Track Stats - Herb Elliott

Herb Elliott at Cambridge University

After winning the Olympic 1500 metres in 1960 in World-record time Herb Elliott started a degree course at Cambridge. David Thurlow traced the footsteps of a reluctant champion for “Track Stats” August 2007

The party was at a friend’s house in a village outside Cambridge and there was a young man holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He had a hawkish nose and an impressive build, and although I knew he was due at the University that autumn term in 1960 I did not expect to meet him in person. It was Herb Elliott, reluctant Olympic champion and World record-holder at 1500 metres (3:35.6) and unbeaten at the mile throughout his career and World record-holder at that distance (3.54.5).

He had moved to this particular village and was living with his family 50 yards from my friend’s house. I was to see a bit of him during his two years at the University where he mixed his rather casual attitude to athletics with studying and flying with the University Air Squadron, and in fact he missed the first day of the Freshmen’s trials because of a flying lesson.

I saw several of his races, particularly the cross-country ones, which he did enjoy, and the determination and guts he showed when unfit to keep his unbeaten mile record intact was quite something to behold. But my abiding memory was one afternoon when the Bumps rowing races were on and I spotted him, Tim Johnston (then a long-distance track World record-holder) and Alistair Heron (a Scottish steeplechase international) running across a large tract of land near the City centre known as Midsummer Common. They were moving fast, but suddenly Herb – to use a motoring expression – put his foot down and sped off like a gazelle. I have seen all the post-World War II distance-runners and marvelled at Zátopek, Kuts and now Bekele and Gebrselassie, but I have never seen anyone move with such grace, power, concentration, speed and exhilarating athletic brilliance as Herb did that afternoon.

He was even more the reluctant runner after the Olympics. He ran at Cambridge because he was there, it was expected of him, and he was the best of the crop of freshmen that autumn. His running – until the final winter when he competed as an individual in the Eastern and the National cross-country championships – was confined to the University and he did not compete in the British track season. He was probably the most gifted natural runner there was at the time, and maybe ever. If only he had run the marathon he would have done 2:05 then, as his colleagues would testify after his performance chasing a VW caravanette over 15 miles in Sweden in 1958 and only stopping because one of his travelling-companions, Murray Halberg, himself an Olympic champion and World record-holder, would not let him go any further.

Elliott started his Cambridge career on the new Milton Road track (not the old three-laps-to-the-mile clockwise track at Fenner’s, but a four-lap one) on a late October day when the wind swept in from the Urals without a hillock to stop it. He missed the first day’s events because he was flying with the University Air Squadron, but on the second day he won the 880 yards in 1:57.1 and a month later won the annual freshmen’s match against Oxford in 1:54.2 and did a slightly slower time (1:56.6) on the last leg in the 4 x 880 relay when Cambridge were a long way behind. He did not bother with the mile, considering himself to be unfit for that, but he did run and enjoy cross-country over the notoriously muddy home course.

He came 2nd to Tim Briault, the University’s first string, against the RAF and was 7th against South London Harriers at Coulsdon (there is a photo of him sprinting in in the November 19 “AW”) and then joint 2nd in the annual clash against the dark blues at Roehampton, running in with Mike Turner, 32 seconds behind Briault. Two months later he turned out for his College, Jesus, in the inter-college Cuppers and won the half-mile in 2:02.6 and two months after that he won the same event in the University trials in 1:53.4. The next day he came closest to losing his mile invincibility record since the days when he ran against his fellow-Australian, Merv Lincoln, as this time he was up against another freshman, Martin Heath, from Liverpool, who had won the LAC schools’ mile in fast time the year before. Coming round the last bend it looked as though Elliott was a beaten man, but with the courage and magnificent strength that he had gained with Cerutty on the sandhills at Portsea in Australia he made a desperate effort over the last 15 yards to get home by a stride – 4:09.9 to 4:10.1.

A week later he ran 9:05.5 for 2 miles in a triple tie with Briault and M.A. Tribe, and six days after that he was much fitter for the match against the AAA and won the 880 in 1:50.3 and also tried – later in the afternoon – the two miles again, but he was tired and came 3rd in 9.01.2. He showed his real class for the only time in his student days with a 1:49.9/4:07.2 double against the Dark Blues. He first set a record in the half and then followed Heath’s pace of 62.2, 2:07.8, 3:11 in the mile before striding round the last lap in 56sec like the champion of 1958, with Heath blowing up to finish 5th.

Elliott did not run so well in a race in Zagreb where he finished 2nd – 1:52.5 to the 1:50.4 by the German, Siegfried Valentin – before ending in the same position in the Oxford and Cambridge v Harvard and Yale match in the US with 1:51.7 behind Jim Stack, of Yale (1:50.6). That was it until October when he ran the anchor leg for the University in the local Coleridge AC club open relay (they finished 3rd, with Elliott doing the fastest lap of the day) but was out of cross-country due to a lingering cold and exams, flying and family life. He still ran regularly, but it was the running of a man who loved to do it, not the training of someone who had races to win, something to prove.

He missed the rest of the University winter track and cross-country season but reappeared in January 1962 to come 4th behind Turner, Briault and Johnston in a cross-country match against Thames Hare and Hounds. He continued over the country as an individual in the Eastern counties’ championships at Ampthill, Bedfordshire, where it was a wicked and typically English nine-mile course, mud to your ankles, hills and plough, with trees blown down during a recent gale. I was watching and was really surprised to see him running a long way back after a couple of miles but picking his way through the field – so unlike anything he had encountered in Australia where the sun was shining at that time of the year – and finishing 2nd, a minute behind the runaway winner, Norman Clarke, of Lincoln Wellington.

Then Elliott was 14th, a minute-and-a-half behind winner Ron Hill in the British Universities’ championships, having won an 880 yards in the inter-college Cuppers second division meeting in … 2:08.2. But there was still power in his legs, as he showed when running the 4th fastest stage of the day for his College in the Hyde Park Imperial College relays. He turned up as an individual for the National cross-country championships in Blackpool, where local hero Gerry North outsprinted Bruce Tulloh, and had another good run. In a massive field he came 35th, 19 places ahead of his conqueror in the Eastern, and thoroughly enjoying it.

Somehow he was persuaded to turn out for the half-mile at the annual University v AAA match two months later. He was unfit, unwilling and unhappy, but he ran because he had been asked and thought he ought to, and it was a sad finale to a supreme career. Like the few others there, I watched in disbelief. I had not realised that he was so unfit and overweight. I filmed the race but luckily the 8 mm was lost in a move, because it was sad sight that should not be kept for posterity. Far better the 1960 Rome film ! He trailed in a very poor last, and afterwards he said, “I’ve just lost interest. This is the finish. I’m sorry it had to happen this way. I didn’t want to run here, but I felt that if I declined people would think I couldn’t take a beating. It’s nice to feel the pressure’s off”.

I remember asking him if it would have been different if it had been a mile race, but he only grinned. He might have lost interest, but he was not going to risk losing that record. Mel Watman made the point in “AW” that it would have been fitting for Herb to go out on a high, not with a time that was slower than four-minute mile pace. Very much as always with Mel, right to the point, he added: “At last he can lead a normal life away from the glare of world wide publicity. Elliott proved, if ever any proof were needed, that even an athlete with his natural ability must train hard to race fast. He has shown the world to what degree his success is attributable to those long and severe training sessions. His swan-song, sad as it was to behold, may prove of immense value. For it provides the complete answer for those who argue with coaches and schoolmasters that an athlete either has it or he hasn’t, and no amount of training will alter that state of affairs”.

True then as it is today – as the reluctant athlete would be the first to admit.

Footnote: many thanks to Dr Chris Thorne and Mel Watman for their help.