From the start Mary Decker was running all alone. After just two of the 10� laps in the 1,500-meter run at last Friday's Wanamaker Millrose Games, she had opened a 15-yard lead over the six other runners in the event. All too obviously, the field offered no competition, but at the quarter-mile mark the jammed-to-the-rafters crowd in Madison Square Garden suddenly became aware that Mary Decker was in a race—a race with track history.
"Unofficially, at the quarter, 60.8," the meet announcer called out in a tone suggesting he would be taking his stopwatch in for adjustment the next morning. Then, a second later, a sense of real urgency boomed out over the P.A. system as he announced, "Officially, 60.3. Not even Eamonn Coghlan ran that fast."
That information sent an electric shock through the capacity crowd of 18,310, a world record for an indoor meet. Many spectators were heading for the exits in the wake of a lackluster Wanamaker Mile. Coghlan had won that event for the second year in a row, holding off a furious finishing kick by Villanova's Don Paige, but his time of 3:58.2 had disappointed fans who had hoped to see him break the 3:52.6 indoor record he set last year in San Diego. The 63.2 quarter-mile and 2:04.3 half-mile splits in the featured men's race had been followed by emphatic booing.
Now, as Decker sailed into her second quarter, her thick halo of curly hair bouncing in jaunty counterpoint to her effort, Coghlan stood underneath the stands, talking to some reporters about his victory. Suddenly, Craig Masback, who had finished third in the mile (3:59.8), interrupted. "Get this," he said to Coghlan. " Mary Decker just turned the quarter in 60. I think she's going for your San Diego record." That essentially ended Coghlan's conference as everyone broke to watch, and cheer, Decker.
On the high-banked yellow-and-orange track, the 21-year-old Decker raced alone toward the half-mile mark. When she had first burst to the front, the meet announcer had routinely pointed out that the American indoor record was 4:09.8 ( Francie Larrieu, 1975). Now he blurted, "This is nothing short of incredible. The world indoor record is 4:03. That's a good chance, too." He didn't add that Romania's Natalia Maracescu had set that mark on an 8.9-lap track or that no other American woman had ever challenged the world standard at 1,500 meters, but then he might not have been heard had he tried. His pronouncements had transformed the crowd into Decker's pacesetter. As she circled the track, an ever-increasing roar circled with her, pulling her through the turns and down the straightaways.
Decker would later say that when she heard her quarter split, "I panicked a little. I thought, 'Oh, gosh, I've gone out too fast.' " She had reason to feel uneasy. On Jan. 26 in Auckland, New Zealand, she had set a world outdoor mile record of 4:21.7, .4 faster than the mark which Maracescu also held. That day Decker had run the first quarter in 62 flat and the half mile in 2:09, a pace that almost proved too demanding and made her struggle, fading all the time, through the second half. Accordingly, Decker had hoped to run a succession of 65-second quarters at the Millrose. Instead she went through the half mile in 2:05.9.
Her planning in ruins, Decker concentrated on maintaining her upright, elongated stride, which was gobbling up great sections of track as the din in the Garden swelled around her. She had no idea how far her body could take her. Only three days before, she had been in Australia. To get to the Millrose Games she had flown first to Auckland and on to Honolulu, Los Angeles and, briefly, to her home in Eugene, Ore. Then, after a three-hour fog delay, she traveled from Eugene to San Francisco, where she was too late to make her planned connection. Decker finally arrived in New York on Thursday night, less than 24 hours before the meet. She slept 12 of those hours and spent Friday afternoon wondering how all that travel might affect her.
Outwardly she seemed confident. Sitting in a coffee shop across the street from the Garden, she said boldly, "I would be pleased tonight with anything under the American record. I can't see 4:09 being that difficult. But a 4:02 world record would be really tough." Her confidence was based on her good condition, which is a state Decker has rarely been in during her track career. She had been a child prodigy, winning the AAU 880-yard title in 1974 at 15, but by the '76 Olympics a leg ailment had forced her off the track. The sheaths surrounding her calf muscles were too small and stiff to allow the muscles to expand, causing her sharp pain whenever she ran. Surgery corrected the condition in 1977, but then last year Decker injured her sciatic nerve and was able to race only six times. Her final '79 appearance was a winning 1,500 meters—in 4:05.7—at at the Pan American Games in July.
Recognizing that fatigue had led to her past injuries, Decker limited her training this fall to 70-80 miles a week, and whenever she felt sick or tired, she took a day off instead of pushing herself. She stayed healthy and has now built a base of strength she never had before. As she went through the three-quarter-mile mark in 3:13.0 last Friday, she called on that strength for her race against the clock to the finish line.
The Garden crowd was now standing, the spectators stamping their feet and screaming, the athletes, the officials, even the gaudily uniformed specials in the infield applauding and cheering her on as she pounded down the backstretch, leaned into the final turn and headed for home, the strain of her lonely effort now showing in her face. When she flashed across the finish line, the clocks high above the arena froze at 4:00.82. Decker, her head hanging in exhaustion, didn't see the time. A meet official grabbed her, thrusting a stopwatch in front of her face. "I thought I'd run 4:05," she said later. "I couldn't believe it when I saw that double zero." She looked up, dazed, and then threw her arms up and hugged her head as she was engulfed by a mob of media people, meet officials and athletes. Her official time of 4:00.8 had broken the world record by 2.2 seconds, the American record by a staggering nine.