According to the man who first conquered it, the four-minute mile, a once seemingly impenetrable barrier standing between the ambitions and accomplishments of middle-distance runners the world over, was no more than a chimera—an imaginary monster that, once challenged, would promptly vanish. The torrent of successors that have followed Roger Bannister through the hole he breached in this dike in 1954 has amply justified his words. Within four years, 17 more of the world's top milers, led by the great John Landy of Australia, made the four-minute mile an almost routine mark for runners to shoot at.
One day last week, a young Australian who was little more than a gawky schoolboy in his early teens when Landy and Bannister ran their history-making Miracle Mile at Vancouver, stepped out on a cinder track at Melbourne's Olympic Park and—for the second time within a single week—covered the mile in less than four minutes with time to spare. The boy's principal reaction to his feat was a stinging disappointment at having failed by .7 second to match Landy's official world record of 3:58.
As the single brightest star in what must be considered a whole new generation of milers, Herbert Elliott, the rangy, 19-year-old son of a Perth furniture dealer, has virtually set up for himself and other milers a new standard to shoot at: the 3:55 mile. "I feel sure he'll make it," says Elliott's coach, Percy Cerutty, a former Aussie track star who was one of Landy's mentors. "Here," said John Landy himself when he saw Herb do the mile in 4:00.4 a year ago, "is the greatest natural runner I have ever seen."
This new phenomenon first came to the attention of Coach Cerutty when he was invited to Perth in the early 1950s by the Western Australian AAA to scout their local talent. Herb Elliott, a lean-jawed, long-legged youth who sailed along the cinders with the stride, the power—and some of the look—of a young ostrich in full flight, was then a top schoolboy miler able to cover the distance in an easy 4:22. Cerutty's interest was most definitely aroused, but, sad to say, Elliott's own interest in running soon waned, largely as the result of a broken foot he suffered helping to move the family piano. By the time Cerutty had returned to Melbourne to devote his talents to likelier Olympic stars, Herb's interests had fallen to a plane more common to teen-agers: the pursuit of long nights, short beers and plenty of fun. It was a regimen that would have gotten short shrift from the classics-loving coach whose belief in a Spartan routine of physical fitness came close to fanaticism.
Then, like many another Aussie family in 1956, the Elliotts decided to take the trip to Melbourne to see the Olympic Games. As young Herb watched the greatest runners from all over the world straining their utmost toward the Olympic tapes, he felt the dead spark of ambition kindling to light within him once more. Close at hand to fan it to flame was Coach Cerutty. With the coach's encouragement, the young athlete decided at last to stay in Melbourne and, as he put it, "do some hard training for the first time in my life."
Under Cerutty's direction, Elliott took up residence in a cramped bunk-house at the coach's famed Portsea training center. Each day, whipped by the icy ocean winds on a sandy clearing nearby, he hefted dumbbells and barbells fashioned of ancient and rusty lengths of railroad track, old bolts and water pipe to develop the massive chest muscles he had let go flabby from disuse. "I have never seen a young man with greater determination or a greater capacity for self-punishment," said his coach.
When not busy expanding lungs and chest, Elliott, often with Cerutty at his side, kept his long, lean legs in trim pounding through ankle-deep sand, frigid surf water and sharp gravel on the coach's effective but unorthodox training course. The first time Elliott ever covered this torturous mile-plus, he was clocked at 5:31. Over and over again, to the amazement of fellow athletes, some of whom had never been able to make it even once, he ran up and down an 80-foot sand dune. Now, in an "instinctive" training ritual through which, he says, "I seem to know by intuition what I should do," this once-listless young man who limited his schoolboy training to a few idle laps on the school track runs up to 25 miles a day. "Since I've been with Perc," said Herb, "my aims have changed. I feel like a flywheel. I needed something to get me going, and Perc started me off. Now that I've got going, I know that I can keep going on and on."
Neither Elliott nor his coach has much use for the cerebral and mathematically calculated training methods employed by famed Australian mile coach Franz Stampfl. "If you can win from the front," says Herb Elliott, "you can win from the back. To prove yourself the best runner, you must get out to the front sometime and run them off their legs."
An implicit believer in his coach's theory that strength and spirit are stimulated by competition, Elliott has deliberately set about making himself the best and toughest there is in every way, to outlast, outthink and outrun every other runner there is. Some indication of the strength and stamina his determination has bred became heroically apparent two weeks ago. On a day when other men might have chosen to rest, Herb Elliott, less than 24 hours after running his first sub-four-minute mile, plunged into the icy water off his training camp and, after battling the surf for half an hour, saved a drowning girl caught in a savage undertow.