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A Hard and Supple Man
Kenny Moore
June 23, 1980
Like the steel blades of his hometown, Sheffield, record miler Sebastian Coe is a remarkable amalgam of grace and grit
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June 23, 1980

A Hard And Supple Man

Like the steel blades of his hometown, Sheffield, record miler Sebastian Coe is a remarkable amalgam of grace and grit

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Late last summer, after becoming the first man ever to hold the world records for 800 meters (1:42.4), 1,500 meters (3:32.1) and the mile (3:49.0) simultaneously, Sebastian Coe slipped into Eugene, Ore. He came from the morning plane alone, in jeans and a gray, untitled sweat shirt. He had spent more than a day in San Francisco trying to get a flight on standby after Pan Am had scheduled him to connect to an airline that was on strike. Coe's consolation had been a suite in a luxury hotel and an evening on the city escorted by Pan Am stewardesses. "You have to take the rough with the rough," he said. He had come to Eugene not to race but to escape, to enjoy a holiday from the sometimes oppressive British newspapers, and to heal a sore calf.

"That arose during a brush with the law," he said while awaiting his luggage. "I was running on the road in a London park. A friend was timing me, keeping pace in her car. The police objected to that, and we had an altercation, during which time I cooled off. When I resumed, I strained the calf, so I quit racing for the season."

That was in late August. Coe had then watched, with mixed feelings, Britain's other great middle-distance man, Steve Ovett, run a 3:49.6 mile in London on Aug. 31 in pursuit of his world record. It was with some relief that Coe came away to see the States for the first time.

The road from the Eugene airport passes several lumber and plywood mills, visible within a blue haze of their own making. "That was where Oregon runners worked when I was in school in the '60s," said Coe's host. "When Bill Bowerman was coach, he gave no full scholarships. You had to come out here on weekends, graveyard shift, midnight to eight, and putty patch-panels onto plywood on a conveyor or, if the mill was down, blow sawdust out of the block-long dryers, or clean the glue spreaders with a wire brush and ammonia. Horrible jobs, but we all did them."

"Didn't that cut into your training?" asked Coe.

"I guess it did a little. It must have. But in a way it was worth it, teaching me at an impressionable age about mindless labor. So I might shun it forever."

"Was that Bowerman's object?"

"Looking back, I'm sure it was part of it. At the time, I just thought of him as a modern tyrant, bent on no one getting through life easily if he could help it. You'll meet him. He'll want to know what you've been doing in your training."

A gentle run showed Coe the town, the University of Oregon and Pre's Trail, five miles of soft, cedar-bark-and-wood-waste path on the other side of the Willamette River from the campus named for the late Steve Prefontaine. Six-minute-mile pace gave no hint of his injury; indeed, he occasionally surged away from his guide. "I'm really resting now," he said when caught. "For three weeks after the racing season I may not run at all. I find that I'm not addicted to it."

Coe had taken his degree in economics and economic history from Loughborough University in the spring and would return for graduate study after his vacation. In his days in Eugene he charmed a succession of hosts with shy politeness and a broad range of interests. His intentions were simply to sample the new or attractive things of American life. These included hot-tubbing. The New Yorker, as many movies as he could get to (an adept mimic himself, he has seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail five times and possesses a copy of the script), root beer, which he described as tasting "rather like a visit to the dentist," and, without question, jazz. At a Chuck Mangione concert Coe spoke of helping introduce Dave Brubeck's music to Yorkshire by insisting on it in a film of himself running, and was eager to get to New York later in his trip to hear Russell Procope, a former Duke Ellington sideman. "My chief regret in life," he said, "is never learning to play an instrument."

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