The author of “Beyond Jogging”, Mike Spino a.k.a Captain Mike, is a disciple of Percy Cerutty and one of the few people who can accurately portray the truth about Percy. Upon republishing his work “Athletics: How to become a champion” with a new translation in Japan, we took a deep look back on Percy, whose eccentricity was often discussed in the media, with a hope to get to know the whole picture of himself and his life. This might be the time for us to take a moment and think “how can we face the timeless running philosophy of the legend?”
M：mokusei publishers C：Captain Mike
M: How did you meet Percy Cerutty? You told us that you were studying about him before you met him
C: Especially in that period of time when I was in college we had a study group. Then when I was at Esalen Institute and working with the founder Michael Murphy, Well, I was his coach. I used to of course always be talking about Percy, so eventually he said “well call him up and get him over here”
I remember that call. It was an amazing call to Australia from San Francisco and he was incredible. I remember when he came as well. The plane got waylaid to New Zealand and then he called me and it was like hard to get ahold of him but it was amazing when he came to the airport. I couldn’t believe it. My hero was there. And then we spent a month and a half together every day, all day.
M: Right, so when you’re studying him, was he already a well known person right?
C: Oh yes, of course. He was 79 when he came and of course he was the most famous coach in the world. He was very controversial, especially in his home country. He had come to the United States in 1958, invited by Track and Field News, and that’s when Herb Elliott had a great time breaking a lot of world records.
M: RWhat Was Your First Impression of Him?
Well, I’d read so much about it and it was kind of awestruck. Especially since he kind of got lost for a little while. In the old days it was easier to go around the airports. I remember him walking and it was unbelievable. I looked, and it was Percy Cerutty.
I used to introduce him at lectures but I would have to preface the introduction by saying “Now, look, whatever happens in the next 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t leave” Because he would start by insulting the group, especially Americans. “You’re hopeless Americans, better dead”, and all this kind of stuff. And I’d say “because you’ll never have this experience again” So I used to have to preface that so no one would leave.
Personality of Percy
M: We have read some articles which wrote about the side of his personality you just mentioned. Was he like that outside of the track when he’s not coaching as well?
C: Not really. He was a wonderful, really sincere man who would give you the shirt off his back. In those days the coaches really didn’t get paid so everything he did was for the athletes. He was like that if he wanted to motivate you.
I can remember one time when he was giving a lecture in Santa Barbara. We all were running in a circle and he was kind of sending out energy to us. It was incredible to feel him. He would do a tribute to his athlete the night before a big race. He would run himself to exhaustion and motivate his athletes and kind of try to put them in a little bit of a trance when they came out to the race. So he was so far ahead of his time
At Portsea Training Center, there’s a place called the Landy Bunk, which was named after John Landy, one of his original athletes. It had all these motivational things like little pictures. He also had statues of great people around the trail. You ran the trail out to the beach where they had the sand dunes and they have all kinds of tributes to great thinkers like Goethe.
When you read his books and you see that he says “run like a child”. “Runner is an artist” I mean no one ever said that before. He expresses himself through his running like your children. “Watch a child run and run like that” He was so honest and pure and a great motivator.
There’s this great story about Herb Elliot and he only lost one race. It was 800 meters and he was calling him “hopeless bastard” and all this kind of stuff to motivate him. He could push you down and then bring you back up. He believed in making athletes vulnerable and then talking to them
He was a pantheist. I believe that was a little conflict with Herb Elliot because Herb Elliot was Catholic and he was like, everything is in everything.
M: So he was more like a Japanese person.
C: If I were to Define What He Was, He Was More Buddhist Than He Was Christian
M: It seems that he had a strong emphasis on personal growth and mental growth of athletes. Although those topics are commonly discussed nowadays, I suppose there weren’t much conversation about them back then.
C: No. He had a great rival. There’s a person named Franz Stampfl who had helped Roger Bannister break the first four minute mile. He would get all the awards and get named to the teams because Percy was so controversial. No one could keep him down. In fact, there’s a book written about him, called Mr controversial. Stampfl had a runner named Merv Lincoln and Herb Elliot would beat him every single time in every different way, like fast lap or slow race. And Percy said “my athlete has the will. The will to win”
He was the original person for mental training and visualization and having a run for things different than most people running for. Slein interval training, strict interval training was very prominent. He said Roger Bannister could run 10 four hundreds with a 2 minute rest.
They didn’t even have a track at Portsea. But they did unique training like running on the golf course and training at circuit. At night, he would give incredible talks to people out in the starlight so you’d be so motivated.
I should send you copies of his letters. He wrote me letters for about a year and a half after he left. The main thing he was interested in was breathing. Full lung aeration. I wrote this in the preface of “Beyond Jogging” (Japanese Edition) but when we first started talking about this, he had some experimental techniques like galloping. It is the one you have on the front cover of my book. Those things were still experimental back then.
But he really believed in breathing. There is a little video in my workshop that shows the athletes trying to get full lung aeration. The thing that was really important to him was that you should pay attention to how you breathe and how you exhale and how you get rid of all the breath inside of you. That was paramount to his training. Supposedly, when you did the canter and gallop, he thought that one step would be longer than the other ste. And you would run asymmetrically, so you wouldn’t just be running at one speed all the time. You’d be running some slow, some fast, and you did it all through your hands, through inhaling and exhaling and and and making those motions.
The good thing is that if you do it in a workshop, It’s a lot of fun. People laugh and do different things. Same thing with the surge. You never see someone in a race really do that, but for practice, especially for beginners, it brings your heart beat up. That’s why I’ve been teaching that ever since he showed me.
M: Do You Think That That’s Effective for professional Athletes?
C: I don’t know something. Some things are experimental. I really think his best techniques are for regular people rather than professionals Because if you surge or you title breathe
in,or try canter and gallop, although it is hard for a lot of people to learn but you come alive. You become a different awareness and consciousness. He would say “if you are just running along with a stiff face and no expression, why do it?” “If you are only trying to run faster, how do you express yourself?” Can you imagine saying that in 1958? “The runner is an artist and its real purpose is to express himself as an artist through its motion” No one, no one ever ever said that before. So it was a total revolutionary.
In his letters that he sent me, there was so much about breathing. How breathing begins in your hands and you don’t just run one thing.
He would say that the tide doesn’t come in just the same every time. It comes in different ways every time. You stand there watching the ocean and you see every tide is different and new. So that’s how your breathing should be and it works through your hands. You don’t have to breathe just one volume every time. So that is his real contribution.
And I think it’s a bigger contribution to regular people than to world class athletes. Even though every great coach has a period of time where they have their greatest athletes and he had Albie Thomas and of course Herb Elliot, and they were all breaking the world records from 1957 to 62, 63. They were the greatest athletes in the world.
Margaret Mead says that great things change from small groups working together and it’s always that way. It always happens from groups working together and that was his gift.
M: Reading his books makes me realize that he has such a broad range of knowledge from food to mentalism and he covers holistically. Though he is often mentioned in the context of naturalistic running, if you were to summarize his teaching, what would you say?
C: His teaching has different levels.Some things were experimental like the breathing and the galloping and the canter. And some things were very basic. He didn’t do standard intervals, but they did it sometimes on the rugby field. But there’s no track at Portsea.
One of his great contributions is to resistance running and to weight lifting. He said that Herb Elliot ran 43 times up the sand dune. I’ve run on the sand dune and it’s hard to get up. And he said the last time was the fastest.
Percy would lead people. He always said if their coach can’t do it, you can’t teach it. A lot of you know coaches today are kind of like blowing the whistle and timing but he wasn’t like that. They did their intervals up on the sand dunes and that was very unique at the time because no one had ever run intervals up the sand dune.
C: He had a great story. He was dying before getting into running. He worked in the post office but he wasn’t doing very well. Then he said I’m going to rehabilitate myself. So first, he could only walk a little bit, then he started jumping off these mounds and he brought himself back to life. First he started teaching in a little shed. It was just a little shed that athletes
would come to him. The athletes didn’t get paid and coaches didn’t get paid these days. So he somehow got to save some money to get a place in Portsea
And then a lot of people would come on the weekend. Regular people would come too and take a workshop from him. Maybe he got paid a little bit that way.
Herb Elliot would come on Friday and Saturday and Sunday, and probably trained 8-9 times in those days. It’s hard training, like weightlifting, running in the sand dunes. They had a thing called “the whole circuit” which is like a fartlek run through the woods. And that was one of his main points when you could run like Herb. Elliott, who of course had the fastest time on the whole circuit. That was the medium at which he gauged the fitness of his athletes.
M: The Training Place at Portsea Seems to Be Really Open To The Public.
C: Well yeah. He wouldn’t make people pay, but they would pay to come. He had a diet that he believed in and it was like rolled oats, a natural food. I don’t know if it was so healthy but he liked French fries and stuff like that.
He was a lacto vegetarian, so he ate fish but very little meat. you know. They would also have beautiful soups. His wife Nancy was an amazing cook. So the meals would last for a long time. He’d always be talking while we eat. He’s always explaining something.
Food and Meals
M: One of the things I found interesting in his book is he repeatedly said his teaching on food is not perfect yet because I expected there would be strict rules. He said that there would be different answers in food for each person.
C: Yeah, He would define himself as a lacto vegetarian, which means that he mainly eats fish. But he had some rules. He believed that people should not not drink while they eat and they should drink separately. He said our body doesn’t work well if you just pour them down. But He drank a lot of Sherry, especially when he was older because he had a problem with his throat. I mean that’s how he passed away. One of the things he could eat was chicken livers because it slid down his throat pretty good. It was some kind of rare kind of throat cancer. In Graham Sims’s “Why die?”, it said he thought he would live to be 150.
But he was still demonstrating when he was 70. One of the biggest things that I used to do with him was bring him to a college campus and watch him do Canter and galloping but it was like the movie La Strada. A strong man would go on with a quiet one and have people come around, you know?
26:19 は: Wow, so about the food. Did he experiment on himself?
C: Yeah, food was what brought him back to life. He said he was a smoker, and I don’t think they had junk food but he didn’t eat very well. But when he tried to bring himself back to health, what he ate was a really big part of his rehabilitation and gaining back as hell.
Outside of track
M: Besides food, he did a lot of research on other topics as well right?
C: Yeah he did. He was a tremendous reader. You probably noticed when you translated but he had a funny way of writing. He wasn’t a learned person,so he used wrong punctuation a lot of times in his book. I guess you noticed that.
M: Yes we did.I thought it was partly because of the time this was published but it was just his style.
C: Yeah, his style. His style is a lot of semicolons and he usually referred to Herb Elliot as two different people. Elliot and Herb.
The punctuation is kind of great in translation too. It is kind of off the wall a little bit. But he’d never gone to university. And what was really incredible was, at some point I need to send this to you, his handwriting was absolutely beautiful. He would write me three and four page letters when he went back, and they were just like calligraphy and so beautiful. I would get these incredible letters,saying “Michael Spido, Esquire” He would say things like that.
And Eslen was a good place. He never taught a workshop at Esalen but I always drove him to different places.We had this incredible workshop in Catalina Island and about 25 people came to it. We flew in with helicopters. When I was driving, he was telling me to drive fast. Because I was his caretaker. He would be like (mimicking his voice) “you can go. You can go
faster” And once we got stopped by the cop. And of course Percy was saying “you can go as fast as you want to”
I was like “who is this crazy old man sitting there” you know? Those are really funny times because he would be sort of iconoclastic.
The press didn’t like him. You know the press liked Franz Stampfl. He was Austrian and when he came to Australia, they had this incredible rivalry. But Percy was more a man of the earth. He would dig into you and try to bring the most out of you. If you had a talk with him, he would tear into you and try to bring the best out of you. He really believed that for a person you need to tear them down first and then bring them up to the sky. That was his way of interacting with people
M: Why do you think he did that?
C: He thought that’s the way people excelled. He didn’t believe in overpraising. He thought you had to really earn it. You know when you talk to people and see kids running and coaches praise them. I had a coach in high school that I dedicated “Beyond Jogging” to and I knew it was real when I got praised by him. Nowadays everybody gets medals, everybody gets trophies, and everybody is wonderful. But he wasn’t like that.
M: What do you think he was pursuing? I know running was what he did but what was he looking for in it?
C: That’s a beautiful question. He was pursuing freedom.
He was pursuing ways that you could get the most out of your body and be an artist. And he thought a lot of it was breathing. Because when you see people run they often get very stiff.
There is a great story. This runner called Jim Ryan, who held the world record when he was very young. His coach Bob Timmons was having problems getting Jim Ryan to be consistent. Then he went to Portsea and Percy was watching him. There’s a sign above Portsea that says “you don’t have to be crazy to enter, but it really helps”.
When Bob Timmons, who was Jim Ryan’s coach, came to Portsea and was looking around, Percy was hiding in the woods and he jumped out and said “you hopeless bastard! what have you done to that kid?”
He liked telling that story over and over again. He loved that story. Everybody had five or six stories that you hear every time. But you don’t want to bother him by saying I heard that story.
I was his driver. Once we were in Los Angeles and he was in this hotel screaming all around. People were wondering who this person was. He would jump around. I walked around him and had to calm him down. I was like “Come on, you know people don’t like that. It’s a fancy hotel and you’re screaming in here. People get scared” and he would be “what do you mean they get scared?” so I said “Well you know you’re jumping around and screaming”
M: Well, I would have loved to witness that. But you mentioned him wanting freedom
C: he wanted the runner to think of himself as an artist. A runner usually waits till a certain point in the gun sprint. Well he didn’t train Herb Elliot that way. He didn’t say anything like first lap this, second lap that. He said “ just express yourself. Just go out and when you feel the energy and the love and the passion, then go”
That’s why at the Olympics he jumped over the moat and he took off his shirt and he was waving it because Herb Elliot was breaking the world record. And then the cops came and dragged him off. He was very expressive like that.
04:56 は: He would be the kind of guy that didn’t run fast, but expressed their whole emotion, almost to the point of tears. He really liked not just the people that ran fast, though he had his period where he had the best runs in the world, he liked working with children as well.. Betty Cuthbert was a female runner. Not as much as trained runners but he taught her as well. He didn’t just train runners. He trained some boxers too. It was just how you can be totally expressive in your art form, which is your sport.
M: In that sense he might be more of an artist or a Buddhist than running coach and his method just happened to be running.
C: Yeah, right. He taught other sports too. He just wasn’t as famous in it but. The thing was if you could get to that point after one of his talks you start to run and you almost can kill yourself. You can go so far as hard as you can go and he’d be there goading you on, you know.
M: The media often picked up some of his outstanding behaviors and called him controversial.
C: The media was always goading. They would think things that can really get him to react and because Herb Elliot was Catholic and Percy defined himself as a pantheist, they always said “hey hey, are you becoming more of a catholic?” or things like that. He tried to get his runners to get into sort of a trance before they went out to the track, and reporters love to goad him and get him to get really riled up. Sometimes he just wouldn’t react to it because he had a part of his personality that he would get very, very quiet.It would be almost melodic when he would talk to you. He would act to the public but he wasn’t just always the raving mad man. He was trying to pull the love in your inner expression. Your inner expression was the most important thing to him.
The media just wanted to goad him. There’s a book about Percy called “Mr. Controversial” The way they tried to goad him made him say things that then they would blow out of proportion because he wasn’t a regular kind of a coach.
M: What did he think about the media?
He didn’t like them. He felt like they were always trying to goad him and bring a bad thing out. A few people like Graham Sims and some other people who really got to know him wrote beautifully about him
He didn’t have a formal education.But look at all the things he wrote. I have this pamphlet he wrote in 1958. When he came over and of course I wasn’t there but I heard that he stayed with the Track and Field News with Burt Nelson. He of course passed away now but Herb Elliot played the piano. I had a friend that was in the House. Imagine how wonderful all that was.
He really had a thing with the officials because they wouldn’t fix the tracks up. There would be rocks on the track because it was just in transition between dirt and synthetic tracks. I think Tokyo was the last Olympics that had a dirt track.The dirt tracks were always messed up and he was always fighting with the officials. “Don’t put the money in your pocket, put it on the track.”
So of course they didn’t like the officials. Sebastian Coe writes about that but if you go to a meeting you get $15 in those days and that’s it. And you have to stretch it out over the whole day. You couldn’t get more than that or you would be a professional.
M:You talked about Herb Elliot playing the piano, but did Percy encourage the runners to do other activities than running?
11:52 は: Yeah he did.He encouraged people to eat right, especially to express themselves. He wanted people to have big ideas in their mind. When he was preparing for a race, instead of talking about “first quarter this, second quarter that” he would say “think of yourself as a great artist. How the world started. imagine this is a world we’re running in this little track” so you got deep into the origins of man. He wanted them to go to the line thinking great things about great experiences.
And of course, in experimental things, one of the experiments was how you run. That’s why I love the cover of the book because when people ask you about that, you might tell them “look his hands are closed. It’s going to open and when he opens his hands it’s going to thrust forward” Most people probably won’t notice that.
After 60 years
M: So now I’d like to talk about a little bit of the bigger picture, like in terms of the running industry. I am not sure if this is the most appropriate way to describe but the running industry was a little bit before Percy and when he came out, It was revolutionary as you said. About 60 years have passed now. Compared to how it was back then and now, what would you say changed and what didn’t?
C: Nobody caught up with him. He’s still a futurist. I mean people went back. People retreated to standardize things. What he was saying was so radical that the regular coach went back. There are many types of coaches from coaches like him to high school and college coaches but everything is so much more standardized. All the colleges have an indoor track, 200 meter track but Percy liked being outside and Jump in the water. I mean, he almost drowned himself in and Herb Elliot saved him. He was into lifting weights and going to the ocean and things like that. Everything became more sterilized. He was a revolutionary who no one has caught up with yet.
I think a lot more emphasis is on genetics now. We see so many of the Kenyans. I lived in Kenya so I know sometimes people are just genetically. cut out for running. When you go to a big meeting in Europe and it’s like five Kenyans, and one local guy.
M: What do you think is the issue here? I’m not saying that Percy’s ideas are necessarily the best. But why do you think the running industry is not the best way it should be?
C: You know it’s a good question because if you look at art, for instance there’s a period of art, and then it’s another progression like Pointillism or Cubism. Very few people picked up. on Percy. He was so far ahead of his time. His thoughts were so revolutionary that the only thing for the industry to do was to retreat
Because no one could do the same thing right? Herb Elliot is going to break the world record Dave Powers is going to break the world record. Albert Thomas is going to break the world record, but “that’s not the purpose of why I’m coaching them” Who would say that?
He was a deep inner soul and his penmanship expressed that. His writing was so beautiful, so straight, so so, almost like calligraphy. It’s more like your language than Americans.
I don’t know. There’s few people around the world who picked up, but in general the public running world never took his direction. Maybe it’s gonna take another 100 years
The Future of Running
He was creating fast runners, but he also really cherished the joy and sensation our body feels beyond our rationality and words. He did both sides. If we wanted to go that way a little bit and pursue more joy in running, what do you think is missing?
C: Well, I think we need inspiration. Especially at Portsea people would gather around at night like the old campfire and he would talk about things that were not running aspec. He would talk about things that weren’t to make you run faster, but maybe to be a better person.
M: Not only becoming a better performing runner but becoming a better person. Do you think that’s what Percy hoped in the athletic world?
C: Yeah. His main philosophy was to express yourself As an artist and that runs all through his work even as early writings. To be an artist, be more than just a runner. He believed that you could express yourself as an artist through running. That was his belief, and that’s the beauty he saw in the running experience.
M: That sentence itself is really beautiful.
C: Thank you. I’m really excited to see what you take out of this.
M: Thank you. We wouldn’t be here without your support.
C: Well, thank you so much. I love you guys. I hope I get to meet you someday.
M: I know.
C: In Japan, or Atlanta or San Francisco or anywhere.