Friday, February 24, 2012

Eamonn Coghlan's 1981 WR 3:50.6 Indoor Mile Remembered


COGHLAN’S RUN AT SPORTS ARENA STILL A HUGE THRILL 31 YEARS LATER

Written by
Nick Canepa
San Diego Union Telegraph

It was 31 years ago this week when Eamonn Coghlan became an Irish storm, when he ran beyond the hype … by a mile.

Magic was done on the Sports Arena boards on Feb. 21, 1981, and if you were there and didn’t hear the thunder and weren’t blinded by the lightning, if your palms weren’t wet and goose bumps jumping, you were not of this earth. As it was, on that night, this son of Ireland seemed all alone on it.

I’ve been on this newspaper for 40 years, which accounts for so many memories being stored, some put away back in the stacks, a few closer to the window. But when I’m asked to name my greatest sporting moment on San Diego turf, I don’t have to rifle through my card catalog.

I was with the Chargers in Green Bay when Steve Garvey hit the home run. I saw it live on TV in a hotel room, but it wasn’t the same as being there, because those who were have said Qualcomm Stadium hadn’t rocked like that before or since.

There have been so many memorable Chargers games, the 1994 playoff win here over Miami being near the top (the great 1981 playoff win over the Dolphins doesn’t apply). BYU’s stunning, 11th-hour comeback over SMU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl probably was the greatest football game I’ve seen in person. I didn’t attend Ali-Norton. Tiger Woods’ U.S. Open win at Torrey Pines was dramatic and magnificent. There was UCLA’s semifinal win over Louisville in the 1975 Final Four. So many more wonderful moments.

But, for me, nothing tops the night of Coghlan’s mile on the Sports Arena boards during the Jack-in-the-Box Indoor Games. It was electrifying. He blew the roof off the joint. If you had never seen a track and field event in your life, even if you were the losers’ parents, you had to feel what it’s like to be a page in history.

If you’re new to this area or too young to remember, track and field once was a huge deal here. Major meets in Balboa Stadium provided many national and international outdoor highlights. But, for whatever reason, the 11-laps-to-the-mile boards in the Sports Arena were the fastest in the world (other venues tried to copy them, to no avail), so promoter Al Franken had no problems enticing the best distance runners in the world, Coghlan, John Walker, Filbert Bayi, Henry Rono, Dick Quax, Steve Scott, Steve Prefontaine and on and on.

I saw Rono forget his start time, jump out of the arena stands, pull off his sweat clothes and run the second-fastest 2-mile in history. I saw master showman Prefontaine play the crowd like a mandolin in the 2-mile, just days after he sat on my office desk for an interview, and not long before he was killed in an automobile accident.

But nothing compared to Eamonn’s mile. At the arena in 1979, he had set the world indoor mile record of 3:52.6. By the time he returned to San Diego — Coghlan and his family always spent a great deal of time here before the meet — a world record wasn’t just a thought, it was expected.

"I’m chilled out watching television at a place we always rented on Ocean Front Walk,” Coghlan, 59, is saying over the phone from Dublin, where he now is an Ireland senator. “It’s 6 o’clock and Steve Scott is being interviewed on the news. He says he’s going to kick my butt and make me eat the track. I’m watching this and I wasn’t running until 10 o’clock that night. Good luck, Steve. I never had a doubt I was going to break the world record.”

And so he did. Coghlan’s body and running style were perfectly suited for the indoor boards. He didn’t just break the record. He obliterated it, running 3:50.6, off by himself after rabbit Tiny Kane led the group through a furious pace.

“I was a man on a mission,” Coghlan says. “Tiny Kane had been my mate at Villanova and he came down from Oregon to take the pace for me. I was 100 percent certain he would do the job and he did. I had a number of great nights in Madison Square Garden, but San Diego was like another home for me, and the crowd was great, expecting a world record. After the 1980 Olympics, when I was sick as a dog and finished fourth in the 5,000, I really wanted that record and Al set up a strong field. The crowd was looking for me to run under 3:50. I was disappointed I didn’t go under the magical barrier.”

That would come two years later in the New Jersey Meadowlands, when he ran 3:49.78. But that was on a 10-laps-to-the-mile track. Indoor records never are considered “official,” but anyone worth his stopwatch knows that 11-lap records are preferred over 10.

“It’s absolutely harder to run on an 11-laps-to-the-mile track,” he says. “Those tracks are gone now; they run on Tartan tracks with huge straightaways. People don’t have any idea what it was like to run on the boards; no clue.

“I was 5-10, 140, with a low center of gravity. I loved running the tight turns, and the banks in San Diego were steeper than any in North America. You were propelled down the straightaway and I really excelled on the turns.”

He’s a senator now, been one since Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny nominated him in May. But he has that memory.

“I was fortunate to be a part of that era,” he says. “Now, there’s less drama and more money.”

Looking back, the “Chairman of the Boards” says: “I’ll take the drama.”

So will I.

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