Skip to main content
Original Issue


In the southern reaches of faraway New Zealand young Peter Snell broke the world half-mile and 800-meter records last Saturday just a week after he had run history's fastest mile

In the stretch of the Olympic 800-meter finals in Rome last year the highly favored Belgian, Roger Moens, looked quickly to his right to see if there was any opposition in sight as he headed for the finish line. In that brief instant a stocky bull of a runner, New Zealand's Peter Snell, audaciously burst by on Moens' left side and won a gold medal by a step. "He'll never get anywhere with his build," said the irritated Moens of the winner. "He is too heavy."

Two weeks ago the still little-known and still burly Peter Snell caught the whole track world looking the wrong way. In the improbable sounding locale of Wanganui, New Zealand, without advance fuss or fanfare, he ran a mile in 3:54.4, breaking Herb Elliott's 3½-year-old record by a tenth of a second.

That ended Snell's anonymity. By last Saturday, as he was ready to climax the finest fortnight a track man ever had, no one was going to be surprised by Snell no matter what he did—or weighed. He had announced he was out to break the world half-mile mark, and as 15,000 confident New Zealanders shouted him on around the firm grass track at Lancaster Park, Christchurch, that is exactly what he did. He managed it casually, effortlessly and powerfully, also setting a world record for the slightly shorter 800-meter distance en route. That made it three world records in eight days. Suddenly at 23, self-possessed, shy and likable Peter Snell, who has the legs of a shotputter, hips so small he must have his shorts specially tailored to keep them up, a penchant for eating honey by the 60-pound tin and a nonstop attitude toward life, was literally changing the shape of foot racing's future.

At 5 feet 10½ and 171 pounds, Snell is neither built like nor competes like any famous miler of modern times. He is 20 pounds heavier than any of the others and shorter than most. He has huge and efficient leg muscles—look at them and you think of Joe Louis or Parry O'Brien—and to see him run is to get an impression of rippling motion and surging strength, rather than flowing speed. He has a limited amount of running savvy and a minimum of finesse. He simply comes on toward the end of a race to brutally overpower that combination of time and distance that is the measure of world records. To make an automotive analogy, the usual runner is like a Jaguar. Snell is a Sherman tank—with overdrive.

After a race, instead of collapsing in the traditional heap of the athlete who has given his last ounce of energy and will, Snell is hardly panting. Following his mile record in Wanganui the announcer who interviewed him was considerably more winded from the excitement than Snell was from the running. He seems to have incalculable reserves of power and stamina and enjoys developing them. Thus, the day after his record mile, Snell flew to Auckland, was driven to nearby Papakura, where he changed into track shorts and ran the last 15 miles to his parents' home in Pukekohe to tell them about his race. It is this combination of strength, youth and zeal that now leads track experts to predict that Snell may eventually break every record from 800 to 5,000 meters.

Snell's perpetual-motion attitude showed itself while he was a schoolboy and well before he took up serious running. The son of an engineer, he was raised in Opunake, a small and beautiful beach town some 30 miles southwest of New Plymouth. When he was a small boy his mother took note of his constant activity and catered to it in one striking respect. He liked honey, and she bought it 60 pounds at a time to feed to her energetic son. That was, and still is, the only dietary fad he has. Later he attended Mount Albert Grammar School (the counterpart of a U.S. high school) in Auckland, where the headmaster recalls a day in 1957 when Snell won a singles and doubles match for the school tennis team and then played a starring role in a cricket game. When the cricket was over the headmaster found Peter running around the school track in his shorts and T shirt. "What are you doing, Snell?" he asked. "I want to keep fit, sir," answered Snell. Presumably still in the name of fitness, he became a good swimmer, an excellent boxer and a member of the school Rugby team. His tennis is so good that while in London last summer he took time off from his running to play a few sets at Wimbledon with Mark Otway, a New Zealand Davis Cup player.

Snell left school in 1957 and began training as a supply surveyor, a job that calls for estimating the amount of materials needed for building projects. At the same time, with a typical burst of energy, he helped his family build a new home in Pukekohe. Every Friday night he would take a bus from Auckland to the town of Runciman. There he would change his clothes at the bus depot, run the 10 miles to Pukekohe, work Saturday and Sunday, run back to Runciman and ride into Auckland for another week at his job. The bus, of course, could have taken him to Pukekohe.

Snell kept up his competitive running, too, but his performances were promising rather than outstanding. Then, in 1958, after winning a half-mile event in Auckland, he met New Zealand's famous track coach, Arthur Lydiard. A former marathon runner and now a coach by avocation (he has made his living by managing a women's shoe factory and delivering milk), Lydiard is the New Zealand counterpart of Australia's fierce and demanding Percy Cerutty, Herb Elliott's coach. At 44, Lydiard is more successful than Cerutty, with five world records being held by his pupils. New Zealanders rather stuffily point out, however, that Lydiard doesn't talk as much about his achievements as Cerutty.

Lydiard applies to all racing the first principle of his first love, marathon running: endurance and strength will win. His training schedules call for 100 miles of cross-country work a week, a regimen few athletes have the energy or inclination to accept. (The program is somewhat helped by New Zealand's generally mild climate, which permits outdoor work all year round.) In Snell, the hyperactive housebuilder, Lydiard found an ideal pupil. By mid-1960, Snell was able to break the New Zealand record for the half mile. Then he qualified for the New Zealand Olympic team, along with such fellow Lydiard pupils as Murray Halberg and Barry Magee. Snell was the least regarded of the three, but he reached the peak of his training in the early heats in Rome, exactly as Lydiard had planned. Before the team left New Zealand, Lydiard, a man locally famous for amazingly accurate predictions, said Snell would be the finest runner the island ever produced. Everybody assumed he was bragging and laughed at this. Then Snell beat Moens. "I told you so," said Lydiard.

Still, nobody was thinking of Snell as a champion miler. Nobody, that is, but Lydiard. Soon he had Snell back at slogging 20 miles a day around the rugged Waitakere mountains near Auckland. Snell's frequent companion was marathon man Magee, who would set a fierce pace. Snell would keep up, the idea being that he could build enough stamina running 20 hard miles a clip eventually to be able to run a single mile at a very fast pace without distress. "When it's pouring with rain, and you're bowling along, wet-through, in the dark," Snell once said of this training, "there's a satisfaction just in knowing you're out there and the others aren't."

This was the preparation that Snell took into his record mile two weeks ago in Wanganui. It explains how he could finish there with an incredible last quarter of 56.4 seconds without appearing tired, and in spite of the fact that the track was only 385 yards around, with unusually tight turns. To a 20-mile man, the mile race was a mere wind sprint.

If Snell's record surprised track followers, the reaction to it astounded Snell himself, though he was aware of the prestige of this classic distance. On the wall of the room where he boards with an Auckland family are clippings of Herb Elliott's mile feats, and on his bookshelf, right there with Dickens' Bleak House and Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends, is a copy of Elliott's The Golden Mile. Yet Snell Could not comprehend the international furor, the transcontinental telephone calls, the demands for pictures and interviews. "I've never been interested in world records before, but I am now," he said with fresh insight, soon after setting the mile mark. Thus began the remarkable week that was to end with two more records.

It was Sunday night that Snell took that 15-mile training run home after flying to Auckland. Monday he managed another such outing, despite the stream of interviewers and well-wishers. Then he flew to Invercargill, some 700 miles (almost the length of New Zealand), to run in a half-mile that was designed to be primarily an exhibition. He loped to the finish in 1:52.2 as the crowd yelled "get on with it," much as it might try to rouse a lethargic boxer.

The next day, Thursday, Snell borrowed a car and drove into the rugged lake country near Queenstown for a few more miles of running, and on Friday he drove another 150 miles to Dunedin, jogged a bit for photographers and finally flew on to the site of his next record try in Christchurch. There he stayed with an uncle, Tom Preston, New Zealand's former Commissioner of Crown Lands.

Saturday morning, with his attempt to break Tom Courtney's five-year-old half-mile record of 1:46.8 only hours away, he ate a big breakfast of scrambled eggs and obligingly drove into the nearby Cashmere Hills for more photographs and training jogs. He talked with his uncle about surveying examinations he must take (a "cadet," he is actually a student surveyor learning the profession), discussed with interest a new muscle he sees developing on the upper part of his foot behind his third toe, and proudly mentioned his elder brother Jack, a noted cricket player who attends a Christchurch university. In fact, in this family discussion a barbecue the Pres-tons were having that evening got as much attention and interest as the record try. Rarely has an athlete gone after a world mark with less tension, modesty or concern. "I feel if I am going to get the half-mile record I should do it now," said Snell coolly. "I am fitter than ever before."

That afternoon a brief squall broke over Christchurch about an hour before race time, slightly softening the hard grass track that has the reputation for being the country's fastest. There were eight starters in the half mile, including Jim Dupree, the U.S. AAU 880 champion, and a surprise last-minute entry, Barry Robinson. Robinson is a fine New Zealand quarter-miler and was running in the hope that his fast early pace would spur on his countryman, Snell. It was feared Snell would require such a pace, for he apparently lacks the "killer instinct" without which champions presumably cannot win. "Snell needs someone to make him really grit his teeth and fight," said Lydiard before the race.

Snell turned the first lap in 50.5, just two strides behind the pace-setting Robinson. Then Snell went into his tremendous kick, with those powerful leg muscles churning. He flew away from the field, crossing the finish line in lonely splendor. His time was 1:45.1, a striking 1.7 seconds lower than Tom Courtney's record. His clocking at the 800-meter mark was 1:44.3. This was 1.4 seconds below the seven-year-old mark set by that Belgian who had looked the wrong way in Rome, Moens. The only other modern runner to hold the half-mile and mile marks at the same time was England's Sydney Wooderson in 1938.

After the race Snell eased his way another lap around the track while receiving a standing ovation. "Keep back! Give the man air!" shouted excited meet officials to photographers hemming in Snell, but it was obvious they needed air far worse than he did.

Equally as noteworthy as Snell's recasting of track records and reshaping of ideas about how a runner should be built, is that at 23 he cannot be considered to have reached the peak of his ability. Lydiard is training him sternly and carefully—Snell will run in Los Angeles this weekend, but he does not plan to compete in the mile, for this would not fit the training schedule. When Snell does reach his peak, Lydiard predicts, he will run a mile in 3:48. Remembering that the four best laps turned in by top milers (Ibbotson, Snell, Landy and Elliott in the order of the four laps) add up to 3:48.9, one can see just how prodigious a feat Lydiard is forecasting.

Then, finally, consider what Olympic Champion Halberg says of Coach Lydiard and his penchant for predictions. "If Arthur says a thing is going to happen," warns pupil Halberg, "then, barring accidents, it will happen." Nobody better take his eyes off fast-moving Peter Snell again.



ALONE AT THE TAPE, and with the rest of the field out of sight, Snell sets his half-mile mark on the fast grass track at Christchurch.






THE CURLY-HAIRED CELEBRITY from Opunake shares a smile of success with the man whom he feels made all the records possible, New Zealand's now famous coach, Arthur Lydiard.