How I Broke The Indoor Mile Record: An Interview With A "Freak"

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Eamonn Coghlan is not too sensitive about the fact that today's twentysomethings were infants when he ran a mile in 3 minutes 49 seconds and 78 hundredths on a 10-lap track—which is to say, a world record—and he doesn't mind that they don't know who he is or what he's done. That's OK. He's pretty diplomatic, now—a work-related hazard of his gig as an Irish senator.

Coghlan, 61 and trim, was one of a string of Irish middle-distance rockets who came out of Villanova (1976). Post-collegiately, he hit the then-vigorous circuit of U.S. track races, tearing around skate park-like banked affairs that, in the 1970s and '80s, were built of plywood.


Here's something you should know about tracks: The smaller the track, the slower the times, because turns slow a runner's pace. A 10-lap-to-a-mile track will cost an elite runner six or seven seconds over an eight-lap oval, the standard indoor size now. Four-lap-to-a-mile outdoor tracks are faster still, so outdoor records are nearly always faster than those set on an indoor track.

Here's something you should know about Coghlan: He's a freak. His indoor times, some run on a dizzying 11-lap bathtub, are faster than his outdoor times. He owned the indoor wood in the glory days of that element, ergo his lifetime appointment as "Chairman of the Boards."


Cut to the present, in which runnerkind Galen Rupp is toppling track records left and right. Trained by the Nike Oregon Project's Alberto Salazar, Rupp set the American indoor record at 5K (13:01.26) and two miles (8:07.41) within a span of nine days earlier this year. Which is pretty good. But what has track fans' underpants in a wad is that, not only did he reportedly train through these races, but minutes after the record-setting efforts, Rupp skipped over to a practice track and laid down a workout of five times a mile in 4:21, 4:20, 4:20, 4:16, and the last, a you're-not-in-Kansas-anymore 4:01. This, at a time when the other competitors were sitting on the toilet with quivering legs. And now the Rupp-Salazar duo is making noise about breaking the indoor mile world record of 3:48.45, currently owned by Hicham El Guerrouj.

So I emailed Coghlan to see what his training was like prior to his record-setting mile in 1983, and whether it included a post-race workout a la Rupp. His email response was: "I'd never consider doing something stupid like 5 x mile, last one in 4:01, after a race unless I had some extra octane up my.... you know what!"

Later, I spoke with the Chairman of the Boards via phone.

It's unusual that your indoor times are faster than your outdoor times. Why is that?


I had consistent success indoors, so I pursued times, and records. Outdoors, my focus was on winning rather than time.

And why do you think you had such success on indoor tracks? Wait, how tall are you?


I used to be 5-foot-10.

I'd heard that smaller runners had an easier time getting around the turns indoors.


I don't know about that but from the very first day as a freshman at Villanova when we assembled the 11-lap track, there was something about it I loved—the smell of it, the echo, the bounce. I loved that feeling I got back from the wood. I would lean very low around the turn and let my momentum catapult me into the straight.

Who was your coach?

Gerry Farnan. He was my coach from the time I was 12 years old in Ireland, then after Villanova he commenced coaching me again.


Tell me about the build-up to your world-record performance, February 27, 1983.

I was out the whole of 1982 with injury, to the point that Gerry thought perhaps my career was over. If I ran over 100 miles a week, I was inviting injury. After eight months, I got radiation therapy and it got rid of the Achilles problem, so I started back up at no more than 80 miles per week. When I'd had 20 weeks of consistent training with no injury, I had the confidence to go for the indoor mile world record. Ran a few road races—5Ks, 10Ks—in November and December to build stamina. I did a long run on Sunday of 15 to 20 miles. In December and January, I trained five to six miles every morning. Tuesday afternoon was six times 1,200 meters in 3:03 with five-minute rest. Thursday was 20 times 400 meters in 59 seconds each with one-minute rest. Eventually that was reduced 10 times 400 in 55 seconds with 2 minutes rest.


Was this training common? Were other runners doing this?

Oh yeah, everybody was doing it. Each runner tailored it to his personal preference but at the end of the day, it wasn't much different.


Hmmm, I wonder why your result was different?

I was a bit of a freak I guess.

I'm starting the rumor you were juiced.

Yeah, juiced on Budweiser [laughing].

OK, continue.

So I started the indoor season [January 1983] and was very fit, running very well. I set the world record, 3:52.6, in San Diego, then lowered it to 3:50.6 and was disappointed because I hadn't broken 3:50—that was a big barrier. Anyway, I call up my dad and invite him to come to the U.S. to watch me run in New York in February, which he did. Two days later, my dad passed away [from a heart attack], and I flew back to Ireland with his body. Within the past year, the three people who inspired me the most—Gerry Farnan, my coach at Villanova, Jumbo Elliott, and my father—had all passed away. I became driven to break 3:50 in the mile, I was going to do it to honor them.


I went back to New York, ran a mile in Madison Square Garden on Friday night, 3:57, and won it. The U.S. Olympic Invitational was scheduled for Sunday afternoon at Meadowlands. That was a 10-lap track—I helped design it.

So you raced Friday night and again Sunday afternoon?

Oh yeah, it was common to run Friday night in San Diego and Saturday night in another city. Not 15 minutes or an hour apart, but 24 hours apart—yeah, it was common enough. So Friday night after the race at Madison Square Garden, I locked myself away in a hotel, away from my family. I wanted to focus. I wrote the splits I wanted to hit and put them in my shoe.


You put a piece of paper in your shoe?

No, no, I wrote them on the insole of the shoe. I know, sounds stupid but that's the kind of superstition I had. Another thing I did: I look at myself in the mirror and say, "You sucker, you better not come back here not having broken that record. Go do it." And I'd leave the room.


Ross Donohue, a teammate of mine at NYAC, was the rabbit. I got right in behind him and just kept repeating my mantra: relax, relax, relax. I went through the half in 1:56 and thought, If these suckers are going to beat me, they're going to have to work for it. I didn't hear the ¾ split, I just kicked my ass off. I knew there was someone on my tail because the crowd was going crazy. I was not taking anything for granted, ran as fast as I bloody well could. I knew in my heart and soul I got the record, even though the announcer was yelling, "It's unofficial." It was the first sub-3:50 mile in history, in the last race of the season. I was so excited and delighted, as they say in Ireland, that the cool down didn't happen.

It was 14 years before Hicham El Guerrouj broke your record—why do you think it took so long?


El Guerrouj ran 3:48 on an eight-lap track, Mondo surface. Eight laps to a mile is an awful lot faster than 10. I was probably just a freak—I loved the tight turns of the 10-lap track, like a Ferrari racing car. If I had run on an 8-lap track, who knows what I could have done.

What do you mean by, you wouldn't try Galen Rupp's post-race workout regimen "without some extra octane up your …"?


Jesus, I don't even know Galen Rupp—I'm removed from the inner sanctum of track now—but I don't think for one minute he's doing something illegal. But why in god's name would you do five times a mile after a race? How would anyone have the strength to do that? I just question the sanity of it. The race is the race, the warm down is the warm down. After a race, I was getting ready for next hard workout. Sometimes that would be the next day, but certainly not minutes or an hour afterward. The thinking back then was to save your best for the race: When you complete your mission, you save yourself for the next hard workout.

Would you have gotten injured doing such an intense workout right after a race?

I would. Jeez, you've just put your body through, what, 13:01 for 5,000 meters—why put it through any more? I'd be afraid of breaking down.


But athletes are more pampered now, and by that I mean they have incredible facilities with underwater treadmills and AlterG's, the food they eat, ice baths, massages. Everything for training and recovery is available to them, and they're thinking about it 24 hours a day, maximizing their support mechanism in everything they do. Our post-race meal was beer. Back then, we had a blasé approach to what you did in between workouts and races. Of course, I never ran 13:01 for 5K. The thinking is different now. Athletes and coaches see the race as part A and the post-race workout as part B, and that their support facilities will help them recover.

Galen Rupp is talking about breaking the indoor mile world record—what are your thoughts on that?


I think the indoor mile record should fall. It's soft. It was set in 1997. In the context of times people are running now, it's a golden opportunity for the likes of Galen Rupp or someone else. I mean, El Guerrouj holds both the indoor and outdoor mile [3:43] records. If El G could do it ... of course, they're testing more now. You can read between the lines on that.

Sarah Barker writes and runs in St. Paul, Minn. Photo via Getty.