While watching a documentary about 1960s Australian distance great Ron Clarke, I was taken by a quote from countryman John Landy — second man ever under 4:00 in the mile — who sent a letter to the young Ron just as Clarke was gaining national recognition.
“Not giving you sessions,” recalled Clarke of the five-page missive, “but describing the way you cope with training. Really, the essence of simplicity, ‘don’t train too hard, don’t make it too easy’. Just in that balance.”
Has training changed that much in the ensuing 40 years? Has today’s science led us to a better understanding of the human ability to adapt to stress, and how to manage that stress? Perhaps.
But remember,too, that after the disappointment of Tokyo 1964 where the favored Clarke saw both America’s Billy Mills and Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi roar by him in the final stretch — followed by a mid-pack finish in the 5000 won by America’s Bob Schul – Clarke returned home more determined than ever.
Yet even as Clark broke 11 world records in his annus mirabilis of 1965, he also competed in 52 races, winning 37. Forget about training for the moment, and consider the ramifications of such a racing schedule on reaching for a peak performance.
Among the most famous coaches of the day was legendary Australian taskmaster Percy Cerutty. Eccentric but tough as gristle, it was Cerutty who pioneered a holistic training system he referred to as ‘Stotan’ that combined aspects of Stoicism and a Spartan philosophy into a regime of natural foods, hard training in natural settings, and even poetry readings to stimulate the mind.
Cerutty mentored Australia’s 1960 Olympic 1500 meter champion Herb Elliott, the only man to retire undefeated in the 1500 meters and the mile. Cerutty, it was said, was a man more interested in achievement than athletics itself.
“Now the boxing boys had something to do with that,” Cerutty explained in his animated fashion. “Jackie Kriss, Sammy Wheeler, and Don Johnson, the American: you can’t meet no more lovely fellows, but in the ring they’re killers, and ‘I’ll bash you down!’ And you’ve got to have that. But the fellow you’re bashing down in running is yourself. You can’t punch or trip your opponent. So you kill yourself rather than get beaten.”
Ron Clarke never adhered to Cerutty’s self-bashing Stotan philosophy. Instead he appreciated the more humane direction taken by his dear friend Emile Zatopek, nicknamed the Czech Locomotive, who famously won all three distance events, 5000, 10,000 and marathon, at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
“Put everything into it. Run your own race to your best end, and also help your opposition where you can, because you want to beat them at their best.”
(Done correctly) Running is something of a masochistic sport, it’s true. Yet there is an undeniable attraction to what that self-flagellation dredges up. But whether it is John Landy’s “Don’t train too hard, don’t make it too easy”, or Percy Cerutty’s beat-yourself-up-to-beat-the-other-guy, there is no right way to train, nor absolute best fashion to race. Instead running remains the every man’s sport where the best of oneself is uncovered through the pitiless process of trial and error.