Training Log: Herb Elliot
Roger Bannister broke four minutes by four tenths of a second in 1954. Six weeks later, John Landy ran 3:58. Three years later, Derek Ibbotson runs 3:57. While the rest of the world is still getting used to shaving tenths of a second off the four minute barrier, Herb Elliot runs 3:54.5. Elliot’s meteoric career lasted only four years, but in those four years he set the mile world record, set the 1500m world record, broke his own 1500m world record en route to winning an Olympic gold medal, and retired utterly undefeated.
Elliot went to Aquinas High School in Australia, where he got great grades, played piano, won prizes for debate and showed an early talent for, though not much interest in, running the mile. In a rare display of ambition, he wrote to John Landy asking for running advice. Landy told him to run for the sake of running and forget about the clock. With those words in his head, Elliot still ran 4:22, then broke his foot, picked up smoking, picked up partying, picked up furniture working for his dad, and forgot— almost entirely— about running until the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
There he watched in awe as Vladimir Kuts won both the 5000m and the 10000m. He cheered his throat raw during the 1500m final, jumped a fence to talk to the winner, Ron Delaney, then— inspired— drove out to Portsea near Melbourne to seek the sagely advice of the eccentric Percy Cerutty.
Cerutty, a wispy-haired, elfin, electron of a man, preached as loudly about lifestyle as he did about athletics. He advocated eating only raw foods, a voracious appetite for classical literature, and constantly seeking one’s limits by seeking and striving against discomfort. Inspired by the snow-covered, arboreal Swedish Fartlek, he scorned regimented training and wove resistance into the environment. Each weekend he had Herb running endless loops of a two-kilometer sandy circuit, battling the open ocean, charging up and down hundred-foot sand dunes, and heaving weights around. Constantly, he’d shout “Be contemptuous of pain, and thrust against it!”
Six weeks later, Elliot ran 4:06 for the mile, setting a junior world record. Then he set a junior world record over 880 yards, ran 4:06 two more times, then 4:04. Now a senior athlete, he won the mile at the 1957 Australian championships in four flat point four. After six months of racing, he went to Perth for the Australian off-season.
In August he returned to Melbourne to resume training. On weekdays, he’d run ten miles at whatever speed he felt— which was usually fast. On weekends, he’d drive out to Portsea to Cerutty’s training camp and subject his body to a gruesome, Spartan tempering. On a diet of raw oats, raw vegetables, and milk, Elliot covered fifty miles over seventy two hours, always barefoot, always on sand, never with a watch, and interspersed with surf-swimming, weight-lifting, and brief naps.
When Elliot returned to the track in January 1958, he promptly broke four for the mile, the youngest runner to do so, won two more miles— both under four— against Australia’s top miler, Merv Lincoln, won two national titles in the 880 and the mile, flew to Honolulu then California for a tour of America, then flew to England for the Empire Games, in which he won the 880 and the mile.
After that, he toured Europe, racing twelve times and winning eleven. He ran the mile four times, each time under four, and set a world record of 3:54 in Dublin. In Gothenburg he set a world record for the 1500m in 3:36. At the end of his 1958 season, he had raced twenty nine times, losing only three times— once over 440 yards, once over 880 yards, and once over two miles.
In 1959 he took it easy, focused on work, got married, trained and raced sparingly, only going under four once. In December he quit smoking to prepare for the Rome Olympics.
By February, he had run a mile in 3:58 and four-flat, then he won the mile and the 880 at the Australian championships. He flew to America and beat Laszlo Tabori, an ex-world record holder, and Jim Grelle, a future American-record holder, then returned to Melbourne to prepare for the Olympics. He emerged from the beach after setting a seven-second personal best on Cerutty’s sandy circuit.
At the Olympics, he won his heat in 3:41, but felt awful. When the gun fired for the 1500m final, he settled into fifth place, feeling tired and breathing too hard. Just after halfway, restless and worried, he bolted. He fled from his opponents, stretching his lead further and further, flying yet thrusting against the pain that consumed him. He sailed through the line, mouth agape, eyes squeezed shut, twenty yards ahead of the pack, in 3:35. In addition to a gold medal, he had also set a world record.
After Rome, he mostly retired. He had a gold medal, a world record, and a perfect record. He had accomplished more in a single race than most athletes could in a career. He knew the work, discomfort and sacrifice required to get in world-beater shape and decided that he had worked, suffered and sacrificed enough already.
Herb Elliot performed remarkably primarily because he was remarkably talented— even as a boy he ran quickly with very little training. After just six weeks of training he set Australian records. His training, however, was also remarkable. Though the sandy circuits and hill repeats resembled Gunder Hagg’s fartleks, Hagg ran five kilometers a day at most; Elliot ran sixteen kilometers a day at least. He lifted large, heavy weights, which wouldn’t come into vogue until Sebastian Coe two decades later.
Most remarkable was Percy Cerutty— arguably the very first sports psychiatrist. Cerutty squawked, shouted, and screamed confidence into his athletes, recognizing that barriers must be broken mentally before physically. “The main thing about Perce is that he coaches your spirit,” Elliot said, “that’s the key to championship running.” Belief, at its most powerful, beats logic every time, and belief can be tempered in the same manner as muscles.
Elliot, by his own admission, did not enjoy hard work. Without the motivation of a world record or a gold medal he could not push himself to the extent that he did. No one except the brash Cerutty could instill the possibility of such feats. Once Elliot accomplished all he set out to do, he recognized that he may get stronger or faster but never tough enough to break away just halfway through an Olympic final, at least not again— he simply didn’t want to. So he retired, the greatest Miler that ever lived.