COE: If you start thinking there's a limit, there is one. It's almost self-defeating. It's going to keep tumbling down.
CRAM: It won't come from training harder. It won't come from science or new techniques or new surfaces. We've exhausted those possibilities. But every 10 or 20 years, the freak human being will come along. That's what will keep lowering the record.
ELLIOTT: I think I'm the only dreamer. Human beings have a huge reservoir of strength we've never tapped—we've only just begun to ply around its edges. I think there's a quantum leap there to be made. We still overprotect ourselves. It would be very unintelligent to run yourself to death...but I'm sure we can go a lot closer to it.
"I feel silly," said Morceli. "I feel crazy." The autograph frenzy at the Randolph Hotel had achieved several things. Now all of the record holders knew one another. Now all of them had felt silly and crazy in front of each other. There was not so much to protect. They had all stepped into each other's shade.
The chatter grew louder, the quips began to fly. "Poor Morceli!" yipped Ibbotson. "He's got withdrawal symptoms—he hasn't run in two hours!"
"I'm taken aback," said Snell. "Whenever I saw Herb Elliott before, all I ever thought of was raw aggression, this ruthless killer instinct. He's so jovial now. He's actually quite gregarious!"
In Snell's hands, as the bus ferried the milers back to London, was a book with yellow pages and a cover about to disintegrate. It was a 17th-birthday gift from his parents, the first athletic book he ever received: Roger Bannister's autobiography, The Four Minute Mile. Now its opening page was covered with signatures.
The musty pages smelled of memories, of an old and quiet desperation for success, of a shy, likable, big-eared, toothy-grinned boy crushed by his father's disappointment in him. The book had been given to him in the midst of two straight years in which he had failed in boarding school, smashing the teenager's chances of entering New Zealand's rigid university system, destroying his father's plan that Peter, just like Peter's dad and older brother, would become an engineer. Running became Peter's salvation. He took the 800-meter gold medal as a long shot at the Rome Olympics in 1960, eclipsed Elliott's mile record on a grass track in New Zealand in '62 and won both the 1,500-and 800-meter gold medals at the Tokyo Games in '64.
Snell had planned to run just one more year after that, to use running as a vehicle to see the world. But as psychological fuel, travel ranked nowhere near in octane to his old petrol, the need for self-esteem. At age 26 he lost nine consecutive races in less than two months and quit, but there was one reward. He found his calling that summer, becoming fascinated by the gadgets and line of inquiry of San Diego State exercise physiologists whom he permitted to run tests on him. It took years, but he slowly screwed up the courage to junk his job in promotions for a cigarette company, sell his house, leave New Zealand and stake every cent he owned on three years of study at the University of California, Davis ("I could fail quietly there," he explained), and then four more, thanks to prize money he won in Superstars competitions in the 1970s, at Washington Slate. His father—who suffered a stroke during Peter's last year in high school, became mute and died in '62—would never live to see his son's academic redemption. Today Snell, 55, is an assistant professor doing research in exercise physiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
"There was such pressure on an athlete then to be a complete man," Snell said. " 'When are you going to do something of substance?'—I got a lot of that. Now everything's changed. It's quite respectable to be just a runner. But yes, the world record did liberate me in a way. My thrust is enjoying my work now, not publishing papers or collecting more diplomas, as many of my peers do. If I hadn't proven in running that I was the best in the world, I'd be chasing that forever in academics."