Running Writing ©
No. 16    November 1998
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Herb Elliott
• by Brian Lenton •

•  The Herb Elliott athletic immortality rests on two key aspects. Firstly, the ultimate performance where you won an Olympic gold medal in a world record by the greatest margin in the history of Olympic 1500 metre competition. Secondly, your unbeaten competitive record over 1500 metres and the mile as both a junior and senior athlete. Do you find both these aspects equally satisfying or would you regard one as more important?

Probably the one that is most different is the unbeaten record. There have been many people who have won Olympic gold medals in a world record. Would it be hundreds? My 1960 Rome performance was certainly not as remarkable as people think it was. However, to go through an athletic career undefeated is unique or very close to it. Looking back unemotionally and statistically over my career that would have to stand out.

Still that's an academic type statement and undoubtedly the excitement and personal satisfaction of winning an Olympic gold medal in an excellent time is a very pleasing experience. However on the day itself there's just a tremendous sense of relief. The feeling of winning a gold medal is almost anti-climactic. It's the only race that I ever ran in where I can remember letting out a huge sigh on hitting the line and it wasn't an exhalation of breath but an utter expression of relief that the pressure had been removed. That's the thing I recall most of all in winning the 1500 metres. Strangely enough I also felt a tremendous sense of patriotism when the flag went up on the mast. That was a great moment.

I can remember some very personal friends of mine who were in Rome at the time taking my wife, Anne, and I out to dinner. We were all tired and it was really a flat evening. There wasn't any popping of champagne corks or wild celebration party. It was just a very quiet sort of night, almost an anti-climax. I suppose you don't realise how much the pressure builds up for these sorts of events until you suffer the relapse afterwards. You then suddenly appreciate how much you've put into it. Rome was certainly the most satisfying single event of my athletic career.

•  Any recollections of your sporting days at Aquinas College in Perth during the early 1950s?

Well I participated in everything I possibly could. I was captain of the school's hockey team and we won the Grand Final for a couple of years. In Australian Rules Football I made the second grade team. There was the first rowing eight, the athletic and cross country team and the rifle shooting team. So I had a wide range of sporting activities and enjoyed every single one of them.

I think if I'd become a specialist athlete at that particular stage I would have got awfully bored and never gone on to senior ranks. Certainly one of the messages I give the kids these days is: 'For God's sake do what you enjoy and don't get too serious about it.' You can have that attitude and approach to athletics until you're about eighteen years of age and still go on to become a world class performer. You can't in swimming which I think is to the disadvantage of that sport.

I just remember enjoying all sport in my schooldays. I knew that I had some special ability in running but I wasn't very confident of it. In a middle distance race on the track I knew I could get near the front of a field. Yet, I ran some cross country races at school where I was well and truly done. Sometimes I'd place 1Oth or 12th up to half a mile behind the leaders.

•  What was the effect of that first meeting with Percy Cerutty in late 1955?

From the first time I met Percy he excited me as a person. I found him believable, which a lot of people, particularly on first meeting him, didn't find so. I'm not sure whether it was a blending of personalities or minds but the way he spoke appealed to me. I could feel it stir ambitions in me that must have been already there somewhere. Percy lead the ability to fan them up from a dormant spark into something a lot stronger. I always respected, listened to, learned from and loved Percy. My association with him was thoroughly enjoyable. He was an extraordinary man.

I’ve got no doubt that the meeting with Percy at Aquinas College made me aware of the significance of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games and the challenge of winning an Olympic medal. If you like, that meeting pre-selected me to decide to give it a go, with the inspiration of Vladimir Kuts the final link in the chain.

If you see a fight in the street or at a football match it does something to your insides. It stirs you and brings out all those primitive aggressions and fear-type responses that we all experience. It might be horror but you can't not react to it. The aggressive way in which Kuts dealt with Gordon Pirie in the 10,000 metres affected me tremendously.

•  Sometimes people suggest that it wouldn't have mattered who advised or coached you. The gold medals, world records and your unblemished competitive streak would have happened anyway. How do you assess Percy’s contribution to your athletic achievements?

People who make those comments wouldn't know what they were talking about. I think individuals who say they don't need a coach or consider that having a coach is a weakness just don't understand themselves or human nature. Human beings, God bless them, are weak. People like myself who are successful in the field of athletics are supposed to have iron wills and all that sort of stuff but it's simply not true. lt's part of the beast that as you grow society and our parents in particular draw attention to the things that we do wrongly and are inadequate in, and take for granted the things we are good in. This develops an acute awareness in all of us of our weaknesses.

I was aware of all my weaknesses during my athletics career. There were times when Cerutty was there as my strength when I was weak and also other occasions when the situation was reversed. It was really quite a partnership. We had an excellent relationship and if Percy hadn't been there at the time I would be quite content to say that my career wouldn’t have developed in the way it did.

Percy and I had a complete sort of empathy of minds. When he started to say something I’d know after the first couple of words the point he was trying to make. I'd understand it, feel it, be able to respond to it, and vice versa. It was just one of those peculiar tricks of fate that I met Percy and certainly his contribution to my development as a champion athlete was an invaluable and integral part of it. It wouldn't have happened without him.

•  Could you describe a typical weekend at Percy Cerutty’s camp at Portsea, Victoria?

There would be two types of typical weekends at Portsea - one was the intimate type and the other was very crowded and hectic. The former would be in the middle of winter with Percy, his wife Nancy, maybe one of his daughters and perhaps a couple of athletes only. They were quiet weekends with Percy philosophising, talking about art, beauty, love, strength and all the things that Percy liked discussing. We'd be running in very peaceful environments with trees just dripping moisture. It was tremendously strengthening from a physical, mental and spiritual point of view.

Usually we'd get down there on a Friday night, have a meal, and then talk until 10.30 or 11.00pm. The next morning we'd be up early and maybe go for a five mile run. It was usually with the intention of just loosening up but inevitably you'd start pushing yourself. Consequently it would always end up being a hard effort whether you ran alone or with someone else.

At lunchtime you may or may not do a bit of track work. It depended on what Percy was doing and your own mood. In the afternoon you might put in half an hour with weights or something like that and about 5pm you'd have your heavy session for the day in which you might belt out ten miles. That would be basically it - nothing special.

Every now and then you'd chuck in a sandhill or finish one of your runs through the sand dunes. There was an eighty foot sandhill with a one in two gradient for hill repetitions and two solid training courses amongst the sand and ti-tree called the Hall and Stewart Circuits. Both were named after athletes who Percy had admired.

Of course during the crowded weekends in summer the intimacy would go out of it. The dining room would be full of athletes and Percy would be involved in looking after them. At those times it was a change of running environment.

•  Did you have a key principle or golden rule of training?

I believe you must train intensely. There's been a tendency these days to be overawed by the scientific explanations of why long slow running or interval training is the answer. Both are probably physiologically and biologically defensible but what they neglect is the spiritual and mental side of a person. If you emphasise the physical side of training you may become superbly conditioned but mentally not advanced at all. On the other hand, if you concentrate on the mental aspect it is inevitable that the physical side will follow.

My golden rule is to train for the mental toughness and don't train for the development. I used to have one day off a week but four of my other six runs would be excruciatingly intense and challenging. About half-way in each of the runs your body would be telling you to ease off, slow down or even stop and you've got to confront and grapple with that challenge.

Throughout my athletic career I'd wake in the morning and think: 'Oh God, I've hard training session tonight' and I'd work all day dreading the thought. Sometimes I'd and say to myself: 'Bugger it, I'll have an easy run'. But inevitably something inside made me run it hard anyway.

There's been a tendency to move away from the tenacity and intensiveness in training and I think anyone who does train that way will have an incredibly distinct mental advantage over someone who doesn't.

•  How would your approach to training translate over a year in terms of total mileage and types of session for an aspiring miler?

You would start off with a conditioning period of around six months where the emphasis is on building strength and stamina. A potential miler would be doing about seventy miles a week. The athlete can do the occasional twenty miles or even more, but at least three-quarters of the training runs should be flat out and very exhausting.

I once did a solid 33 mile training run from Portsea to Frankston. At least it makes you appreciate that the suffering in a mile or 1500 metres only lasts a few minutes. Again though, these very long runs should be the exception rather than the rule. A fast and exhausting five to ten miler is preferable to a twenty miler at a comfortable pace.

During the next period of maybe three months it's necessary to convert that acquired strength and stamina into the speed necessary to sustain top class racing performances. You might include one or two interval and sprint-type sessions at a track at this stage. Total mileage could be down to 40-50 miles a week.

In the racing season of three months or so it is necessary to greatly reduce the quantity of training. Racing is the best form of training anyway. It's hard to be prescriptive about schedules at this time because a lot will still be high quality in terms of intensity.

•  Percy Cerutty was probably years ahead of his time in some of his ideas on food and diet. To what extent were you influenced by these ideas while you were at Portsea and subsequently?

Again, the press gave people the wrong impression about our diet. Only yesterday I spoke at this Alcoa Athletic Camp and a girl came up to me afterwards and started talking about vegetarianism. She was utterly amazed to find out I am not and never have been a vegetarian. Somehow or other the press gave the impression that I was a chain smoker, a heavy drinker and a vegetarian. What a mixture!

We ate utterly normal food at Portsea with the possible exception of muesli which now everybody eats anyway. We used to have that before it was even talked about in Australia and people thought it was very odd. The Managing Director of Quaker Oats thought we were bloody fantastic..

Apart from muesli, it was just a sensible diet. I don't think Nancy had ever heard about the five different categories of food. However, she served up, just as my mother had always done, a good balance of fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and breads. That was all we had and every Australian can also if they want to.

•  How crucial is weight training for a distance runner?

It's very important. Many distance runners have a standard build of a bony looking chest with absolutely no muscle, which sits on a fine pair of legs. They have this long, drawn out appearance. For that sort of person weight training is essential. They need to build up good pectoral and arm strength. In addition they need good stomach muscle and back strength to be able to run at their very best and properly use those magnificent legs the Lord stuck on their body. Of course for someone who has that upper body strength it's not quite so important. It's a matter of horses for courses there.

Above are some of the questions from Brian's interview with Herb Elliott. The book Brian Lenton - Interviews is available for purchase ($A18+postage - $22 total for Australian residents) by writing to Brian Lenton Publications, P.O. Box 5, Duffy, ACT 2611, AUSTRALIA.. The other featured runners in Interviews are Ron Clarke, Derek Clayton, Ralph Doubell, Lisa Ondieki and Dave Power.

Select for Large Image

herb elliott
On 21 January 1998, Herb Elliott was featured on an Australia Post stamp issue "Australian Olympic Legends" [16k]


daniel komen
Daniel Komen leads after 200m of a 1500m race in Canberra - 1993 [33k]


kelly roberts
Kelly Roberts at Bilga... Winner of the Senator Margaret Reid Trophy for the ACT's most outstanding junior athlete of the 1997/98 season [32k]


1500m - 1993
Women's 1500m race at Canberra in 1993 [24k]


herb elliott
Herb Elliott in full flight. The other Australian Olympic Legends are Betty Cuthbert, Dawn Fraser, Marjorie Jackson, Murray Rose and Shirley Strickland [16k]


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