Running’s talismen


To the non-runner (or even to most runners), the idea of a ‘running coach’ can seem silly — “Just one foot in front of the other” or “Run, Forrest, Run” are the sorts of exhortations one might expect from a coach. There’s often not a ton of strategy in running, nor an immense amount of technique, yet coaches seem to permeate the top ranks, and have for a while. The percepion of coaches is different, though, in running — whereas in sports like Football and Basketball, coaches are valued for their depth of knowledge about the game (x’s and o’s, game film study, etc.), running coaches have always seemed most appreciated for being at their talismanic best. The most famous coaches in football have always been born-and-bred football coaches, while running coaches often are part of some nebulous ‘other’. Examples to follow.

In the early 20th century when amateurism was prized above all, a London-born Arab named Scipio Africanus (“Sam”) Mussabini began coaching top-level olympic athletes. Most famously, he coached Harold Abrahams to victory in Paris in 1924, as reflected in Chariots of Fire. Due to the rules of amateurism, he was never officially recognized as a coach (before the 100 in the film, he mentions in a throwaway line “I’m persona non-grata”), and some of the best scenes in the film reflect on the bizarre and arcane demands of British Amateur athletes. Mussabini was always the outsider — an arab in a world of old-school brits, a coach in a world that prized amateurism above all* (and, in fact, perhaps my favorite scene in the movie reflects the changing of the times:

Cambridge University official 1: It is said that you use a personal coach.

Cambridge University official 2: The university believes that the way of the amateur is the only one to provide satisfactory results….

Harold Abrahams: You know, gentlemen, you yearn for victory, just as I do, but achieved with the apparent effortlessness of gods. Yours are the archaic values of the prep school playground. You deceive no one but yourselves. I believe in the pursuit of excellence, and I’ll carry the future with me.

He did, and he has. But it wasn’t always that way.

*Mussabini actually was a very modern running coach — moreso than almost any other coach until the 1970’s or beyond. He understood the value of good form — e.g., when he got Abrahams to shorten his stride; He recognized the value of starting and finishing (“Drop down at the first stride”); He focused on the right equipment (“I should use the springy old six-spike shoes”); studied film and photographs for form; and did strengthening drills that wouldn’t be out of place today. There’s a reason he coached three 100-meter gold medalists in the four olympics he coached, and 11 medalists overall.

The early 1950’s represented both both an apex of British amateurism and the farewell of the concept almost altogether. Less than a decade previously, the British had defeated (along with some help…) the German war machine — the exact sort of victory that in earlier days would have been credited to “the playing fields of Eton”. In 1953, a British expedition led by the kiwi amateur Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Mt. Everest (again, a ‘victory for amateurism’ that could not have been accomplished without the assistance of professional ‘others’, in this case, the sherpas). Finally, in 1954, Roger Bannister, a British Doctor, ran the first ever four-minute-mile* — a triump for the amateur, over the more professional John Landy of Australia.

*I’ve always loved this quote, from Britain’s head ‘athletics’ coach in the 1970’s, after it became clear that the four-minute-mile was nothing special: “I think it’s bloody silly to put flowers on the grave of the four-minute mile, now isn’t it? It turns out it wasn’t so much like Everest as it was like the Matterhorn; somebody had to climb it first, but I hear now they’ve even got a cow up it.”

In fact, in the months leading up to the race, Bannister had begun to be coached by the Austrian Franz Stampfl, whose coaching style probably best reflects the image of the ‘talismanic outsider’. After a series of extremely difficult experiences during WWII, which we will here put into a footnote*, Stampfl convinced a few brits to let him coach them. He became fairly influential, and very clearly helped Bannister to reach 4:00 mile form (and, in fact, convinced him to run the race on what was an imperfect day for running — Bannister had wanted to delay the attempt). Bannister, ever aware of the amateur ideal, downplays Stampfl’s role in the record attempt — most consider very unfairly. Stampfl ultimately moved to Australia, where he influenced a new range of athletes and settled into his home (he became a citizen in 1956). His reputation as a coach continued — a 1956 Sports Illustrated article (“The Mysterious Mentor of Melbourne”) refers to him as the “mysterious Austrian coach Franz Stampfl” and, my favorite, a “Svengali-like figure who, more than any other coach alive, seems to be able to inject his charges with the conviction that they have within them the power to win”.

*From Sports Illustrated, November, 1956: ‘He came to England as an art student in 1937, stayed on when Hitler occupied his native land, and was interned when war broke out. In June 1940 he was shipped off to Canada on the Arandora Star, only to be torpedoed in mid-voyage. He drifted in the sea for nine hours before being picked up. Some time later, he was sent off to Australia on a ship which was so drastically overcrowded and under-provisioned that it was later made the subject of a court of inquiry. “If there was ever any wavering doubt in my mind,” Stampfl says, “the war convinced me that the mind, body and soul must be cultivated into one dynamic force to achieve sporting greatness. I discovered that physical hardships could be overcome if there was a burning desire from the mind to produce complete mental control. Also, I saw in myself and others the almost frightening powers which could be released under great provocation and stress. A man strongly roused is driven by a force greater than himself.”‘

Left to right: Brasher, Bannister, Stampfl, Chataway, May 1954

Left to right: Brasher, Bannister, Stampfl, Chataway, May 1954

Stampfl’s greatest rival in the mid-1950’s was a fellow Australian, and another bizarre character to boot. Percy Cerutty was a born and raised Australian who suffered a breakdown during the war years, before dedicating himself to newfound principles of diet and physical activity. He dubbed it the “Stotan” regimen — a combination of Stoic and Spartan. Some of his dietary restrictions were ahead of their time (no cigarettes, very little alcohol), his loathing of interval training (Stampfl’s main technique) was probably behind its time, but there was proof in his athletes. Herb Elliott was his most famous charge — for 5 years in the late 50’s and early 60’s he never lost a race in the mile or 1500.*

*The idea of eccentric coaches getting great results using dubious methods always sort of reminds me of the joke Woody Allen tells at the end of Annie Hall: “A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.” The coach has a bizarre training method that can only be doing damage to our runners, but, hey, we need the gold medals.

I know we are running long here, but the last point is about the modern Kenyan runners — a lot of their success, and particularly for the Kalenjin group of runners who made the towns of Eldoret and Iten famous, is credited to a catholic missionary named Colm O’Connell, who went to Iten in 1977 and, despite little background in athletics, has since then helped develop hundreds of world class athletes, including just about every famous Kenyan runner of the past 20 years. He is considered the Godfather of Kenyan Running*, and his advice is always to be followed.

*Yes, you’re right to point out that it’s classic colonialist nonsense to credit the European for the success of the African runners.  The material for this part is mostly from the book “Running with the Kenyans”, and the author of that book makes it clear that this is the Kenyan perspective on where credit is due.  

Throughout the years, many of the top coaches have been one or two steps removed from the cultures in which they coach. I think the reason for that gets a bit back to what a running coach’s job is — mostly to inspire the runner, to ensure that he sees his workout to the end (note that when Ryan Hall decided to go ‘without a coach’, it was largely because he thought his own faith would be enough to guide and inspire him). Runners are often willing believers — they want to think that there is some secret to being successful. In other words, having a certain ‘other-ness’ is a benefit to coaches, because runners then see their own improvement as almost magical. In other words, it’s basically the same effect as “Michael’s Secret Stuff” from Space Jam.

The last word goes to Franz Stampfl, because I like this quote:

“Men are lifted from their mediocrity by their imagination and the wealth of experience they can portray in their vocation.  I myself can be inspired by listening to music, by looking at great paintings; or be enraptured by superb dancers. I thrill at the fantastic rhythm of their bodies swaying in perfect harmony, and at the sheer magic of seeing them as lonely men dominating a vast audience. Night after night they must pit their skill against all the odds. When I leave the theater I am like a boy wanting to be a dancer and entrance others as they did me. It is not possible, but the inspiration need not be lost.

“I pass on the experience to my athletes and tell them that one day they will enter an Olympic stadium all alone, with thousands of eyes watching. They must prepare thoroughly for this moment. I teach them independence—they must be complete masters of themselves and resist the overwhelming feeling of loneliness which captures them. I try to make their minds so strong that they are blessed with an inward feeling of complete superiority—for there must be no mental breakdown, or all the physical training will be in vain. I try to lift them above themselves—for immortality may be only a few minutes away.”


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