SI Vault
Gary Smith
June 27, 1994
Forty years after Roger Bannister broke four minutes, the brotherhood of mile record holders gathered to honor their grand obsession
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June 27, 1994

An Exclusive Club

Forty years after Roger Bannister broke four minutes, the brotherhood of mile record holders gathered to honor their grand obsession

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"Yes," said Filbert. "Once in a lifetime." And he peered down at his page full of scrawl, racking his brain to figure out whom he had missed.

Lunch concluded, the milers splintered for an hour. Walker, Cram, Landy and Andersson took a guided tour of a few Oxford colleges; the Ryun family went to explore the old haunts of the famous Christian writer C.S. Lewis; and Elliott wandered through the bookstores in search of Siddhartha, the Hermann Hesse novel of a man's spiritual journey. At 56, Elliott was circling back, ready to complete the quest he had begun as a runner.

When Elliott was 18, sitting in the stands during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, his hunger to run had been ignited by the spectacle that unfolded in the 10,000 meters. Vladimir Kuts, a Soviet runner who had tossed incendiary bombs at German tanks during the defense of Stalingrad, kept surging away from England's Gordon Pirie, then slowing enough to engage Pirie's monstrous fighting instincts, then surging away again. "It was like watching a cat play with a half-dead mouse," recalled Elliott. "Kuts utterly steamrollered Pirie. It appealed to the basic, animal part of me, the part that wanted to grind people to dust. That's what I ran for at first. But then I realized the battle wasn't against others. It was against myself. It was in defeating my own weaknesses, in demonstrating that my spirit could master my body. It's why billions of people watch people run in circles or kick a bag of leather, isn't it? It's for those moments when we realize we're not just watching bodies, when human spirit is revealed."

Kindled by Kuts, Elliott drove to Portsea, Australia, to engage the counsel of a white-haired fanatic named Percy Cerutty, who ranted of Gandhi, Christ and Tennyson, who raised drudgery to philosophy and turned a footrace into a test not of strategy or athletic skill but of human character. He had Elliott racing up and down an 80-foot sand dune, hoisting barbells made from rusting railroad track, reading H.G. Wells's 1,200-page Outline of History in his camp bunkhouse at night. "He challenged my totality," said Elliott. "I came to realize that spirit, as much as or more than physical conditioning, had to be stored up before a race. I would avoid running on tracks because tracks were spiritually depleting. I never studied my opponents—they were an irrelevancy to me. Poetry, music, forests, ocean, solitude—they were what developed enormous spiritual strength. How do the modern professional runners today find that, when most everything they do would seem to deplete that simplicity, that spirituality? I'd like to talk to Morceli about that this week.

"Once I had satisfied myself in that question—that my spirit could dominate my body—there was no great reason to continue. People still ask me if I made a mistake in quitting so young, but they have it all wrong. To keep having to do more, to keep being dissatisfied, what kind of man would that be? He might be called a brute."

He retired, graduated from Cambridge, grew apart from Cerutty—what role could such a Svengali play in the life of a man trying to raise six children, to climb the ladder in marketing with the Shell chemical company and then in the management of Puma in Australia? "Service to your job, your family, that's all part of human experience," Elliott said, "but my life was a spiritual desert until a couple of years ago." This time it was a Catholic priest who reawakened him with tales of life in an ashram in India, and Elliott quickly sensed that his old quest had been abandoned in its infancy, that the ultimate aim of spirituality is not so much to dominate the body as to learn to let it go. So he traveled to an ashram in India last year. Now every morning at 5:30, he awakens and reads passages from the Upanishads or the Bhagavadgita, ancient Hindu treatises on the struggle for purity and wisdom, and he meditates and tries to let all the motion and memos and meetings melt away.

Just two miles from Cerutty's old oceanside camp, Elliott bought a house on the beach, and each time he walks or jogs past the cemetery where the old prophet lies at rest, he stops and acknowledges what the old man did for his life. "We've grown back together," Elliott said. "I suspect I know what I'll do with my retirement. It won't be a rest. It'll be an adventure. The object would be to totally remove yourself from body and mind, from ego. To think I could ever do that would require total arrogance, but to do it would take total humility. Yes, kind of like...."

BANNISTER: I have always said that man will run the mile in 3:30—given the human body constituted as it is, with perfect training and perfect facilities, the world remaining relatively peaceful and without too many wars, famines and disasters.

SNELL: I think I've seen the fastest miler ever. I think Morceli is the guy.

MORCELI: I think I can take another two or three seconds off of it.

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