Jim Peters: “The Greatest Ever Marathon Runner”
Roger Bannister’s sub-four minute mile on May 6, 1954 has become one of the most enduring achievements in the world of sport.
However, one year earlier, another significant athletic barrier was shattered.
On June 13, 1954 a distance runner from England completed the marathon in 2:18:40 – the first time the 26.2 mile distance had been run legitimately in under 2:20.
That man was Jim Peters.
Many commentators, including Tim Noakes, author of The Lore of Running, have since labelled him the greatest long distance runner of all time.
Indeed, his achievements in the early 1950s, although largely left unremembered or overshadowed, are quite staggering, arguably equalling the apogee reached by Bannister’s famous mile.
This is his story.
Jim Peters was born in East London on October 24, 1918, and grew up in Becontree, Essex.
Before taking up athletics, Peters was a natural sportsman while at school, excelling at football and cricket.
His athletics training was interrupted by the outbreak of war, but, in 1945, he returned to his local club, Essex Beagles, to resume where he had left off.
His career quickly blossomed, and between 1945 and 1947 he became the English 6-mile and 8-mile champion, subsequently earning his place in the 10,000m at the 1948 London Olympics.
Taking on the marathon
Peters performance in the 10,000m, however, was disappointing.
He finished in 8th place and was lapped by the race winner, Emil Zapotek.
Somewhat humiliated by this experience, Jim Peters was on the verge of giving up distance running.
However, he was persuaded by his coach, Jimmy Johnston, to pursue the marathon instead.
Over the next three years he trained for the 26.2 mile distance, gradually upping the mileage of his training runs, and always running with the same sustained, hard effort.
In the summer of 1951, Peters competed in the Polytechnic Marathon.
Peters won the race after a titanic battle with the great Jack Holden (a runner who had dominated the distance since the early 30s), setting, in the process, a new course record of 2:29:28.
Afterwards, a local newspaper later described him as a “pale little man who went on and on as remorselessly as a Crusader Tank”.
A year later, in 1952, Peters again competed in the Polytechnic Marathon, this time demolishing the existing World Record by over five minutes in a time of 2:20:42.
The 1952 Olympics
On the back of the impressive performances, Peters went into the 1952 Helsinki Olympics as the clear favourite to win the marathon.
In a pre-race twist, Zapotek, who had been victorious in both the 5,000m and 10,000m, decided to enter the race at the last minute.
Peters got off to a strong start, clocking in at sub-2:10 pace for the first 5k.
However, this pace began to take its toll: the Brit began to slow, and Zapotek drew level with him at 15k.
The Czech, feigning innocence, and seeing that the Brit was clearly hurting, asked Peters if the pace was fast enough.
Peters replied, in a retort which has gone down in legend, that it was, “too slow”, to which Zapotek decided to speed off into the distance, leaving the pre-race favourite stumbling in his wake.
Peters later retired from the race with cramp and Zatopek went on to win in an Olympic record of 2:23.
1953: A year for the record books
Not letting this crushing defeat deter him, Peters went on to make history in 1953 with a world record breaking run of magnificent marathon victories.
He began a fierce training schedule, running twice a day: 6 miles at midday and 8-16 miles at night.
In addition, he began to increase the pace of his runs, placing more reliance on speed training, which was not a common facet of other distance runner’s regimes at that time.
Peters’ intense training regime soon paid dividends, when, on June 13, he once more competed in the Polytechnic Marathon, and this time he finished the course in a blistering, world-record breaking 2:18:40.
Unfortunately, his feat was not celebrated at the time, as the Japanese runner Keizo Yamada had clocked 2:19 in the Boston Marathon.
However, in 1956, when the Boston Marathon was remeasured, it was discovered that the distance was much shorter than 26.2 miles, and had been since 1951, because of road construction!
If this particular run from Peters was historic, than his performance for the rest of the year was legendary.
Over the next three months, he competed in three more marathons: Cardiff (2:22); Enschede marathon, Holland (2:19); and Turku, Finland (2:18.35) – another World Record!
Then, in the 1954 Polytechnic Marathon, he lowered this time further still, finishing, he later confessed, “with a lot more in hand”, in 2:17:39.
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The 1954 Empire Games
Peters’ glorious career ended in rather undignified fashion at the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver.
The marathon, in which Peters was competing, was run in the blistering midday heat, and over the course 10 men were to drop out due to sunstroke.
In fact, the course itself became so hot that the tarmac began sticking to the soles of the runners’ shoes.
At the 25 miles mark, Stan Cox, Peters’ fellow countryman, became so disorientated by the heat that he careened into a lamppost and had to be driven off in an ambulance.
As a precariously dehydrated Peters entered the stadium in the closing stages of the race, almost four miles ahead of the next competitor, he began to teeter on his feet, and, after a short struggle, collapsed on the track.
The shocked crowd, including Roger Bannister, who had just run his famous sub-4 minute mile, could only watch in horror as, over the next 10 minutes, Peters got to his feet several more times, staggering, clawing and weaving from side to side, deathly pale and blue-lipped, only to collapse again, again and again.
Peters fell for the last time just 150m away from the finish line.
He was finally carried off the track on a stretcher and disqualified from the race.
Footage from this harrowing debacle can be viewed here: http://www.bbcmotiongallery.com/gallery/clip/1B27525_0002.do
Peters later reflected that
I set off too fast in the heat, but that was always my way: to destroy the field … 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. When I asked a nurse, she’d said, “You did great, Jim, just great”, so at least I went back to sleep a winner, didn’t I?
Long after the race, Peters maintained that he had been robbed of the gold medal, insisting that he, on measuring the course before the race, had determined it to be much longer than the regulation 26 miles and 385 yards.
Death and legacy
Jim Peters never fully recovered from this ordeal in Vancouver.
The physical and psychological repercussions were so severe that doctors advised he should never compete again, and, soon after this dramatic race, Peters announced his retirement from distance running.
On Christmas Eve 1954, Peters was awarded with an honourary medal for his bravery at the Empire Games by the Duke of Edinborough.
Peters died on 9 January 1999 after a six year battle with Cancer.
To this day he remains a respected figure in British running; however his incredible achievements have largely been overshadowed.
In particular, the fact that he raced all these incredible marathons in cheap, tatty plimsoles makes his various feats all the more impressive. These shoes were so run-down that he would alternate the left and the right pair every few months so they would not wear down in the same place!
Ultimately, his display of courage at the 1954 Empire Games, as well as his steely perseverance after his humiliating defeat in the 1948 Olympics, are testaments to his grit and willpower, and his world-record breaking Marathon spree during the 1950s – in particular his first sub 2:20 – signalled a new era in long-distance running, rightfully earning him his place in the pantheon of running greats.