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Original Issue

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

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."

Such was the breadth of Coe's interests that, save for a talk at a running clinic, he seldom had need to speak of his sport. The exception was during his visit to Bowerman's aerie on a bluff above the McKenzie River. After lemonade and several of Barbara Bowerman's oatmeal cookies, the party walked through woods to a hillside pasture in which grazed a few small, chunky cattle.

"We're trying to build a herd of Dexter cows," said Bowerman. "It is an Irish breed. They're supposed to be small so they don't eat much, but they still give you a gallon of milk."

Bowerman had sent his minions far and wide in search of this strain of stock. "In Ireland one of my runners was out in the Limerick countryside and saw a field of likely prospects," Bowerman said. " 'Are those Dexter cows?' he asked of a stolid Irishman. 'No, I believe those belong to Mr. O'Rourke,' was the answer."

"Just like the Irish," said Coe, laughing, but stopping suddenly, his hand on his hip. "Since last winter," he said, "I've had occasional pain that goes from my back down my left leg."

"It's certainly not a hamstring pull," said Bowerman, "or you wouldn't have been able to do what you've done." He pressed Coe against a fir, teaching him an abdominal exercise to align the back and pelvis in a way least offensive to the posterior nerves. Coe walked away from the tree as Paul must have done on the road to Damascus, with an elevated gaze. "Pretty good," said Bowerman. "Not swaybacked at all."

Soon his host had Coe describing his training in detail. "My father is my coach," he said, "and the basic foundations have been consistent, although the headings have meandered a bit as we've experimented. Essentially, it has been 100% quality, not quantity. It is speed endurance, that is, seeing how long you can endure speed. In the winters I very seldom have run more than 50 miles per week, less in the spring."

"No more than that?" said Bowerman. By contrast, John Walker of New Zealand, Coe's precursor as mile record holder, did 100 to 120 miles. Until Coe, recent middle-distance philosophy has held that speed work alone is destructive of a runner. The athlete's traditional response to interval or speed training is rapid improvement to a point, followed by equally rapid decline. New Zealand Coach Arthur Lydiard's advance in the 1960s was in effect to train his runners for their training, to build up in them such stamina from lengthy mileage that they could withstand and, in fact, benefit from fast track running.

When asked how he managed to stay fresh and strong on so little distance work, Coe said, "My father says that you might not know the accepted lore of athletics, but if you know people and can sense the individual's needs, it can make all the difference." "Hear, hear," said Bowerman. "Yet I wouldn't know why some people can get away with less distance than others. I really haven't a clue."

In Coe's case, part of the reason has to do with the 10 and 11 hours every winter week that he spends in the Loughborough gym under the eye of George Gandy, a lecturer in biomechanics and the coordinator of his training program. "It has been described as Coe's commando workout," the runner said. "In the fall, it's the use of everything you can think of in the gymnasium, lifting heavy weights twice a week, working every part of the body. After Christmas, we concentrate on every muscle from knees to sternum, using box-jumping, speed drills, repeatedly mounting a beam, high knee lifts, bounding on grass or a soft-sprung floor. All this was associated two and a half years ago with rapid improvement in my leg speed. It's simple athleticism, really, the coordinated transference of weight and force through the body. Watching different sorts of athletes box-jumping is amusing. Hopping up and down over five or six boxes of different heights, say two to four feet, the vaulters and jumpers are coordinated, the sprinters less so, and the distance runners are just terrible."

It must be that the strength and flexibility Coe brings to the track from such work supports him as well as would the result of interminable slow running. "It was a happy accident that from the first, when I was 13, my father felt you ought not to smash a kid on the road, so he kept the distance low. As a junior in 1975, I averaged 28 miles per week and ran successfully—third in the European junior 1,500—against those juniors who were running 80 or 90 miles."

Bowerman listened to all this with an expression of almost beatific gratification, for it confirmed cherished beliefs about the uniqueness of each runner, the need for self-knowledge. "So you've developed a methodology that isn't at all dependent on what others do," he said. "That takes a certain sort of man."

"Well," said Coe, slightly embarrassed, "sometimes the difficult thing is to hold back when things are going well, to remember that what you're doing is, after all, preparation. That's hard when you're in a competitive group."

"How do you avoid racing when you are in training?" asked Bowerman.

"I have always trained alone."

"Tell me about your father," said Bowerman. "He's an engineer?"

"Yes. He's the production director of a cutlery firm."

"Does he talk to you about body mechanics, balances?"

"When I was a child, he always spoke of lines and angles and carrying oneself efficiently. You see, the day I started running was the day he started coaching. After that it was bringing his science to bear, studying everything he could find. He's got rid, he says, of 95% of what he's learned. The 5% he's kept is very specific. He has no other runners. People ask if he will coach them, and he says, 'I don't know enough about you. I'd have to move in with you.' " Sebastian smiled. "You don't know my father, but that usually ends it."

"I would very much like to know your father," said Bowerman gravely, sensing that rarest thing for him, a kindred spirit. "I want to tell him that he is always welcome here. Always."

Before he left Oregon, Coe was taken 50 miles up the McKenzie River east of Eugene for a run on a trail beside the clear and ringing stream. After no more than three miles, distracted by the scenery, he turned an ankle on a rock, or the root of a vine maple. By the time he had limped back to the car, parked near the river's bank, the foot was swollen and hot. While friends broke out wine, cheese and fruit, Coe sat on a stone with his foot in the freezing river. Both hosts and guest were vaguely uneasy, but Coe, neither glum nor forcing good spirits, kept the event in perspective, and so soothed the others.

The best of athletes display a gift for control; their success depends upon bending—but not breaking—the body to their will. But in Coe one could sense the uncommon man whose self-possession is so extensive that it lets him comprehend our lives sometimes more easily than we do ourselves.

Perched as naturally upon his mossy rock as an otter, Coe gave rise as well to musings about the seeming perfection of a partnership between father/coach and runner/son that had so moved Bowerman. How was it sustained? What was the complementary mix of qualities that resulted in a unit of such toughness and grace?

"Does it not seem," Coe was asked, "that if what your father says about coaching is true, that it applies more widely? In trying to fathom another for any reason, for sport or love or accurate writing, must you have to move in with him?"

"I don't know," said Coe. "But if you'd like to try, you're welcome to come to Sheffield for Christmas."


The Coe house on Marlborough Road, near the University of Sheffield, is a hundred-year-old Victorian brick structure of two and a half stories and a cavernous, dismal cellar. Not long before Christmas, a feathery snow was settling upon the strolling carolers as Peter Coe drew his guest from the night, put him beside the gas fire in his warm, cluttered parlor and gave him a whisky. The elder Coe is a lean, weathered man, comfortable in rumpled, tan corduroy suits. "The clan gathers," he said. "This will be the first time Miranda has been home in two years."

Photographs of this eldest daughter, 21, a dancer and model in Las Vegas and New York, were in evidence near a tiny, burdened Christmas tree. Here she danced. Here she simply glowed.

"I cannot express the evil delight it gives me," said Peter Coe, "when I meet my child at a plane or train and glance around at all the jealous, offended men who can hardly credit this vision coming with warm, wet kisses to such a burnt-out case as I."

There were traces of the successful runner about the room, great silver cups and framed racing pictures and a commemorative Wilkinson sword over the mantel, but the photos of Sebastian on display were less than dignified, showing him mugging, wincing goofily. However, in the front hall was an oil portrait of him as a child, a large head atop a thin and passive body. The wide brown eyes are arresting, their clear, encompassing gaze not benevolent, not precious, but simply open, as if he were saying, what I see is what I get, and I'm not too sure I'm going to be happy about it.

Peter Coe caught the visitor staring at this picture. "Seb at eight," he said.

"Who painted him?" the visitor asked.

"I did."

There was a clumping upon the stairway. "Taking credit again. I hear," said Sebastian, descending. Behind him was his sister Emma, 15, tall and lovely with blazing teeth and short dark hair. Wrapped all in black, she was going to see Dracula.

"I'm off, too," said Sebastian.

"Where?" asked Emma.

"Where is he always off to?" said Angela Coe, their mother, who had come in from the kitchen.

Emma's brow knitted theatrically. "Now I like that, I do," said Sebastian happily. "No incessant drudge am I."

Emma, in a sunburst of comprehension, said, "Oh, training."

"An easy four. Dad," said Sebastian, and was gone.

In Sebastian's absence, Peter Coe discussed their plans for the new year and the then-undimmed Olympics. "We've had weeks the car couldn't come out of the garage for the snow," he said, "so after the holidays Seb will get out of the English winter to somewhere in southern Europe. Not tropical, mind you, but free of ice and sleet. Just to have continuity."

Peter Coe embodies the assertiveness of the scientific method. "I'm a superior manager," he said. "I know a good physiotherapist and a good doctor, and I listen to what they say, but they can't know everything, so in the end the coaching is an art, supported by this science. I make the fewest mistakes by being totally empirical. We'll do no training at altitude because we have no experience with it, and there's not enough time to get it. Once you introduce another variable like that, you've ruined your experiment."

The direction of the Coe experiment thus far has been to train Sebastian as a sprinter and, that done, turn his speed loose over longer and longer distances. "What we do are ranging shots, as I call them, running under and over distance races to bracket the target," said Peter. "In 1978, when Seb was aiming for the 800. we raced at 400 for speed and 1,500 for endurance. Last year the bracket was 400 and 3,000 meters, and he got the records for three of the distances in between. This year the overdistance will be up to 5,000 meters. He'll run a level-pace 5,000 in May in the Yorkshire championships."

Coe won that race in 14:06.2, slowed by strong, gusty winds and the lack of competition. Ten days later, at a meet at London's Crystal Palace, Ovett ran a final 55.5 in an otherwise lackluster 4:00.6 mile, and Coe. who had won the 800 earlier in an unimpressive 1:47.5, answered that with a full-out final lap of 46.4 on his leg of a 4 x 400 relay race.

Peter Coe spoke with respect of the other member of his son's training team. Loughborough's Gandy. "George got together with us when Seb was 19, and not only has he managed the weights and circuit training, but he's saved Sebastian on occasion. In 1978, not long before the European Championships in Prague, Seb stepped into a hole and turned the same ankle he hurt on your river. The hospital put it in a cast. George got him out and to a football physiotherapist, who knew it was wrecked but not broken. With a controlled wrap and constant therapy, he was jogging in 10 days and got down to 1:44.3 two weeks before Prague, but ah, that was a disastrous year, that."

The Prague 800 has been dissected as much as any race of that distance ever run. It was the first and, to date, the only time Coe and Ovett have raced one another. Beforehand, Coe was not feeling well. Originally the plan had been to set a fast pace to test both Ovett and the field and to condition Sebastian, then 21, to giving everything he had over the full distance. "Well. Dad, do we stick to what we intended?" asked Sebastian wanly before going to the start.

"We've come here to find something out," said Peter dryly. "I want to see what those bastards are made of, and remember this is only a stepping-stone on the way to what we're after."

So Coe opened up from the gun. Down the first backstretch East Germany's Olaf Beyer fought with him for the lead. "It was the first time in my life that someone had done that," said Sebastian later. "I couldn't believe the pace was fast if this guy was there. So I went faster."

The time at 400 meters was 49.3, an unsupportable pace. Coe held on until the last straightaway, when Ovett went by. Then Beyer passed them both to win in 1:43.8, the year's fastest time.

"I'll tell you where that pays off," said Peter Coe, sitting by the fire a year and a half later. "On a windy night in Zurich and you're tired and have 700 meters left to run and no one to help. Those were the conditions Sebastian faced last August, and the result was the world record in the 1,500 meters."

Prague was memorable also for a vignette that confirmed Sebastian in the knowledge of the gulf between casual officials and committed athletes. Arthur Gold of the British Amateur Athletic Board, who is also President of the European Athletic Association, was the presenter of the medals for the 800 meters. As he draped the bronze about Coe's neck, he said, "Well, Steve, you threw everything at them."

That medal now lies in the bottom drawer of a chest in Peter and Angela Coe's bedroom. A career's awards are all tossed together there, a nest of tangled ribbons and tarnish. "Our shrine," said Peter, cackling, slamming the drawer shut.

The Saturday before Christmas, Emma and Miranda, tiredly radiant, were in from shopping. Youngest son Nicholas, 17, was enjoying a rare moment at home between his two jobs, one with a firm that exports furnace linings, the other in a wine bar. Peter's mother, Violet 82, had come up from London. She gives as good as she gets.

"You can sign on with the Salvation Army soon. Mum," said Peter Coe, "and preach the benefits of giving up strong drink."

"Yes, but I haven't given it up. If you jabbed my arm, it would be Guinness gushing out."

"Ah well, you've lived too long as it is," continued Peter. "This will surely be your last Christmas."

"And a blessed relief it will be," she said, sipping her tea smugly, "to be away from this wretchedness."

Peter, seeking to prod his guest toward some sort of journalistic duty, played tapes of radio and television announcers describing Sebastian's record races. During a recounting of the July 17, 1979 Golden Mile in Oslo, Sebastian came into the parlor with hands pressed over his ears. "I swore I'd not listen to that again," he said. "Not until Moscow."

"You're winning again, dear, if that's what you're worried about," Angela Coe said melodically. A handsome woman, a secretary and unofficial counselor for an organization of university students, she had been trained on the stage. Now, in this most expressive of families, she seemed the most subtle. Her diction reminded one of George Sanders on his best behavior. "But she can make the plants wither or bloom with her voice," Emma says proudly, "and once you've learned to take her scolding, there's not a teacher you can't make cry." Angela Coe's first role in Shakespeare was the half-corrupt Sebastian in The Tempest. and of course the vision of innocence and purity in that play was Prospero's daughter, Miranda.

Over a lunch of lamb, cabbage and potatoes, the assorted Coes strove to be heard above the sounds of the movie White Christmas on the TV, though Miranda leaned near the screen, absorbed, during the production numbers.

"Bing would have made a first-rate jazz singer if he hadn't gone wrong," said Peter, whose feeling for jazz is shared in the family only by Sebastian.

After exchanged whispers, Emma cried out, "But, Mum. you said...."

"I know, dear, but I didn't mean a word of it."

It developed that Emma was seeking permission to cadge a 13-and-under, half-fare ticket to London to see a friend.

"They'll have several grizzled, grimy porters to take you into the baggage car," said Peter, leering. "And they'll test your age by...."

Emma's face became a study in rapture. "Oh," she laughed, "like last time."

Peter, defeated, sank back. "I am the captain on the poop, alone, being overwhelmed by mutineers."

"Peter was always such an inoffensive child," said his mother with wonder in her voice.

"Who told you to wake up, you old biddy?"

"Why, my child, I did it out of spite."

After a while Sebastian led the visitor out for a short run, and the talk turned to Ovett, the enigmatic rival from Brighton. Ovett had not run the Golden Mile in which Coe set his record, but later in the season, besides his 3:49.6 mile, Ovett ran the 1,500 in 3:32.2—in fact, the photo timer at the race in Brussels showed it to be 3:32.11. a bare one-hundredth away from tying Coe's record. "The amusing thing," said Sebastian, "is that Steve has always said, 'World records don't mean much. Racing is about people and not clocks,' and that's laudable. But even though the races in London and Brussels were so clearly organized for the setting of records, and he missed by so little, he still said only that he was perfectly happy with the times. He would not say he was going for the record."

Thus there seems an urge consistency in both these men: Coe, so specifically trained for the purpose of giving everything: Ovett, firm in his intent of being the complete racer. It seems a match that will bring out the best in both of them. Aside from Prague, it has not happened as yet, but should both be fit and compliant, the match could occur as early as July 1 in Oslo, but, in all likelihood, the rivals will wait until the Moscow Games.

Yet Coe and Ovett don't need each other. They are not defined against each other except in the English popular mind, which measures the gracious Coe against the private, brusque Ovett. Both take strength from close-knit families. Both are determinedly pressing back the limits of the mile. Each would continue in the other's absence. But it is their fate to carry on the recurring pattern of great milers appearing in pairs. They are the Roger Bannister/John Landy, Jim Ryun/Kip Keino, John Walker/Filbert Bayi combination for the early '80s, although it seems that Steve Scott of the U.S. is almost ready to make it hot for both of them.

Sheffield, the visitor found, was unexpectedly clean and bright and new. On the Coe side of town the air was only faintly redolent of coal smoke and steel manufacturing. The city, which has a population of 547,900, is built upon hills and ridges. Many of the streams and valleys below have been kept in a natural state, so a short drive soon brought one into good running country.

The Sunday before Christmas, Peter Coe drove Sebastian and the visitor down the Rivelin Valley Road to the fire station at Malin Bridge, where Coe's club, the Hallamshire Harriers, was staging a seven-mile race. After a good deal of back-slapping from runners happy to see Coe back from Loughborough, they were off. It was cold, perhaps 36°, and uphill into a headwind until the turnaround at halfway. Coe started slowly, then moved to the front after a half mile. His style resembles that of Frank Shorter, his elbows carried away from the body, his stride neat and light and quick. Snow dusted the stone walls, but the grass was still green, the creek loud. To the west rose the stark slopes and moors of the Pennines, the rugged Peak District which separates Sheffield from Manchester.

Coe won by 600 yards in 34 minutes. "Not moving badly for this stage in the season," said Peter. The visitor finished third, and found his hands and forearms turned to stone from the cold. He struggled comically to put on his sweats. "A hard country, isn't it?" said Peter Coe with relish.

In the morning, the day before Christmas, Sebastian awoke with a sore throat. "He gets his length of limb and his athletic strength and coordination from me," said Peter after sending him back to bed. "His susceptibility to respiratory infection comes from his mother."

Peter and Angela decided to take their guest to see the historic City of York.

"Mum, now drink anything you like from the bar while we're gone," said Peter.

"All right. I'll make off with the lot."

On the road Peter mentioned that his cargo ship had been sunk in the North Atlantic during the war. "Four of our six boats were blown apart. I was picked up by a German battleship." Later he was a prisoner of war, it taking three escapes to get home. "And for what?" he said. "My family is crumbling around me. Angela is reading Updike, and Emma has introduced a viper into our midst known as Fleetwood Mac."

The visitor marveled again at Sebastian's naturalness in all sorts of situations, especially his nervelessness in racing. "Roger Bannister was struck by that, too," said Angela. Indeed, 1956 Olympic steeplechase champion Chris Brasher has written of Coe, "Never have I been so refreshed by the sanity of a man.... I love him for what he has done to destroy the myth and legends of modern sport."

"But he hasn't always been thus," said Peter Coe. "As a child he had all the hallmarks of the nervous type: thin, with eczema, and he wrote drivel for exams at 11 or 12. He was a bundle of nerves in his early races. But having gotten him to recognize the problem, he took over. At 16, after he had won the national youths 1,500, he almost gave up running to work for exams."

"But we pointed out that running was good for academics," said Angela, "so he wrote out timetables for his holidays—so many hours on geography and so on—and he kept to them. It's that tremendous discipline of his that we respect."

York Minster cathedral was begun in 1220 A.D. Inside, Angela Coe led the visitors to the Five Sisters, tall, densely worked, sea-green stained-glass windows. The vaulted arches above were white, with bright gold carvings. "It's a very warm cathedral," said Angela. Then, more crisply, "I can almost be religious here." Peter, for his part, pointed out that the heads of many statues had been missing since the time of Oliver Cromwell, whose conviction it was that effigies were idolatrous.

As he strolled about the cathedral, Peter's thoughts turned again to his son. "Sebastian is success-oriented and not just a sport," he said. "The better he ran, the better he wanted to do academically. He's not an intellectual [for Peter it seemed there have been no reputable intellectuals since Wittgenstein] but then, who wants an ineffectual splitter of hairs, unable to act with decision? At times Seb's had an antagonistic faculty at Loughborough. His department chairman actually said something like, 'A gold medal would be a small help, I suppose. It's been difficult for Britain since the failure of the linen industry in Northern Ireland.' His exams last year were the final pressure. The world record in the 800 was the tremendous relief of having it done."

Outside, the Coes walked the ancient wall around the old city in golden, year-end light, stopping to watch a man carrying a Christmas tree and a bottle of whisky along the cathedral path under a softly diffuse Turner sky.

When they reached home, they inquired how Grandmum had fared all alone on Christmas Eve. "It was lovely," she said. "I put off the telly and sat in the blissful peace and watched the sparrows attack the frail, wild birds."

Christmas morning presented a cold, rimed land. The Coes visited neighbors and friends, Sebastian saying at each stop, "Mum put the turkey in at 10 last night. It ought to have at least died by now." At the home of brothers Ian and Dr. Bob Hague, longtime friends of Seb's, Peter delivered his theory of successful womanizing. "You don't have to do anything but enjoy them," he said, bending near Bob's beautiful friend Diane. "They're sensitive to that."

Then home to dinner at a table graced by a worked-iron candelabrum Sebastian made when he was 12. The children heaped lyric abuse upon Angela's frail, limp decorations, to which she replied, "It's yeti droppings for you this year."

Emma and Sebastian told a lengthy story about how Peter had once carefully listed his virtues as a father, how he'd promised to see to all their needs, concluding with, "Of course, if it's fun you want, I can't help you."