Chairman reflects on a champion career: “I worked bloody hard. I gave it my all”
By Dave Hunter
Those of us who have followed track and field over the years need no prompting to recall the sparkling career and exceptional talent of Eamonn Coghlan – the first 5000m world champion back in 1983 and one of the most fearsome milers of all time. Now living in his beloved Dublin, the world-record setting middle distance great still is reminded of his exploits on the track.
“There is not a day in any week that goes by without somebody somewhere on the island of Ireland – whether it is north, south, east, or west, or whether I’m at work or whether I’m in the city, or whether I’m shopping or in a restaurant – bringing up track and always having nice things to say on where they were on such-and-such a day when I won…or lost,” declares Coghlan.
After growing up in Ireland, Coghlan continued a long line of other promising middle distance stars who migrated from the Emerald Isle to Philadelphia’s Main Line to further develop their miling skills under the watchful eye of Villanova’s Jumbo Elliott. Coghlan easily recalls how the Ireland-‘Nova pipeline got started.
“The first one was a gentleman by the name of Jim Reardon. He was competing for Ireland in the 1948 Olympic Games,” he notes. “Then we had John Joe Barry, Cummin Clancy, and Ronnie Delany. And it continued on with Noel Carroll, Frank Murphy, Ian Hamilton, John Hartnett, and Donald Walsh before I arrived at Villanova.”
And with a smile, Coghlan – who has an encyclopaedic memory – adds, “I can name them all!”
Rollercoaster Collegiate Career
The Irishman’s collegiate career got off to a rocky start. “I had a little hiccup with homesickness my first month out in the United States,” explains Coghlan, who first arrived on the Villanova campus in the fall of 1971. “So I missed out on the second semester. I came back in September of 1972 and got going.”
And got going, he did.
While running for the Wildcats, the young Irishman was the NCAA indoor mile championship in 1975 and 1976, the outdoor mile winner in 1975 and captured the 1976 outdoor 1500m crown. “The 1976 outdoor meet was at Franklin Field. I beat Wilson Waigwa, Matt Centrowitz [Sr.] and Steve Lacey,” recalls Coghlan with pride. “I remember all the races.”
Also along the way, Coghlan re-set the Ireland national mile record held by Hartnett – one of his fellow Villanova Irishmen.
His middle distance grooming at Villanova set Coghlan up well for the world stage which was to follow. Virtually unparalleled indoors, Coghlan combined his efficient stride – seemingly made for racing on the tight-turned indoor board tracks – with a devastating ability to change speeds to forge himself into an indoor powerhouse. In addition to setting world indoor record marks at 1500m and 2000m, the 7-time Wanamaker Mile champion broke the world indoor mile record 3 times – the last time becoming the first man to break 3:50 in the indoor mile – a clocking of 3:49.78 which would stand as the global record for nearly 14 years. To date, only three milers [Coghlan; Hicham El Guerrouj (3:48.45); and Bernard Lagat (3:49.89)] have ever dipped under 3:50 indoors.
How exclusive is the indoor sub-3:50 fraternity? Consider this: The number of different athletes who have broken 3:50 outdoors? 58.
Champion and Chairman
A ruthless racer, The Chairman of the Boards had a signature move: his unbelievable acceleration. “It was something I worked on as a kid. I call that reflex speed. And that was having the ability to change gear within two or three strides. Before your opponents would know it: Bang! You’re gone,” Coghlan explains.
“I practised that from the time I was a young kid – doing drills coming off the last turn, the last 50, or the last 200 – and I would go from a long loping stride to a sprinter’s style,” offers the Villanova great, whose lightning kick was well known to his fellow competitors as well as those who remember the zenith of Coghlan’s career in the 70’s and 80’s.
“It was more of a mental switch than anything else. But physically, you followed with that. You just got away. You always had to have the extra gear.”
Coghlan not only had it. It was a weapon he knew how to use to his utmost advantage – especially indoors.
So dominating was Coghlan’s indoor career that his outdoor performances – sparkling by nearly any metric – are sometimes unfairly given short shrift. Often overlooked is Coghlan’s tactical, big-kick victory in the 5000m at the inaugural IAAF world championships. “Absolutely the greatest thrill of my life,” declares Coghlan on his 1983 Helsinki win.
Coghlan’s Olympic performances – on the other hand – lacked luster. “In 1976, I ran a stupid race.” he says. “It was kind of running with fear rather than being fearless. I would have planned to sit and kick all the way. I did that in the heats – and I won it. I did that in the semi-final – and I won it. And in the final I got a little bit confused. Jumbo Elliott on the morning of the race said to me, ‘If the pace is slow, maybe you should run the speed out of them.’ At 400 meters I heard 62.9 and I thought ‘Uh-oh.’
“Here I am in perfect position right behind John Walker, and what do I do? Like a headless chicken, I went up to the front and I took on the pace and I just ran a stupid, tactical race.” He finished 4th.
More disappointment resulted in the Moscow Games. “In 1980, I was actually sick as a dog for about two weeks before the Olympic Games,” he says. “I had a dose of diarrhea. I got a terrible nasty bug. I also had a bloody pain in my shin bone and I could never figure out what the problem was with my shin. It was later diagnosed as a stress fracture. I was just as weak as anything.”
Coghlan – running the 5000m – would finish 4th, missing the podium once again. “While I ran a good tactical race in the finals, I just ran out of steam,” he recalls. “I just didn’t have it.”
Knocked out of the ’84 Games due to injury, the Irishman had one more Olympic hurrah in Seoul – but could not overcome Father Time to advance to the 5000m final. “In 1988, I was just facing old age,” he says.
Sub-four at Forty
Had Coghlan decided then to call it a career, his legacy as one of the best middle distance racers would have been secured. But the Irishman had one more trick up his sleeve. “I had given up running pretty much for about a year – from 37 to about 38 and half. But there was a lot of talk around the first master to run a four-minute mile. Would it be a Coe? Ovett? Wesssinghage? John Walker? Particularly John Walker – there was a lot of talk that he would get it. So I decided that I would go back and do a marathon in New York.
“I spent 6 months doing nice easy training for a marathon – for charity more than anything else. So if I could get the motivation and the slow easy work in over 6 month;, that would give me enough background mileage in my legs so by 39 years of age I’d know whether I wanted to pursue it or not. That’s exactly what happened. Out of nowhere, after not running for over a year, I ended up with 6 months training and running 2:25:13 in New York. That’s what gave me the foundation.”
And after a pause, the Irishman adds, “And I was only running it for fun.”
After that, the man who had racked up 82 sub-4:00 miles began the push for one final one – #83 – to become the first master to break 4:00.
“John Walker ended up getting hurt – his Achilles,” explains Coghlan of the New Zealander’s ill-fated 40th birthday assault on the 4:00 barrier in January of 1992. “He had to withdraw from competing and even trying to go for the 4 minute mile. One year later, I turned 40. I got hurt and I had to recover from a foot injury. And my hamstring was injured. I could hardly even stand on it, it was so sore.
“I ran the indoor season because of my obligations with meet promotors and sponsors. I broke the world record . But I missed the 4:00 mark. I basically came back the following year and I said, ‘I’m going to give it one more shot. I’m 41. If I don’t do it while I’m 41, I ain’t going to go back there anymore.’
“So I went up to Boston and set up a master’s mile on Harvard’s 220-yard track in conjunction with the Massachusetts indoor state high school meet,” he states. “Stanley Redwine was supposed to help me through the first half mile, but just before the half mile mark he pulled out. I just put my head down and ran. I didn’t quite hear the three-quarter mile split, and the guy said ‘He’s on pace for the record.’
“I didn’t want a record,” he scoffs. “I wanted sub-four! With two laps to go, I just said to myself, ‘Run this second to last lap as fast as you can and the let the last one take care of itself.’ I ended up running 28 for the 7th 220. On the last lap, my legs were gone from underneath me. But the noise from the kids was wild – it was bursting my eardrums. And I basically just ran all the way through the line and I had a feeling that I got it when I hit the tape.”
The time: 3:58.15.
As the first master to break 4:00 in the mile, Eamonn Coghlan had successfully completed his middle distance curtain call. He never raced again.
More than 20 years after his miling encore, Eamonn Coghlan is still around the sport. He comes to New York’s Armory for the Millrose Games every year. Why?
The same reason we all do: he loves track and field. Millrose 2015 was going to be special. The Irishman who worked a lifetime to earn respect in the sport of athletics never gained more than by the composed and gracious way he handled witnessing and celebrating Bernard Lagat’s 3:54.91 mile which took down his nearly 21-year old master’s mile world record.
“To see someone like Bernard come through in my lifetime and the respect he has for indoors, the respect he has for the Wanamaker Mile, the respect he has for the sport – that’s what sport is all about. You cheer for a guy like that,” declares Coghlan in earnest. “I remember as a kid when Glenn Cunningham had 6 Wanamaker Mile victories. And when I was going after my 7th Wanamaker Mile win, I wanted that more than anything else. But it was just that Glenn Cunningham was a pathfinder and if you could go by Glenn Cunningham – wow – that was something special. And I think Bernard respected that – the indoors, the history of the Wanamaker mile. And then to go on at 40 years of age and obliterate the master’s mile record – wow – this is a great guy. I gave him a big hug. Records are made to be broken. But look, I got 21 years as the record holder, the first master to break 4 minutes in the mile. And I’ll always get that.”
Leaving a Legacy
After some coaxing, the 62-year-old Coghlan – whose glorious athletic career left no unfinished business – shares some thoughts on how he would like to be remembered.
“I gave it my all, that’s for sure. I did it honestly. I worked bloody hard. I enjoyed the ride,” offers the Irish middle distance legend. “I had huge amounts of support from my mates all the way throughout my career – my mates both from Villanova and even my club mates who are in the their 60’s now. I sense they have so much pride in what I have achieved. And I think the pride that they express and show when I meet them on a regular basis is nice. And with a laugh, Senator Coghlan – who holds a seat in Ireland’s legislature – adds, “At this stage of my life, it prompts me to reflect, ‘Wow, I must have been good!’
And after a pause, he finishes with a concluding thought, “How I am remembered is whatever way people want to remember me.”
For most, Eamonn Coghlan is – and will be – remembered not only as a world record-setting middle distance champion with a devastating kick initiated with breath-taking acceleration, but also as one of track and field’s most poised and gracious elder statesmen.
Used with permission from RunBlogRun