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Marathon greats

01 December 2016, 11am

London optician who set four marathon world records

Jim Peters

Marathon running has moved on in the last 60 years but few runners today will have much appreciation of what they have moved on from. In Britain during those post-World War II years marathon running was the poor relation of the athletics family with runners banished from the stadium soon after starting the race and only re-entering for a final lap or less in front of the crowd.

What happened for the rest of the time — 98% of the race — was seen only by race officials, a few enthusiasts and random pedestrians who happened to be on the race route.

In training it was harder. There were no professional runners: training had to be done after a full working day, at lunch time or by commuting to work on the run. There were no specialised or even rudimentary training shoes — just cheap thin-soled “plimsolls” with no stabilising or shock-absorbing qualities, the same sort worn by children for school PE lessons. And diet was still constrained by post-war food rationing.

Yet a world beater emerged from these unlikely circumstances. Jim Peters ran his first marathon in 1951 (a British record of 2:29:24) and in the following three years improved the world record four consecutive times and by a total of eight minutes from 2:25:39 by Korean Yun Bok Suh (likely run on a short course) to the 2:17:39 he ran in the 1954 Polytechnic Marathon. No one before or since has come close to such a feat.

Peters was born on 24 October 1918 in Hackney in east London. He showed a gift for sport at school: at football and cricket before taking up running. He returned to his local club, Essex Beagles, after the war and became English AAA Champion at six miles (9656m) and 10 miles (16.1km) from 1946-7 to qualify for the 1948 London Olympic Games 10000m.

Emil Zatopek won gold and lapped Peters, who finished eighth in 31:16. Chastened but resolved Peters and his coach Jimmy Johnson drew up a long-term training plan to increase his workload to tackle the Marathon. He was running only 4–6 miles (6.5–10km) daily to begin with but the following winter built up to nine miles (15km). His training pace and workload was still modest at 3:45/km and 100km/week but he ran sub-2:30 for his first marathon and in doing so defeated Jack Holden who had dominated distance running in Britain for the previous two decades.

Peters started training twice a day in 1952: 12km in the morning and eventually up to twice that in the evening. Peters and Johnson, against the received wisdom of the time, set the training pace as “just below racing speed”. With this build up he won the 1952 Poly Marathon and beat the world record by five minutes with a time of 2:20:42.

At the 1952 Olympic Marathon in Helsinki he ran up against his old adversary Emil Zatopek, who had already retained his 5000m and 10000m titles. Peters set a frenetic pace and raced into an early lead but was caught by Zatopek at 15km who deadpanned: “Jim — the pace — is it ok?” Peters tersely replied: “too slow”. Although Zatopek edged ahead Peters was still only 10m down at the turnaround point but he then started to fade and dropped out with leg cramps at 37km. If any explanation for Peters’ defeat is sought it can perhaps be found in the short six-week interval between running his world record and his Olympic appearance.

This second Olympic disappointment did nothing to suppress Peters’ appetite for training. He continued to run, in plimsolls, to his regular job at an optician’s practice in South London and gradually build up his training workload. In the Poly Marathon in June 1953 he improved his own world record to 2:18:40 and at Enschede (NED) on 12 September he ran 2:19:22 — the first ever sub-2:20 performance on an out-and-back course.

Breaking the sub-2:20 barrier was no less an achievement than breaking the 4-minute mile barrier achieved the following May by Roger Bannister to a much greater and more long-lasting fanfare. Acclaim for Peters’ achievement was more muted but he himself put it into perspective when he referenced another world-shaking achievement in 1953 in calling the Marathon “the Everest of athletics”. He followed up over the next few months with marathons in Cardiff (2:22), Enschede and Turku where he knocked another few seconds off his world record by recording 2:18:35.

Peters improved further in 1954. Leading up to the Empire Games (later Commonwealth Games) he set his fourth and final world record at the Poly Marathon on 26 June, running 2:17:39.

At the Games in Vancouver Peters won a bronze in the six miles days before starting the Marathon in the midday heat. Ten runners were to drop out with heatstroke and dehydration. Peters himself entered the stadium 17 minutes ahead but began to lose co-ordination and weave across the track. He collapsed time and again, taking an agonising 11 minutes to cover 200m while spectators, including Roger Bannister, looked on aghast. GB team masseur Mickey Mays intervened to have Peters stretchered off the track 150m from the finish line.

“I set off too fast in the heat, but that was always my way,” he said. “If someone had told me I was so far ahead, I dare say I’d have eased off a bit … When I woke up in hospital I thought I’d won. I was lucky not to have died that day.” Before the race Peters had claimed that he had measured the course and found it 1200m too long.

The Duke of Edinburgh sent a medal to Peters inscribed “To a most gallant marathon runner”. That, and his running kit — including the plimsolls — were donated to the Sports Hall of Fame in Vancouver.

Peters never fully physically recovered from his Vancouver ordeal and soon after announced his retirement from distance running. He served as president of the Road Runners Club from 1955–1956 and continued to work as an optician in Mitcham, South London and later at Chadwell Heath in Essex.

The Polytechnic Marathon trophy that he won four times was later re-named the Jim Peters Trophy and is now presented to the first British finisher in the London Marathon. In 2005 it went to Paula Radcliffe.

Jim Peters died on 9 January 1999 after a six-year battle with cancer.

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