Hayward Field Flashback: Mary Decker's Improbable 10k World Record

Red ShannonFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2012

1988:  Mary Decker-Slaney leads the women''s 300m during the Seoul Olympics in Seoul, Korea.  Mandatory Credit:  Tony Duffy/Allsport
Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Over the years, Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon has hosted some of the most prestigious track meets in the world.

Multiple U.S. Olympic Trials, USA National Championships, NCAA  conference and national outdoor championships and the notorious Prefontaine Classic have all contributed to the incredible legacy of Hayward's hallowed grounds.

Champions might even give partial credit to that legacy, the sophisticated and supportive Hayward crowds, or the mild Willamette climate in evaluating their exploits there.

But at Hayward, there is another mysterious force embedded within the very soil.

Some call it the Hayward Magic.

Such is the power of that force that even in a casual and insignificant all-comer's track meet—with about 500 fans ringing the track—the unlikely can occur...like a world record.

On July 16, 1982 Mary Decker (Tabb), running on a whim, officially expanded the limits of human performance in the women's 10,000-meter run under the lights at Hayward.

Modern runners, accustomed to a detailed regimen of energy intake, precise training protocol and mandatory pre-race recovery, might be surprised at the unconventional circumstances that precipitated Decker's record run.

Let's take a look back.

The year 1982 had already been golden for Mary Decker. With new husband and training partner, marathoner Ron Tabb, she had re-established her dominance after a year-long recovery from Achilles surgery in 1981.

Many say Decker is the greatest American women's runner ever.
Many say Decker is the greatest American women's runner ever.

In a five-week period in January and February she had set five world indoor bests and established two new outdoor world records in June and July—15:08.26 in the 5k and 4:18.08 in the mile.

After a grueling mid-July tour on the European circuit (including that mile record in Paris), Decker and Tabb decided to return home to Eugene for a three-week hiatus before finishing the Euro-tour in late summer.

On the 16-hour trek home, fellow passenger Alberto Salazar (pondering a future 10k attempt) had speculated on the legitimacy of a potential world record set in one of Oregon Track Club's popular all-comer's meets at Hayward Field.

An obviously fatigued Decker reportedly* asked, "All-comer's meet? You'd want to run that hard in a little all-comer's meet?"

Finally arriving home on a Thursday evening, the Tabbs eventually made it to bed at 1a.m.

Friday morning Decker slept until 11. Then, feeling the effects of jet-lag and soreness, decided to forego her customary morning jog.

An article in the local paper caught her attention. It mentioned a women's 10k would be part of the program at Hayward that evening in OTC's all-comer's meet. 


Mary made some calls and with handler/trainer Dick Brown's consent, she entered the 10,000 with Mary Shea's American record ( 32:52.5) in mind. Earlier in June, Decker had set a new world record in the 5k (15:08.26) on the same track.

Brown informed Decker that the IAAF had confirmed that events at the meet would indeed qualify for record purposes and the two agreed on a pace of 79 seconds per lap—a tall order for the weary warrior, but just quick enough to clip Shea's record.

To add to the intrigue, University of Oregon distance star Eryn Forbes was also in the race—and also planning 79s.

But it was Decker—exhausted and spent from overseas competition and travel—whose feet pulled the magic right up out of that hallowed track.

Almost immediately she burst into the lead, ever increasing, until her pace meshed with that coveted sweet spot, where running becomes relaxed and easy.The laps went by 76, 77, 76, 77.

Running alone, the miles piled up 5:06, 5:07, 5:10, 5:04, 5:06, 5:03

Her husband continued to call out the pace, "77...78...77..."

At the end of the 25th lap—in her first 10k attempt on a flat track—Decker had vaporized Shea's American record, and demolished the world record by 42 seconds in 31:35.3.

And so it was, in the tiny town of Eugene, in a "little" all-comer's meet that Mary Decker gained her third world mark in six weeks and became the fastest American woman of 1982 in every distance from 800m to 10,000m.

And Hayward's track, turf and timbers got a fresh infusion of character and future memories.

Mary Decker (Slaney) still lives near Eugene with husband Richard Slaney.
Mary Decker (Slaney) still lives near Eugene with husband Richard Slaney.

In the tone of a reformed cynic, Decker later remarked, "...maybe Alberto and I could wait a couple of weeks and try another of these neat all-comer's meets. He can do his 10,000 and I'll do the 5000".


Mary Decker's career bests

          1:56.98      Bern             8/16/1985
1500m        3:57.12      Stockholm     7/26/1983
One Mile    4:16.71      Zurich            8/21/1985 
2000m        5:32.7        Eugene          8/03/1984
3000m        8:25.83      Rome             9/07/1985  
5000m       15:06.53     Eugene           6/ 01/1985
10000m      31:35.30    Eugene           7/16/1982

* quotes from:  It Was Just Another Mary Chase  by Kenny Moore in Sports Illustrated, July, 1982

This article also published at Sports Then and Now

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