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Kenny Moore
February 26, 1979
Spurred by a memory, Eamonn Coghlan wiped out the record for the indoor mile
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February 26, 1979

This Was A Time To Remember

Spurred by a memory, Eamonn Coghlan wiped out the record for the indoor mile

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Forty-five minutes before the mile, Eamonn Coghlan began to warm up. As he ran through the tunnels beneath the San Diego Sports Arena, where the Jack-in-the-Box Indoor Games were noisily taking place last Friday night, Coghlan reflected upon that delicate and elusive combination of character and conditions that must be present to produce a historic performance. Many of the crucial elements seemed to be joining.

For one, the 5'10", 140-pound native of Dublin, Ireland was hard and fit from the most thorough half year of training that he had ever done. Then, too, he had run to within one tenth of a second of Dick Buerkle's world indoor record of 3:54.9 in winning the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games a week earlier, even though he had dawdled and slowed in the final yards. "My wife and sister said I'd been dumb. I heard that all week long," said Coghlan, a man who is never dumb twice. He knew, too, that the San Diego track was considerably faster than Madison Square Garden's.

Fifteen minutes before the start, Coghlan stopped jogging and began to stretch. "I can usually tell from my stretching how well I will run," he said afterward. "Tonight it was good." He examined his own frame of mind. "I was confident of winning," said this man who has lost only one indoor mile in seven years, to Kenya's Wilson Waigwa on the same San Diego track two years ago. "I thought of how Waigwa and John Walker had canceled out of the field on Wednesday." Waigwa had injured his ankle, and Walker, the outdoor record holder at 3:49.4, had become ill and returned home to New Zealand. "I was really glad," Coghlan said. "Had they run, there would have been more pressure on me. I would have had to concentrate on the winning." Another prospective rival, Filbert Bayi, the world record holder in the 1,500, would be in the field, but he was so obviously out of shape Coghlan figured he would not be a factor. Thus the world record could rise as a clear objective, and chances could be taken in attacking it.

Ten minutes before the race, Coghlan began to glide through several brisk 80-yard runs, weaving his way through his competition. In it was Paul Cummings, a BYU graduate who is now a temporarily unemployed steelworker living in Orem, Utah. Cummings had set the pace in the Millrose mile, and during the last half of Walker's indoor world-record 3:37.4 in the 1,500 at the Muhammad Ali meet in January. He would undoubtedly be in front early. Cummings knew he could not kick with Coghlan. His somewhat vain hope was to run so hard that he either built a safe lead or brought the field to staggering exhaustion with a lap to run.

Cummings watched Coghlan with what seemed wonder that the human race could come up with a creature so suited to the wrenching turns of board racing. " Coghlan's built to be an indoor runner," he said. "His lower center of gravity, his quick stride are real advantages."

As Coghlan left the warmup area to put on his pale green spikes and a dry Kelly-green racing shirt, he was confronted by Wisconsin's Steve Lacy, who had run a personal best 3:57.3 in Montreal five days before. "If you ran 3:55 in New York," said Lacy, "Lord knows what you'll run here."

But Coghlan knew that there were variables that had yet to click into place. "I was worried that someone like Cummings might go through the first quarter mile too fast," he said, "and then we'd tire out and lose the record in the middle laps. The best way is even pace."

Whatever Cummings' intentions, the luck of the Irish—in the form of Steve Scott—intervened to slow him. "Every time out this year I'd been elbowed at the start," said Scott, a 22-year-old Californian who always runs magnificently in San Diego. "This time I wanted to get out quick. This time I was elbowing."

Two steps off the line, Scott caromed Coghlan into Cummings, who broke stride and was passed by most of the field. Steve Tyler of Cal-Irvine led, with Cummings sweeping back into second after a lap and a half of the 11-lap race. The quarter was passed in 58.5 for Tyler, 59.6 for Coghlan, who was floating along in fourth, behind Scott. Less than a lap later, Cummings bolted into the lead. Coghlan went around Scott and Tyler, and settled into second. The soft, sure placement of his feet on the track was in contrast to the forceful tramping of his taller competitors. "There was a mushy spot just past the starting line," said Scott. "My knees almost buckled there once." Coghlan never even noticed. His face was serene, the center of his race filled with calm. "There was no point to anything but staying relaxed," he said, "and letting Paul do all that work."

At the half mile, Cummings was 1:57.0, Coghlan 1:57.6, followed closely by Scott and Lacy. The vital quarter would be the third. Cummings drove on without letup through the rising shouts, and still Coghlan, Scott and Lacy clung to him. "It seemed easy when you got to follow such a smooth, even pace," said Lacy, who passed Scott and readied himself for a charge at the lead as they approached the three quarters. The time there was 2:56.5. Whoever won the race would have the world record.

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