In March, 2015 I wrote about ‘My best race so far’. Here’s one, there’s another coming. The PSA Inters, Division One 1500m.
Before we get to the race, some backstory.
My running journey began a while back. I’d often run laps around the oval at lunchtime when I was in primary school. Maybe not as often as I choose to remember but, like Don Bradman with a golf ball and a water tank, it’s been the genesis of my personal running folklore.
I was a cricket and hockey player. Somewhere along the line, I decided I also wanted to be fitter than most. Not a thought I shared with others, and not objectively measurable, but for an 11-year-old, it was a resolve all the same.
Running was the way you got fit for hockey and cricket, not an end in itself. What made sense to this 11-year-old though, was that running was a good road to fitness. That, and a whole bunch of sit ups.
A few years down the track, I was in year nine at Wesley. Still playing cricket and hockey. Like most private schools, ours had an honours system: reach a particular level in your chosen sport or activity and you were awarded an emblem, excel in that area in a broader context and you received colours. These honours were highly sought as they decorated your blazer. My brother- in-law, a former school captain, had a fruit salad of them. I wanted some too.
I remember chatting with him one time about what I could do to get an emblem (or more emblems). He said I should try middle distance running. Sprinting and long distance running, he argued, required natural ability, but with middle-distance running at a schoolboy level, you could get by on guts and determination. I resolved that I could bring some of that to the table, so I strapped on some shoes and started to get busy.
My first runs – out and backs over Mt Henry Bridge from our home in Booragoon – were in my sister’s Puma Argentinas. Mum didn’t want to rush out and spend money on more sporting equipment if I wasn’t going to stick at it. A couple of weeks of running in super-sized shoes and she relented, buying me a shiny pair of La Coq Sportif running shoes (I just searched Google images in vain. Nothing). I was off and running.
In Year 9, I ran the 800m/1500m double at the PSA Inters (this little schoolboy’s version of the Olympics). I didn’t come last, but I had plenty of work to do. As best I knew how (which was generally just running as fast as I could every time I ran), I got to work.
Cricket and hockey were still my preferred sports but there was now a new contender on the block and legends like Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Said Aouita and Rob do Castella just put fuel on the new fire.
I’d started building my little house of endurance and, by the time the Annual Wesley Bridges Fun Run rolled along, I manage to comfortably slip under 34 minutes (9.6km). I knew I was getting stronger.
It’s probably the case at most schools, but for the house athletics carnival you’re sort of on your own. You’re the one who gets you to the line. But if you’re not able to win or place that one, there’s no tomorrow, so you’d better be in some sort of shape.
I manage to clear the first hurdle: winning the 800/1500m double. I can’t quite remember how I went in the long jump but I’ve still got the book that tells me I ran 2:11 and 4:35 for the other two.
Then it got serious.
It was around this time I discovered what sort of training I thrived on: hard stuff. Gut-busting work. I got lucky with two coaches who trained the legs off me, and two Year 12 boys who were a little peeved that a Year 10 rounded out their intervals trio. I remember throwing up more than once after intervals and needing Mum’s help to get to the car for the lift home more often that that.
The difference between a 15-year-old body and a 46-year-old one? Plenty. But among them, you can trash the 15-year-old version with intervals on intervals to within an inch of its life and, so long as it doesn’t break, it’s just gets stronger.
The Quads of 1983 were held at Guildford Grammar School. When the day arrived, I was feeling strong, though on the verge of throwing up with nerves. I wasn’t confident of a win but I also knew that my main competition the following week was going to come from the three schools that weren’t there (Hale, Trinity and Aquinas). To be in with a shot of placing at the Big Show – as I was now prepared to dream – I had to go close to winning this one.
I don’t remember much of the 1500m race other than the feeling of having wrung every last ounce of energy from my body as I kicked from 300 m out and won in 4:31. I was elated. I’d won the quads, smashed my PB by four seconds, and run every last breath out of my body.
The week before the Inters at a PSA school is a pretty big deal. There’s a huge sense of anticipation and excitement and, if you’re running, it’s a pretty nerve wracking ordeal. Farewell assemblies, a parade of the athletes, speeches from the Athletics’ Captain and coaches, and team meetings all formed part of the hype.
I vividly remember the head coach standing in front of our team and declaring that we’d all worked hard and, while we didn’t have a realistic chance of winning the whole thing, there were some events that we knew we were going to win. Then he reeled off those events.
“We know we’ll win the Open Division One 100 metres…
We know we’ll win the Under 17 Division One Long Jump…
We know we’ll win the Under 16 Division One 1500m…
We know we’ll win the…”
I’m not sure what event he named last, but somewhere in the next event he was about to ‘own’, I realised that he’d just named my event… Me.
I’d never carried the weight of expectation for a sporting event, but I certainly did now. I was all for the big psyche-up back then and if I needed any more fuel for race preparation than watching Chariots of Fire, there it was.
You can be crushed by the sort of weight as a kid but I remember thinking: I’m going to own it. If Mr Holtzman thinks I can win, perhaps I can. After all, Australia II had won the America’s Cup just three weeks earlier. Anything was possible.
The 79th Annual Athletic Meeting of the Public Schools Association remains the biggest event I can remember running. While it might be small fry to running state championships, national championships, and big overseas events, I can’t remember another event with the gravity the Inters had for me.
A friend recently gave me the program. Perry Lakes, Saturday 22 October, 1983. 4:12 PM, Lane Two (as usual, one ‘t’ missing from my surname and one less middle name than I now have). Makes me feel a bit sick just thinking about it again.
Steve Prefontaine once said, “A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into an exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more”.
I wouldn’t have had a clue who Pre was at that point. I didn’t rate my ability as a runner, but I did have guts and I was up for seeing how far that they might get me.
The gun fired and within 150 m it was quickly a race in two: Burton of Hale, Elliot(t) of Wesley.
The guy from Guildford who I’d slugged it out with a week earlier was nowhere to be seen.
Like most late afternoons at Perry Lakes, there was a strong sea-breeze to hit you around the top of the back straight and buffet you all the way home.
The 1500m is 3 3/4 laps of the track. Long enough to find you out, short enough to demand speed. I heard “46, 47, 48…” called out as we went through the 300m. I knew we’d gone out strong.
The next lap played out much the same. Jack Burton would surge hard, I’d try and get back on his shoulder and, less often, have a crack at the lead. Every time I did, he’d surge again.
The crowd of around 10,000 seemed to get louder with each lap. Who doesn’t like to see two 15-year-olds beat themselves to a pulp?
With 800 m to go all I could tell was that Jack wasn’t getting any weaker and my support crew down the back straight weren’t getting any quieter. Mum and Dad were likely having their own troubles breathing by this point. My legs though… My legs were getting fed with a diet that was increasingly high on lactic acid and low on oxygen.
Down the home straight for the penultimate time and the noise was loud. I was just in a cave of pain for two.
As unlikely as it seemed, I just needed to hang on.
Schools block together en masse at the Inters. This year ’round, Wesley was perched over the finish line and as I heard the bell ring out for the last lap, there was a roar from the Wesley boys to go with it.
Down the back straight one last time and little changed. Jack surged to take another 5 meter lead, I tried to hang on. I was told later that, by this point, the third runner was over 150m adrift. I remember a momentary thought with 200m to go: “Second would be brilliant. Second would be more than you were dreaming off. Second would…”.
The thought was hijacked by a simple act. Jack Burton dropped his arms to his side to set himself for one last big tilt.
I tell Bands of Sisters all the time these days that dropping your arms is a great way to relax and recalibrate but, with 170m to go and a 10m lead, it meant one thing to me: Jack was tiring.
If there were any guts left in the tank, it was time to produce them.
A hard kick off the home straight took me near to his shoulder. He surged again, but it didn’t make much of a dent. We were both running full tilt for the finish line. The last 70 m was just a mix of agony, lactic acid and recruiting every last fibre of energy I had left left in me.
I was no longer on his shoulder, we were side by side and metres from the finish. Neither of us could have given any more. One last big drive and we crossed the line. Me into my best mate’s arms who was waiting on the finish line, Jack into the arms of his teammates.
I didn’t know who’d won. Maybe me. Maybe him. The roar had reached a crescendo but now it was all about, “who won?”
I looked at the stands and there were some shrugging of the shoulders. They didn’t know. My teammates and coach were beside themselves with excitement, Mum and Dad were crying, but that was about the performance as much as the result. Besides, they were front on – they had no idea.
Jack and I shook hands. I’d never met him before and I haven’t since, but we certainly shared something pretty special that afternoon.
We didn’t have too long to wait. As the noise died down, the announcer came over the public address system:
“The results of the Under 16, First division 1500 m.
In a time of four minutes, 18.8 seconds…
A dead heat between S Elliott of Wesley and J Burton of Hale”
The crowd roared again.
I was overwhelmed, I’d just won the Inters and taken 13 (!) seconds off the time that one week earlier seemed unsurpassable!
There’s no doubt it was my best race so far in 1983, and still one of the most memorable 32 years later.
There were a number of postscripts from the race…
Given the ‘guts and determination’ comment by my brother-in-law, the one paragraph description of the race in the Sunday Times the following day was a succinct affirmation of his original encouragement:
“For sheer guts and determination,
the Under 16 1500 m provided the
thrills of the day as Elliott of Wesley
and Burton of Hale fell across the line together.”
I got an emblem… and colours… on my school blazer!
The journalist who wrote the article in the Sunday Times, Gary Aitken, became my coach once I left Wesley.
It was the race that left me wondering, “Maybe I could have some future in this caper”.
And there was one last thought that I’ve pondered a couple of times since: if it was a dead heat, why weren’t the names announced in alphabetical order…