By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
British Marathon runner Jim Peters died on Saturday January 9, 1999 at the age of 80. In 1953, Peters became the first man to run a Marathon in under 2 hours 20 minutes. Between 1952 and 1954, Peters set four consecutive world records in the Marathon, lowering the record from 2:25:39 to 2:17:40.
The International Amateur Athletics Federation, the world governing body for track and field, considers Peters, along with Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila and Portugal's Carlos Lopez, the world's three all-time Greats in the Marathon.
Ironically, Peters's lasting contribution to distance running came from his failures, not his victories. Six weeks after winning the British Championship and lowering the world record by five minutes, an exhausted Peters dropped out of the 1952 Olympic Marathon in Helsinki at mile 19. Emil Zatopek won that race, his first Marathon, to become the only runner to win Olympic gold medals in the 5,000-meters, 10,000 meters and the Marathon.
At the 1954 Empire Games Marathon in Vancouver, Peters entered the stadium 20 minutes ahead of his closest competitor. Overheated and dehydrated, he staggered around the stadium and collapsed 200 meters from the finish line, after running the entire race without drinking any water. This experience gave runners new understanding of the effects of heat, and brought water stations to modern Marathons.
Peters retired from competition after the Vancouver Games at the age of 35. At his retirement, he held the world record in the Marathon, and four of the six fastest times in history. This feat had not been achieved before or since.
The training strategy that carried Peters to the top was a contrast of caution and hard work. He competed in track, cross country and road races in his twenties, and reigned as the British Champion in 6 miles and 10 miles between 1946 and 1949. However, he did not run Marathons until he matured in his early thirties.
Peters detailed his training methods in his autobiography and a training book, published in the mid-fifties. A key ingredient to this program was a slow increase in mileage. Case in point, his weekly mileage increased from 17 miles in the fall of 1950, to 50 miles in the spring of 1951 and 100 miles in the summer of 1953.
Several years after his Helsinki experience, Peters advised runners to refrain from racing for at least five weeks after a Marathon. He wrote: "Your body and mind must be given ample time to recover from the effort."
Although he took the occasional day off, Peters did not believe in easy running. He wrote that "the body has got to be conditioned to stand up to stresses and strains which it is going to meet in an actual race, and therefore it is useless training at a six-minute mile pace, if you hope to race a 5-1/2 minute per mile pace."
Recognizing the wear and tear of long runs on the body, Peters seldom ran more than 16 miles a day in training. However, these were always high quality miles at race pace. His motto was to "Train little, hard and often."
Peters did not believe in tapering off, either. In the week leading to his 2:18:40 world record, he ran 70 miles at an average pace of 5 minutes 30 seconds per mile, including a 6.5-mile sprint at a 5-minute pace on the eve of the Marathon. One can only wonder how much faster he could have run if he had tapered off.
As Peters rests in peace, the black and white footage of his shadow staggering around the Vancouver track lives on as one of the most dramatic moments in Marathon running history.
Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.