Monday, October 07, 2013

A Champion Returns

Phil Coppess in full flight finishing third in the Bix 7 in 1985.
Photo by Gene Niemi
1985 Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon champion Phil Coppess stood by the snow fencing separating the runners' finish chute from the spectator areas watching the runners stream past.  In his Iowa sweat shirt and clutching several of the blue tube Medtronic "cheer sticks," presumably for his kids, Coppess was a "kid" again.  Thinking back to that day in 1985 when it all came together for him, when he ran the 2:10:05 that now moves into its 29th year as the men's course record for the marathon.

October 6, 1985 had been a morning similar to October 6, 2013.  Sun shining.  Crisp fall air where you could see your breath.  28 years ago Coppess wasn't thinking about the weather.  He was plotting to run fast.  He'd been setting PRs all during the run up to the Twin Cities race.  "If I'm running this fast for shorter distances, what can I do in the marathon?"  Coppess asked himself then.  He hatched a simple plan.  Run each mile under five minutes.  Keep that up for 26.2 miles.

"Everybody talks about how tough this course is,"  Coppess said.  "The hills at the end, but I was surprised (today, riding in the press trolley that rode in front of the lead runners) how many hills there were early in the race.  I don't remember it being that hilly. I didn't even notice them back then."

Coppess was in "the zone" that October 6 28 years ago.  Eyes on the prize, metronomically ticking off mile after sub five minute miles.  As he came to Cathedral Hill, passed the 26 mile mark, he noticed that his time was just hitting 2:09.  "I thought I've run 57 seconds(for the last quarter) at the end of races, I can run 2:09,"  Coppess said to himself then.  But when he shifted into sprint finish mode, he got a side stitch.  Not bad enough to really put him at risk for having to stop or radically slow down, but probably enough  to add the six seconds that would have dropped his 2:10:05 to a 2:09.59.

It was the only disappointment of the day.  "Fred Lebow, the New York City Marathon race director, was riding on the trolley," Coppess remembers. "He came up to me after the race and said: 'Phil, if you had run Chicago you would have run 2:08.' But that year Steve Jones ran 2:07 in Chicago.  I would have been a minute back"  A mere footnote to another historical mark. Running Twin Cities had been the right choice for him, he said.

It was the final record on a memorable run for Coppess.  He'd set course records on other, shorter distances, that, he says, also still remain unbroken after nearly three decades. It was a magical time.  Like a young Tiger Woods, Coppess collected course records like Woods won golf tournaments. Both were in their prime, enjoying those heady moments in a great athlete's career where you can do no wrong.  Where everything seems effortless.

Dick Beardsley labelled it being "like a kid in a candy store" of his own run of magical marathoning.  Just as it had for Beardsley, running had opened up the world for Coppess, another kid from the Midwest.  For an all too brief time, Coppess was a hot commodity on the road running circuit.  He remembers the course records.  He remembers outkicking a Kenyan, who later would set a world record on the track.  He remembers the kindness of marathon legend Bill Rodgers.

Coppess had been invited to run the Crim 10-mile in Michigan.  He'd never been there.  Didn't know the course.  Didn't know what to do on race morning as he stood in the hotel lobby the morning of the race wondering how he would get to the starting line.  Into the lobby came Rodgers, also on his way to the start. "Bill, how do I get to the race?"  Coppess asked.  No problem, Rodgers told him, it's just a half mile away, we can jog over.

The pair dueled during the race, going side by side until Rodgers began to drop back.  He had a side stitch.  "Come on Bill,"  Coppess said, urging Rodgers to run through the discomfort.  "No, you go on," Rodgers replied.  So, Coppess went solo and as he was nearing the end of the race the spectators along the course would yell out what Coppess thought was "Come on Phil."  Then, he remembers thinking, they don't know me, why are they saying: "Come on Phil?"  And I heard footsteps behind me and it dawned on him that the crowd was not yelling for Phil, but rather Bill.

Rodgers was coming back, stalking Coppess and over the side stitch.  "I was able to hold him off," Coppess recalls with a chuckle of the memory.  It was a heady time.  "I raced a lot because I was running well and I wanted to run faster," said Coppess.  Injuries soon replaced PRs, however, and Coppess could climb no higher.  There are no regrets of the time, just good memories.  Watching this year's race on the trolley brought back many of them.

The ebb and flow of top flight competition.  The top men at this year's TCM battling all 26.2 miles culminating in a stirring finish down the final straight.  Coppess reveled in watching it all transpire as if he were still engaged in the same battle, trying to will one's body to conquer the distance and the competition.  Then the guys from the film crew that accompanied Coppess to the race came by saying it was time to go.

If it all comes together there will be a documentary of Coppess' magical time, maybe even a made for TV movie.  But for today, Coppess returned to that time 28 years ago when he was out on the roads of the Twin Cities leaving a legacy that still remains.  Today, Phil Coppess was that "kid" again and there was a big smile on his face.

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