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February 2, 2018

Chairman of the Boards: The story of the world’s first sub 3:50 indoor mile

Eamonn Coghlan is one of the greatest indoor milers in track and field history. His prowess on the tiny ovals of the day earned him the nickname “Chairman of the Boards,” as many tracks in that era were temporary structures made of plywood. His then-world record of 3:49.78 was the fastest mile ever run on U.S. soil until 2007.

Despite Millrose being this weekend, this isn’t a story of Eamonn Coghlan’s Millrose exploits–Coghlan he won the prestigious Wannamaker Mile at the Millrose Games (when it was still held at Madison Square Garden, with its 10-laps-to-a-mile track) seven times throughout his career.

Rather, this is the story of one scintillating run outside of New York in the winter of 1983, where Coghlan, like Babe Ruth before him, predicted exactly what he was going to run–down to the splits–before his world record run.

At the time, Coghlan was already the indoor mile world record holder, having originally set the record at 3:52.6 in 1979 and then re-setting it with a 3:50.6 in 1981. What made him so good indoors was also what hampered him outdoors — he possessed a devastating surge in the final 120 meters of a race. However, he struggled to sustain a longer kick from 200 to 300 meters.

In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, he finished fourth place in the 1,500 meters after using his surge in the middle of the race and only to get dropped over the bell lap. In 1980, he would again place fourth, this time in the 5,000 meters.

That quick acceleration, however, was perfectly suited to indoor racing, especially considering that most tracks of the day were absurd 10 or 11 lap-to-the-mile ovals. In an interview with Deadspin, Coghlan said, “I loved the feeling I got back from the wood. I would lean very low around the turn and let my momentum catapult me into the straight.” No one in those days could quite match Coghlan on the final turn and homestretch of an indoor track.

The year before had been a dismal for Eamonn. 1982 saw him miss the entire competitive season with an Achilles injury. Eight months went completely down the drain and his own coach thought that his career might be over.

By the end of 1982 and early 1983, Coghlan finally began to put in some consistent training. He ran a few road races for stamina and by January he established a training routine that worked for him: a Sunday long run of 15 to 20 miles, a Tuesday track workout of 5 x 1200 meters in about 3:03 and Thursday quarters — 20 x 400meters  in 59 seconds on a one-minute rest. That workout eventually progressed to 10 x 400 meters in 55 seconds with a two-minute rest interval. This training schedule wasn’t too unique as Coghlan noted that most runners of the day followed a fairly similar schedule.

Though 1983 started on a good note running-wise, it carried with it some heavy reminders of 1982’s depressing theme with it. Coghlan’s father passed away after watching him race in New York in February and before his historic sub-3:50 run. Over the course of the previous two years, the three most important people in his running career had died: most recently his father, but also his longtime coach Gerry Farnan and his former college coach and Villanova legend Jumbo Elliott.

Holding the current world record at just a tick over 3:50, Eamonn became dedicated to breaking the barrier in honor of those three.

Running fans today often lament the sparse racing schedules of today’s athletes. The Diamond League, the closest thing that exists to a seasonal racing circuit, features events about every other week. Hell, many modern marathoners might only race once or twice — if at all — in the build up to a goal race.

The same can’t be said for runners of the early ‘80s. They didn’t just race every week in-season; often, they raced multiple times every weekend.

Coghlan’s record run was on a Sunday afternoon at New Jersey’s Meadowlands Arena. On Friday evening that same weekend, he raced a mile at Madison Square Garden — a 3:58.5 for the win at the Mobil/USA Indoor Track & Field Championship.

The race on Sunday was the Vitalis/US Olympic Invitational, featuring a blue, six-lane, 10-lap track. In front of an arena packed with over 11,000 spectators, former Villanova standout and 3:58 miler Ross Donohue shot to the lead with a single-file pace line including Coghlan, Steve Scott, and fellow Irish star Ray Flynn following suit. 56.6 for the first 400 and Donohue was in the lead with  Coghlan staring at the back of his singlet. The half mile clicked by at 1:55.7 in the same order and it seemed that everyone felt equally good. The entire field filled a space of only 15 meters.

Donohue was the first to crack, stepping off the track just slightly after the half, leaving Eamonn Coghlan in the lead but not exactly the position any athlete wants to be in halfway through a record attempt. If today was the day, he’d have to do the rest of it solo. Crossing three-quarters in 2:54.8, the crowd rose to its feet. With only one quarter mile remaining, Coghlan was ahead of his planned record pace.

Unfortunately, he was dragging Scott and Flynn with him.

Sensing that the other two were preparing to pounce, Coghlan shifted gears with two laps to go. The move was uncharacteristically far out, but then again, record runs often require uncharacteristic performances. Eamonn had opened up a gap on Flynn who had gapped Scott and perhaps from there all Coghlan could think of was his dad and his coaches. As planned, Coghlan broke the tape in 3:49.78 – the world’s first sub-3:50 indoor mile. Flynn finished second in 3:51.2, the third fastest time in history, and Scott was third in 3:52.28.

Leading up to his world record run, Coghlan had called his shot — twice. First, he wrote “3:49.5” on the insole of each spike, because he “figured there was no point in one leg going faster than the other,” he told Kenny Moore of Sports Illustrated. Then, he wrote down his goal splits and put the paper in his gym bag: “57.4 58.5 59.1 (2:55 at ¾ mile) 54-second last lap.”

Those were almost the exact splits he ended up running. Chairman of the Boards, indeed.

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