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FOOTNOTE TO A FORMULA
In their eagerness to try anything new, some American coaches and athletes latched onto "speed play" in a big way, seeming to assume that here at last was the magic formula for European distance supremacy. Suddenly golfers about the country were startled by the appearance on fairways of groups of thinly clad young men, gamboling in erratic, if dead serious, fashion. But no perceptible improvement in distance men resulted. The imitators seemed not to have heeded Coach Holmer's precautionary footnote in forwarding details of his system. "It is wrong," he warned, "to give a student at Yale the same work in training as a man who, in the struggle of life, may have to walk 10 miles daily."
There's the rub. While American distance runners can be, have been, improved by sensible adaption of the best foreign methods, there is a limit. Unlike the sprints and jumps and hurdles and weight events, distance running cannot be mastered in a relatively short time by standard techniques and good coaching. To become a topflight distance man requires considerably more time, more conditioning and more plain Spartan self-denial than to excel in any other branch of track—possibly any other amateur sport. By no means untypical of the world's best is the grueling regime followed by Dave Stephens, Australia's "Flying Milkman," who cracked the world six-mile mark this winter. Stephens trains every day of the year, including Sundays and holidays. When on his milk job, he used to start with an hour's run before work, jogging a good part of his 12-mile route followed by horse and wagon and then finishing off with two to three hours of interval running or conditioning work.
Stephens, by the way, has been at it for 14 years, which is only what it may take to reach excellence at the sport. Like the best French wines, distance men mature slowly. Emil Zatopek did not arrive at his peak until he was 29 and began to break records in earnest only in his 30s. Gaston Reiff, Belgium's Olympic champion, was 31 when he set the world two-mile mark, while most of the Hungarians and Russians favored for Olympic medals next fall have been running for eight years or more.
By contrast, most American runners quit track soon after leaving college. As the two-mile run is the longest collegiate distance and longer events are not as popular with the American public as with Europeans, there is neither early preparation nor the inclination there might be among American runners to essay such Olympic routes as the 5,000-and 10,000-meter runs. Those determined athletes who keep up their running while holding down jobs find it no easy trick to get in as much as two hours of training in the early morning or at night, at a track that may be miles distant from their home and place of work. There is usually not even time for the regular daily long walks that can be so valuable in distance training. As a result, the best American distance man can rarely reach the peak conditioning of, say, a small-town Scandinavian who can easily walk to work or the nearby track, or an Iron Curtain athlete with a state subsidy to permit plenty of hard training in place of a full-time job.
It might even be that distance running simply no longer fits into the American way of life. "The basic requirement of distance running," said the great Landy recently after his first visit to the U.S., "is physical fitness obtained through a daily routine of running. Life in America is very complex. For the high school boys there are so many things to do. So many of them have cars that a rigid routine of running would have little appeal."
To believe what this implies would be discouraging to all Americans who, with a mixture of pure excitement and vicarious pride, have ever watched great runners exerting all their efforts in that most exciting of all competitive events, the mile run. It would be to deny a stirring history of distance running in America which, though sadly devoid of international victories over the years, nonetheless played its own full part in the spectacular achievements of the last two generations.
But something is necessary, and perhaps, as a beginning, it is only this: to inject into young Americans once more what Roger Bannister called "the joy of running"—that "new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed." For when running is pure joy, as well as physical achievement, then it becomes possible again for a man to run a mile as a favor to his girl friend—and to run it in under four minutes, to his own surprise.