On a Breezy Yorkshire Sunday morning, you're running 11 miles over the countryside with the next great British miler. Peter Elliott, a broad-shouldered, red-haired man of 27, takes you and a couple of friends from his local running club past the loading docks and warehouses of his hometown of Rotherham and onto a muddy path beside a stagnant canal.
The route is full of quick turns and fences that need to be vaulted, of kids' shortcuts worn deep. You push through the branches of trees felled by the windstorms that raked Great Britain last winter. Elliott crosses a canal on a narrow, slippery steel beam studded with rivets, and then he looks back, his glance a gleam of mineral blue. He wants to assure himself of your safety—either that, or he wants to enjoy your fall.
You're prepared to believe he will drive you until you crack, for Elliott is a rarity in modern running, indeed in all of modern sport. He's a throwback, a man who became a world-class athlete while working full-time at a physically demanding job. For 11 years, until he left the job last month on the eve of what may be a momentous summer, he was a carpenter in a steel mill.
Elliott's pace this morning never exceeds six minutes per mile. He's going easy on you, showing none of the speed that earned him second place in the 800 meters at the 1987 World Championships in Rome. At the '88 Olympics in Seoul, running with discomfort from what he thought was an injured groin muscle, he was second in the 1,500 and fourth in the 800. He clearly is an athlete of enormous talent and resourcefulness.
June 24, 1990
Spoiled Britons, however, have been reluctant to accept him into the heroic middle-distance company of his older rivals, Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram, who together brought home seven Olympic medals, broke 16 individual world outdoor records and still hold the marks for the mile (Cram's 3:46.32 in 1985), the 1,000 (Coe's 2:12.18 in '81) and the 800 (Coe's 1:41.73 in '81). For years Elliott lived agreeably in the shadow of that triumvirate. "I always pointed out that I had never won a major championship or set a world record," he says. "Until I did, I wasn't in their class."
Now he has done both. In February, he won the 1,500 at the Commonwealth Games, in Auckland, New Zealand, in 3:33.39. Later that month he broke the world indoor record for the 1,500 with a time of 3:34.21 at a meet in Seville, Spain. And any week now, he could eclipse Said Aouita's outdoor 1,500 record of 3:29.46 as well as Cram's mile mark. The 1,500 record could fall at a Grand Prix meet in Stockholm on July 2; the mile record, at the Bislett Games in Oslo on July 14. "Obviously the outdoor 1,500 record will mean more [than the indoor 1,500 mark]," says Elliott, "but I'm in the top bracket now."
Elliott is third-generation Rotherham; a town of 81,988 in the north of England. Iron was forged in Rotherham as far back as Roman times. When the great Bessemer blast furnaces arrived in the 1870s, the region took on Dickensian elements of roaring hearths and billowing coal smoke. The air has improved. Elliott's Rotherham mixes tidy residences and deep green woods with its cooling towers and few remaining mills.
As the run continues, you climb a wooden stile over a hedge to reach the turf surrounding Brinsworth Comprehensive School. "My first cross-country race began on this field," says Elliott. He was 12. From the beginning he was an uncomplicated, robust boy. He joined the Rotherham Harriers and Athletic Club, to which he still belongs, running cross-country in winter and the 800 in summer.
"I don't know why I picked the 800," he says. "I just did." Once he had, he held it tight, setting United Kingdom age-group records in the 800 at 15,16 and 19. Elliott never ran the mile as a schoolboy, though his stamina would have made him a natural at the distance. Former British Olympian Brendan Foster once told him, "You've been running the wrong event all your life."
Elliott was being both stubborn and patient. "You've got to run a good 800 to be a miler," he says. "I wanted to really do my best before I moved up."
The time has come. On May 30, in Seville, he ran the 800 in a personal-best 1:42.97. "The potential now is in the 1,500 and the mile, and even the 2,000 and 3,000," Elliott says.
Tractor ruts endanger your ankles. You look up to discover that you are passing among imperturbable Holstein cows. From atop a dike, Elliott points out the old British Steel plant, where he served his apprenticeship in carpentry, or joinery, as it's called in England. When the plant closed, in 1985, Elliott took the job he held until recently, with Rotherham Engineering Steels, on the other side of town.
"I never thought of college," he says. Elliott is working-class to the bone. His girlfriend, Tracy Halliwell, is a receptionist at the mill. "When I left school, everybody applied for the steelworks or the pits. I interviewed for joiner, and was lucky to get it." For nine years his routine was one of rising for a 6 a.m. run, rushing to work, training again in the evening and falling into bed at nine. "I was tired all the time," he says.
Equally dogged was the way he ran his races, blasting out from the gun and holding on until victory or physical exhaustion. "Peter's always been an honest lad," says Coe. "He's always prepared properly for the races that matter. He's always run them to the limit."
By these methods, Elliott came to be a prime example of Yorkshire grit, though he remains slightly mystified by his and his region's celebrated toughness. "If I knew what it was, I'd bottle it," he says, adding that his racing bravery flowed in part from insecurity. "In those years, I had no confidence in my kick. And I knew if I was hurting up in front, everyone else was, too."
The last miles are uphill, through woods. The trail is stony, under leaf mulch. This is where Elliott's power shows. You grow faint trying to hold the pace. The birch trunks blur. At last you break out of the trees onto terraced, emerald fields that drop away to the turrets and forsythia of Thomas Rotherham College. You finish there, spattered and exultant, part of a scene out of Chariots of Fire.
That afternoon, Elliott drives you to his parents' home for Sunday dinner. You pass the Herringthorpe Leisure Center, its new, red, all-weather track dwarfed by a prairie of soccer fields. The horizon is rows of brick houses, the profile of their red-tile roofs cut as if by pinking shears.
Brian and Sylvia Elliott, Peter's parents, have spent 35 years in one such house, in Rawmarsh, on the outskirts of Rotherham. "Been here all this married life," says Brian, who retired from the steelworks last Christmas. Sylvia worked at Woolworth's until 1985. The rooms in their home are tiny, done in highly floral fashion, and they are filled with bounding dogs. Soon enough, Peter's young German shepherds, Moses and Major, are banished to the backyard.
Among the trophies and medals tightly packed on shelves is a romantic painting of the star. No, not of Peter, but of John Wayne. "That's me dad's," says Peter, grinning. "He's a fan."
"I've got a 130-foot garden," says Brian. "I like river fishing for bream, and I like John Wayne."
Peter sits down happily to a dinner of roast beef, brown gravy, mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, three other vegetables and Yorkshire pudding. Real Yorkshire pudding is no airy puff. Sylvia's is rich and eggy and can absorb ladles of gravy without losing its structural integrity.
Everyone receives a plate except Peter. He gets a blue oval platter. He piles the food precariously high and inhales, displaying a workingman's appetite. He's the first to finish, so he's asked to recall his 1988 Olympic experience, which wasn't enhanced by his groin discomfort. "I'd warm up for each race by jogging, but I couldn't do strides," he says. "Then I'd get an injection of anesthetic and go to the start. I had no real pain in the races, but it didn't seem the best preparation."
Injuries had kept Aouita, of Morocco, and 1987 world champion Abdi Bile, of Somalia, out of the 1,500. Coe hadn't been named to the British team, and Cram was not at his best, so Elliott knew he had a good chance to win. Kenya's Peter Rono took the lead with 800 meters to go. Elliott was overjoyed to have him set the pace. When they came into the final stretch, Elliott called on his kick. "My legs told me it was my seventh race in nine days," he says. "Still, I couldn't believe Rono stayed ahead to the end."
None of Elliott's losses to the great English champions tormented him quite like this defeat. "You give everything, and if you lose, you know it was to the better man on the day," he says. "The most frustrating thing about the Olympics is that Rono hasn't won a race since."
Back from Seoul, Elliott spent two weeks in the hospital because the same left pubic symphysis muscle that had bothered him in the Games was found to be infected. "I never thought I'd run again," says Elliott. "I couldn't cough. I couldn't laugh." Gradually, physiotherapy brought him back without the need for surgery. "Then I overtrained and got the flu at the end of the year," he says. "Then I overtrained again and got a stress fracture two months later."
That meant three more months without running, which hardly was a tonic for his disposition. "Things were at rock bottom," he says. "When I'm injured, I'm ratty all the time. But I decided to be smart."
He ran in water and cycled. When he finally returned to earthly running, in June 1989, he practiced moderation. Within 11 weeks he ran a 3:53 mile. "That changed my life," he says. "If my body could be that long away from training and come back so fast, well, a day off now and again to stay fresh is nothing to worry about. And after enforced rest, you realize how much racing means to you. You relax and enjoy it."
No Elliott associate fails to mention the confidence he now exudes. Further, for the last year Elliott has been working with a sprint coach to improve his late-race acceleration. Once a dependable carthorse who always led and often got outkicked, he started winning in '86 only when he began coming from behind.
Elliott's indoor 1,500-meter record was anything but expected. He reached the meet in Seville tired from having won back-to-back races in Glasgow and Stockholm. "I was coming down with a cold, and no crowd was there at all," he says. "I sure never said I was going for a record."
However, while warming up, he began to feel better. "You can't know until the day you run," he says. "I suddenly knew it was on."
Ken Washington of the United States carried the pace through 800 meters in 1:54.78. Elliott moved smoothly past and ran alone to his 3:34.21, nipping more than a second from the standard established by Ireland's Marcus O'Sullivan last year. The mark isn't quite the equivalent of Eamonn Coghlan's sterling indoor mile record of 3:49.78, but tightly banked indoor tracks are not where the long-striding Elliott figures to do the most damage.
Elliott's mother brings out a photograph album and says, "You've always been quiet about your wins."
"I'm very modest," Elliott says immodestly, and laughs.
"I'm a bit sentimental about it all," says Sylvia, turning to pictures of the street party Rawmarsh threw for her son upon his return from the Commonwealth Games. They show Peter's unaffected pleasure at being swarmed by adoring children. "On the day I got back," he says, "old ladies at the bus stop clapped me as I ran by. That's what it's all about."
His father has fallen into a digestive doze before the gas fire. Suddenly he awakens, saying, "I used to take him to the school fields. He'd run. I'll never forget. A kid, one of what I'll call the wasters, asked me, 'What's he achievin', going round the fields?' "
The Rotherham complex where Elliott worked covers 1,200 acres and produces more than one million tons of steel a year. Wearing a hard hat not long before he would leave his job, Elliott walked a visitor along the journey of the molten metal, which is melted in huge electric are furnaces and then transferred to casters, where it hardens into long, graycrusted blocks with angry red cores. These "blooms" roil the air about them with their heat. They are slammed through gnashing rollers, which squeeze and lengthen the writhing steel into billets. "My father worked here at the end, on the finishing banks," says Elliott.
The mill's carpentry shop is a sanctuary from the sound and the heat. You think you have come into a fragrant, well-equipped high school wood shop. Elliott worked full-time here until he left for the '87 World Championships. "The British team went a week early to Rome that year," he says, "which allowed me to sleep that whole week, and so I got the silver medal in the 800. When I got home, the company offered me 12 months off with pay to train for the Olympics."
Elliott's response was instructive: He declined. "It wasn't fair to my mates in the mill," he says. "How could I have faced them if I didn't win?"
So this compromise was struck: He worked four hours a day, five days a week, for a wage of $7 an hour (¬¨¬®¬¨¬£4 sterling). This arrangement lasted until the start of the current summer season, when he left his job to train full-time. But Elliott, who still frequents the Rawmarsh Working Men's Club, remains a blue-collar bloke at heart. "Working at the mill was more of a hobby than a job," he says. "I enjoyed the guys, I got a wage, it kept my feet on the ground and gave me something worthwhile to do apart from running."
During the Commonwealth Games, Elliott stayed with friends Andy and Kay Grey instead of in the athletes' village. To keep to his routine, he built them a fence. "They already had the posts," he says. "It was relaxing. I also fixed the dry rot on the corner of their house."
Then he went out and won the 1,500 meters from Wilfred Kirochi of Kenya, running away over the last lap with such power that Coe deemed Elliott's performance the finest 1,500 finish he had seen since Ovett's 1,500 victory in the 1977 World Cup. Elliott had to battle to keep his composure on the awards platform. "It's exciting to win a race and see your country's flag go up," he says now. "I kept telling myself, 'Finish, music, finish. I'm not going to cry, not the tough steelworker.' " His mother's photographs show that his eyes were filling fast.
He made it, though he needn't have worried. There is nothing undignified about the result of a little honest labor.