The setting for last Saturday's Pepsi Invitational at UCLA's Drake Stadium was right out of a Westwood Chamber of Commerce brochure. The sky was blue and cloudless, the temperature a balmy 82°, the wind a mild two meters per second. But as some of the finest 400-meter runners of the new outdoor season dug into the starting blocks, they wished for more. Ideally, it would have been cooler, windless and 7,349 feet above sea level. They would have preferred conditions, in other words, to be the way they had been for Lee Evans in Mexico City in 1968. On that perfect day Evans ran the 400 in 43.86 seconds, within minutes of Bob Beamon's 29'2½" long jump. Those world records are the oldest in track and field, and the world has come about as close to Beamon as to Evans in the years since. One or more of the men at UCLA hoped to change that, if not today, soon. They also had their sights on Alberto Juantorena's sea-level world record of 44.26.
Five of the nine in the field had run in the 44s, including 22-year-old Darrell Robinson. Chuck DeBus, his coach, felt that Robinson had the speed to surpass Juantorena. "He went 20.41 in the 200 at Mount San Antonio College three weeks ago," DeBus said. "He's ready. We want that record today." So did the other under-45ers: Gabriel Tiacoh, Antonio McKay, Michael Franks and Innocent Egbunike.
The gun sounded. Through the first 200 no one was faster than Robinson, in Lane 2, who singed the distance in 21.4. Yet no one had lost touch with him. "My god," thought DeBus. "He's on schedule for Evans!"
If Robinson could only hold.... If he could turn the final 200 in 22.4.... But he is a little thin, in body and experience, to be the 400-meter master just like that. He hadn't run a 400 competitively since last September. Coming off the final turn, he lost ground to Andre Phillips, in Lane 1.
May 25, 1986
It is in the final 50 meters of the 400 that the race is won. That's where the power of Evans's body and the force of his will enabled him to hold off Larry James, who finished inches behind him in 43.97. Robinson held his form as best he could, but up on his outside shoulder came Tiacoh of Washington State University by way of Paris and Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Tiacoh was rolling now, his head thrown back and lolling to the left. His chunky thighs and arms churned a la Evans, while a great smile inexplicably blessed his face. This is where the 400 hurts. What could be so funny? "I don't know," Tiacoh said. "It's crazy, I guess. It's just how I run best."
"He came and got me so fast," said Robinson. "He put a move on me with 50 to go, and I said, 'Lord, what have I gotten myself into?' "
Fast company, Darrell. Tiacoh won in 44.32, the third-fastest 400 ever run at sea level. Robinson finished in 44.45, a personal record. Phillips, ordinarily an intermediate hurdler, clocked 44.71. In Lane 6, Egbunike had a 44.82, good for fourth place. McKay was fifth in 45.02, .31 off his PR. Franks, ranked No. 1 in the world in '85 at 44.47, was eighth.
"It's just a matter of time before the 43.86 goes," said Tiacoh, the silver medalist at the '84 Olympics behind Alonzo Babers of the U.S. (McKay won the bronze). But he had to be told five times that he had really run 44.32, a PR by .22. "It's crazy, a time like that this early in the season," he said. "It tells me that if we get a field like this five more times, someone will get it."
There has been talk of getting Evans's record for 18 years. But the specter of the ungainly Evans defying time and form and the shadows in Mexico City endures. There is the matter of altitude. Is it impossible to run that fast at sea level? "I don't think so," said Tiacoh, a senior at WSU. "It was the Olympic final. The man let it out. But the man ran on earth. There are 10 men in America who could do it. It could be McKay. I looked up in the first turn, and that boy was gone."
McKay won all of the indoor 400s that he ran in 1986. "I'm elated with 45.02," he said. "My fiancée [Trinna Cheeks] just delivered our daughter on Wednesday. And I just got back from Japan."
"I fear McKay more than anyone," said DeBus. DeBus made his name as a women's coach at Cal State-Northridge and with the Naturite Track Club. Now he works with the Los Angeles and Mazda track clubs and coaches several men, including Willie Banks, the world record holder in the triple jump. He began coaching Robinson last year. "I'd heard Darrell wanted a women's coach. He and I got together because it hadn't worked for him with other coaches."
Other coaches often aren't sure what to make of Darrell's winsome manner. Robinson went to high school in Tacoma, Wash, and in 1982 set the world junior record of 44.69 in Indianapolis, reducing the previous record of 45.04. Winsome that. He made a brief stop at the University of Houston in the fall of '82, but left after one semester because the sprint coach who had recruited him resigned and went to the University of Washington. The next fall Robinson enrolled at Washington, where he stayed until January '85. Now he's a senior music major at UCLA, where he seems happier, athletically and socially. Robinson comes at you like vintage Little Richard. He wears six earrings, one that dangles, his eyebrows are plucked and he has a coif Michael Jackson would die for.
"Darrell is a very independent person," says DeBus. "Very few people have been willing to spend the time necessary to develop him. I try to understand. He's an artist, almost an ethereal person. He marches to a different drummer. To me, gifted people have the right to be eccentric. As his coach, you learn tolerance."
DeBus certainly tolerates what Robinson does to time and distance. Good Golly, Miss Molly, he's fast. "I kill the 200—20.41," Robinson said lightly. "But I want to run the 400. It's more...interesting."
"We want the big 43.8, but we may have to go to altitude to get a chance this century," said DeBus, who plans to enter Robinson in the BYU Last Chance qualifying meet in Provo, Utah this weekend. So Robinson will run his next 400 at 4,500 feet.
"You have to intend to run the 400," says John Smith, a former 440-yard master who now works with Henry Thomas and Danny Everett of UCLA. "The 400 is run with patience. You have to trust your inner clock. Run it right, and you die a little. It's a test of faith."
Faith might have been the difference between a sea-level record and second place for Robinson. Tiacoh had more faith—and more strength. "It's a speed race first," DeBus insisted. True. But it's a gut buster last. "I was nervous today, real nervous," said Robinson. "Everyone in this race was basically fearless. I lost it mentally. But that 43.8. It's going to go. It needs to be 10° cooler. And on a little harder surface. Somebody will get it."
Robinson tossed his head. "Only in America," he said. He turned to Tiacoh and smiled. "C'mon, let's have some fun," he said. "Let's take a lap." As gracefully as he could, Tiacoh declined. He'd had his lap for the day.