Skip to main content
Original Issue

He Had The Time Of His Life

In the season finale, Eamonn Coghlan lowered his indoor mile record to 3:49.78

Eamonn Coghlan lay in his New Jersey hotel room early last Sunday afternoon jotting down numbers on a tiny message pad when the phone rang. It was fellow Irishman and miler Ray Flynn. "What time are we going over to the meet?" asked Flynn, who would be racing against Coghlan at the Vitalis/U.S. Olympic Invitational in the Meadow-lands 2½ hours later.

Coghlan paused. "Oh, about 3:30," he said, but his thoughts seemed elsewhere. "I think I interrupted him," said Flynn afterward. "He said he was writing or something."

What Coghlan had written down was brief but pithy:

59.1 (2:55 at ¾ mile)
54-second last lap

These were the splits he planned to run in Sunday's race, and he didn't dare mention them to Flynn, a close friend but an equally close rival who took away Coghlan's Irish national records last summer in the mile and 1,500 meters. After hanging up, Coghlan totaled the figures he had written to make sure that they added up properly: 1:55.9 at the half-mile, 2:55 at three-quarters, 3:49 at the finish. He tore the top sheet off the note pad and placed it in a gym bag with his training diary. The splits, it would turn out, were just about dead on.

Coghlan had vowed weeks earlier, following the unexpected death of his father from a heart attack, that he would break the world indoor record of 3:50.6 he had set in San Diego in 1981. "I want to do it for my dad, and for my coach, Gerry Farnan, who died last May 4, and for Jumbo Elliott, my college coach at Villanova, who passed away two years ago," said Coghlan, who was injured for the indoor and outdoor seasons last year. Toward that end, he had raced and won three times since returning from his father's funeral in Dublin, beating Flynn twice and American indoor and outdoor record holder Steve Scott three times. In San Diego on Feb. 18 he had run 3:53.1, the ninth-best indoor clocking ever, which hinted that his mark might fall soon. But in fact Coghlan had a goal more important than merely breaking the record. "I want to be under 3:50," he said.

Although Coghlan had been voted by writers and statisticians as history's best indoor miler last year, he hadn't achieved his three main goals in running: winning an Olympic gold medal—he twice has finished fourth, in the 1,500 in 1976 and the 5,000 in '80—setting an outdoor world record and breaking 3:50. Ten milers have gone under that mark a total of 27 times outdoors, but Coghlan had never bettered his 3:50.6 indoor best. "Even at San Diego, when I broke the record," he recalls, "well, I had already set the indoor mile standard once. I was quite disappointed. All I could think of was how close I'd come to 3:50. So close, and yet so far."

What Sunday's meet offered Coghlan was a different sort of closeness. Eamonn, his wife, Yvonne, and their two young children live in Rye, N.Y., only 27 miles northeast of the Meadowlands, and Eamonn looked at the Olympic Invitational, as he did the Mobil/USA Indoor Track & Field Championships that preceded it on Friday night in New York, as almost a home meet. Nevertheless, after winning the mile in a disappointing 3:58.5 on Friday, he decided he wanted no household distractions. On Saturday night he drove to a Secaucus, N.J. hotel and checked in. "Yvonne's aunts were here from Ireland," Eamonn explained. "I figured I would have had to stay up and be sociable."

Instead he slept a full 13 hours, got up and went to check out the Byrne Arena track. He jogged around it in street clothes and boots, finding a few loose boards and pointing them out to workmen. "How does the track feel?" someone asked. "It feels great in cowboy boots," Coghlan said. Coghlan had served as a consultant when the track was designed and built in 1981, and he had maintained a special interest in it. "Last year I ran on it a couple times before I was hurt, and I noticed a problem on the turns," said Coghlan. "They weren't a continuous arc. There appeared to be a four-or five-foot straightaway right in the middle of them." His written report on that shortcoming had led to the removal of those straight sections, which in turn had encouraged Coghlan about his chances for a record.

"We're looking for somewhere around 3:49.9," he had announced on Wednesday. As a practiced spokesman for the Irish Tourist Board, Coghlan knows good PR when he delivers it. "If we don't make it Friday night," he said, smiling, "then we'll have to take it across the river on Sunday."

When Scott heard of this prediction on Friday afternoon, he became nervous. "Did Eamonn say we will run 3:49 or we could run 3:49 or we might run 3:49?" he asked. "Or that he's going to run 3:49?" Scott turned skeptical. "For Eamonn to break the record, somebody's going to have to push him through three quarters. Just who's going to do that?"

On Friday night, no one. After a slow early pace, however, Coghlan blew off Scott for an easy victory. "Running 1:53 for the last half mile came easy," said Coghlan, who knew that for Sunday's race he would have not only a track of his own design but also a rabbit of his choosing, former Villanova runner Ross Donoghue, a 3:58 miler. "On Saturday afternoon I watched Villanova beat St. John's in basketball with a shot at the buzzer," Coghlan said. "I considered that a good omen."

At the gun, Donoghue proved it so. He sprinted ahead of the six other milers and then settled into a fast, even pace. Coghlan didn't give Donoghue specific splits to run because "he's too good a runner and he didn't want to be known as a rabbit." Because the Meadowlands' blue plywood track is six, rather than four, lanes wide, jostling was not a problem. And because it's 176 yards long (approximately 10 laps to the mile) rather than the customary 160 yards (11 laps), it gave the runners a psychological boost. "Running 10 always seems easier than running 11," said Coghlan.

The quarter passed in 56.6 seconds, with Donoghue leading a single-file line, each runner one stride ahead of the next. Coghlan was in second, staring fixedly at Donoghue's back. "I blocked out everything else in the arena," said Coghlan later. "All I was thinking was 'Stay with Donoghue, stay with Donoghue.' " Coghlan had one other thought: "I realized I was feeling very good."

So, apparently, was everyone else. As Donoghue reached the half in 1:55.7, the rest of the field remained within 15 yards of him, with Coghlan still second, followed by Scott and Flynn. "I thought about passing them and going for the lead," said Flynn, "but I heard the splits and decided it wouldn't make sense to go any faster." Just past the halfway mark, Donoghue began to slow, a victim of the pace. "I gave him a nudge and told him to go a little farther," said Coghlan, but instead Donoghue pulled off to the side and let everyone else by. Then he stepped off the track and watched.

Coghlan soon had the crowd of 11,741 on its feet as he reached the three-quarter-mile point in 2:54.8—slightly less than his desired split and one second faster than the world-record pace he'd set in San Diego two years earlier. It seemed uncharacteristically early for Coghlan to take the lead. Scott and Flynn were still in close pursuit. "It looked like Eamonn and Steve were both tiring," said Flynn later, but he was only half right. With two laps remaining, Coghlan, who sensed that "Scott and Flynn were waiting to pounce on me," took off.

Flynn easily moved past Scott, but Coghlan similarly drew away from Flynn. He widened his lead to eight, then 10, then 12 yards. "I put all tiredness out of my mind," Coghlan would say. "I was going as hard as I could. I just went hell-for-leather."

For more than just a record: "All I could think of was my coach, Gerry Farnan, and my father," said Coghlan later. "I was saying, hey, this is for you guys."

Anyone doubting Coghlan's objective needed only to look inside his racing spikes. In the heel of each shoe he had inscribed "3:49.5" in blue pen. "I did it when I bought the shoes last November," he said. "And I wrote it in both of them I figured there was no point in one leg going faster than another."

At the tape Coghlan raised both fists and looked up at the scoreboard: 3:49.65, unofficially. He blew a kiss to the fans, hugged the meet director and hopped his way down the backstretch. When the official time came, Coghlan waved and jogged and grinned some more. He had lowered his world indoor record to 3:49.78. Flynn, in second place, had finished in 3:51:20, history's No. 3 indoor clocking, and Scott was third in 3:52.28.

"Verrrry kweeeek. National record," said Spain's Jose Abascal who had taken fourth in 3:52.56. Even little-known Jay Woods of Brigham Young, the fifth-place finisher, had logged a collegiate record 3:54.40, paring .6 off the mark set in 1974 by Tony Waldrop of North Carolina.

"This track is the fastest I've ever run on indoors," said Flynn. "The bends are beautifully built."

"I helped design it," Coghlan reminded him gently.

Coghlan was led to an assemblage of reporters beneath the stands. "Eamonn, could you rerun the race for us?" asked a newspaperman. Coghlan immediately took off down the concrete passageway. You asked for it. He came back smiling. "I'm psyched," he declared.

Now that he had achieved his goal of a sub-3:50 mile, what would Coghlan aim for next? "If there is another goal, it's to make the indoor mile record faster than the outdoor mile record." That would mean an indoor mile faster than 3:47 33, Sebastian Coe's current world best. "I think it can be done," Coghlan said confidently, with no doubt as to who he thinks will do it.

The week, he said, had been good. He'd written a letter to his friend, former sprinter Herschel Walker—Coghlan, the Irish track hero, seems also to have developed a Joycean love of writing—wishing him good luck in the USFL. "I sent it to the University of Georgia, so I hope he gets it," said Coghlan. At the end of his little press conference he explained to reporters that he plans to run the 5,000 meters in both the World Track & Field Championships this August in Helsinki and at the 1984 Olympics. And that, because he'll be concentrating on the L.A. Games next year, he probably won't run very much indoors.

"So you're almost finished as a miler," someone offered.

Coghlan was mildly startled at the suggestion. "After 3:49," he said, "I'm not half finished."


Upon finishing, Coghlan had good reason to exult, for this was the fastest mile he'd ever run, indoors or out.


Donoghue paced the field to a 1:55.7 half, where Coghlan took...


...the lead and maintained record pace alone, winning by a dozen yards.