Eamonn Coghlan is not a superstitious man. Yet he kept a constant eye out for omens last week in San Diego, finding intimations of good luck in such things as a green bikini sighted during a training run along Mission Beach. There were, to be sure, explanatory pressures for this uncharacteristic behavior. The Jack in the Box Invitational mile would be run Friday in the Sports Arena. The four fastest indoor milers in. history would be in it, including Coghlan himself, holder of the 3:52.6 world record set in the same event in 1979. And Coghlan well understood that his record was in grave danger for a host of reasons that he swiftly enumerated: "The history of the meet, the crowd, the track, the point in the season and the men involved."
Of the 37 fastest indoor miles, 12 had been run on the 11-lap-to-the-mile track in San Diego, and that fact, Coghlan pointed out, had a way of turning a runner's hopes to palpable certainty. "The crowd has a voice like nowhere else," he added. "It can make it seem like you're running on a cushion of air." As well, the track is springy and its turns seem to be banked at the optimum angle for milers running 58-second quarters.
Coghlan's own season had begun modestly with a 3:59.1 mile in early January and a 3:54.3 three weeks later. In both races he was well beaten by Steve Scott. But at the Millrose Games in New York on Feb. 6, the old Coghlan kick returned, and he won in 3:53.0, the season's fastest time. "If the Millrose race had been in San Diego," he said flatly, "the record would have gone."
To improve his chances of breaking the mark in San Diego, Coghlan took strong measures. He called Phil (Tiny) Kane, who had been a teammate for three years at Villanova, and asked him to set the pace—1:56 for the 880. And he dug into his suitcase and drew out a white cotton racing shirt emblazoned with the large green M of the Metropolitan Harriers of Dublin, which Coghlan has run for since he was 12. "I needed a singlet for cross-country races in the fall, so Tommy Swift loaned it to me. Every time I wore it I won. When I didn't, I didn't. Before I came over here I offered it back, but Tommy said, 'It does you good. Keep it. But try to wear it when I'll see it on television.' "
Had the cameras been paying attention before the mile, Tommy back home might have seen seven remarkably distinct men trotting the Sports Arena corridors. Kane, whose best is 3:57.75, is a graduate student in business at Tennessee. He wore the red, white and blue of Athletics West and came onto the track coughing. "I had a cold," he would say after the race. "And I'd never been a rabbit for anyone. I'd only do it for Eamonn."
John Walker of New Zealand, once the outdoor record holder at 3:49.4, was tanned and fit, healthier than he has been in a year. Walker has had to endure a lot lately in the way of flu and other unkind cuts. "I rang up my wife last night." he said on the day of the race, "and she reported that my horse is sick and my dog was shot for chasing sheep." Earlier, he'd been driven from his hotel room by fumes and noise from a fire at a restaurant across the street. All this was put aside, though, as he spoke of important things. "Eamonn is ready for the world record," he said. "He has been running great times on bad tracks. He'll be under 3:52 here. Me? I think all these indoor tracks go round and round too long. On the tight turns it feels like you're sprinting the whole way."
Harald Hudak of West Germany seemed the least imposing figure. A halo of fluffy curls bounced about his head, suggesting youthful unreadiness. Yet last summer he ran 3:31.96 in the 1,500 in which Steve Ovett set the world record of 3:31.36.
Coghlan's countryman Ray Flynn, the year's most consistent miler, went to the line dark-eyed and pale. This would be his ninth race of 1981. Tanzania's Filbert Bayi, once the outdoor mile and 1.500 record holder, seemed faintly amused as he awaited the gun. He'd won this race a year ago.
Scott stood in Lane 1, breathing deeply, resolute. Scott had been two seconds behind Coghlan in the Mil I rose mile but had set a world indoor record of 4:58.6 for 2,000 meters the next night in Louisville. This night he meant to spend the strength that longer race had revealed in the cause of blunting Coghlan's kick.
Strangely, Kane, the rabbit, was made to start from the outside and so had to sprint high around the pack on the first turn to seize the lead. Once he took it from Scott after 80 yards he was flying. Scott held second, and the pace quickly turned the field behind him to a single file of Flynn, Walker, Bayi and, in sixth place, Coghlan. That was farther back than Coghlan cared to be. After 300 yards he advanced to fourth.