Written By: Bill Syken
In its July 7, 1958 issue, LIFE magazine ran a story on track star Herb Elliott and his 63-year-old trainer Percy Cerutty, headlined “Odd Partners’ Odd Way to a Record Mile.” While the 20-year-old Elliott was a world-record holder who never lost a mile race, Cerutty was the star of the story.
Cerutty wasn’t your average coach. The Australian came to running late, quitting his job as a telephone technician in his early 40s following a bout with pneumonia. The former four-pack-a-day smoker remade his life around healthy habits and, inspired by a racetrack revelation about how humans could learn from the running style of horses, he eventually took up marathon running, completing his first race at the age of 51. “I started too late,” he lamented to LIFE. But he established a small compound on the Eastern coast of Australia to impart his wisdom to younger athletes, with Elliott becoming his star student.
His workout program was as distinctive as it was rigorous. He placed more emphasis on weight lifting—even if only for minimal reps—than in common in track, and pushed his students toward a natural and uninhibited running style. This story on The Science of Running website gets into the details of this training methods.
In general he advocated living as naturally as possible. Cerutty called his approach “Stotan”—half Stoic, half Spartan. (The method is called simply “Spartan” in the LIFE story, and one imagines a copy editor understandably fixing a perceived misspelling). In that LIFE story Cerutty advised, “Put zest and life into your work.” According to the story Elliott and Cerutty had “run barefoot marathons together, lifted weights, gone for ice-cold swims and dieted on oats, nuts and fruits.” The duo’s adventures were captured by LIFE photographer Leonard McCombe.
The unconventionality that attracted LIFE to Cerutty may have also stood in the way of his broader acceptance in the coaching world. But time has judged him kindly. In 2014 Christopher McDougall, author of the popular book Burn to Run, wrote appreciatively about Cerutty for OutsideOnline.com in a story titled “Lessons from the Paleo Guru History Forgot.” McDougall deemed Cerutty “the world’s first Paleo CrossFitting locavore.”
In recent years interest in Cerutty surged enough that his six fitness guides, such as Be Fit! or Be Damned! , were brought back into print. Even if his name is not broadly known, the ideas Cerutty advocated have gone further than he might ever have imagined.