Tag Archives: Cross-Country

“Plimsolls On, Eyeballs Out: The Rise and Horrendous Fall of Marathon Legend Jim Peters” by Rob Hadgraft

As an athletics fan, I always find it frustrating when people talk about Paula Radcliffe as if the most significant thing she ever achieved was to do a gingerbread man halfway round the London Marathon. Or they talk about her as a failure because she never won an Olympic medal. Her world record is extraordinary, but life can be very cruel to remarkable people. We only like to remember the times when people messed up. Just ask Michael Fish.

Hypocrite that I am, my knowledge of mid-20th century British marathon champ Jim Peters extended purely to one incident; he was the guy in the 1952 Olympic marathon whom Emil Zatopek (see review) asked “is the pace a bit too slow?”. When Peters jokingly said yes, Zatopek responded “oh, right” and zoomed off into Olympic history. Peters himself dropped out of the race.

What a shame. As I learnt from Rob Hadgraft’s definitive biography (see my reviews of his other books about Alf Shrubb and Deerfoot), Jim Peters was arguably Britain’s greatest athletics star of the immediate post-war era. A world record holder, he was a man who transformed how people trained for the marathon. He was a contemporary of Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, but unlike those university men, he was a working class lad from East London who saved up his money in Depression-era Britain to buy his first plimsolls from Woolworths, and balanced his training regime with full-time work as an optician.

Peters’ story illustrates how some athletes take time to find their true distance. Prior to the Second World War, he showed promise but didn’t set the running scene alight. Following the war he won a major 6 mile race, but what struck me reading Plimsolls On was that Peters was not a Steve Prefontaine (see related review), winning every race in sight. In the 1947 National Cross-Country he only placed 62nd. He did make it to the 1948 Olympics, but finished 8th in the 10,000m final, well behind emerging star Zatopek. The book makes you wonder how much of his shorter-distance talent was wasted by the 6-year lay-off caused by the war, as well as how many potential stars of the sport never had the opportunity to shine.

His failure in 1948 led Peters to retire from the sport, much to the delight of his wife, who wanted him to focus on being an optician and raising their son. Yet the temptation to return was always there, and his former coach, Jonny Johnston persuaded him to give the marathon a shot. He never looked back. On his debut at the Polytechnic Marathon in 1951 Peters hadn’t bothered to taper, and shocked the onlookers and “expert commentators” by surging at break-neck pace throughout the race, just as 2008 Olympic winner Sammy Wanjiru would do more than 50 years later to much acclaim about how the Kenyan had changed the sport. Peters broke the British record in his first race and the world record (which was then 2hrs 25mins) a year later, ending a period of dominance by Japanese and Korean runners.

Peters would go on to race several marathons a year and set 4 further records, taking his marathon to 2hrs 17mins. He became the most talked-about athlete in Britain, capable of generating headlines in the News of the World. His weekly mileage of 100miles+ was frankly insane for a man doing a full time job, and he did it all in flimsy plimsolls. His training methods represented a sea-change in thinking, moving away from the opinions of early 20th century ultra-runner Arthur Newton, who advocated lots of long, slow running to build stamina. Instead Peters never did what he called a “jog trot” in training. He only ran fast. His standard 10mile training run in Epping Forest was usually completed in around 55minutes, about 8 minutes faster than my own race PB!

The 1952 Olympics went wrong for Peters. He had a horrendous journey, which included illness, a howling draught in the plane, and the same plane being struck by lightning during the flight. However he went on to win several more races and come second in the Boston marathon in 1954. His goal though became to take gold for Britain at the Empire Games in Vancouver later that year.

The Empire Games was the predecessor of today’s Commonwealth Games, and was an opportunity for athletes from Canada, Britain, New Zealand and others connected by a common British heritage to compete. Peters was favourite to win the marathon. In classic “I don’t taper style” he ran in the 6 mile race the week beforehand, just as Galen Rupp ran in the 10,000m before taking Bronze in the Rio Olympics in 2016. The day of the marathon was swelteringly hot, but this was a time when races had few water stops, and in Vancouver they didn’t even have the wet sponges that Peters usually expected. The British team were also suspicious that the course was too long, although their concerns was overruled.

Peters took a comfortable lead. At 25 miles he was 3 miles ahead of the nearest competitor. Then tragedy set in. As he entered the stadium he collapsed with just 380 yards to go. He got up, then collapsed again. Repeatedly. All carried out in front of a horrified crowd that included the Duke of Edinburgh. He finally crossed what he thought was the finishing line and then was pulled away to get help. In a cruel twist, the finishing line for the marathon was actually 200 yards further on, and he was disqualified from the race, which was eventually won by Scotsman Joe McGhee, who arrived in the stadium 15 minutes later, rather surprised to hear that he was the winner.

Team-mate Chris Brasher would later tell the media that Peters’ brain temperature was recorded at 107 degrees, meaning that his brain was literally close to cooking. Another medically trained team-mate stayed behind to watch over Peters, and so it came to pass that about a week later Jim Peters and Dr Roger Bannister stepped off a plane in London to tell their deeply contrasting stories to reporters. Bannister had won the “mile of the century” against Australian John Landy; Peters had narrowly survived death, and retired instantly from competitive running.

It would later transpire that the Vancouver course was indeed too long, and when re-measured it was found to be close to 27 miles. Peters had already completed the marathon distance before his collapse in the stadium. Some speculate that if he’d known that he had a 3-mile lead, he would have slowed down and not over-exerted himself in the heat. Others disagree, saying that Peters’ flaw was that he only knew one way to race: eyeballs out.

Peters died in 1999, but today he is remembered in other ways. The first Briton to cross the line of the London Marathon wins the Jim Peters Trophy. The most notable winner of the trophy? Paula Radcliffe, Britain’s most remarkable marathoner since Peters. But yes, it is hard to forget she did a poo mid-race.

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“Running with the Buffaloes: A Season Inside with Mark Wetmore, Adam Goucher, and the University of Colorado Men’s Cross Country Team” by Chris Lear

Running with the Buffaloes follows the 1999 season of the University of Colorado XC team, from initial training in August through to the national championships in November. At this point in time Colorado was amongst the top 5 XC teams in the country, with a national star athlete – and future US Olympian – in the shape of Adam Goucher. During the course of the book we witness every day of their training schedule, following their long runs in the trails of Boulder and their brutal interval sessions. It’s like a training diary told in narrative fashion. We learn what they eat, how their coach Mark Wetmore bollocks them when they underperform, and most of all, how an elite team trains for the biggest stage of their college athletic careers.

The approach is probably not for everyone, and the layers of running geekery mean I wouldn’t recommend this book to non-runners, but for those who want to go on the journey, you are in for a treat. After a while the team becomes family. The monotony and routine of their training starts to seep into you. You feel like part of the team, and actively will them to succeed. The thought of a “#5” breakfast of two eggs, hash browns and wheat toast at the Village Coffee Shop for $3 sounds very appealing.

A shocking tragedy strikes during the season, and it changes the whole course of the story. The book is dedicated to the relevant team member, so while you’re reading about each training session, the apprehension levels rise as you know something horrible is going to happen, but not how or when. When the moment comes, you feel the desolation along with the whole team.

Unsurprisingly, the book is unremittingly American, with little concession to international readers less familiar with American college sports. I found myself regularly looking up unknown terms and acronyms that were not explained. When an athlete “redshirts”, for example, it means they’re sitting out a season in order to extend their eligibility, because US college athletes can only participate in four seasons . Similarly, I was unaware that “NCAA” stands for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and is the organisation that regulates all inter-college sports in North America.

However, not being American or an aficionado of US sports can be an advantage too. As I was reading the book, I genuinely had no idea how the 1999 season would pan out, where the team would finish at the Nationals, and whether Goucher would take the individual title. If I had a criticism, it is that as a reader it’s something of a shame that the very first page of the book tells you who makes it to the finals. Only 7 athletes of the initial starting squad of 23 can be chosen for the varsity team, and throughout the book the competition for the spots is intense. Chris Lear would probably tell you that the journey is more important than the “who”, but as you follow the various members of the squad, it really isn’t obvious who is going to make the final 7…except you already know.

Of course, how that squad is chosen is a major piece of the story. For his time, Wetmore was an unconventional coach, emphasising high volume and a return to the training philosophy of Arthur Lydiard. The mileage these guys do, my god. 100+ miles a week is made to feel normal. After a while, you start to wonder why you aren’t running those kind of miles yourself.

Just about everyone gets injured at some point, unsurprisingly, causing headaches for Wetmore’s selection process. There is also real emphasis on being thin, and the coach unashamedly bashes some of his skeletal stars for gaining small amounts of weight, something which makes me deeply uncomfortable after recently reading about the story of an elite male marathoner with bulimia. You do have to question whether all of this is healthy for young athletes, and it is noticeable that for most of them, the NCAA is the pinnacle of their running lives. Adam Goucher’s adult career never quite matched his college promise, and you have to wonder if the demands of college XC meant that he peaked too soon.

For those of us who only took up running later in life, and will never come close to matching the fitness and performances of these young men, Running with the Buffaloes allows us to dream of what might have been if we had only discovered the sport a little sooner, had a little more talent, and did not spend their teenage years with a loyalty card to Hussein’s kebab van.


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