The stuff of champions: Arthur's Boys

By David Leggat

The tyranny of distance often forces New Zealanders to forge their own paths to sporting greatness, none more so than a posse of runners who were prepared to run all day for innovative distance guru Arthur Lydiard.

Running legends Barry Magee and Bill Baillie on Wainwright Ave, Mt Roskill, where they would start their 22 mile training runs 60 years ago. Photo / Richard Robinson
Running legends Barry Magee and Bill Baillie on Wainwright Ave, Mt Roskill, where they would start their 22 mile training runs 60 years ago. Photo / Richard Robinson

In a three-part series Herald chief sports writer David Leggat looks at the secret of success of some of New Zealand's greatest ever athletes.

They were simply known as Arthur's Boys, and there will never be another group like them.

"Arthur" was Arthur Lydiard, the legendary coach who presided over his charges with an uncompromisingly firm hand as they developed into world class runners, won Olympic medals, set world records and, coming after the deeds of Jack Lovelock and Yvette Williams, reinforced New Zealand's proud place on the world athletics map.

Central to their achievements was a 22-mile (35km) journey undertaken every Sunday morning for many years through the Waitakere Ranges, known simply as "the Waiatarua run".

Runners came and went from the group, but at the heart of it were six men - Murray Halberg, Peter Snell, Barry Magee, Bill Baillie, Jeff Julian and Ray Puckett, Olympians all, in the case of the first two, all-time greats.

The run was Lydiard's brainchild, he had willing pupils through his links with the fledgling Owairaka club, and the result was a time like no other for the sport in this country.

Essentially it was a conditioning run, not a competitive joust between men with a fierce drive to succeed. Lydiard adhered to the principle that there was no substitute for putting in the work and in the Waiataruas he found the ideal conditioning device.

Magee said Lydiard spending five years experimenting.

"He ran up to 300 kilometres a week, he tried everything, read every known book on training and distance running, then put it all together."

Magee and Halberg were first among the group to do the run, Magee in 1951 at 17. The others followed shortly after, Snell, a few years younger man, and the late Olympic bronze medallist John Davies still later.

Lydiard, after a falling out with the Lynndale club, helped form the Owairaka club, but his gruelling run through the hills was open to all. Magee's first impressions? "Very tough," he quipped.

"Most of us had never run two and a half hours before. But with Lydiard, when he took you on, there was a very specific request: if you weren't prepared to run 100 miles a week don't waste your time and mine."

For some, this was the one run of the week you got with the coach, so there was a keenness to take advantage of that.

Magee remembers in the early months flopping on his bed for an hour when he got home.

The routine didn't vary.

"Five Wainwright Ave, Sunday morning, 8 o'clock. He went by the kitchen clock. At 7.45am his routine was a cup of tea.

"At one minute past he was 100 or 200 metres down the road. It was precise. The guys who wanted to run with Lydiard weren't late."

There were short cuts available for those who'd perhaps had a couple of extra beers the night before, but "most usually didn't do that, simply because Lydiard was there - and they were too chicken".

So to the run. Baillie, like Magee now 78, had his first taste of it in April 1954. His recollections, like Magee's, remain vivid.

Baillie drives the route and is an expert guide. Mind you, by now he could just about do it blindfolded. Out of Wainwright Drive, through a couple of back streets before emerging onto New North Rd, down St Judes Road Rd on to Great North Rd, past Avondale Racecourse on the right.

It was shortly after this when the chatty Baillie broke off in mid-sentence and suddenly shot an arm to his right. "Just there," he said. "One day Barry and I were running and this bloke called out 'President Kennedy's been shot'."

There were three hills the runners had to negotiate. Back then, the houses quickly dropped away. Orchards and semi-rural land dominated the landscape, and there were no other runners. Loneliness of the long distance runners? No fear.

"We talked all the time, running and yarning, telling jokes," Baillie said. Along West Coast Rd and on up to the third and hardest climb. Coming to a sharp lefthand bend, Baillie said this was the spot when one day "Snell was about to take off". Magee grabbed the back of his shirt to get a helping hand.

Up on to the top on Scenic Drive and the highest point of the run. Shortly after starting the downhill section, Baillie, a man of boundless enthusiasm and stories, pulled over, hopped out of the car and was off across the road in a jiffy, disappearing through a small hole in the wall of green bush.

Two tricky steps in and, balancing carefully, he was at a small trickling waterfall. On the hotter days, the runners would pause, put their face to the wall and get a soothing drink before carrying on down through Titirangi - perhaps a quick stop at the tap beside the local garage - and retrace their steps back to Lydiard's house.

Times varied for the run, but between about 2h 10min to 2h 30min.

One day Julian, not content with one lap, turned around and did it again. Magee chuckled, clearly thinking that was mad.

The camaraderie between these men was strong. Theirs is a special bond, forged as they pounded the roads side by side, week after week, year upon year, possessing total faith in their mentor.

Magee and Baillie stressed the conditioning aspect. They were all in this together, not rivals.

As Magee put it they "only did it 11 and a half months a year".

"Those runs, that conditioning, made Arthur's runners the best conditioned and prepared runners in the world. That's why we conquered the world," Magee said.

Their dominance on the domestic scene was remarkable. For 12 straight years from 1954, a Lydiard runner won the national mile title; Magee and Baillie divvied up the 6 mile crown for over a decade; Magee, Julian and Puckett had the marathon covered from 1958-70.

Magee is emphatic on the importance of the runs to his career: "In capital letters, HUGE."

Baillie concurs. "It made me. It was about a whole attitude to life, discipline and respect. We had complete confidence in him [Lydiard].

"We never had any doubt we weren't on the right track and doing the right thing."

And what of Lydiard? He didn't play favourites. His treatment was even-handed. Snell, younger and more questioning, has admitted the pair didn't always see eye to eye. But for the rest, "it was yes sir, no sir".

"Lydiard's words were 'the body doesn't need a break at all, but the brain does'," Magee said. "Everyone hung on everything he said, had the utmost respect for him. He was the boss, there was only black and white. He was blunt, direct, in your face, an amazing guy mentally and physically in every way."

It was a special time, never to be repeated.

Tomorrow

In the series final, we take a peek at Dan Carter's back yard; look at Murray Grace's dastardly 'chunder' bike; and pay homage to the humble erg, which chews up and spits out rowing pretenders.

- NZ Herald

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