San Diego, CA — I recently watched a documentary about 1960s Australian running great Ron Clarke, a true phenomenon in his day now known primarily for breaking records while never winning an Olympic gold medal. Especially intriguing in the film was a quote from his countryman John Landy — second man ever under 4:00 in the mile — who sent young Ron a letter just as Clarke was gaining national recognition.
“Not giving you sessions,” Clarke read from 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 better adapt to and manage stress? Perhaps.
But remember,too, that after the disappointment of the Tokyo Games of 1964 where the favored Clarke saw America’s Billy Mills run the race of a lifetime to pass both Clarke and Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi in the final stretch — followed by a mid-pack finish in the 5000 behind American gold medalist Bob Schul — Clarke returned home more determined than ever.
Yet even as Clarke broke 11 world records in his annus mirabilis of `65, he also competed 52 times, winning 37. Forget training. Think of what might have been except for that schedule. But such were the times.
Among the most famous coaches of the day was legendary Australian taskmaster Percy Cerutty. Eccentric but tough as gristle, it was Cerutty who pioneered what he called his “Stotan” training system, which included aspects of Stoicism and a Spartan philosophy. It recommended 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 fully embraced Cerutty’s self-bashing Stotan philosophy. Instead he appreciated the more humane direction taken by dear friend Emile Zatopek. Known as the Czech Locomotive, Zatopek famously won all three distance events at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics: 5000, 10,000 and marathon. He remains the only man to achieve the triple distance gold.
“Put everything into it,” said Emile. “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.”
Foot racing is something of a masochistic sport, it’s true. Yet it lends itself to daily dosing. So whether you fall in with John Landy’s “Don’t train too hard, don’t make it too easy”, or get lured by Percy Cerutty’s beat-yourself-up-to-beat-the-other-guy, the effect is the same, an every man’s sport where the best is uncovered through the pitiless process of self-carving.
Few since have done it better than Landy, Clarke, Elliott and Zatopek.