On a Breezy Yorkshire Sunday morning, you're running 11 miles over the countryside with the next great British miler. Peter Elliott, a broad-shouldered, red-haired man of 27, takes you and a couple of friends from his local running club past the loading docks and warehouses of his hometown of Rotherham and onto a muddy path beside a stagnant canal.
The route is full of quick turns and fences that need to be vaulted, of kids' shortcuts worn deep. You push through the branches of trees felled by the windstorms that raked Great Britain last winter. Elliott crosses a canal on a narrow, slippery steel beam studded with rivets, and then he looks back, his glance a gleam of mineral blue. He wants to assure himself of your safety—either that, or he wants to enjoy your fall.
You're prepared to believe he will drive you until you crack, for Elliott is a rarity in modern running, indeed in all of modern sport. He's a throwback, a man who became a world-class athlete while working full-time at a physically demanding job. For 11 years, until he left the job last month on the eve of what may be a momentous summer, he was a carpenter in a steel mill.
Elliott's pace this morning never exceeds six minutes per mile. He's going easy on you, showing none of the speed that earned him second place in the 800 meters at the 1987 World Championships in Rome. At the '88 Olympics in Seoul, running with discomfort from what he thought was an injured groin muscle, he was second in the 1,500 and fourth in the 800. He clearly is an athlete of enormous talent and resourcefulness.
Spoiled Britons, however, have been reluctant to accept him into the heroic middle-distance company of his older rivals, Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram, who together brought home seven Olympic medals, broke 16 individual world outdoor records and still hold the marks for the mile (Cram's 3:46.32 in 1985), the 1,000 (Coe's 2:12.18 in '81) and the 800 (Coe's 1:41.73 in '81). For years Elliott lived agreeably in the shadow of that triumvirate. "I always pointed out that I had never won a major championship or set a world record," he says. "Until I did, I wasn't in their class."
Now he has done both. In February, he won the 1,500 at the Commonwealth Games, in Auckland, New Zealand, in 3:33.39. Later that month he broke the world indoor record for the 1,500 with a time of 3:34.21 at a meet in Seville, Spain. And any week now, he could eclipse Said Aouita's outdoor 1,500 record of 3:29.46 as well as Cram's mile mark. The 1,500 record could fall at a Grand Prix meet in Stockholm on July 2; the mile record, at the Bislett Games in Oslo on July 14. "Obviously the outdoor 1,500 record will mean more [than the indoor 1,500 mark]," says Elliott, "but I'm in the top bracket now."
Elliott is third-generation Rotherham; a town of 81,988 in the north of England. Iron was forged in Rotherham as far back as Roman times. When the great Bessemer blast furnaces arrived in the 1870s, the region took on Dickensian elements of roaring hearths and billowing coal smoke. The air has improved. Elliott's Rotherham mixes tidy residences and deep green woods with its cooling towers and few remaining mills.
As the run continues, you climb a wooden stile over a hedge to reach the turf surrounding Brinsworth Comprehensive School. "My first cross-country race began on this field," says Elliott. He was 12. From the beginning he was an uncomplicated, robust boy. He joined the Rotherham Harriers and Athletic Club, to which he still belongs, running cross-country in winter and the 800 in summer.
"I don't know why I picked the 800," he says. "I just did." Once he had, he held it tight, setting United Kingdom age-group records in the 800 at 15,16 and 19. Elliott never ran the mile as a schoolboy, though his stamina would have made him a natural at the distance. Former British Olympian Brendan Foster once told him, "You've been running the wrong event all your life."
Elliott was being both stubborn and patient. "You've got to run a good 800 to be a miler," he says. "I wanted to really do my best before I moved up."