by Dante Zappala

“Believe. Believe. Believe.” Fifty years ago, Billy Mills could be heard telling himself this as he pounded out mile after mile. This mantra was his antidote to doubt. As he trained for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, he wrote this passage in his training log and visualized one of the biggest upsets in running history.

Besides his wife, he may have been the only one who believed in the lead up to the Games. Even during the 10,000-meter final, still hanging with the best in the world after more than 20 laps, no one else seemed to believe. Finally, 9,990 meters into the race, Mills convinced someone else that he could win.

As the unlikely contender from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota shot down the final straightaway, Dick Bank, the color analyst for NBC, suddenly realized what was happening. “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” he exclaimed with wild, hair-raising excitement. Mills finished first and captured the gold. Bank was fired for losing his cool.

This week is the 50th anniversary of that race, the most iconic moment in American distance running. It still marks the only time the United States has won gold at this distance. Mills ran nearly a minute faster than he ever had before and beat the world record holder to accomplish the feat.

Mills’ success is as implausible as it is inspirational. He followed his talent for running along an unlikely path from Pine Ridge to the University of Kansas, where he was overwhelmed by cultural ignorance and racism. After contemplating suicide and eventually walking off the team in his senior year, Mills continued to train in relative isolation after college. Yet all the while, he continued to cultivate his belief that he could defeat the best in the world at the Olympic Games.

Belief alone wouldn’t be enough. Serving in the Marines after college, Mills had to convince his superior officer to let him train for the Olympic trials. Further, with little science to rely on, he had to figure out for himself how to counter his hypoglycemia and maintain his blood sugar throughout his training and racing.

Most important, he needed to craft a training plan that would allow him to run each lap of the 10k race a full 2 seconds faster than he had previously. While Mills told himself daily for years on end that he could win in Tokyo, he didn’t bind himself to a particular training philosophy that he believed would make him successful. He wasn’t interested in dogma. He was interested in what worked.

He became a sponge for information. When Mohammad Gammoudi, a fellow competitor, told him plainly “more speed,” he took it to heart and added that work to his regimen. After beating Gammoudi in Tokyo, Gammoudi said jokingly, “too much speed.”

He incorporated ideas from the two leading coaches of his time. Arthur Lydiard, the pioneering New Zealand coach, preached an extended distance base. Mihaly Igloi, who defected from Hungary and coached an early generation of American greats, utilized relentless interval workouts on the track.

As contradictory as these approaches seemed, Mills filtered out what worked for him by experimenting with elements from each.

Mills showed us that we have a great capacity for both belief and intellect. And, contrary to the way many experience religion and politics, they are not diametrically opposed realities. They are compliments to each other that can carry us to the heights of our dreams.

Unfortunately, beliefs can quickly become a hindrance. They become hardened around the edges and urge us to stop thinking – to stop probing deeper for answers and understanding. This can potentially be dangerous, particularly here in the U.S.A., as we are a nation of believers. As evidenced by our most recent incursions into Iraq and Syria, we still firmly believe in the utility of war.

Billy Mills demonstrated how belief can be an asset. Many religious communities have done the same, flipping the script and challenging bigotry with the word of God. Perhaps we’ll also start to realize that we shouldn’t spend our vast military, financial and diplomatic wealth on fear-induced reactions that inevitably slide us back into the very situations we vowed to avoid.

Runners and coaches would benefit from asking more questions rather than remaining supremely committed to certain training programs the moment they show a modicum of success.

Maybe it takes faith to challenge belief. Where belief may tell us we know something absolutely, faith instructs us to excavate the foundations and trust that the house won’t fall down.

Just before Dick Bank went nuts exclaiming the obvious, Billy Mills had a different thought. He said in a recent interview that 90 meters from the finish line, his sentiment was “I’m going to win, but I may not get to the finish line.” For all of the belief he infused into the physical and mental preparation that carried him to the precipice of this very moment, Mills suddenly felt a contradiction within himself. He had an honest reckoning with the fact that the outcome was ultimately beyond him.

And so he submitted to reality, relied on his faith and unleashed his kick. The rest is history.

Web extra: See the last lap of the race and Dick Bank’s epic call of the finish: