Athletics: Peters the marathon pioneer

Modern athletics has lost one of its founding fathers
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The Independent Online
IT WAS perhaps inevitable that Jim Peters, having passed the ultimate finish line, would be remembered most for famously falling short of one. The image which accompanied news of his death last week was of his vain struggle to reach the tape in the Empire Games marathon in 1954. But Jim Peters was no gallant failure. Far from it. He was one of the giants of 20th-century sport, the man who transformed marathon running from a plodding battle of endurance into a high-speed race against the clock.

Peters pushed the world record through the 2hr 20min barrier, taking it from 2:26:07 to 2:17:39. He did so in a pair of Woolworth plimsolls. "Twelve and six they cost," he recalled on the eve of the 1997 London Marathon, sitting in his living room at Thorpe Bay, near Southend. "D'you know, I used to swap feet after a few months, put the left shoe on my right foot, so they wouldn't wear down in the same place."

It was great to see Jim Peters laugh. It was great just to see him. Anyone who has ever pulled on a pair of high-priced turbo-designed running shoes and taken up the challenge of the marathon will appreciate what an exceptional man he was. "The greatest marathon runner ever," the eminent South African physiologist Tim Noakes called him in the definitive tome on long distance running, Lore of Running. "Well, I'll be blowed," Peters said, reading the tribute himself for the first time. "That's lovely."

It was accurate too. In 1948 Peters declared his intention to retire after being lapped by Emil Zatopek in the Olympic 10,000m final at Wembley. Instead, coaxed by Herbert "Johnny" Johnston, his coach and mentor, he turned to the marathon and pioneered distance running as we know it. While running an optician's practice in Mitcham, Peters prepared to run the rest of the world ragged, training twice a day and clocking up to 130 miles a week. He would have pre-dated the Kenyan thrice-a-day training of today had he not hung up his plimsolls after his harrowing run in the 1954 Empire Games.

"I had already started doing it while I was out in Vancouver," he said. "The plan had been for me to do three runs a day up to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. I'm certain it would have done the trick. I think I could have run 2:12 with that training - under 2:15 certainly."

No British runner had broken 2hr 30min before Peters announced his arrival on the marathon scene by winning the 1951 Polytechnic Harriers' race, the London marathon of its day, in 2:29:24. In the three years which followed he won the Windsor to Chiswick race in world-record times, clocking a best of 2:17:39 in 1954. And each time he crossed the line on the Polytechnic Stadium track he finished in debt. "It cost me 10 shillings to enter," he mused. "I got nothing for winning."

If Peters had one regret in his sporting life it was not that he missed out on the marathon gravy train but that he never quite made the grade at his first love, football. When a Portsmouth scout came to watch him play right-half for Dagenham boys' club, he took a shine to the inside- forward instead. And Alfie Ramsey did rather well in football, although he never made it on to the Fratton Park staff either.

Peters certainly refused to reflect with any lamentation upon his final, ill-fated run. Entering Vancouver's Empire Stadium some 18 minutes clear of his rivals, he suddenly collapsed within sight of the finish. He had pushed himself too hard for too long in the burning mid-day sun in the Empire Games marathon. After a dozen attempts to stumble onwards, he fell into the arms of the English team masseur 200 yards short of the line.

He had not, it subsequently transpired, been beaten by the marathon distance. The course was found to be 27 miles long. Peters had, with the cruellest of ironies, actually covered the standard 26 miles 385 yards before he wilted. He never raced again. When he returned from Canada - to his wife, Frieda, and their children, Robin and Jennifer - he received 1,300 letters in three months. Inside one parcel, postmarked Buckingham Palace, was a mounted Empire Games gold medal bearing an inscription from the Duke of Edinburgh "as a token of admiration for a Most Gallant Marathon Runner."

"What happened when I got into the stadium I don't know to this day," Peters said. "My legs just gave way. It was like I was trying to run on quicksand. It was a sad moment in my life but I refuse to accept it as a defeat."

Peters refused to accept defeat in 1993, when he was told he had terminal cancer. "The doctor said, 'Just let nature take its course'. But I said, 'Look here. I've been a fighter all my life.' And I paid to have more treatment."

It was typical that Jim Peters drew upon his never-say-die spirit right to the end. It was fitting, too, that he ultimately battled beyond his own finish line. By a margin of six years, the plimsolled pioneer won his lifelong marathon.