Forerunner of a new world

JIM PETERS
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The Independent Online

I only got to see Jim Peters in full flight the once. Despite his 78 years and his failing health, he came running out of his house in Thorpe Bay to return the book I had left with accidental purpose on his dining room table. "No, please keep it," he insisted, when I implored him to accept Lore of Running as a token of gratitude for an afternoon spent reflecting on his running life.

I only got to see Jim Peters in full flight the once. Despite his 78 years and his failing health, he came running out of his house in Thorpe Bay to return the book I had left with accidental purpose on his dining room table. "No, please keep it," he insisted, when I implored him to accept Lore of Running as a token of gratitude for an afternoon spent reflecting on his running life.

On page 278 of that definitive tome on long-distance running, Tim Noakes, the eminent South African physiologist, describes Peters as "The greatest marathon runner ever". Reading the tribute for the first time on that spring afternoon two years ago, the great man had been overwhelmed. "Well, I'll be blowed," he said. "That's lovely." It also happened to be true.

When Jim Peters passed away in January it was perhaps inevitable that the image which accompanied the news was that of him famously failing to reach the finish line in the Empire Games marathon in Vancouver in 1954. But Peters was no failure. Quite the opposite. 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. He 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 me"), though Peters almost hung up his racing shoes for good after being lapped by Emil Zatopek in the 1948 Olympic 10,000m final. Instead, coaxed by his mentor Herbert "Johnny" Johnston, the Essex Beagle turned to the marathon and pioneered distance running as we have come to know it. While running an optician's practice in Mitcham, he pushed his body through two long training runs every day, clocking up to 130 miles a week.

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 2hr 29min 24sec. In the three years that followed he won the annual Windsor to Chiswick event in world record times, clocking a best of 2:17:39 in 1954. On each occasion he finished in financial, as well as oxygen, debt. "It cost me 10 shillings to enter," he recalled. "I got nothing for winning."

An autographed photograph of Peters running past the stand on to the Polytechnic Stadium track, en route to his 1954 record, will always remain one of my treasured possessions. I passed precisely the same spot in 1994 in the process of breaking three hours in a marathon for the first time. As a sprinter in my youth, my boyhood hero had always been David Jenkins, and though his subsequent fall may have been a lesson that heroes are not necessarily what they seem, my admiration of Jim Peters will never diminish.

Anyone who has taken up the challenge of the marathon will know what an exceptional man he happened to be. While it is difficult for the recreational runner to measure Maurice Greene's achievement in running 100m in 9.79sec, Michael Johnson's in running 400m in 43.18sec or Haile Gebrselassie's in churning out 25 laps in 63sec, as he did in his world record 10,000m run last year, what Peters achieved almost half a century ago now will be appreciated by the 30,000 souls who fail to match his times in the London Marathon each spring. In my own case, the finishing time I was proud to record in the 1994 Polytechnic Marathon was 38 minutes slower than his world-record run in the same race 40 years earlier.

It was fitting that after Peters' ill-fated Vancouver run in 1954, when he pushed himself too hard for too long in the mid-day sun, remeasurement of the course should discover that he had actually completed the official marathon distance (26 miles 385 yards) before he collapsed. It was fitting too that when he was told he had terminal cancer in 1993 he should battle on for another six years. There were no barriers to the great Jim Peters, no limits. He may have passed beyond the ultimate finish line now, but his inspiration lives on.

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