The hero who was born to run

Jim Peters, Britain's finest marathon runner, will keep a keen eye on his heirs today

The Sun had drawn the day-trippers to Southend sea-front in bumper- to-bumper force. Edging eastwards at snail's pace, past the Sea Life Centre, besieged by sweltering human life-forms, a blue-vested runner sped purposefully alongside the gridlocked road. His eyes were shielded by a pair of space- age sunglasses; his left hand clutched a drinks bottle; and a sticking plaster adorned the bridge of his nose. He will no doubt be one of London's 27,000 marathon runners today. As he sweated along in the Southend sun, he was probably unaware that he had passed the home of London's greatest marathon runner.

A mile up the road, in palm-treed Thorpe Bay, lives the Londoner who transformed marathon running from a plodding battle of endurance into a high-speed race against the clock. Jim Peters took the world record through the 2hr 20min barrier: from 2hr 26min 07sec to 2:17:39. He did so in a pair of Woolworth plimsolls. "Twelve and six they cost," he recalled. "I've still got 'em upstairs. D'you know I used to swap feet for a few months, put the left shoe on my right foot, so they didn't wear down in the same place and damage my tendons."

It was good to see Jim Peters laugh. It was good just to see him. Anyone who has ever pulled on a pair of high-priced turbo-design trainers and taken up the challenge of the marathon will appreciate what an exceptional man this retired optician happens to be. "The greatest marathoner ever," the eminent South African physiologist Tim Noakes asserts in his definitive tome on long distance running, Lore of Running. "Well, I'll be blowed," Peters said, reading the printed tribute for the first time. "That's lovely."

The genial giant of the marathon was still beaming when he placed his reading glasses back on the coffee table. At 78, his clock-chasing days have been over for almost 43 years now. "The shops are 20 minutes walk away," he said. "I do that, there and back, about twice a week." It may seem a modest regime for the man who pioneered distance running as we know it, pushing his body to the physical limits with twice-daily training runs, clocking up to 130 miles a week. But Peters is simply grateful he still has the chance to stretch his legs.

Four years ago he was told he had terminal cancer. "The doctor said, 'Just let nature take its course'," he recalled. "But I said, 'Look here. I've been a fighter all my life. I want more treatment.' I paid for three special shots of chemotherapy myself and after the last one the specialist said, 'The growth's gone. You can go home' And I've been clear ever since. I'm just so happy. I was really dying and I didn't want to die."

Those familiar with the Jim Peters Story, the long (distance) running version, will not be surprised. The last chapter closed in 1954 with the drama which immortalised Peters' never-say-die spirit in sporting folklore. The sun glinting through the window was a reminder of his noble last stand. Entering Vancouver's Empire Stadium some 18 minutes clear of his rivals in the Empire Games marathon, he suddenly collapsed within sight of the finish. He had pushed himself too hard for too long in the burning mid-day sun. After a dozen attempts to stumble onwards he fell into the arms of Mick Mayes, the English team masseur - 200 yards short of the line.

The Englishman who mastered the marathon had not, in fact, been beaten by the distance. It emerged that the Vancouver course was 27 miles. Peters had covered more than the standard 26 miles 385 yards before he wilted. At 35, he hung up his plimsolls for good. And he did so a hero. When he returned from Canada - to his wife, Frieda, and their children, Robin and Jennifer - he received 1,300 letters in three months. One parcel was postmarked "Buckingham Palace". Inside 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 reflected. "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've been back to Canada seven times and I've said on television over there I refuse to accept it as a defeat."

Had it not been for his stubborn nature, Peters would never have made it to the start line as a marathon runner. Though ostensibly perusing the pages of You magazine with detached politeness, Frieda Peters chuckled when her husband recalled how she protested she would be "left a widow" when he confessed he was training for the 1951 "Poly" - the Windsor to Chiswick event established by Polytechnic Harriers after London's original marathon, the 1908 Olympic race. Peters had declared his intention to retire from international athletics three years earlier, after being lapped by Emil Zatopek in the Olympic 10,000 metres final at Wembley. But Herbert "Johnny" Johnston, his coach and mentor, persuaded him to take up the challenge of the marathon.

In one respect Frieda's fear was realised. For three years she became a runner's widow. Ignoring the advice of Ernest Clines, secretary of the British Amateur Athletic Board - "he told me to run up and down stairs as much as I could" - Peters launched himself into a regime still punishing by today's standards and revolutionary in its time. "In my lunch-break," he said, "I'd do six miles on the track at 75-seconds-a-lap pace. Then I'd do 10 miles hard when I got home at night. I'd race on a Saturday and have two longer runs on a Sunday, 16 miles in the morning, 12 miles at night - all against the clock."

Peters had an optician's practice in Mitcham to run while he was training to run the rest of the marathon world ragged. But only the Vancouver sun stopped him pre-dating the thrice-a-day Kenyan training of today. "The plan had been for me to do three runs a day up to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956," he recalled. "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 two and a half hours before Peters announced his arrival on the marathon scene by winning the 1951 Polytechnic race in 2:29:24. In the three years which followed he won the London marathon of his day in world record times. And each time he crossed the line, at the Polytechnic Stadium in Chiswick, he finished in debt. "It cost me 10 shillings to enter," he mused. "I got nothing for winning."

If Peters has one regret it is 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, even though he never made it on to the Pompey staff either.

Peters, the Portsmouth reject turned plimsolled pioneer, will be one of the invited guests seated on The Mall watching London's marathon runners of today. "Ooh!" he said. "I would have loved to have run in the London Marathon. But it will be lovely just to be there and watch. I was in tears watching Paula Radcliffe in the world cross country championships on television the other week. That's how it still affects me. She had a wonderful go and, d'you know, her peculiar style is just like the one I used to have."

There was a glimpse of the original in the rear-view mirror as the sun got ready to set over Thorpe Bay. He may be the greatest marathoner ever, but Jim Peters was brought up to frown upon unsolicited gifts. "No, please keep it," he insisted, having jogged out with the Tim Noakes book left with accidental-purpose on the dining room table. "But if you see Paula Radcliffe please pass on my regards."

Four runs: Highs and woes of Jim Peters

1951: Polytechnic Marathon

Windsor to Chiswick: Won in 2hr 29min 24sec

Half-way through his debut marathon, Peters was a quarter-of-a-mile behind Jack Holden, winner of the European championship and Empire Games the previous year. "I wanted to lay down in the road and sleep but I kept on, and I caught him," he recalled. Peters went on to break Harry Payne's 22-year-old British record.

1952: Olympic Games

Helsinki: Dropped out at 22 miles

Just before the halfway mark, Emil Zatopek turned to Peters and enquired: "The pace. Is it good enough?" Peters replied: "Pace too slow." But he was unable to to stop the Czech soldier adding marathon gold to his 5,000m and 10,000m titles. Suffering from a nightmare nine-hour flight (the plane was struck by lightning), Peters failed to finish.

1954: Polytechnic Marathon

Windsor to Chiswick: Won in 2hr 17min 39.4sec

Peters broke the world record he set in Finland, the previous October. It was his fastest ever marathon, even though he followed the instructions of his coach, "Johnny" Johnston, not to go flat out because of the looming Empire Games and European Championship. "I had a little bit in hand throughout the race," he was to lament.

1954: Empire Games

Vancouver: Failed to finish

Peters' running career ground to an agonising halt as he wilted in the heat, within sight of the finish line. He was unconscious, en route to Shaughnessy Hospital, when Joe McGhee of Scotland - who had been 18 minutes behind him - broke the tape. "We met last year," Peters said. "Joe offered me his medal but I said, 'You're the champion. You won the race.'"

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