Even under normal circumstances, Doug Padilla resembles a timid fawn caught nibbling your nasturtiums. Warming up before the 3,000 meters at Saturday's Vitalis/ U.S. Olympic Invitational track meet at the Meadowlands Arena, he looked positively chilled with fear. His hands were ice. "Have you seen the field?" he cried. "It's full of great milers. Jim Spivey is in it. Sebastian Coe is in it. He's never run in the U.S. except when he won the L.A. Olympics. And now he's here...in my race."
Padilla held (the tense may alert you to what's coming) the American indoor 3,000 record of 7:44.9. And he knew it would be attacked. "My roommate for the weekend, Brian Abshire, is going to try for a 4:07 [mile] pace."
That would be world-record pace, and a 3,000 world record would be historic. The indoor standard of 7:39.2 by Belgium's Emiel Puttemans has stood like a rock for 15 years. But Abshire? The Auburn physical-education major was a fine steeplechaser, but surely not the headliner in this field. He even had his own doubts. "The tendon in the arch of my right foot got sore this week," Abshire said. "I almost turned around in the Atlanta airport and went home." Padilla encouraged him, promising to rub his foot afterward, then immediately started regretting it. "He's either going to pull me to a great race," Padilla said on the way to the start, "or destroy me."
Coe really wasn't in the market for such heroic competition, having been out since last May with a sore Achilles tendon. He had hoped to use this race to break up a few weeks of warm-weather training in Tampa, where he has been avoiding a nasty British winter. Coe, who has set 11 world records from 800 meters through the mile since 1979, had never before run a U.S. indoor meet; his winters having been given mostly to conditioning. He peaks when it counts.
He had a time getting to snowy New Jersey. His plane from Florida was hours late, and then he and three others jammed into the back of a Newark taxi driven by a man who, according to Dr. David Martin, Coe's friend and physiologist, "spoke only Amharic." On the New Jersey Turnpike, at night, they had a flat. The driver kept them locked in the car while he tried to change it. He couldn't get the lug nuts off. They drove, clumping, down the back streets of Newark to a corner where there was a huge pile of wrecked wheels and exploded tires. "He's been here before," said Coe dryly. It was two hours before the tire was changed and they were safe.
Of the men causing concern to Padilla, Abshire would do the most damage. Barely two laps into the 3,000, he boomed into the lead and passed the 400 in 61.4. "There was supposed to be a rabbit," Abshire said later, a little impatiently. "That would have been nice." In fact, he outran the rabbit, reaching the mile in 4:10.6.
Abshire's closest pursuer was Kenya's Yobes Ondieki. Padilla, laboring, would finish fifth in 7:50.89. Coe, lapped with just under 400 meters to go, stepped off the track with 300 meters left.
Abshire surged dramatically away from Ondieki with just over 400 to run. The crowd rose at the sight of his late strength and shouted him home. He sailed through the finish in 7:41.57, lopping an eye-opening 3.33 seconds from the American record and recording the second-fastest indoor time in history.
He took it with distinct calm. "I'm not surprised, really," he said. "If I'd heard the splits, I could have gotten the world record. My training has been good, and I ran a 3:58 mile behind Marcus O'Sullivan three weeks ago at the Kodak meet. People ought to have known I was ready."
Ought to, but didn't. In fact, even if this didn't seem a breakthrough race to Abshire, it was an epiphany for U.S. distance running, the advent of a major talent. It also set the meet on fire. The subsequent races made the Olympic Invitational unquestionably the best of this late-igniting season.