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Interview With "Best Of Best" Mile Runners

Interview With "Best Of Best" Mile Runners

Melanie Collins interviews four of the world's finest milers. John Walker (NZL), Herb Elliott (AUS), Steve Cram (GBR) and Ron Delaney (IRE) all world record holders or Olympic champions were invited to Australia by the AOC and were special guests at a coaching workshop hosted at the NSWIS.

Q: The world record today is 3:26 for 1500m. Do you think the times you ran as world records were the best you could ever imagine you were capable of or do you think that you were limited by lack of competition, opportunities and perhaps facilities in being able to do the kind of times that the current world record-holders are doing?

WALKER: El Guerrouj is the best now but he won't be the best forever. You've got to look at each generation on its merits - the coaching, the tracks and the competition and what the races were all about. I think if we all look at our own eras, Steve probably had a bit more competition than the rest of us because there was [Sebastian] Coe and [Steve] Ovett. But a lot of us had to run solo for a long period of time and in a lot of races. And pace-makers weren't the norm in those days. I nearly got disqualified when I set a world record for the mile because somebody paced me for 600m and it was a 'no-no' thing. Today, the pace-makers go a long way to make sure the race is fast. The times are set up for the athletes and the athletes don't have to be brilliant. But I think it is much easier today for athletes to run fast and there many more opportunities for them to get good competition.

ELLIOTT: It's a long time ago since I ran a world record but I don't remember being preoccupied with things like world records. You were preoccupied with getting better each day, so the daily process was the challenge. So if you did that, you progressed and the progression meant that you won races and that you broke the 4-minute mile and the next thing you know, you're breaking the world record. I didn't go into a race thinking, 'this is going to be the day I break the world record'. You knew in the back of your mind it was a possibility but it was never the primary target. And I think if you set it as your target, it could have been a distraction from the day-to-day process and the final result. And I don't know about the others, but I never felt any ownership of the world record. People would come to you and say 'you've lost your world record' and my view was that it's a world record - it belongs to the world, it's certainly not mine and it's great that somebody else has run faster.

CRAM: I think John was right. You have to look at each era on its merits and understand how these guys were training, the tracks and the set up of races with pacemakers etc.. I think El Guerrouj is a fantastic athlete - some of the sessions he does are phenomenal. But his achievements have been a product of everything these guys (here) and those in my era have done in moving everything forward. The reason I was so good was because he [John Walker] was so good and I had to be good just to get on the British team, so you're as good as what you have to be if you want to be the best. The challenge is to constantly improve yourself even if you're trying to be the best. Now, El Geurrouj has wanted to add his name to the list of bests and in order to do that, he's had to train at a level that is higher than what we did. The thing that makes me think that he's perhaps no better than any of these guys here or any other names that we've mentioned, is that behind El Guerrouj is a bunch of guys running 3:29 and 3:30 who I KNOW are not as good as the guys in this room. And the only reason they're doing that is because they're being dragged along with the pace of the races. Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Said Aouita were better athletes than those guys. While the current crop are faster, there's a different set of circumstances surrounding them. And I firmly believe all these guys (here) would have run faster now than they have in the past if they were training and racing in the modern era because they were the best on their day.

ELLIOTT: We believe you would too, Steve!!!

CRAM: I think the psychology is interesting. It's very different now. El Guerrouj is part of an era where you go out in almost every race aiming to run fast, because the Grand Prix circuit is built that way. There are very few slow, tactical 1500m races, so he attempts world records much more often than we did. If you only ever got one go at Oslo each year to run a fast mile, you ran whatever you had to on that night to win the race and if it was a world record, then brilliant. But you didn't get that opportunity every other week or twice a week that athletes do now.

WALKER: I don't believe anyone at a young age believes they can be world champion or Olympic champion. In my era, there were so many good athletes and they did the same thing day in and day out. They had very fast times but they never won anything. They went into races just hoping they might run fifth or sixth and they were quite content in doing that. I think they probably had just as much talent as we did, but psychologically they weren't a chance because you've got to want to win and want to win more than anybody else and you've got to believe you can do it. A lot of people think it's a little bit arrogant to believe you're better than somebody else but that's the difference between the winners and losers and that's the difference between becoming an Olympic champion or not - believing that on a given day you can win a race. Right throughout my whole career, I only went for a world record three times - out of a total of around 1000-odd races. I was always taught to win the race first and let the times take care of themselves.


DELANEY: At my age, I think it's legitimate to claim I can't remember! The thing that's remained constant is the race - the essence of the competition of the race. So even though times have changed, training has changed, track surfaces and shoes have changed; the fundamental thing is the essence of the race. It is essentially about the combination of intellect and physical strength. To win the race you have to combine the two. You have to be clever enough to know your competition, and to decide when to make your strategic moves. If there's only one strategic move in the race, you've got to have the intelligence and confidence to go after that.

CRAM: I learnt more about myself and why I was successful when I was running badly. In the latter part of my career, my last three-four years, I had a lot of injuries and rarely was there a time where I went into a race with a lot of confidence. But when I think back now, I think that during that period, my thoughts were completely different in races at that period than in the earlier years of my career, when your only thoughts were how you were going to win the race. When I was running badly, I would analyse myself during the race: 'Is my leg all right? Do I feel all right? I've got two laps to go and I'm not feeling too good...' Whereas, during the successful part of my career, I thought about how I was going to win the race. All your thoughts were about, 'What's happening.. what's he doing?.. When am I going to make my move?' So when you weren't in that mode, your thoughts were completely different. I hear too many guys now talk about how they were feeling: 'I got to two laps to go and I thought, ooh...not feeling too good, so I thought I'd better ease off a bit. I wanted to hit the bell feeling pretty good.' And it's the wrong type of talk if you're aiming to win or even do well. I mean you can't win every race; no body wins every race except Herb!! But you should be striving to win and that's what makes you run well. If you're in a 1500m race, you have to use your brain and you cannot be spending it analysing how you feel - that's a negative way of approaching it.

WALKER: I had a different philosophy. I was a bit like Steve except that I made sure the other athletes thought that they couldn't win! So I would psychologically talk them out of it. It was amazing at the Olympics in 1976. In the last 20 minutes before we went out into the stadium, I took off my tracksuit and walked around the room in my black singlet. And I never said a single word, but I made sure that each of those athletes, if they had any doubt in their mind, it was at that time when they would be thinking whether they could win or lose. I think if you're dominant in a particular race, the others have got to beat you and that's when they make mistakes because normally you can make mistakes and still get out of trouble. So it works both ways. But when you're down and not running well, that's when you start looking for the excuses. But in the dominant part of your career, the rest have got to beat you.

DELANEY: When I was racing in America, I ran 40 races in succession without losing. And I took on all challengers from the US and all the Europeans wanted to run against me. My thoughts in the races were much better than outside them. My problem was all the bad thoughts that came into my head. The media would be saying, 'Ron goes for 33rd mile race victory tonight' and I'd be going out saying, 'God, I have to WIN this race'. Or I'd be in the race, and back in those days the first couple of laps were often quite slow, and I'd be bored out of my mind, sitting in on these guys, and I'd start thinking negative thoughts like, 'I'm feeling tired, I think I might have to stop.' And I'd visualise in my mind getting a stich and it getting so bad that I'd have to pull over to the side, and this is in the middle of a race! And then suddenly someone would hit you in the back or would come up to pass you and you'd come out of it. But the thought would be there: how do I not go through the agony of running and winning this race? How can I escape it? Can I get away with me feigning a pain in my side?' That's not a great race situation and it won't happen very often but it happened to me and it scared me so bad because I would have been so ashamed of myself if I'd stopped. And I did overcome it and win it, thank God.

ELLIOTT: It's amazing how athletes ever allow themselves to get into a position in a race where they're not in control. How often do you see people in middle distance races on the inside lane, with three people wide of them, in front, behind and they're boxed in. And they have no control over what's going to happen to them at that point. They can wait for the gap and hope that one is going to open up - and it's just hope, they don't have control. I would suggest that it's far better to run three or four wide in a race where you had control of your own destiny, even though you might run 20 yards further as a consequence, but you were in control of where you were. There is no one else who can dictate what's going to happen to you except by running better than you. And it just amazes me how people in a race can put themselves in a position where they have no hope half-way through the race or they are very much under someone else's thumb throughout the race. So if you want to win a race, you must be determined that you're not going to allow someone else to control your destiny during the race. I was talking with Steve earlier about the mind-set for a race. And I used this example: At the 1982 Commonwealth Games, there was a British athlete in the heat of the 800m and four from each heat went through to the semis. Anyway he was pretty good - he came down the finishing straight with one lap gone and he touched the foot of someone and fell over - not on the track where he might have hurt himself, but onto the grass. And he just lay there absolutely despondent for about 15 seconds, then got up and walked off the track - no limp, nothing. Now compare that to the mindset of the person who suffers that accident and bounces up and chases the field and probably comes in the first four and gets into the semi-final. There's something different in the mindset of a person like that, where the first obstacle they run into in a race stops them and they just lay there despondent. So I guess having some sort of determination, in saying 'okay, there's luck involved and there's some circumstance involved. I can control where I am, but I can't control what other people are doing. But by God, I am going to perform and nothing's going to stop me unless I die!' That's the sort of attitude that makes the difference. So, if you get to a particular part of a race and you are challenged and you had determined in your mind that you want to be in front at this point (say two laps out) and here's somebody trying to pass me. You just don't let him pass and you just keep going until you drop dead. What happens is they will slow down before you drop dead because they don't have the same attitude. So it's the attitude you take into a race which is vitally important. My coach always said to me, when you run in a race, it must be to run 'excellence', so winning in a slow time was not excellent. Every race I went into, I was striving for excellence. That meant I didn't race very often. We had five or six races a year where we'd go for it and they were races of excellence.

CRAM: I'll tell you a story that is anecdotal about the 1500m Olympic final in 1980. As you are probably aware, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe were huge rivals. Steve Ovett won the 800m when Coe was meant to. The idea was Coe was favourite to win the 800m and Ovett was meant to win the 1500m and much to a lot of people's enjoyment, Steve won the 800m. So going into the 1500m final, a lot of us were assuming Ovett was then the big favourite to win the 1500m too because he'd won the "wrong" event if you like and this was meant to be his event. I was the third member of the British team and I was 19 and took to observing these two athletes at very close quarters. Steve was a pretty confident, cocky character at the best of times and he was quite chirpy when we were ready to leave the Village to warm up for the final of the 1500m. We got in the lift and we went down one floor and we were with Harry Wilson, Steve's coach, and the lift opened and in comes Seb and Peter Coe and I thought, "Well, this'll be fun!". It was like the Waltons when everyone says goodnight to each other. Everyone said hello to each other in the lift except Steve and Seb. Anyway, we went outside and got on this team bus to go to the stadium and Seb went off somewhere and Steve was like, 'Where's he going? Why isn't he on the bus?' So that was the first thing I noticed. Seb had a private car to take him to the stadium. We arrived at the track early, so we lay down under some shade somewhere. And the whole time we were there, every 5-10 minutes, Steve would say to Harry, 'Where's Seb? Why hasn't he arrived yet? Where's he gone? Where's he warming up?' Even as a 19-year-old, I started to think, 'Hang on a minute, this guy's a bit too preoccupied with the other athletes.' So we warmed up and then we had to walk down into the depths of the stadium into this call room, which was tiny. There were only 10 guys in the final and we all sat around the edge of the room - no body said anything - you're wrapped up in what you've got to do. We were kept in there for about 30 minutes and Seb came in last after Steve had asked about four times where he was. Seb stripped off to his singlet and he just paced up and down in the middle of the room - he didn't sit down - just paced leisurely up and down the room - very focussed. Most of the rest of us felt like we were at Wimbledon - watching him go back and forth. Steve got up and, at the time, I thought this was great psychology, but it actually worked the other way: you know when you feel in a situation where you feel very insecure or uncomfortable and you want to have friends to talk to. Well, Steve tried to talk to Seb and at first I thought he was trying to psych Seb out, but as I realised afterwards, it was more a result of Steve's slight insecurity and he said something like, 'Where'd you warm up?' Seb just kept walking. There were a couple of questions from Steve and they weren't answered by Seb, so Steve sat down again. The point I am making is that Steve had gone from being immensely confident, to allowing himself, in that race, to became very preoccupied with Seb instead of concentrating on himself. I don't think he reacted very well during the race and I don't think his mindset was necessarily the way he would have liked it to be. Seb was exactly the opposite. Someone was going to have to kill him not to win that race. Often psychology is what makes the difference between winning and losing a race.


DELANEY: I didn't really need a training partner. I don't want to sound arrogant but I was training to my own standards for my own goals. What I did do occasionally was have some of the other guys come in with me and just do some of the session with me, and it was nice to have company sometimes. So I didn't feel I needed training partners but then, I was a bit of a loner. In my era, we didn't train as hard or as much as these other guys here but we did race a lot as part of the US College system. In the American system, they wanted to get their pound of flesh - it wasn't a bad deal at the time because you got a free education worth $20,000 a year but the system was set up to use you. I ran 5-6 cross country races and maybe 15 indoor races and probably raced every week, sometimes twice a week, during the outdoor season. So before I went back to Europe in June, I would have run maybe 40 races and that was the substitute for not training. The maximum distance I ever ran in training was 10 miles and the maximum number of repeat quarter miles I would have ever done was 12. I would have done 10 at an average of 58 seconds, which was indicative of a substantial level of strength and speed. So really in my case, the substitute for hard training was this hard racing. I won the Olympics at 21 and I wouldn't have won if I hadn't gone to America because that's where I gained so much competition experience.

ELLIOTT: I preferred to train mostly by myself. I found that training with somebody else was a distraction. Training by yourself, you are very conscious of the battle within yourself - that there was one part of you saying, 'Hey you're going too fast and you've got another six miles to go - slow down' and I could deal with that by thinking about it myself - keep myself motivated to keep moving. Most of the time when we started training sessions as a group, someone, (even if we'd agreed beforehand), would slip their shoulder in front and you'd think, 'bugger that' and your shoulder would go in front of theirs and next you know the game was on and you'd clear out anyway, so you'd end up running by yourself for most of it. So very rarely would we run as a group. You were there for a particular purpose and you stayed better focussed if you were by yourself.

CRAM: I had a group of training partners. I didn't have a training group as such. As my career went on, I was grateful to have a couple of guys who I did my general running with. One of them, who spent a lot of time running with me, ended up running for Britain in cross country. He wasn't a good athlete - and this is where I go back to the point that running is not hard - this guy was a very average club athlete - I kid you not - he was useless and he wouldn't mind me saying this. And for five years he did all my winter running. He couldn't run on the track to save his life. To run a 60-second lap would have killed him. But he had good strength and he just trained and trained. The slowest I would do my mileage was six-minute-mile pace and he gradually built up to do it with me. On the track, there were a couple of guys who would help out in sessions and do some reps with me. But the important thing was I knew what I was doing. It was my training and if the lads wanted to join in, that was fine.

WALKER: I needed people around me. I was basically lazy. I needed a kickstart to get going every night. And I would sometimes drive lots of miles to meet people just to get going. Once I got running, I often left the people I started out with. I used them to get going. When it came to the track, most of my track work was done on my own because the sessions that I did, no one else could do, because I was running close to four-minute miles in training. But there was always a group of athletes around me. Once I got on the track or got into the mileage, I became very focussed. Like Steve, six-minute-mile pace was very slow for me in training. Most of my training was done at 5:20-5:30 pace. I made sure I ran quality miles, so when I saw a hill, I attacked the hill - and made sure I was totally exhausted at the top and ran down and recovered and kept going. It's important to attack your training and be focussed on what you're trying to achieve. When I first started training seriously when I was 18, my coach said to me, "I believe you can run a sub-3:50 mile". He saw the potential in me that I couldn't see myself. So instead of coaching me as a four-minute miler, he coached me as a sub-3:50 miler and he made me believe that I was better than what I was at the time and he saw the light where I possibly couldn't. So all my training sessions were quite intense but unlike a lot of athletes, I never ran at speed at any stage. I think twice in my life did I ever run just 200s, 300s or 400s.


CRAM: Before we make an issue of this, I never set out to run a set pace in my training. You don't start out and say, 'Right, we're going to do our mileage at 5:20 pace.' It's something that builds over a period of time. We just got to a level of fitness where if we wanted to feel we were doing a session, we needed to go at a good level of intensity. But occasionally, there are going to be days when you're feeling tired and you just go out and jog. So don't get the impression that every run is done at five-minute mile pace. If you're doing 80-100 miles a week, of course you've got slower runs in there. But you've got to look at the overall picture and the overall picture was that the vast majority of my mileage was done at a good pace, but that didn't mean it was all done at five-minute mile pace. If I did a seven-mile run, it would probably start at a fairly leisurely pace, but the last two miles might be in nine minutes - so the intensity was really on the last two miles. And there wasn't any science in that - it was a bit how the Kenyans train now - I ran how I felt at the time. It just so happened that I often felt like running hard, but I built up to that. You shouldn't get a 15-year-old to go out and run five-minute miles.

ELLIOTT: I used to set my training a week in advance. There'd be four nights of intense training and two nights of sheer enjoyment/pleasure of running. Those four intense nights, if I felt bad on the day, I'd still do the session and it would be a tough night. Therefore, time became irrelevant - it was the effort that was important. The focus was on mental toughness rather than on how fast you moved across the ground. So on the days when you felt really buggered in the morning, those were really the days when you were going to have your best training sessions because that was the time when you were going to be most mentally challenged. So that was an area which I never compromised. On the hard days, no matter how I felt, they were always hard days. The pleasure days were simply for pleasure - I'd go out and run 45 minutes to an hour and just float along and those days were just beautiful. The other four nights were terribly intense and very painful and uncomfortable, and I would wake up in the morning dreading my training session that evening. But then once you started, you gave it everything. The thing that drove you was that you knew if you didn't complete the training, you were making a decision that you weren't going to be a winner or you were making a decision where your competitor on the other side of the world might have decided to train and if you didn't, then they were going to beat you simply because they completed a session. So you were actually competing against your competitors by making those kinds of decisions.

CRAM: I think the basic message is less but quicker.

ELLIOTT: Any champion will tell you that intensity and quality are the two things they are always conscious of and they don't let themselves off the hook by doing quantity. You cannot avoid quality if you want to be a champion. If you want to be a good runner, do as much quantity as you like but if you want to be a champion, quality is the answer.

Article By Athletics NSW

This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010

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