The Amazing Herb Elliott
Led by a fanatic and driven by private furies, Australia's fantastic Miler finds solace and satisfaction in pushing himself beyond endurance: "All I want to do is win."
By Don Connery, Sports Illustrated
On a primeval, wind-swept beach at Portsea, a curling tongue of scruffy Cape Cod land 60 miles south of Melbourne, a slender Australian clerk with a Dick Tracy nose and a tanned body of sinewy steel sprints a final hundred yards and slumps to the golden sand. Dragging in his footsteps like the exhausted survivors of a desert march come a boilermaker, shoemaker, architect, draftsman and a panting Dalmatian.
Catching his breath after the chill morning's 14-mile gallop down a sandy road, round and round the rolling Portsea golf course and along the broad beach, the leggy clerk revives suddenly. He kicks off his trunks and moldy track shoes, and plunges into the frigid waters of the Bass Strait. The others follow dazedly and thrash with him in the foaming breakers. Then he leads them, clothing in hand, in a naked single file through a forest of looming, unruly sand dunes. At the largest dune, he grunts at the 60° slope, then alone churns up the grueling 80 feet. (On another day, more refreshed, he had mounted the dune a record 42 times in succession.) Muscles now worked to the limit, he leads the troupe of young athletes through scrub and roots and over barbed-wire fences to a clapboard, "ski hut" surrounded by rusty barrels, empty paint cans and orange peels. They dart into a cold shower, then collapse into bunks and sleeping bags. But within half an hour, as if someone had turned on the juice, the clerk is up again. Refueling on raw carrots, cabbage, brown bread, cheese and milk, he cuts around the stunted tea trees to a grove marked "muscle tougheners" and begins hefting barbells and heavy slabs of rail.
Thus does Herbert James Elliott (far left), 20, world's fastest man, owner of the world Mile and 1500 meter track records and already preserved in wax at Madame Tussaud's, work off the problems and frustrations of success with deliberate tortures of the body. A man who seems to find in prolonged and superhuman effort the isolation from the public and private furies which possess him, Elliott is the prototype of the modern super-athlete who seems destined to go far beyond the limits of what hitherto has been considered tolerable for the human physique. For him, this Saturday morning workout was only the beginning of two grinding days of running and exercising at a fitness fanatic's homemade commando course. For four days during the work week, resting only on Friday, he had lifted weights and run 10 miles every day through Melbourne's abundant parks. Now he would run some 50 miles over the weekend before hacking off his brief beard and returning, in his gray Austin, to the Monday morning files and adding machines of the finance department, Shell Chemical (Aust.) Pty. Ltd. His next race was months away—not until February next year. He would not run abroad until March. But Herb Elliott acted as if tomorrow were already here.
"Too many runners make the mistake," he says, "of thinking their hard training should begin when the racing season starts. But now is the time of year when they should really be training hardest. When the season is on, I just relax and do a little jogging."
Herb Elliott is an amateur athlete, but his approach to running is strictly professional. Under the verbal lash of his flamboyant coach-conditioner, 63-year-old Percy Cerutty, Elliott has whipped himself into the most relentless running machine in the world. From his first bowlful of dry John Bull oats, bananas, raisins and nuts in the morning to his five more pages of H. G. Wells's monumental (1,200 pages) Outline of History before lights out, Elliott leads the "Stotan" life of sacrifice and self-reliance that Cerutty preaches from the examples of Stoics and Spartans. The object is to burn the legs off every middle-and long-distance front-runner in the world.
The results are impressive. A schoolboy-athlete hero and now barely out of his teens, Elliott, in the less than two years since giving up an aimless, easygoing life in his native Perth, has swept across the track world like a Hun. "I wouldn't exactly say I have the killer instinct," he says. "It's just that I don't like to lose." He rarely has lost any race, and never his specialty, the glamour run: The Mile.
With scarcely six weeks of furious training under Cerutty after a year of inactivity, 18-year-old Elliott ran nine spectacular races in January and February 1957. He broke the Junior (under 19) Mile world record his first time out, in 4 minutes, 6 seconds, and soon broke that down to 4:04.4. He emerged with a bagful of Australian Junior records: 800 meters, 880 yards, 1500 meters, Mile, 3000 meters, 2 miles and 3 miles. At least three—the Mile, the 2 and 3 mile—were, and are, Junior world records. Turning 19 in late February last year, Elliott in his first senior race came within a hair of cracking the 4-minute barrier with a sizzling 4:00.4. Two days later he took the Australian 880-yard (half-mile) record from John Landy with a 1:49.3, simultaneously setting a new Australian record for 800 meters with a 1:48.6.
This year, Elliott, twice running sub-4 minute Mile races (3:59.9 and 3:58.7) within a week's time in Melbourne, went on to stage the most awesome display of personal prowess in track history. In 29 races, from Toowoomba (near Brisbane) to Oslo, Elliott lost only three—at 440 and 880 yards, and at 2 miles—and won all 12 of his Mile races. He ticked off an unprecedented 10 sub-4s and bagged the 1500 meter and Mile world records with the stunning times of 3:36.0 and 3:54.5. In a year notable for astonishing performances, broken records and the total demolition of the 4-minute barrier, Elliott was clearly the driving force.
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