Coe came up with a nice proof of that last week when, only a few days shy of his 30th birthday, he ran a personal best in the 1,500 of 3:29.77. (And for sheer staying power, consider what Walker did on Sept. 10 in the Mobil Grand Prix mile in Rome. Eleven years after becoming the first man to break the 3:50 barrier with his 3:49.4, he ran a mile in 3:50.93, behind Scott's winning 3:50.28.)
The temperament of a miler is equally a balance between a sprinter's competitiveness and a distance runner's humility. "Sensitive macho guys," says Roscoe Divine, who ran 3:56.3 for Oregon. If a miler is rushed, with too many races or too much hard track training, he may briefly be good, but he almost certainly will burn out.
The British system, which is used in Australia and New Zealand as well, brings milers along from adolescence, in clubs where members run arduous but salubrious cross-country for much of the year. In such clubs lasting bonds are formed between coaches and runners. Record breakers Herb Elliott of Australia, Snell, Walker, Ovett, Cram and Coe all were coached from the time they were teenagers by the same men—respectively, Percy Cerutty, Arthur Lydiard, Arch Jelley, Harry Wilson, Jimmy Hedley and Peter Coe, Sebastian's father—men who took long, protective views of their charges' careers.
But when an American miler shows talent in high school, his coach is happy to wring as many varsity points out of him as he can. Even if coach and runner begin to grope toward a sensible training plan, the runner's career is jolted when he's handed over to a college coach. "And long-term planning is difficult on a short-term scholarship," says Snell. A notable American exception was Ryun. From the time Ryun entered Wichita East High School through his college career at Kansas, Bob Timmons was able to continually oversee his training. A more recent exception is Sydney Maree, a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in South Africa, where the English training ethic prevails. And when Maree came to here, he attended Villanova, where he trained under the late Jumbo Elliot, a coach who served his milers well.
American college cross-country is over by Thanksgiving, and many milers go straight to indoor track—or, lately, to road racing—then directly to the outdoor season. Most are exhausted when the big European races begin in midsummer. ( Scott, long out of school, has survived because of innate stamina and by switching to a European calendar.)
Between college races, American milers are required to do far more track training than their counterparts elsewhere. This is where we get to the peculiar fragility of middle-distance runners. Without a balance between relatively gentle, aerobic running and severe interval training, a miler soon goes sour. Ryun was famous for doing 20 quarter miles in 60 seconds apiece, with only a minute's recovery time in between. This became a lethal heritage. Not only was Ryun ready to quit by the time he was a college senior, but Timmons acknowledges that he compromised the careers of many other Kansas runners with the volume of such workouts, not realizing that Ryun was almost freakish in his ability to withstand and improve under such anaerobic stress.
" Ryun's workouts ruined a lot of people, and not just at Kansas," says Cordner Nelson, the founding editor of Track and Field News. "Overworking by U.S. coaches is a historic factor." It leaves Americans ready to retire at an age when European runners consider them still to be children.
Runners who continue to improve after college all seem to be steeplechasers, distance runners or marathoners. "We rarely have a miler who develops inside the system," says Hendershott. Which is to say we rarely have a miler.
Another element must be cultural. The rest of the world grows up playing soccer, a game that emphasizes running endurance. Both Cram and 1,500 record holder Said Aouita of Morocco played it for years. And miling is hard. Its call must be taken up with sustained passion. "Look at all the opportunities for achievement here," says Snell. "In a small country like New Zealand [or Kenya or Morocco], those avenues are fewer, so the real achievers are channeled."
A second advantage enjoyed by runners from small countries is freedom from cutthroat Olympic trials and double peaking. Their milers go to the Olympics fresh and hungry.