The Running Network’s Jeff Benjamin (Center) hangs with Eamonn Coghlan (Left) and Sebastian Coe (Right) at the Runners World Magazine 25th Anniversary Gala Photo By Victah Sailer
This is part 2 of the 3 part series on Seb Coe and his 41 days of World Records in 1979, written by Jeff Benjamin. This second piece is on the second WR, the mile!
Just 12 days after his 800 World Record, Sebastian Coe would once again be toeing the Line in the same Bislett stadium in Oslo, Norway.
But this time, Coe would not only be lining up in an event he had only run once a year for the previous 4 years. The 22 year-old would also be competing against most of the world’s best at that particular event – The Mile.
And it was set up as “The Golden Mile!”
The “Golden Mile” was not set up for Coe, but rather for the world’s top-ranked milers. “As far as many were concerned I was a jumped-up 800 meter runner,” said Coe in the film “Sebastian Coe Born To Run”.
“It was the height of arrogance really.”
But it was also driving the heights of anticipation and potential, as Coe was the true wild-card in the race. Sporting only a 3:57 Mile PR, the new 800 World Record Holder was running his 4th Mile Race In 4 years.
“I went to the race to run a good time,” said America’s top miler Steve Scott, who was hoping to take Jim Ryun’s American record of 3:51.10. “It was one of the biggest races I was ever in, being that I was only one year out of college and was just getting into the International scene.”
“But Coe was the great mystery.”
However, World Indoor Mile World Record Holder Eamonn Coghlan had some familiarity with Coe. “In 1978, Brendan Foster brought over and organized for Seb and others to come run the Loughrea 4-Mile road race,” said Coghlan recently. “Seb beat me and won the race,” said Coghlan, as Coe ran 17:54 and broke Foster’s record of 18:05 set the year before. Coghlan would finish second, while Mike McLeod would finish 3rd. “You know Seb beat me but I was blocked and had to go around a police car to keep racing!”, said Coghlan of the race, which also included stars Charlie Spedding and Steve Kenyon.
“But there was a great sense of anticipation and it was like no other race I was in before.”
“Having run my first sub-4 races in 1978 (3:59.6 and 3:58.1), I had high hopes for the 1979 season,” said Craig Masback. “Things went well for me, with my running a PR or close to it almost every time out. I broke four at the Penn Relays in late April then in June ran 3:56
(at Rutgers), and 3:54.7 in Philadelphia – suddenly I was competitive in races I never dreamed of getting into!”
But getting into the Dream Mile proved quite taxing on Masback. “The big goal was to get into the Golden Mile in Oslo, and though my trajectory was in the right direction, I didn’t have the name, times, or victories to merit an invitation,” said Masback.
“The decision-maker was Andy Norman, the famous British meet director, who was putting together the field….He needed two things – Americans in the race, because NBC was going to cover it, and pacemakers, and he saw me filling both roles…Andy had said that if I ran the 1500 meters at the English AAAs Championship the Saturday/Sunday prior to the Golden Mile, which was on a Tuesday night, I could have a place in the Golden Mile and I agreed.”
But it still wasn’t smooth for Masback. “When I later called him to say I was tired and needed to skip the AAAs, he threatened to withdraw my invitation to the Oslo race, but then relented and said I could still run in Oslo if I agreed to rabbit the AAAs 5000 meters,” said Masback. “So, I went to London and led that race – which included an all-star cast including Henry Rono, Rudy Chapa, Brendan Foster, and others for 6+ laps.”
Norman, however, was still scrambling for the Golden Mile. “When I arrived in Oslo for the race, Andy pulled me aside and said that unless I agreed to rabbit the race, he was going to pull me out of the field,” said Masback. “I said “no” but my status was clearly uncertain until Steve Lacy, who along with Steve Scott comprised the other Americans in the field, got really sick and agreed to rabbit the race and thats how I finally got in the race.”
As far as the “Coe Factor” was concerned, “You had to respect a guy who had run a world record for 800 meters a few days before – his vastly superior 800 meter speed would obviously count for a lot,” said Masback. “That said, all of the focus was on Eammon Coghlan who had smashed the world record indoor and others in the field, including John Walker and Thomas Wessinghage.”
“Seb was more of a curiosity.”
A curiosity that Masback was indeed finding more about.
“I had not met Seb or his father, Peter, prior to Oslo, but we got to know one another there, including having lunch either the day before the race or the day of the race,” said Masback. “He had just graduated from Loughborough University and was considering getting a graduate degree in the USA, with Harvard as a place he wanted to study.”
“Seb (or maybe his dad) wanted to ask me questions about Harvard, studying and training in the USA, etc. and I did the best I could to answer the questions.”
Prior to the Race, Masback reminisced-
“I’ve also heard Seb tell a story about warming up together prior to the Golden Mile (I don’t remember that) – the point of his story is that I questioned his choice of spikes for the race (Nike), suggesting that they were too heavy for the mile distance. He says with some amusement that they were the same shoes he wore to smash the World Record in the 800 meters so he assumed they would work for the mile as well.”
Even Coughlin was targeted as a rabbit as well. “Peter Coe asked if I might help set the pace and I said “no” because I wanted to win the race too!,” laughed Coghlan.
With the likes of Coghlan, Scott, Walker, Masback, Moorcroft amongst others (Steve Ovett was the best miler to decline to appear and race), Coe bolted from the gun to try and avoid contact, to slight avail. “Seb had cut me off to get his space,” said Coghlan of tactics which are so common in competition and to which Masback experienced as well. “Seb and I got tangled up with one another at the start – I may have pushed him – and while he went right to the front of the race, I executed a saavy race strategy of moving authoritatively to the back of the pack (hence my great view of the race),” said Masback.
Coe did let Lacey lead in the pacemaking, clocking 56 for the first lap and 1:55 at the half. “Believe it or not, I felt the pace was slow,” said Scott, as he took the lead from Lacey (who stepped off) and began a grinding push, with only Coe going with him. “I had tried to make it up in the second lap and when Scott pushed it there was a gap and I had worked into third,” said Coghlan.
“I remember thinking, “This is so fast!”
“Maybe I should have held back a bit more,” laughed Scott recently. “But I really wanted the win and get Ryun’s record.”
Coming on the bell lap, Coe boldly took the lead from Scott and smoothly began accelerating, looking amazingly just too relaxed to many.
“Steve Scott and Seb were racing up in the front and the others, myself included, were falling further and further behind,” said Masback. “I remember thinking (and I commented about this in the post-race interview) that Seb was “running with confidence tempered by humility” – that he placed himself in a position to win the race, but let others – first Steve Lacy, then Steve Scott – be in charge.”
As Coe continued to accelerate, the other great milers, led by Coghlan just could not seem to accelerate. “I really was on my last legs over the last 200,” said Coghlan.
While Coe was racing at a level never seen before, Masback caught some of that inspiration.
“With about 300 meters to go I was in last or next-to-last place on the rail and something motivated me to step outside and start racing and on the backstretch I passed a series of people who had always been idols and people I had looked up to – Dave Moorcroft, the Commonwealth Games Champion, Thomas Wessinghage, the European Record holder, John Walker, the World Record holder and others. With 200 meters to go, I was in 5th place,” said Masback. “I never heard a single split and remember just kind of “existing” in a kind of trance during the race without making any positive move until the last 300.”
“Around the turn, I moved alongside Coghlan, a guy who had regularly humiliated me when he was at Villanova and I was at Princeton,” said Masback. “He glanced at me with a look of anguish on his face – not only was he not going to set the world record as expected or win the race, as expected, but he was being passed by a guy for whom he had no respect.”
Coe would go on unchallenged to break Walker’s world record, clocking 3 minutes, 48.95 seconds!
“You know, Seb owes me for a great breakthrough race!,” joked Scott, who missed Ryun’s mark by 1/100th of a second, recording a time of 3:51.11. “But it was still a great run by Seb!”
Masback would finish 3rd!
“I got by Coghlan and Graham Williamson of Scotland and was in third place with 100 meters to go,” said Masback of his greatest 1-Mile performance. “I had a faster time from the 1500 meter mark to the finish than Coe and Scott, but they were way ahead of me and I zipped across the line in third.”
As amazing as Coe’s 800 record was, the avalanche of attention was tenfold when he broke the Mile record, attention which would change his life forever.
Postrace on live television Coe was asked if he considered himself a Miler now. “In the truest sense of the word “No”, said Coe, who was shocked like many that a “Rookie Miler” could break the World Record.
“After the race, there was a dinner at a downtown Oslo restaurant and I remember hanging out with Seb prior to the dinner,” said Masback. “There had been a large scrum of the British press at the meet, but the British media was relentless in their pursuit of him for comment.”
In a harbinger (both positive and negative) of things to come Masback described the attention. “Even as we waited for dinner and ate, he kept getting called to the phone for interviews – he was the first British runner to set a mile world record since the 1950s (when Roger Bannister and then Derek Ibbotson set records), and it was a big deal,” said Masback.
“But Seb handled it all with amazing patience, dignity, grace, and eloquence, presaging his career as a politician and leader of global athletics.”
Coe’s next foray at a World Record would be very different than any other race he’d been in before.
Next up – Part 3 – The Zurich 1500