R.I.P., Gentleman John

Feb. 25, 2022 — It was with great sadness to start the day to find out that one of great middle distance runners from Down Under, and one of the greatest sportsmen, John Landy of Australia, had passed away the day before (Feb. 24) at the age of 91. Back in the days of amateur athletes chasing glory, not cash, of becoming the first man to break 4-minute barrier for the mile, John Landy was first in line. Eventually, Landy did break 4-minutes for the mile with the time of 3:58.0 but 6 weeks after Roger Bannister broke the barrier first (3:59.4) in 1954. Many experts would say that the fact once the 4-minute barrier that many top predecessors had tried over a decade without success had been broken, the second man — Landy — had broken it reflects it was a psychological barrier more than a physical one. But then the fact that Landy’s record stood more than 3-years actually shows the greatness of Landy’s time. Unfortunately, it seems that Landy was best remembered as the “second man” to break the 4-minute for the mile as well as the race that he lost to Bannister, the 1954 Empire Games, where Bannister with fundamentally superior sprinting speed swept past Landy in the final 100m just when Landy turned around “the wrong direction (=left)” to see where his opponent was. That race was contested 5 weeks after Landy’s world record run and was known as “The Mile of the Century” (*Watch the race HERE). But the actual fact is: his world mile record should be remembered with its own greatness (*You can watch Bannister’s first sub-4 minute mile and Landy’s world record race HERE).

John Landy, along with many other Aussie middle and long distance runners of that era, was strongly influenced by an eccentric athletic coach, Percy Cerutty. But Landy was actually mostly self-coached. Just as with many of amateur athletes of the time, Landy had developed his own training system by trial and error. In January of 1955, he wrote a letter to a young promising Aussie runner, Ron Clarke. Clarke just sent the Victorian junior mile record. Clarke shared the content of this letter in his biography, “The Unforgiving Minute”:

“…The two basic requirements are (1) speed, (2) staying power. If you run lots of miles — five mile runs, ten mile runs, even up to forty miles a week, you will develop stamina and staying power, but you will not increase your speed…The big problem is to have the staying power and at the same time the speed to run, say, a 50-seconds 440 yards. I think the best way to do this is to concentrate on long runs before the track season starts. When the season is on you can run less of slow running and more fast bursts. However, for the mile you need to keep the slow running going throughout the competitive season…”

I am quite fascinated with these early days athletes, including, of course, Arthur Lydiard, who, without any knowledge on exercise physiology or high-tech Garmin or any of those gimmicky gadgets, all seem to conclude the right balance of easy-effort volume work and the right amount of fast running in order to achieve the top performance level.

There is one more race that John Landy was famous for; it was the mile race for 1956 Melbourne Olympic Trial for Australia. Just after a half way mark, young Ron Clarke fell. Landy came back to see if Clarke was okay (apparently, he thought he had spiked him by running over him); then acknowledging Clarke was alright, he started to chase the front runners “a good 35 yards” ahead of him by now. Eventually, with only 2 laps remaining, Landy caught everybody and won the race! It was a great display of speed, courage and sportsmanship (*You can watch the race HERE). There is a 2-parts movie called “The Four Minute Mile” available on YouTube (Part 1 and Part 2 here). I’ve found this to be quite good and I highly recommend watching them. According to this documentary, at the end, it says that, after the Mile of the Century where Landy lost the race to Bannister, British Amateur Athletic Association paid a special tribute to John Landy for his sportsmanship for “…competing to the at most of his capacity, not for glory, not for gold (or certainly not for money!), but for the sheer joy of doing something as well, or better than it has ever been done before…” (*about 1:29:30 into the Part 2 of above mentioned documentary). Well said, and it certainly reflects who John Landy was. A nice tribute to Gentleman John Landy. — Nobby Hashizume

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