Sir Peter Snell died this month, but he will always have a special place in Whanganui after setting a world record for the mile here in 1962.

Almost six decades later, the site of Snell's history-making run, Whanganui's Cooks Gardens track, is still a place of pilgrimage for athletes from all over the world.

"Basically because of Snell and the legacy of that world record, people come here to run the sub four-minute mile," Whanganui Sports Heritage Trust co-ordinator Russell Sears said.

To date, 65 athletes have run sub-4 minute miles and many have tried, including some of the world's best runners.

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"We are talking about people like Steve Cram, world record holder for the mile, who came but he didn't break four minutes. It's like a who's who in world athletics. Mo Farah ran here, Jürgen May and Kip Keino," Sears said.

"Jürgen May actually broke Snell's record at that stage and that was 3:53.8, which is still the fastest mile on the grass track in the world."

Today, the Whanganui/Manawatū athletics and cycling clubs are some of the strongest in the country.

"It's the magic, the legacy that Snell's created for us in Whanganui and we've been lucky the athletics and cycling club have built on that over the years," Sears said.

Long-serving Whanganui Collegiate Coach, Alec McNab credits Snell with his coming to Whanganui.

"I know a lot about Peter Snell and I'm only here because of him," McNab said.

"He came to Loughborough where I was studying and we were a bit impressed by someone who wasn't there as a scholar, who was working harder than we were."

"While I was there, Whanganui Collegiate had been in touch with him looking for a teacher to do Phys. Ed and Athletics at Wanganui Collegiate - and I was that person.

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"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. That's absolutely the truth of it. I hadn't thought of New Zealand."

McNab knew a lot about Snell. As a middle distance runner himself, he had just finished his thesis on middle distance running.

"The number of times that I wrote 'Snell' and 'Lydiard' down, I'd hate to think."

McNab says Whanganui is particularly strong in athletics. The unofficial statistics he has compiled from the 2019 National Schools Championships, in terms of medals in the top eight placings, puts Whanganui Collegiate as the top school in the country and Whanganui High School second.

"It's a lot to do with the club we've got here," McNab said. "We put on a pretty good club night [which is] just regular competition. It's been here for 45 years on Tuesday nights, basically every Tuesday apart from this little spell over Christmas."

McNab recalled a typically "Kiwi" comment from the man who put New Zealand athletics on the map. Visiting Whanganui in 2009 for the unveiling of the bronze statue of himself at Cooks Gardens, Snell's first comment was: "You're not quite as trim as I remember you."

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