Once a man passes the coastal flatlands, southeastern Australia rears with a rush into the mile-high wilderness of the Australian Alps. Streams of melted snow root through the Alpine tangle, and the chuckles of the flat-topped kookaburra bird sound along formidable footpaths that lead a traveler, with luck, to the other side. Laboring over the mountains the other day went Herb Elliott, world's fastest man at one mile. In training for the Summer Olympics, he had taken world's most roundabout road to Rome.
With four companions (a fellow Melbourne University student, a long-distance runner, a Rover Scout and a dog named Sandy), Miler Elliott hiked off into the Alps near Mansfield, Victoria, 130 miles north of Melbourne. What lay ahead was never intended as fun. "I get bloody sick of training," Elliott says. Bending under a 40-pound pack, he developed his sentiments: "I don't think a trip like this should be a pleasure. I want to get back as smelly as I can."
The hike route, originally laid out by the great miler John Landy, led through knee-deep water, up 60° slopes, down the faces of bluffs. "It will do wonders for you," Elliott told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S photographer Jerry Cooke, who accompanied the party on the first leg of the trip. Reported Cooke: "Even though I carried no pack, it was hard to keep up. Elliott was pushing himself along, setting the pace, even when he was not in the lead. I began to have an inkling of what it must be like to race against him. This mild young man had become deadly serious, and the change was a little astonishing.
"His companions, especially Robbie Morgan-Morris, one of Victoria's best long-distance runners, were taking things more lightly. For his part, Robbie had assumed the role of holler guy, and while the rest of us trudged by, he found occasions to keep some kind of talk going. Once, when we had a mile and a half to go before reaching a rest bivouac, he reflected on Elliott's success with the four-minute mile and observed: 'This ought to take Herb just six minutes.' Elliott smiled only thinly. His Alsatian dog Sandy, meanwhile, was having a ball, chasing magpies and rabbits and barking back ferociously at the kookaburras laughing in the trees above us. Elliott, who loves the dog, regarded him sourly. 'What makes me sore is having to carry his food in my pack,' he said. 'I spent a few hours trying to fix up a harness so he could carry it himself, but it didn't work.'
"At 7 that evening we stopped at the bottom of a steep hill. Then out came the food that Elliott prefers as his training diet: potatoes, bread, dried milk, wheat germ, dehydrated soups, cheese, peanut oil for frying the potatoes—I had never seen such an odd collation in my life. Everybody was in his sleeping bag by 9, and Sandy woke us all at 5 by licking our faces. 'There's the sun,' said Herb after breakfast. 'We'd better get going.' The Scout, Ken Cathie, and I left them then and headed back. It was mostly downhill but it took us an hour longer than the trip up. You make good time behind Elliott, as others have found out before us."
That same day Elliott and his friends were not making the time they had hoped to. Inattention to a map detail led them down the wrong mountainside, and they decided to backtrack to Mansfield, which they reached at the end of the third day. Altogether, Elliott had hiked 50 miles, crossed the snow-fed Howqua River 80 times and lost four pounds. "I've always loved hiking," said Elliott, "but, hell, I was glad to see my front door this time."
Elliott was still feeling the exertions of the hike a few days later. In a 1,000-meter benefit race, he finished a winded third to Greg Blake of Tasmania. "But I'm not worried," Elliott said afterward. "There's still a long road ahead before I hit Rome." One excursion along that road could well lead Herb Elliott to the U.S. later this month. He holds AAU invitations for Los Angeles Jan. 22 and for New York's Millrose Games Jan. 30. His local athletic association voted approval of the trip this week, and Herb was eager to come.