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In the heat of Olympic competition these speedy rivals are likely to be faster still. When Landy came out of a year's retirement this winter to reel off the 3:58.6 mile that put him right back on top, his comment on his second-best effort was one that few experts would care to gainsay. "My time can easily be equaled by European runners," he said. "To win in the Olympics, I must be able to run a mile in 3:55 or 3:56."
WHERE IS THE GREAT TRADITION?
What has become of the great mile tradition in the United States? Where are the successors to Cunningham, Bonthron, Fenske and their like? One answer is suggested by the old but relevant remark, attributed to a British wit who was asked whether he did not think the national humor magazine Punch had slipped. "Punch is not what it used to be," he conceded, "but then it never was." While America has been turning out top milers for several decades, it is now nearly half a century since any American has managed to win the Olympic metric mile.
Indeed, since the 1908 Olympics only one American has captured any Olympic event of longer than 800 meters (although a couple of others have come agonizingly close) and he was no miler. Significantly, when Horace Ashenfelter finally turned the trick in the Olympic steeplechase at Helsinki in 1952, by beating Russia's Vladimir Kazantsev in a stirring stretch duel after catching him at the last barrier, it was heralded as a major upset. A Finnish sports-writer, sharing in the general astonishment, went so far as to compare Ashen-felter's feat to that of an Eskimo winning the 100-meter dash in a fur parka.
While somewhat less than flattering, the comparison contained more than a particle of point. It put the finger on an American weakness in distance events that can only be described as chronic.
Even apart from Olympic showings, the record books bear testimony to this long-standing deficiency. They show that while U.S. athletes have consistently captured most of the world records in the majority of track and field events, the number of Americans who have managed to set world marks at races of a mile or longer during the last half century can practically be counted on one hand. American runners have, with a few brief exceptions, generally lagged behind European and world standards at any given time by anything from precious seconds in the mile to minutes in the longer events. For example, Olympic Champion Ashen-felter's present U.S. two-mile record of 8:49.6 is more than 16 seconds behind the best European and world marks for the distance.
Why can't American distance men do better? Track coaches have discussed and debated the problem for years, meanwhile dipping into the more successful European distance running techniques and training methods. This has brought results—up to a point. The lead in adapting European practice was taken by the late E. C. (Billy) Hayes of Indiana University, who made a thorough study of the Flying Finns back in the early '30s when Paavo Nurmi and his countrymen dominated the distance field. Hayes helped popularize in the U.S. a Scandinavian training procedure that, with modifications, has since become known as "interval running." This is simply the use of change of pace through a nonstop practice period—a mixture of speed work, jogging and walking instead of sole accent on maintaining a set pace.
Hayes frequently required his runners to change the lead among them at the end of each 220 or 440 yards during a practice race, finding this helped to combat fatigue and to key them up for topflight competition. Hayes's success certainly seemed to justify his methods: his star pupil, Don Lash, ripped off a two-mile in 1936 that wiped out Nurmi's five-year-old world mark. Other Hayes men—Tommy Deckard, Campbell Kane, Fred Wilt, Mel Trutt and Jimmy Smith—joined with Lash in dominating the American distance and cross-country scene for years.
But the Hayes lead was still not enough to bridge the gap between American distance men and the best from Europe; Lash's two-mile record was bettered by a Finn within a few months. Casting about for an even better training gimmick, many American coaches were attracted by the success in the '40s of G�sta Holmer, Swedish Olympic coach, whose stable of milers, led by Guilder Haegg and Arne Andersson, staged a succession of spectacular races that drove the world mile mark down almost a full five seconds to 4:01.4 in the brief space of four years.
Coach Holmer's secret, he revealed, was a system known in Swedish as fartlek, or "speed play." This was simply a bucolic variation on that earlier Scandinavian cinder-path smorgasbord called interval running, done on meadows and forest trails. During an hour or two of this, a small group of runners indulges in every form of locomotion from fast sprints to leisurely walks—Holmer suggesting that the walks be taken "listening to the song of the birds. It is not only the body that gets tired," he said, "but the mind as well." Besides its esthetic benefits, this form of training was designed to avoid the monotony of daily track work, shorten the stride, improve muscle tone and build resourcefulness.