As yet another winter storm races across the country, canceling thousands of flights and sending panicked shopper out to strip the supermarket shelves bare of bread and milk, I thought back some three decades ago when a similarly stormy winter proved that, at least in the world of track and field, it was indeed an ill wind that blew nobody good.
The occasion was the Vitalis Olympic Invitational, held on the penultimate day of February 1983 at the Brendan Byrne Arena at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. As any historian of the sport can tell you, that was the day the incomparable Eamonn Coghlan, the aptly named Chairman of the Boards, set the world indoor record for the mile, clocking 3:49.78 to become the first man to dip below the 3:50 barrier indoors. But if it hadn’t been for a snowstorm earlier that winter, Coghlan might not have achieved that historic feat, at least not on that day.
The Vitalis meet was one of more than a dozen fixtures on a vibrant, coast-to-coast series of indoor meetings that have now sadly shriveled to less than handful of competitions. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for runners and jumpers to compete in New York on a Friday night, then hop a transcontinental flight and race in San Diego or Los Angeles the next day. Traditionally, the Vitalis meet was held a week or two after the marquee meet of the season, the Wanamaker Millrose Games at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden.
The Vitalis meet was also somewhat unique in that the Byrne Arena, being a bit newer than the Garden or most of the other indoor venues in existence at the time, was a bit more spacious inside and thus could accommodate a 160-meter, 10-laps-to-the-mile track, slightly bigger than the 11-lap-per-mile ovals that were standard elsewhere. In fact, Coghlan himself had a hand in designing the Byrne track, even taking test runs and having the builders tweak it to wring every second of speed out of the blue six-lane citcuit.
In any case, the weekend the Vitalis meet was scheduled the Tri-State area was hit with a massive blizzard that forced postponement of the event. The first time there was an open date on the indoor circuit that also didn’t conflict with basketball or hockey at Byrne was two weeks later, on Sunday, February 27. That was late in the season, and in fact was two days after what was then the Athletics Congress indoor championships at the Garden. But it also proved fortuitous in that most of the major players would be in New York, and at their seasonal peak.
Coghlan ran, and won, the TAC meet on Friday (in those days the “national championship” was open to non-Americans as well), then holed up in a hotel, isolating himself from his family, as he prepared for his assault on the 3:50 mark. He was particularly and personally driven to achieve that goal, as three people who guided and inspired his athletic achievements – his club coach, his college coach, and his father – had all passed away in the past year, his father succumbing to a heart attack just two days after the Millrose meet.
Well the rest, as they say, is history. Coghlan achieved his goal, setting a record that lasted 14 years and is still one of only four sub-3:50 miles run on American soil (here’s a video of the broadcast of the race).
Without a doubt Coghlan was probably the greatest indoor miler in history, a man with a particular penchant and ability to cover the tight tracks of the day with record alacrity. But 31 years ago, he had just a little help from a snowstorm that gave him an extra two weeks of training that might have made all the difference. And if that’s the case, perhaps we can categorize his 3:49.78 as the only indoor record in history that was at least partially wind-aided.