Lessons from the Paleo Guru History Forgot

More than 76 years ago, a visionary Australian coach had an epiphany that forged a generation of super-athletes: true fitness is all about translating fear into raw power.

"Nature can bring the mind and body into perfect harmony and balance with the universe. This is one of the factors that allows the athlete to reach new levels of excellence." (Leonard Mccombes/Getty Images)
Cerutty Herb Eilliot Elliot Lift Runner Percy Sports Track Trainer Watching Weights 925363 TIMEINCOWN

The doctor delivers your death sentence: You’re sick, you’re incurable, you’ve got just a few months to live. What’s your next move?

Head to the racetrack, naturally. That was Percy Cerutty’s attitude. Back in 1938, Percy was a binge-drinking, chain-smoking, chronically coughing, 43-year-old Australian postal worker who was bedridden with fainting spells, blinding headaches, and a mysterious pain arcing through his legs and back. Doctors were called to his bedside, where they found him smoking four packs a day despite wheezing with pneumonia. The only debate was how much time to give him.

Mr. Cerutty, they began, pronouncing it Ser-ootee.

It’s SIR-itee, Perce spat. Like “sincerity,” without the “sin.”

Well, that was debatable. The doctors agreed on six months.

So Percy decided to spend it watching ponies. He hauled himself to the track and there, sitting in the sun and making his peace with the world, he saw something he’d never had the patience to notice before: all horses—fast or slow, colt or stallion, lean or lumpy—move the same way. They flywheel their legs, keeping their hooves low and landing always under their center of gravity. Weird. It should have been obvious, but Percy had never heard anyone mention it before. The particulars of the technique didn’t jolt Percy so much as the fact that there was a technique. This was muscular logic at work, a law of locomotion that defined the species. And what was true for horses, Percy figured, must also hold true for people. If you could zero in on the One True Way, then hallelujah; you’d be hailed as a god of fitness. Because there was no reason the human animal should be exempt from this law of nature, right?

Too bad he’d never find out, Percy mused. He’d probably be dead by Christmas. Even if he survived, who’d take health tips from a wreck like him? The irony was excruciating; with the clock running out on his miserable life, he’d suddenly found a reason to live. Percy shuffled down to the nearby beach and waded into the freezing sea. Maybe he could, sort of, shock his body back into functioning. Every day from then on, Percy returned for an icy wade. He quit smoking cold turkey, and cut out all fried and packaged foods. He began feeling a little better and resumed his visits to the track, this time early in the morning when the jockeys were working out the horses. He stripped off his shoes and shuffled along, barefoot and flinging his arms in a lunatic-looking attempt to mimic a four-limbed gait. The jockeys didn’t care; the sight of a bony old white-haired freak cantering along behind them was pretty hilarious.

But amazingly, it worked. Percy bounced back from the grave in spectacular fashion. With his bonus time, he began to jog, then run, then fly: by age 50, he could run a mile in 4:54, a marathon in 2:58, and 100 miles (yup, the dead man was now doing ultras) in 23:45. He created his own nature-based lifestyle philosophy and called himself a “Stotan”—half Spartan, half Stoic.

Which means—what, exactly?

“A Stotan is one who hardens, strengthens, toughens and beautifies the body by consistent habits and regular exercises,” Percy preached. “My philosophy is based on communication with nature, this communication takes place when the person sleeps under the stars at night, hears the birds in the morning, feels the sand between his toes, smells the flowers, hears the surf. Nature can bring the mind and body into perfect harmony and balance with the universe. This is one of the factors that allows the athlete to reach new levels of excellence.”

Say howdy, in other words, to the world’s first Paleo CrossFitting locavore, a role he fit right down to the box: In 1946, Percy bought himself a half-acre of no-man’s-land on Australia’s rugged southern coast and hauled a shipping crate down there to use as the bunkhouse for his “International Training Center.” He began crafting his own system of natural-movement exercises, with lots of outdoor weightlifting, sand dune sprints, and open-water swims. He was a purist about running form, but a total savage with the steel: the best way to hoist a weight, Percy felt, was whatever way you hoisted the weight. He would awkwardly wobble around under a heavy bar while straining through snatches and shoulder presses and “cheat curls,” but that, Percy insisted, was the whole damn point. Did you think Mother Nature let your ancestors be sniffy about the big-game carcasses they hauled home and the logs they had to lift? Weight lifting should be intense, so intense that five reps should blow you out. True fitness was all about unsteadiness, uncertainty, and fear; you fought for balance and recruited every single fiber in your body every single time.

“Civilization has ruined youth in the activities that his fathers and forefathers had that kept the upper body strong. No longer do they chop wood, have to do manual labor,” the Stotan Warrior groused—which is fine if your chief goal is to keep the damn kids off your lawn but not too tactful if you’re hoping teenage track stars will leave their suburban homes and come follow you into the barrens to live in a packing crate with no phone, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing.

But the young hopefuls came anyway—and were transformed.

“He was not speaking theory. This guy based what he had to say to you in the practice of his own life. He knew that it worked,” recalled Herb Eliot in a later interviews with Australian media. Eliot joined Percy as a young man and became an Olympic champion and world-record holder who only lost one race—when he was 14 years old. “He started to study the great people of history and the challenges that they had. He started to read philosophy. He became incredibly well self-educated, and it was out of that that he grew into the person that he was.”

Each morning, Percy would rouse his Stotans and—since he always said, “You can only teach it if you can do it yourself”—he’d lead them into the dunes for a day like this:

7 a.m. — A five-mile run before breakfast in any direction our whim took us, followed by a dip in the ocean.
8 a.m. — Breakfast of uncooked rolled oats (without milk) sprinkled with wheat germ, walnuts, sultanas, raisins, and sliced banana. Perhaps a few potato chips to follow.
9 a.m. — Swimming and surfing or outdoor chores like chopping wood, painting and carpentry.
Noon — Training and lectures, followed by another swim.
2 p.m. — Lunch: fish and fresh fruit.
3 p.m. — Siesta
4 p.m. — Weight lifting
5 p.m. — Ten-mile run along dirt roads ending once more at the beach.
7 p.m. — Tea and a general discussion led by Percy
11p.m. — Lights out

The sweltering box on the beach became the white-hot center of an Australian distance dynasty. John Landy, another future superstar, came to train with Percy, as did the great Ron Clarke, although both eventually got tired of Percy’s guff and moved on. For decades, Percy was an unstoppable tribal chief of natural movement. At the 1952 Olympics, he banged on Emil Zátopek’s door and spent so much time praising the Czech champion for his own Stotan-like lifestyle that Zatopek finally left to go sleep under a tree. At the 1960 Games, Percy charged past soldiers guarding the track and shinnied over a spiked fence so he could wave Herb Elliott on to a new world record and a 1,500-meters gold medal. “All I saw was Percy’s towel swirling through the air,” Herb would later recall in a television interview, “and this V of gendarmes heading toward him.”

And then the lights went out. At age 80, Percy suddenly died of motor neurone disease without even being aware he was sick. His hut was boarded up, his athletes drifted away, and the mighty old Stotan was all but forgotten.

The reason I know so many details of Percy’s life? I’ve been gathering info on the fitness iconoclast for years (and shelling out painfully to Alibris for his out-of-print books with such perfectly-Percy titles as Be Fit or Be Damned! and Athletics: How to Become A Champion). That’s where I unearthed so many of these amazing anecdotes. I wanted to write about him in Born to Run and then again in my upcoming book, Natural Born Heroes, but both times he was a flavor too strong for the stew; Percy tales were so rich, they overpowered all other narratives. Luckily, the long backburnering turned out to be an advantage. Lately, there’s been a quiet but growing Percy revival and it’s turned up priceless material. Graeme Sims’ excellent biography, Why Die?, is now available in the U.S., and for the first time in 50 years, several of Percy’s own books are in re-issue. Australia media has rediscovered its forgotten national hero, airing fresh interviews with Percy’s surviving athletes and, best of all, unearthing fantastic archival footage of the Loinclothed Legend himself in action (for 10 seconds of pure joy, check out “The Amble” as Percy demonstrates his run-like-a-horse breathing exercise) Just this past July, a terrific Percy resource was launched by David Cavall on his “Living the Stotan Life” blog.

But the greatest validation of all has come from current elites who are now looking back and wondering if they shouldn’t have been paying more attention to Percy all along.

“It’'s a shame, as most of his training ideas and advice have been lost or ignored since the time of his athletes,” writes Steve Magness on “Learning from the Past,” his blog about vintage fitness wisdom. Magness is the author of The Science of Running and an elite-level coach who worked with the Nike guru Alberto Salazar. “The main reason his methods aren’t widely praised or known is that Cerutty was seen as eccentric or crazy by the public.”

Percy was really on to something, Magness is convinced. And now, bit by bit, others are starting to notice. Bet you have, too. Ever been to a CrossFit box? Watched a video by “Supple Leopard” innovator Kelly Starrett? Churned through a we’re-all-in-this-together Tough Mudder, or seethed because 50-year-old pretty boy Laird Hamilton is still surfing monsters like a 20-year-old punk? Tick any one of those categories and you have been face-to-face with the spirit of the Stotans. Percy’s creed came straight from the heroic ideal of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and it was all about three things: strength, skill, and awareness.

In practice, it looks like this:

Go Wild: The worst mistake you can make is believing you’re anything except one thing—an animal. You’re not a runner, or a lifter, or a yoga pretzel. You’re a beast, and beasts aren’t specialists. They don’t limit their movements. They don’t stay inside when it’s icky, or wait for race day. All-around athleticism is the key to perpetual improvement, Percy taught, and you achieve it through natural challenges. Wet roads, leafy trails, hot sun, foot-sucking sand—everything a gym was designed to help you avoid, basically, is exactly the fiber-firing wildness your body needs to develop agility, balance, core strength, deep lungs, and poise in the face of the unpredictable.

Get Raw: Percy was both ahead of his time and way behind it when he sneered at exercise machines. Machines were created for one purpose: to make work easier. They isolate, they cushion, they stabilize. Well, forget that noise. You want to recruit, toughen, and adapt. Down in Percy’s box, the Stotans relied on gear that any Roman centurion would recognize: chin-up bars, climbing ropes, parallel bars, vaulting horses, Roman rings, and trampoline. “He emphasized doing everything the natural way,” Magness writes. “Primitive and uninhibited.”

Train Your Gut, Then Trust It: “Nothing must be dictated, fixed, or regimented,” Percy instructed. “When an athlete goes out to train, his body should dictate his needs and he runs according to its capacities and demands.” That sounds a little chamomile for a guy so leathery that he once ordered his runners to keep going after one of them passed out in the sand. (“Leave him be,” Percy commanded. “He’s not dead.”) But it’s true; ultimately, you’re wasting your time trying to persuade people to do want they don’t want to. The greatest thing you can do for anyone, athlete or not, is light a fire within and get out of the way.

“He would just inspire you and then leave you pretty much to your own devices,” Herb Elliot explained. “He’d check on the sort of intelligence of your training, to make sure that it made sense, but he just seemed to know that you were committed or you weren’t committed. And if you were committed, he walked away from it at that point.”

To the Stotan chief goes the final word:

“We train as we feel, but rarely feel lazy.”

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