Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I Miss the Mile

I found myself missing the mile in this year’s Olympic coverage. Of course, the Olympics have always been metric so, really, there is nothing to miss. They’ve been running the 1,500 meter race, ‘the metric-mile,’ since Athens One.

Bannister finishes ahead of Landy, August, 1954
Vancouver Sun
But I was missing many different mile races and Cascadia’s greatest footrace was sitting right on the top of my mind. It happened 58 years ago this month, the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, British Columbia where Dr. Roger Bannister out-kicked the world record holder, John Landy of Australia to finish at 3:58.8. It was the first time the only two four minute milers met. It was the first time two people ran an under four minute mile in the same race.

It was a race all about the relatively few strategies available to the each athlete and how each played to his strongest point. Landy the efficient, clean runner. Bannister the loping sprinter at the end. Each was running hurt. Bannister had the beginnings of a serious cold and Landy stepped on a used flash bulb on the ground near where he was staying and had a gash in his foot.

90 yards from home
Charlie Warner
Most people remember the race at its signature moment, when Landy, who had gone to the lead early hoping to burn off the closing speed of Bannister, peeks out over his left shoulder with about 90 yards to go and at that exact moment, Bannister goes into overdrive and passes Landy on the right, killing any hope of Landy responding to his speed.  Bannister once ran a :53 second last quarter. Landy had nothing like that.

Bannister would retire from racing after one further race in Europe and be the physician he studied to be, but his shadow fell across the ten years that were the glory days of the mile run because he was the first to break four minutes and was universally admired for it. While both Landy and Bannister struggled as Olympians, Bannister fourth in the 1500 meters in Helsinki, 1952 and Landy third at Melbourne in 1956, their duel in Vancouver was better than any gold medal and was the great opening number of ten dazzling years of the mile.

Three other stars followed Landy and Bannister, with a host of near stars running with them, just a couple of steps back. In the United States there was a young man named Wes Santee from the University of Kansas who, in the month following Bannister’s 3:59.6, ran two races at 4:00.5 and 4:00.6 in successive weeks, one and a half strides away from breaking four minutes.

Wes Santee
University of Kansas
Santee was cocky and rough and had troubles with the overreaching authority of the Amateur Athletic Union, which mandated many things in a track and field athlete’s life during the 1950s. For the 1952 Olympics, the teenaged Santee qualified for the US team as a 5,000 meter runner and fully intended to qualify for the 1,500 meters, by far his best event, two days later. Santee’s plan was to withdraw from the 5,000 assuming he qualified at 1,500, but the AAU refused to let him enter the race, literally pulling him off the track. He finished far back in the 5,000 meters in Helsinki, while a good but inferior runner, Bob McMillen of Occidental College, won a silver at 1500, just missing the gold.

Santee and the AAU were oil and water. He got in a shouting match with a German track promoter in 1953 and was banned from international competition for a year. The AAU set a limit on $15/day in expense money for competing athletes. It was a ridiculous limit and frequently ignored by athletes and promoters alike. In addition, a high profile athlete like Santee was often used to promote events, give clinics on his training techniques, appear on television shows, etc. Meet promoters, often doubling as directors within the AAU, recognized the greater effort of such athletes with higher expenses. And, if a four minute mile was in the offing, they wanted the athlete at any price.

In a struggle lasting two years, the AAU tried to demonstrate that Santee was a cheat. Their procedural tactics were clearly unfair. Ultimately, Santee received a temporary injunction that allowed him to race in the Knights of Columbus Indoor Meet in New York in 1955. The AAU threatened with lifetime banishment any athlete who chose to race with Santee. Six men pulled out of the event and Santee, by now a marine lieutenant, ran against two men recruited at the last moment.

In 1956, Santee was banned for life from competing in AAU events. That means all events. The heavy handed prosecution of Santee by the AAU and its Soviet-style process, led, eventually, to the recognition of track and field athletes as professionals.

Elliott about to draw away from the field
in the 1500 meters in Rome
Herb Elliott was doing what many Australian youths were doing when the Olympic Games came to Melbourne in 1956 -- smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and chasing girls. While a good high school miler, he had other things in mind for his life, though he had the body and the powerful, long stride to be a superb miler. He needed motivation and got it when he was one of the 104,000 people in the stands when the Russian, Vladimir Kuts, won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. There was something about Kuts that Elliott was fascinated by, how he ground his opponents to dust, how he maintained a stoic cool, relentlessly pounding away the 25 laps that make up the 10,000, leaving them not only well-behind, but fully dispirited.

Cerutty in front, Elliott behind
Two coaches dominated Australian running at the time. Franz Stampfl was offered the job as coach at the University of Melbourne after success in Great Britain and serving as a kind of an advisor to Bannister. Percy Cerutty would not have taken the job, but was furious that it wasn’t offered to him. Cerutty was too bizarre, too unconventional for any university. He used weights frequently in training his distance runners, had them run up and down sand dunes, through the sea. His diets were weird. He had John Landy for a time, but Landy was a loner, not comfortable with this unusual man, though his performances improved significantly under Cerutty.

Franz Stampfl
Stampfl's athletes spent the entire day on the track. Building up speed and endurance with closely timed intervals – 10/400 meter splits with precisely-time rest periods with some calisthenics mixed in. Landy disparaged him as teutonic and thought the Australian temperament was not a good match. But he succeeded, developing great runners and winning medals for Australia.

Elliott went with Cerutty, liked his opinionated mayhem and soon, in 1958 and still a teenager, was running under four minutes and regularly beating Stampfl’s best man, Merv Lincoln.

“I had a genuine sympathy for Merv," said Elliott. "While he was plodding his way through monotonous training sessions, I was galloping over sand-hills…and splashing through the surf, or frolicking in the beautiful Botanical Gardens.”

Elliott made his first trip to the US in 1958 where he beat Ron Delany, the gold medal winner at Melbourne in ‘56. Delaney challenged Elliott to run in Dublin along with Stampfl’s man Merv Lincoln. Delaney faded and Lincoln ran his best race against Elliott, but it was still Elliott’s race in the astounding time 3:54.5, obliterating the world record. He would go on win gold in Rome, setting the world record for the 1,500 meters as well.  Vladimir Kuts was on the track to congratulate him on his world record time.

Elliott was never beaten in the mile or 1,500 meters. After the Rome Olympics he retired from competitive racing, accepting a scholarship at Oxford where the mile was, for the first time since he met Cerutty, second place in his life.

Arthur Lydiard
New Zealand’s Arthur Lydiard trained the great Peter Snell with techniques he developed after dropping out of high school in the Great Depression and finding work in a shoe factory. His contribution to middle distance running was the gradual build-up of aerobic stamina by running considerable distances each week and mixing in sprint training, hill running and other sharpening aspects of preparation that would help the athlete peak for the big race. His athletes would run as many as 100 miles a week to increase their aerobic capacity over time. The greater the reliance on aerobic efficiency, using so-called long twitch muscles, the less the athlete relies on anerobic running, where powerful short twitch muscles perform very well but for only short periods of time.

Lydiard’s runners would strive for a steady state of oxygen use. This efficiency would avoid ‘oxygen deficits’ that would introduce the building up of chemical compounds in the muscles, resulting in a feeling of fatigue and reduced performance.

Lydiard knew nothing about physiology except as he experienced it while, through trial and error, he developed methods that worked. It would be 14 years before a Washington State University researcher, working with Professor Peter Snell, would publish the theories of muscle contraction that Lydiard knew only in his heart.

Peter Snell
The world became aware, first in Rome and then in Tokyo, that his methods worked on the world stage. Peter Snell would break Elliott’s records in the mile in 1962 -- on grass! -- and in 1964 – Peter Snell came out of nowhere to win a gold medal in Rome and won both the 800 meters and the 1500 meters in the Tokyo Olympics.

The guy who sat next to me in my English Composition course was a participant against Snell in that 1,500 meters in Tokyo and in Rome with Elliott. He was Dyrol Burleson, a kid from Cottage Grove, Oregon, a mill town just down the road from Eugene.

Tall and thin, 6’2” and 159 pounds, he qualified for the Rome Olympics as a teenager and would become part of a large group of elite runners at the University of Oregon. He ran the first four minute mile at Hayward Field for Bill Bowerman, the U of O track coach, a disciplined teacher who blended what he had discovered himself with what other coaches had developed over the previous decade. Bowerman is, unfortunately, more known for making the first Nike shoes than for his amazing accomplishments as a great middle distance coach.

Burleson had a front row seat for both Elliott and Snell. He made the US Olympic team and lined up on the same track in Rome as Herb Elliott, first in a preliminary, where both qualified for the finals, where Burleson finished sixth. In an interview, he described what it was like to compete with Elliott, who won by 20 yards.

“There was Herb Elliott and then the rest of us," Burleson said in an interview. "I’ve never been dominated by anyone like he dominated us. I was so impressed with Herb that I traded my American sweat suit and received an Australian set in return. I had also read somewhere that Herb Elliott and his coach, Percy Cerutty, would eat raisins and raw oats, so I tried that for a little while.”

Burleson on the last turn, his
competitors already blown away
Burleson had tremendous finishing speed and always ran from behind. When he lined up against Peter Snell four years later, in Tokyo, he had a chance to medal, even win, because Snell’s true strength was in 800 meters. Snell was also running his sixth race in eight days and vulnerable to the younger field. Earlier than usual on the last lap, Snell broke free and took the lead, surprising the field, including Burleson, who felt he should have gone out when Snell went out. Burleson finished a disappointing fifth.

“My fault was that I let the runners get so far ahead of me as I was too cocky about my finishing sprint. If you look at the tape of the race the runners who got the Silver and Bronze medals were right in front of me. It would have been easy to get through to win a medal. When Snell went to the lead I should have gone with him. At the end of the race I wasn’t even tired at all. I could have gone for 200 meters more. But I can’t do anything about it now – that’s life. I don’t know what happened there but it was my entire fault. It bothered me for several months. I just really screwed up there. But there are things in life that you can’t redo.”

The careers of these fabulous athletes would all be short just as their after retirement work was substantive.

Bannister’s mark initiates the ten glory years of the event because he had courage and quietly believed in himself. If there ever was a student athlete in the modern era, it was Roger Bannister. As a very young man, he decided not to compete in the 1948 games in London, his home town, but rather continue his studies and training at Oxford. In the run up to the first four minute mile in May of 1954, he was a doctor in training at a hospital, on the track just 45 minutes a day.

He was 25 when he left competitive racing.

Sir Roger Bannister became a renowned researcher in Great Britain, running the National Hospital of Nervous Diseases and editing an International Journal in his specialty.

John Landy, a year younger than Bannister, retired two years after Bannister, his last race the disappointing third place in the Melbourne Olympics. But just prior to the Olympic race, in the Australian National Championships, he ran another great mile for which a statue was also built.

Running just behind Ron Clarke, a young Australian rising in international distance running, Clark clipped the heel of the runner in front of him and fell.  Landy was behind Clarke and he ran over him, his cleats piercing Clarke’s lower leg and arm. Landy stopped, helped Clarke back to his feet and continued the race, eventually, amazingly, winning it.

Herb Elliott

Landy worked in the chemical industry for a time, but ultimately became passionate about protecting the natural environment of his country. He was appointed Governor of the Australian State of Victoria, and served five years.

Herb Elliott, for a time the very best performer of his remarkable contemporaries, retired at 22 after the 1960 games, though he ran recreationally while at Oxford. His post-racing career includes being an executive at Fortescue Metals, a large iron ore company based in Australia, CEO of Puma, North America and head of the Australian Olympic Committee. He currently lives in Australia and is 70 years of age.

Wes Santee became a marine colonel before he retired. He died in November, 2010 in Kansas. He was 68. The AAU banned him from future competition when Santee was 24 years old.

Peter Snell retired in 1965 after the Tokyo Olympics. He carries on research in human performance that Arthur Lydiard would have loved to do if he ever got an education. Snell studied at University of California, Davis and Washington State University, where he received his PhD. Snell moved to Texas to teach at the University of Texas, Medical Center at Dallas where he ran the school's Human Performance Center. He lives in Dallas and is 70 years old. His home town in New Zealand contains a statue of him breaking the tape in the 800 meter race in Rome at the 1960 Olympics. He was virtually unknown at the time.

Dyrol Burleson recently retired from his work with the Linn County, Oregon Parks Department. He retired from racing in 1968 after trying to qualify for the 1968 Olympics, a goal he had made with the intention of redeeming what he considered his mistake in Tokyo when he didn't go out and challenge Snell. He hurt his calf in a tune-up race and was unable to continue his quest for a third Olympic Team.

He was one of the 40 million people in North America who watched Cascadia's greatest footrace.

“When I was 14 I sat at the library at Cottage Grove High School and saw the Sportsman of the Year was Roger Banister and that he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I decided that I wanted to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated and that I wanted to run the mile. So I set that as my goal. I really admired Roger Bannister and I still do. What he accomplished was so much since he was only running an hour a day while he was in medical school on a crappy track. The race that is really memorable is the Commonwealth Championships in Vancouver, Canada where Bannister and Landy faced each other. We saw it on television and back then it was just incredible to be watching.”

Burleson made the cover of Sports illustrated in July, 1964, ten years, nearly to the day, after the great footrace in Vancouver, BC.


The Greatest Footrace in Cascadia There are really cool interviews at the end.

Landy picks up Clarke at the half mile mark

Bannister runs first sub-four minute mile Bannister narrates. Notice that Stampfl is one of those catching him at the tape.

Snell wins 1500 in Tokyo. Dyrol Burleson a step away from a medal, finishes fifth, surprised by Snell's early break in the last lap.

Elliott Wins 1500 in Rome Elliott wins 1500 meters in Rome. He narrates the race. Watch for Dyrol Burleson in sixth place.

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