivan was on his own.
Going into the last lap, his jaw was set, his brow gathered in grim concentration. O'Sullivan hit the tape with eyes closed and head twisted back. His time was 3:51.66. Sydney Maree finished 25 yards back, in 3:55.34.
There would be some consolation for O'Sullivan. He had passed the 1,500-meter mark in 3:35.6. That, at least, was a world record, bettering the 3:36.03 set three years ago by Jose-Luis Gonzalez of Spain. "We got it half right," O'Sullivan said ruefully.
The women's mile was to have matched Paula Ivan of Romania and Mary Slaney in a reprise of their Mill-rose Games duel a week earlier. But when Slaney scratched with a sore left calf, Ivan's countrywoman Doina Melinte offered to set the pace for the first 660 yards—which seemed a noble gesture considering that she holds the indoor record for the distance (4:18.86).
But Melinte helped Ivan not a whit. She jostled her at the first turn, forcing Ivan to chop her stride. "It changed my rhythm," Ivan said later. Then Melinte raced past the quarter in 58.5 seconds, absurdly fast. Ivan hung back in 60.3. Only when Melinte dropped out at the prearranged point did the pace become sane. Marcia Tate took over and pulled Ivan through the 880 in 2:06.3. Ivan was still far ahead of record pace, but early speed kills. She struggled mightily through the second half mile, finishing in 4:18.99. She had missed Melinte's record by .13. "If Doina hadn't gone so fast, I could have run a world record today," concluded Ivan testily.
In their eagerness to get it right, the rabbits in the men's 3,000 also erred on the side of ambition. Somalia's Jama Aden, a 3:56.68 miler, ran like a miler, passing 800 in 1:59. Though he stayed some 10 meters behind Aden's pace, Aouita was running faster than he wanted to. Kenya's Barnaba Korir took over briefly, but both rabbits were gone as Aouita hit 1,600 meters in 4:04.
Now, though, Aouita began to look vulnerable. He ran the next 800 in 2:10, and was reeled in, first by Gerry O'Reilly, another Villanova Irishman, and then by Brian Abshire and Steve Scott, both of the U.S. Abshire. who set the U.S. 3,000 record of 7:41.57 on this track a year ago, looked menacing as he tossed casual glances over his shoulder. Scott also smelled blood. "Bide your time," Scott told himself. "Make one move, and one move only."
With a lap to go, Scott and Abshire pounced. Scott got to Aouita's shoulder first. "I tried to get around him, but he's a tough little cuss," said Scott.
When Scott attacked on the back-stretch, Aouita drove him wide toward the second lane. As they stormed off the final turn, it looked as if Scott might yet catch Aouita, but it was too late. As Aouita lunged desperately toward the finish, his strides grew so long that he seemed almost to be staggering. He tore through the tape four feet ahead of Scott. Aouita's time was 7:39.71, barely half a second slower than Puttemans's record and the second fastest ever indoors. Behind him, Scott became only the third man to break 7:40, snatching the American record from Abshire with his 7:39.94. Abshire was third, in 7:41.84.
Aouita later revealed his larger design. "No one wanted to lead, so I had to impose my tactic on them," he said. "I slowed down to prepare my attack. It was a tactic, not a risk."
Asked what had propelled him, he answered, "I don't like having a runner right on me. And Scott is a great athlete. I didn't know what he would do."
Indeed, the 32-year-old Scott's performance was something of a revelation. In the last few years he seemed to have lost the confidence that made him one of the world's top milers in the early '80s. But after speaking excitedly of his plans to move up to the 5,000 this summer, Scott stopped to savor the memory of the race just run. "Aouita's the best middle-distance runner in history," said Scott. "Tonight, I lost to a great champion in a great race. And it was a lot of fun."