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Kenny Moore
February 28, 1977
Five outstanding milers plotted winning strategies for the San Diego race, but Wilson Waigwa was fastest on his feet
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February 28, 1977

All Their Minds Were On One Track

Five outstanding milers plotted winning strategies for the San Diego race, but Wilson Waigwa was fastest on his feet

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The merit of a racing strategy depends upon how well it suits its practitioner. And therein lies the drama of a hard, shifting middle-distance race. A field of superb runners will be divided at the finish less by talent than by how well their natures fit the race's imperatives. The mile run in last weekend's Jack in the Box Indoor Games in San Diego was a perfect example. It may have seemed that Wilson Waigwa and Steve Scott, who raced to a one-two finish, disrupted a classic confrontation between outdoor record holder and Olympic champion John Walker and undefeated indoor craftsman Eamonn Coghlan. But in fact the race was a fascinating revelation of the way relatively unheralded milers can take advantage of the limitations of their more renowned opponents.

The most predictable strategy was that of Coghlan, a blue-eyed charmer who might have outdone Ryan O'Neal in the part of young Barry Lyndon. He would again attempt his startling sprint over the last 70 yards, accelerating off the final high-banked curve past whatever unfortunate leader had his eyes fixed on the looming tape. Coghlan ran this way at Villanova, in the tradition of Ron Delany and Dave Patrick, if not that of the longer-driving Marty Liquori, but he had learned it back in Ireland at 17 when Coach Gerry Farnan instructed him in the art of completely changing styles in the leaden, protesting final moments of a mile. "I let everyone else begin to kick," said Coghlan the day of the race. "I go with them and then change from a rolling, smooth stride to the short, choppy one of a 100-meter sprinter. I've developed the technique by practice. At Villanova guys used to get ticked off at me in training because occasionally I would sprint the last 70 without warning."

Still Coghlan is not unaware of the tactic's weakness. " Coach Jumbo Elliott pointed it out to me when I was at Villanova. He said it is so sudden and wild it can't be sustained. My answer is that I make it at the right time." For sure, Coghlan made it at the right time in his previous 12 indoor miles because he won them all, six this year, including a leaning win over Walker two weeks ago in Los Angeles, where both runners were timed in four minutes flat. Coghlan was shown a photograph of that race taken when he was a yard from the finish. "It looks like John's ahead," he said. At that point Walker was.

San Diego was to be Coghlan's last indoor race of a tour that included wins in Toronto, Cleveland and Montreal on consecutive nights the previous weekend, all in modest times. In fact, none of his races had been off a fast pace. "They've all played into my hands, every single one," he said, adding that the most effective tactic against him was probably a hard middle half-mile to draw his kick.

In no event would Coghlan lead early. This he had confirmed in the most terrible of runner's crucibles, the Olympic 1,500-meter final. "Fourth," he said, his eyes flashing, "the worst of all possible places." And all because he departed from his well-polished tactic. "I took the lead," recalls Coghlan, "and suddenly I knew it was wrong. I wanted out of it. But no one would pass. I didn't increase the pace. I just stayed there. And every time I see it on TV, I say, 'Oh, my God, why did I do that?' " He would not lead.

Walker is a more flexible strategist than Coghlan, but indoors his options are limited by the tight turns that make it hard for a big man to pass late in a race and, recently, by his own uncertain condition. In October, returning home to Auckland after receiving the Order of the British Empire in Wellington, he was stricken with appendicitis. Walker's cure was to spend a day at the Hamilton trotting races, "feeling bloody crook." Finally, when the pain became unbearable he reported to a hospital where he was rushed into surgery. He did not begin jogging again until the day before Christmas, and six weeks later—and four hours off a plane from New Zealand—he ran the 4:00.0 in Los Angeles.

The next week, better rested, though fighting a glandular infection, he won the Olympic Invitational 1,500 in New York in 3:40.2, the equivalent of a 3:57.2 mile. Then he came to San Diego, where he was besieged with the familiar questions about Filbert Bayi, the Tanzanian who holds the world 1,500 record.

Bayi was also making selected appearances on the U.S. indoor circuit but was back East after winning in 3:57.2 in Louisville. Though invited to race in San Diego by Meet Director Al Franken, Bayi had politely declined, saying, "We were given a directive by the government when we left. The ban [on competing against New Zealanders] stands." Bayi, an army lieutenant, is a good soldier, but one seemed to glimpse a hint of his personal sentiment in his choice of language: "This decision is justified and we don't feel any pain in obeying...we cannot be disappointed." It was a measure of Bayi's luck that going to Durham, N.C. in search of warm training weather, he found snow.

A sour feeling grows as these two outstanding milers continue to be held unnaturally apart. It sometimes appears to Walker that spectators cannot take his races seriously unless Bayi is in them. But Walker does not incessantly grind away at the insoluble. As Bayi has done, he accepts. "It's to the stage now where it's a joke, everyone asking where he is. I feel sorry for him, afraid he might say the wrong thing, let it out that he disagrees. Of course, we all want back together." Franken, who tried for a last-minute "clarification" from the Tanzanian Embassy, was disgusted, saying, "I'm a 100% loser versus politics. Beginning 20 years ago when we tried to get Emil Zatopek from Czechoslovakia, I've lost every time."

Meanwhile Walker prepared for his race by jogging lightly and sampling some local fare, trying rabbit in a restaurant he found attractively named The Debauchery. "They had chased the rabbit down the freeway until it was rather sinewy," he reported. For a snack, Walker and countryman Rod Dixon, who would run the two-mile, bought a large Dungeness crab in a supermarket, took it outside and cracked it on the sidewalk. "When they got done," said a compatriot, "it looked like something awfully mean had vomited in the carpark."

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