Every generation needs its heroes

 

ATHLETICS: Eamonn Coghlan;s immeasurable inspiration and influence is gradually being lost, another reflection of the decline in Irish distance running

WE WERE somewhere outside Providence, driving I-95 South in a Toyota rental, on our way to the Millrose Games in New York. “Do you think he can do it?” Dave asked, from the front seat. I didn’t want to raise expectations and said we’d have to wait and see.

“Of course he can do it,” said Erin, from behind the wheel. “We’re talking about Eamonn Coghlan. In the Garden. Coghlan rules that place. He owns it. Of course he can do it.”

It was the winter of 1993, my junior year at Brown University. Dave and Erin were seniors, and we shared a house off campus, on John Street. We were utterly absorbed in running in those days, and when we heard Coghlan was coming to Millrose we agreed we had to be there. It didn’t matter that Coghlan was running the Masters Mile, not the Wanamaker Mile. He’d still be the headline act. No man over 40 had run a sub-four mile, indoors or out. Although, deep down, I wasn’t sure Coghlan could do it.

“We’re making pretty good time,” said Dave, as we passed the exits for New Haven. Dave was from New York, grew up on Staten Island. Erin was from California. Yet they both knew every bit as much about Eamonn Coghlan as I did. Chairman of the Boards, and no explanation required. Back then, Coghlan was a hero for every young miler in America, the same way he was for every young miler in Ireland. The TV commentaries I’d listened to on Saturday mornings were the same as Dave and Erin had heard live on Friday nights: “Final lap, Wanamaker Mile. And the fans are on their feet. Into the lead goes Marcus O’Sullivan. But here comes Eamonn Coghlan, right on his tail. Look at Coghlan go! And Eamonn Coghlan eases down to the tape. Three-fifty-five!”

We drove into Manhattan at lunchtime, the early February sunshine illuminating the great skyline in all its glory. Dave had it planned that we’d go to the Hop Kee restaurant in Chinatown, down on Mott Street, for the chicken dish, and then hit Ferrara Cafe in Little Italy, just a block away, on Grand Street.

“The best cannoli in New York,” Dave said, and he knew what he talking about.

“I’m getting nervous, man,” he said. “I think Coghlan’s going to do it.”

We parked right next to Madison Square Garden – at $10 an hour – and headed for window booth six. I’d managed to swing three competitor passes, through my dad, who was an old acquaintance of long-time Millrose meet director Howard Schmertz. We were free to sit anywhere, and found a good spot at the final curve. The place was filling up, fast. The Wanamaker Mile was scheduled for 10pm, but the Masters Mile was off at 8.30, and no one was about to miss it.

Coghlan got a standing ovation when introduced. He was wearing a black singlet and shorts, with a small Foot Locker logo, and the number 40 pasted on to his chest. He did own the place. “That’s unbelievable,” I said to Dave. Then they played the Irish anthem. “That’s unbelievable,” said Erin.

For a man of 40, Coghlan looked superbly fit. He’d been training in Florida since Christmas, having come out of retirement just a few months earlier, determined to leave this one last mark on mile history. The fastest mile by a man over 40 was 4:05.39, by the lanky Kenyan Wilson Waigwa, who was now lining up next to Coghlan.

They dimmed the lights, and swept a spotlight around the Garden’s 160-yard oval. The lap counter was set at 11, and after the starting gun came the inescapable sound of the runners thumping on the wooden boards, drowning out the faint background music.

“What’s going on here?” I asked, as Coghlan began to trail off, sluggishly, almost sinking into the track. “2:02 for Waigwa at the half-mile mark,” they declared, and Coghlan was a good 15 metres adrift, suddenly looking every bit his 40 years.

“Man, this is not good,” said Erin. For the first time all day we wondered if we should have left Providence at all.

What happened next remains one of the great displays of indoor running I’ve witnessed. Just as suddenly, Coghlan looked half his age, accelerating around the tight bends like a sports car. He blew past Waigwa, and in front of an adoring crowd of 18,176 breasted the tape, eyes closed, pointing up at the clock: 4:05.95, the fastest mile run indoors by a man over 40. Coghlan had turned back the clock, in many ways, and it was no less a thrill that he hadn’t gone sub-four. Coghlan again ruled the Garden, owned the place.

The Wanamaker Mile, the climax of the night, and a race Coghlan had won a record seven times, was something of an anti-climax in comparison. Marcus O’Sullivan came close to beating Noureddine Morceli, of Algeria, who ran 3:55.06. But as we headed out into the mild winter night, play-acting around Times Square, each of us knew that Coghlan had been the star of the show, the inspiration for several sessions at the Brown indoor track, maybe even the rest of the season.

Deep down, himself, Coghlan believed he could still go sub-four. Three weeks later, back at the Garden, at the US Indoor Championships, he ran 4:01.39. “That might be as good as it gets,” I read in the New York Times. I thought so too.

A year later, during the worst winter in Providence in 30 years, I heard Coghlan was running an indoor mile up in Harvard, as part of a high school meeting. I didn’t think it was worth risking the old Volvo 145 Estate to make the trip. To this day I regret it. Coghlan, at age 41, ran 3:58.15, the 75th sub-four mile of his career. No other man over 40 has done it.

Last night, back at the Garden, at the 103rd staging of the Millrose Games, the Kenyan-born Bernard Lagat set out to beat Coghlan’s record of seven Wanamaker Mile titles. Lagat now runs for the US, and won the race the last five years in succession, plus 2001 and 2003. Chances are he did win a record eight last night. That might even give Lagat some claim on the title Chairman of the Boards, but I doubt it. Coghlan set the reputation of Irish indoor milers in stone, building on the success of Ronnie Delany, and paving the way for the likes of O’Sullivan, Niall Bruton and Mark Carroll. Between the five they’ve won the Wanamaker Mile an incredible 19 times.

The only disappointment about last night’s Millrose Games was the absence of any Irish miler to keep that reputation going. It doesn’t matter if Lagat won or lost; what matters is Coghlan’s immeasurable inspiration and influence is gradually being lost, another reflection of the decline in Irish distance running. Every generation needs its heroes, and when we left New York in the winter of 1993, the three of us felt that inspiration for days and months afterwards, that Coghlan’s life could somehow be our lives.

It never transpired that way, but at least the dream was real and alive.