Athletics: Run of a lifetime 50 years on

By Grant Chapman

Toby Bowyer was clerk of the course when Peter Snell set his world record. Photo / Herald on Sunday
Toby Bowyer was clerk of the course when Peter Snell set his world record. Photo / Herald on Sunday

For Sir Murray Halberg, it was a night tinged with death and sadness. For Peter Snell, it was the moment he realised he wasn't just an 800m runner.

For athletics official (and an athlete himself) Toby Bowyer, it was a time when the police detective didn't mind suffering 'grievous bodily harm' at the hands of jubilant coach Arthur Lydiard.

For Nick Willis, Wanganui's Cooks Gardens has a special significance too - which is why he is the star turn at Friday's track meeting there to celebrate Snell's world mile record set on January 27, 1962.

That night, a menacing black cloud hung over Wanganui. Outside the town, rain pelted down and threatened to put a dampener on the Agfa International Athletic Meeting. But at Cooks Gardens, apart from that cloud, the evening was still and perfect.

"It was almost an eerie thing," recalls Sir Murray Halberg, who was trying to warm up for the programme's feature race under the weight of some tragic news.

The reigning Olympic 5000m champion had promised to help his mate Snell become the first man to break four minutes for the mile in New Zealand.

The pair, both coached by the legendary Lydiard, had already contributed a unique piece of Kiwi sporting history, winning gold medals within an hour of each other at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Halberg held the national mile record at 3m 57.5s, achieved in the same race that Australian Herb Elliott had set the existing world mark in Dublin four years earlier. Now he was expected to help break his own record.

But Halberg was struggling with the revelation that a training buddy had died on the trip south from Auckland. Popular Owairaka athlete Peter Hitchens had drowned while swimming off Foxton Beach.

"Whenever I think about that night, I think about Peter Hitchens," reflects Sir Murray. "He was a middle distance runner, a typical enthusiastic harrier and a good club member. I heard about his death before the race but I don't think we told Peter [Snell] until afterwards."

Out on the track, Toby Bowyer was checking and re-checking the markings. As clerk of the course, his job was to ensure the circuit was correctly laid out and, if records were broken, that task would become doubly important.

"I had to make sure everything was running right and all the pegs were in the right place," explains Bowyer, a detective at the time. "It was all surveyed beforehand and right up to scratch."

In the book Peter Snell: From Olympian to Scientist (2007), written by Garth Gilmour, Snell would describe the grass surface as bare in patches and not particularly beautiful, "but as a running surface in the conditions that prevailed, it was excellent".

The gathering crowd of 15,000 was expecting something special. While Snell, then 23, fully expected to better four minutes and perhaps challenge Halberg's national record, he was annoyed to find Lydiard had predicted a time of 3m 55s in the local paper.

"If I did end up running well inside four minutes, I preferred it to be something better than expected," he said later.

"This habit of publicly committing their charges to highly demanding performances seems to be an unfortunate trait of most prominent coaches."

Almost inevitably, the meeting ran late, but officials were persuaded to start the main event on time at 9.30pm, allowing national radio to carry Norm Nielsen's race commentary as scheduled. Contestants took their marks for the Woolworths International Mile, with designated 'rabbit' Barry Cossar in the pole position and American Ernie Cunliffe outside him, followed by Halberg, Britain's Bruce Tulloh, Snell, Aussie Alby Thomas and Waikato steeplechaser Alex Shaw on the outside.

AS THE pistol fired, Snell immediately drifted to the back of the pack, relying on others to set the required pace.

He passed through the first split in about 61 seconds, 15m adrift of Cossar, but edged his way forward as the bunch strung out over the second lap.

Cossar hit the halfway mark in exactly two minutes - right on target - but even as he stepped aside to let the field through, he knew his task was not done. Because pacemaking was still frowned upon by track and field authorities, he still had to finish.

"If the pacemaker had pulled out, the record would have been null and void," insists Bowyer.

Snell looked around for Halberg to take over for the third lap but, still distracted by the death of his mate, Halberg was nowhere to be seen.

"I don't know if I was off colour or simply not on form," Halberg says. "But in a way, it gave even more credit to Peter's performance, because he didn't get the assistance he normally would have expected."

Determined to reach the three-quarters split in three minutes, Snell took matters into his own hands and focused on maintaining a relaxed and even pace as he strode out in front. He achieved his target but got the bell just as Tulloh scooted past into the final lap.

The Briton ran most of his races in bare feet (though not this night) and, although he would win the European 5000m later that year, he wasn't considered a threat over the shorter distance. His surge shocked Snell and provided just the incentive he needed. Waiting until the back straight, the Kiwi unleashed the kick that became his calling card.

"I found myself running in complete freedom from restraint," he told Gilmour. "I was holding nothing back and I don't think I've ever felt such a glorious feeling of strength and speed without strain as I did during that final exhilarating 300 yards. I knew I must be well within four minutes as I raced the last curve, I straightened, heard for the first time the rising roar of the crowd and kept on driving. Still, there was no conscious effort."

Bowyer had seen that sprint before: "Peter was pretty quick, all right," he remembers. "I'd finished fourth behind him at the national 880 yards a few years before and knew how fast he could kick. Arthur and I were standing at the 1500m mark when he went through in about 3m 39s. Arthur belted me on the back so hard, he almost drove me into the ground."

As Snell powered across the finish line, Nielsen breathlessly informed his radio audience, "It has just been announced here that Peter Snell of Auckland has equalled the world record of 3m 54.4s."

The crowd began rejoicing and applauded again when Tulloh's 3m 59.3s was also announced. Then came the biggest cheer - Snell had actually shaved a tenth of a second off Elliott's time, which had been wrongly listed in the meeting programme.

"There had been a misprint," chuckles Bowyer. "The printers were given the right time but, for some reason, they had put a '4' instead of a '5' in the programme.

"The crowd started singing 'For he's a jolly good fellow' and the place was in chaos, with people running all over the show. We still had 10 events to get through, including cycle races."

Thomas had placed third in 4m 03.5s, Halberg was next in 4m 07.2s, while Cunliffe and Shaw crossed together in 4m 14.3s. The following week, Snell would set world records over 880 yards and 800m in Christchurch. His 800m time of 1m 44.3s run in Christchurch remains the New Zealand record almost 50 years later. But the Wanganui result over four laps provided a turning point in his career.

"From that day on, I was never regarded as a half-miler again," he told a 1992 reunion, organised just before the old grass track was replaced with a swish new all-weather surface. "Any invitations I received to run were for the mile. I also discovered in that race that I had a finishing kick over the mile. Previously, I'd been running the mile in 4m 01s or 4m 02s and basically just been happy to finish."

HALF A century later, it's worth wondering how much faster Snell could have run had he put his mind to it. In 1964, he further reduced his record to 3m 54.1s at Auckland's Western Springs off a slightly faster pace, clocking 3m 37.6s through the 1500m. But even that seems only a scratch on the surface of his ability.

"I think in those days, we really had a minute-a-lap fixation," admits Halberg. "It was a matter of running minute laps and then running as fast as you could over the last - that was how much you beat four minutes by.

"But Peter was also more on his own. When Herb Elliott set the record in Dublin, he had five of us close behind him and under four minutes, but Peter never really had opposition."

Snell's wasn't the last great mile run in Wanganui. Nearly four years later, Bowyer was a signatory to a world record application from East German Jurgen May, whose 3m 53.8s is still the fastest time on grass.

These days, Bowyer, now 78, is patron of the Wanganui Athletic Club and still cycles an hour or more most days to keep fit.

Snell went on to earn degrees in human performance and exercise physiology at the University of California, Davis. Sir Peter, as he is now, rarely travels internationally and won't attend the 50th anniversary celebrations.

THE QUICKEST mile ever run at Cooks Gardens doesn't belong to Snell but to Beijing Olympic silver medallist Nick Willis. He clocked 3m 52.75s and will again be the star attraction next Friday. Among the 53 sub-four minute miles achieved at the venue, older brother Stephen also ranks at No38 with 3m 59.04s.

In 1962, their father Richard Willis and his family ventured forth from their Taranaki farm to witness Snell's world record attempt. He would become a useful school-age athlete and later represented Wellington in rugby.

"I remember my dad saying how incredible it was to watch Snell that night," says Nick Willis.

"It never crossed his mind that he would one day have kids who could emulate that performance."

Willis first encountered his hero in person during his freshman year at the University of Michigan in 2002. While competing at the Big 10 conference championships in Minneapolis, he and coach Ron Warhurst gate-crashed a clinic Snell was giving on distance training.

"It ended up being a back-and-forth between him and my coach, with Peter making sure Ron was giving me the right type of training," grins Willis. "All the other people were spinning their heads back and forth like a tennis match. Peter has had some doubts about the collegiate system in the United States and justifiably so, given what he had seen in the past. But it's a lot harder for coaches to take advantage of their athletes now - my coach has been one of the pioneers in putting long-term careers first and Peter's been a big supporter."

Like Snell, Willis credits Cooks Gardens for giving his career a major boost in its early days. He wouldn't dream of missing such a big moment in its history.

"I ran 4m 01s there as a 17-year-old and that really opened up a huge amount of doors for me. It would be really tough not to be part of the celebration. The sad part is we're all in very early training stages for 2012 and can't just drop what we're doing to freshen up. We'll race because it'd be neat to do it and it'll break the monotony of training, but we won't be able to do full justice to Peter Snell's incredible performance."

- Herald on Sunday

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