88. The Perfect Race – Sebastian Coe, Florence 1981

sebastian-coe-ovett-cram-olympics-los-angeles-1984-london.jpg“World records are only borrowed” – Sebastian Coe

How do you define the perfect race ? Personal best ? Even pace ? High-placed finish ?

If, like me, you run races at different distances, then they can be hard to compare.

How can you measure your best ever marathon against your fastest 5 km ? They are such totally different challenges, with one run so much more slowly than the other.

Fortunately, there are rules and equations to tell you which of your races, run at any distance, represent your best performances. Here’s a calculator which works out just that.

The calculators are certain that the half marathon is my best distance. And that’s largely true – for some reason, I can run 13.1 miles at virtually the same pace as I can 10, hardly any slower even than I can run that breathless torture which forms a 10 km race. As for my marathon times, well, they turn out quite a bit slower than predicted from my half marathon best.I knew this already, of course. Sometimes I train better than others, but it’s hard to change the basics. I haven’t much speed, and I need a good distance to get going at all. But once I finally get the machine running, I can cruise fairly comfortably for 20 miles or more, before finally the outdated engine starts to misfire and I begin to suffer. Yes, that’s me, a bit of a one-paced runner, with a fairly well-defined distance limit.

And my best ever race ? Yes, it was a half marathon at Bath in 2003. 1:47:22.

But I know it’s not true. I can tell you right now that my best race wasn’t a half marathon at all, nor even a marathon. Actually, it was the Great Manchester Run 10 km, a year ago this week. According to the calculators, my run of 49:51 on that sunny morning equated to a pretty mediocre half marathon time, a performance nothing out of the ordinary. But the reality as I felt it was completely different – a new city, a wonderful day, an even pace, set fast and held on to as hard as I could. Nothing left behind on the road, not even one stride. Whatever very limited potential I have for the 10 km, I realised it on that day.

That race was an ambition fulfilled. Sometimes it’s time on the clock which counts, and sometimes it’s the pure satisfaction of a well-run race which counts even more.

I might have been a faster runner, twenty years ago, but in those days I spent my time watching athletics rather than running myself. There was plenty to watch, and lots to talk about. The whole country was split at that time, and maybe we’re still split now. You were either one or the other, and it just wasn’t possible to be both. Either you were a fan of Steve Ovett, or you found yourself cheering for Sebastian Coe.

You see, in those two runners, Britain had the two best middle distance athletes of an era. They were both incredible runners, but they couldn’t have been more different.

First there was Ovett, the grafter, the ruthless planner, the supreme tactician. The attributes and character of a champion, marrying individual flair with a combative attitude which sometimes seemed sullen off the track, but proved devastating on it.

And then there was Coe. The most complete athlete, whose running was always measured in a mastery of speed, combined with lethal injections of pace and a lyrically pure and graceful style. A character which was defined by a supreme self-confidence and belief, so much so that at times it seemed to test even the limits of arrogance.

They rarely raced each other during the years when both were at their peak, but when they did, you couldn’t be shouting for both. For me, then, it was Coe. Whether I’d still fall into the same group now, I don’t know, but back then I wasn’t able to appreciate the less classical but subtler gifts and more complex character which lay within Ovett. To me, then, Coe simply had the edge as the greater athlete. Others would disagree, even now, and it always made for fierce debate.

As a tactician, Coe was occasionally lacking, as shown by his agonised defeats in two Olympic 800 m finals first to Ovett, and then to Joaquim Cruz. For the best 800 m runner in the world, these were devastating setbacks, but on each occasion he made up for them with wonderful victories carved out of sheer determination in the 1500 metres which followed.

Those gold medal races, in Moscow in 1980, and then most memorably in the sun-drenched evening glow of the art deco stadium of Los Angeles in 1984, were the highest pinnacles of an outstanding athletics career. Perhaps indeed they were some of the defining moments of Olympic competition, as well as of British sport.

But neither of those days – nor even the superbly executed Moscow 800 m won by Ovett to Coe’s silver in 1980 – none of them could ever really be termed a perfect race.

It wasn’t an Olympic year. It wasn’t even in a major championship. But one night in Florence, on 10th June 1981, Sebastian Coe ran that perfect race. He lined up there, he says, because he had always liked Italy, and he rather fancied running on a warm Italian night. As if he’d just turned up to enjoy a pleasant evening run.

Maybe that’s how it was. However hard it is, really to believe that it was like that, who can say whether sheer will and concentration are the true secrets of ultimate performance ? Or whether it’s only through a relaxed attitude and freeing of the mind that we can unlock the keys to an entirely different level of experience and attainment ?

Whichever it was, and I suspect it was the latter, Coe found a trance-like state in Florence that night. A night when he ran faster than he had ever run, than anyone ever had before, and faster than anyone would run, anywhere, for a very long time to follow.

For this inauspicious evening in Tuscany proved the moment when Coe would produce what may be the greatest track performance of all time. It was a harder world record to beat now, a much higher level to reach than it had been, since Coe had already beaten Alberto Juantorena’s previous best in 1979, when he’d lowered the mark by over a second. But he was undeterred. After a blistering first lap of 49.60 seconds, even the implausible achievement of a sub-1:40 seemed almost possible, just for a moment.

Mere mortality intervened, as it was bound to, but only just. Even Coe’s ‘slower’ second lap of 52.13 would still have been good enough, if run twice, to have won Olympic gold at the 800 m in Moscow the year before.

If that was slowing down, then it certainly wasn’t anything you could detect whilst watching. I’ve only seen the footage a couple of times since that day, but it made a lasting impression. Power and speed, just relentlessly effortless speed, gliding through the curves, and holding on, though tiring, almost right to the line itself.

That final time of 1:41:73 bettered Coe’s own best by six-tenths of a second. In less than two years, this one athlete had reduced the world record by a staggering 1.71 seconds. He’d run the distance over thirteen metres faster than any man had before. It was an enormous achievement, the greatest run of a great career. But the proof of that run, and just how good it was, came though the years to follow. A world record which stood for an incredible sixteen years, before being first equalled in Stockholm, and then finally beaten in Zürich and Köln by Wilson Kipketer, all in 1997.

Athletics has evolved beyond all recognition since the days of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. Training methods, coaching, nutrition, shoes, sponsorship, money. The sport and indeed the whole world have changed.

And yet, as of today, almost twenty four years later, do you know who still holds the mark as the second fastest 800 m runner of all time, in the third fastest race ever ? Yes, it’s Sebastian Coe. On 10th June, 1981. On a warm summer’s night, an evening when he’d just felt like a run in Italy.

That night in Florence, when Sebastian Coe ran the perfect race.

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7 responses to “88. The Perfect Race – Sebastian Coe, Florence 1981

  1. Thanks, Roads. This article sort of keeps alive Seb Coe’s reign as one of the greatest athletes of all time.

  2. That’s great, Dean – world records may fade with time, but true sporting legends continue to grow as the years pass.

    And thanks for dropping by.

  3. Just a note to highlight the addition of video footage from this remarkable race, with some typically understated commentary by David Coleman. He wasn’t to know that this World Record would stand for over 16 years.

    There are several more related clips up on YouTube, including the Olympic 1500m final from Los Angeles in 1984.

    There is also film of two world records for the Mile run by Sebastian Coe at the Brussels and Zürich meetings in August 1981.

    Those two races were just nine days apart. The motivation for a second attempt at the distance was clear, since Steve Ovett had stolen the record back in Koblenz during the brief time in between.

    It was quite a year for athletics.

  4. To be fair to Coe, in Los Angeles at age 27 he was simply beaten by a much younger man of 21 and had nothing to do with poor tactics – he was no longer top gun at 800m but was to prove a handful of days later that he still was at 1500m (and that’s from a lifetime Ovett fan who these years later loves them both equally).

  5. Was this the “Stadio “Luigi Ridolfi” track in Florence, Italy?
    There is no reference to the actual track where Coe
    ran his run and it needs to be documented before it’s forgotten
    and rendered to just a Florence track? Thank you.

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