This is part 3 of the Seb Coe’s 41 Days of World Records, by Jeff Benjamin. It was a monumental task by Jeff, from the collection of quotes and interviews to the finding of photos and videos.
This story, on the 1,500m, is amazing!
Seb Coe, 1,500m WR, 3:32.03, Weltklasse, 1979, photo by Getty Images / IAAF
“Coe-Mania” Plays To A Screaming Crowd In Zurich!
By Jeff Benjamin
After Sebastian Coe broke the Mile World Record, “Coe-Mania” swept the Sporting world and beyond as all the attention was now focused not only on Coe himself, but friends and family as well.
Constant phone calls from press, radio and television bombarded the Coe home. In the book, “Sebastian Coe Born To Run”, author David Miller describes father/coach Peter Coe hanging up the phone on a 2AM call from famed American Sportscaster Howard Cosell, saying, “Never heard of him!”
For son Sebastian, there was still racing to do. Competing in the European Cup, Coe won a tactical 800 over a field with the East Germans Wulbeck and Beyer notably beaten back. But for some the real eye-opener was hearing Coe’s 400 meter anchor split on his team’s relay – 45.5 seconds!
But there was one more record to try and crack – the 1500 meters. “The great British Athletics Sportswriters Stan Greenberg and Mel Watman were traveling with me,” recalled Coe recently. “After Oslo they told me that no one had ever held the 800, 1500 and 1- Mile World Records all at the same time.” Also egging him on were two friends and track students Steve Williams and Malcolm Williams about the records as well.
“The historian in me got aroused!”
The new superstar track historian was now in the hands of one of the best track meet promoters in history – Andreas Brugger. After getting the commitment from Coe, Brugger worked his Zurich magic in assembling a group which could hopefully spark Coe to get the 1500 record. “There definitely was more choreography in setting that race up,” said Coe, who, unlike the 800 and 1-Mile, had pretty much declared through his posture that he would be going for it. Even British rival Steve Ovett, whose presence may have caused a tactical race and may have even snatched the World Record for himself, was not invited. This was Coe’s night, and the 30,000 passionate and knowledgeable screaming fans that night were there for him.
Craig Masback would be there once again as well. “After Oslo I proceeded to run seven more races, including three races in three days at the pre-Olympic Spartakiade in Moscow before heading to Zurich for the Weltklasse 1500 meters,” said Masback who also raced in 21 1500/mile races that season. “It was an era when we would run Zurich on Wednesday night, Berlin on Friday night, and Cologne on Sunday afternoon).” As for the Zurich Gala, “I think I was the only person from the Golden Mile who ran in Zurich other than Seb,” recalled Masback. “He had wisely returned to training, spending much of the time at Macolin, a Swiss training camp.”
By the time Masback arrived in Zurich, the electricity around Coe’s 1500 World Record Attempt was starting to grow.
“I arrived with my girlfriend (“Do you have to run another race?”) and some level of expectation since, like Coe, I had shown such surprising improvements during the season,” said Masback. “I heard that Coe had asked for a 1:52 first 800 meters, a somewhat frightening prospect for me given that my best 800 was only 1:47.55!”
Just before the gun sounded before the screaming throng of fans along with millions of TV viewers worldwide, Peter Coe gave his son pretty obvious advice for the occasion. According to Seb Coe’s most recent autobiography “Running My Life” :
“Peter’s last words before we lined up on the track were, “It’s shit or bust, get out there and hang on.”
From the start it looked like that was what Coe embarked upon, Seb followed pacemaker Kip Koskei through a 54 second first lap.
Masback also started aggressively, falling behind Coe over the first 350 meters. “I went with Coe and the rabbit for much of the first 800, but it was quickly clear to me that I could not maintain that pace and I once again watched him run away from the rest of the field.”
With the stadium crowd going crazy and Peter Coe yelling to slow down, Coe distanced himself from the rest of the field (which also consisted of Kenyan Great Mike Boit), accelerating past Koskei into the lead just before clocking 1:53 for the 800 meter split.
More challenging than before, Coe had to keep going that far out in his own. “It was one of my toughest races,” said Coe. “I had hoped others in the field might be with me, but I was in “No-Man’s Land.”
With the 3rd lap covered in a solo 57.6, Coe needed a 56.9 last lap to break Filbert Bayi’s 1500 World Record, something which seemed impossible to do by himself. But the Zurich crowd, chanting in unison, “Coe, Coe, Coe!”, without a doubt kept Coe from failing. “Without that crowd and their support,” said Coe, “I don’t know if I had done it.”
As Coe crossed the line, he had set his 3rd world record in 41 days, nipping Bayi’s record by a tenth of a second in a time of 3 minutes 32.03 seconds. “I am absolutely convinced, however, that if the pacing had continued longer, and if I hadn’t been having to struggle in my own, I could have taken another second off,” said Coe in his autobiography.
“In many ways, the last of his three world records in 41 days was the most impressive as he was completely on his own for about the last 600+ meters,” said Masback, who also ran well.
“I managed to run a PR and finish second in the race though more than four seconds behind Seb, and had the chance to congratulate him and shake his hand before he set off on his victory lap,” a victory trek which actually consisted of 2 laps!
In “Born To Run”, Coe reminisced about the Zurich experience :
“Years afterwords, I can still hear the roar that night of the Swiss crowd as I went in front, and it was that which spurred me.”
To show how much fire was being played around with during those 41 days, Coe’s peak conditioning, like those of other great athletes, rested on that fine line between greatness vs illness and/or injury. Just a few days after the Zurich race, Coe pulled a calf muscle which pretty much ended his 1979 season.
“It’s fair to say I wasn’t too disappointed,” said Coe.
And it was only the beginning, as Coe’s ascent (replete with ups and downs) would cement him over the next decade as one of the world’s greatest runners.