The “Magical Week” Down-Under

Feb. 3, 2021 — Just as September 2, 1960, is forever remembered as the Greatest Day for New Zealand’s Athletics when Peter Snell and Murray Halberg won 2 Olympic gold medals within an hour for the Lydiard Training System; a mere year and a half after that, there was Track & Field’s “Magical Week” between Jan. 27 and Feb. 3 in 1962 that is worth being told for generations to come. In the span of 8 days (basically, one week!), Peter Snell set 3 world records. Well, 2 of them were actually run in the same race (800m and 880 yards) but, nevertheless, 3 world records were smashed in a week!! In the history of athletics, there have been a handful of occasions/athletes who had turned in world record after world record. Britain’s Sebastian Coe broke 3 middle distance records (800m, mile and then 1500m) in 41 days. Kenya’s Henry Rono broke 4 world records (10,000m, 5,000m, 3,000m steeplechase and 3,000m) in 81 days. Also, Australia’s Ron Clarke competed 18 races in a span of 44 days in 1965 and broke 12 (!!) world records! Three-world-records-in-8-days is equal to, if not greater than, these athletic feats.

I have the analysis of Peter’s training, “Peter Snell’s Training” on the Noteworthy Page that shows the detail of his training leading up to this Magical Week. After 8-weeks of not-so-perfect Conditioning Phase, Peter went on and participated a full marathon (this is a full 42km marathon, not like Japanese who often call anything beyond 2km is “marathon”!!) and completed his first (and the last) marathon in 2:41 while he jogged and walked the last 5-miles. That was 2-months before the Magical Week. Then he engaged himself with a 9-weeks of Lydiard Track Schedule. The first WR, one-mile in Wanganui. When I took Peter to Japan for 3 Lydiard clinics in 2008, he shared with me his performance progression chart (see above image). After Peter joined the Lydiard group, he had progressed nicely: 1:59 to 1:46 for 800m and 4:40 (age 17, granted) to 4:01 for the mile within 3 years (and, needless to mention, the Olympic gold medal on the third season!!). He had regarded himself more or less as an 800m runner. So this was supposed to be his first serious attempt to the distance and he just wanted to break 4-minute for the mile.

Wanganui is a medium-size town of population nearing 50,000, located between Auckland and Wellington on the North Island of New Zealand. Now it is forever remembered in the athletic history with this magnificent run by Peter Snell (especially now his statue is there to immortalize this evening in 1962 — the “Roadside Story” HERE). The grass track (typical in New Zealand) at Cook’s Garden was short — 350m instead of conventional 400m. This means the curve is tighter and he would have to go around the “curve” 9 times instead of 8 (4 and a half laps instead of 4). But the international field (runners from England, Australia and USA as well as Kiwis) was assembled for this occasion. Snell ran 60.7–59.9–59.0–54.8 and completed the mile in 3:54.4. But because there was a misprint on the program which listed the World Record by Australia’s Herb Elliott as 3:54.4, it was at first announced that he “tied” the world record. It turned out Elliott’s record was actually 3:54.5. Now Peter Snell, with his first ever sub-4 minute performance, is the world mile record holder.

Peter was in such a great racing shape that the following Wednesday, Peter raced another half-mile in Invercargill and easily won in 1:52 — just a sharpening maintenance work. Next up, Christchurch the following weekend on 2/3. It was a half-mile race and Peter would be timed at 800m as well as the half-mile mark. While Wanganui performance came unexpected (perhaps except for his coach, Arthur Lydiard who publicly announced before the race that Snell was able to break the world record which actually annoyed Snell because he wanted to keep low-key), this was actually THE race he wanted to run well. At Rome Olympics a year and a half earlier, then the world record holder, Belgium’s Roger Moens, who won the silver medal behind Snell, actually publicly stated that Snell would have no chance of winning.

We often talk about record-breaking performances due to the advancement of technologies. Recent world record rush in distance running events — both roads and track — can in large part be attributed to the introduction of “Super Shoes” and similar technologies as well as artificial “electronic” pacing system. When the synthetic rubberized track surface was introduced in mid- to late-1960s (1968 Mexico City Olympic Games were the first Olympics to be run on the rubberized track), people argued that, for middle and long distance events, it would improve the performance by 1-second-per-lap compared to the previous cinder track. The grass track is supposed to be slower still (although, according to Peter, he said he actually liked well-trimmed grass track…. Of course, just because he liked it, that does not mean he was able to run AS FAST on the grass track…). The race was shaping up to be the world record attempt. The Auckland quarter-mile champion was recruited to pace Peter for the first lap. However, with the excitement, he ran the first 220 in 24.8 (!!) and went on to run the first lap in 51-second flat. Considering the slower track (than modern track), it was way too fast. Peter ran the second lap all by himself so, basically, he was pretty much all by himself!! Nevertheless, he managed to run 1:44.3–1.4 second faster than Moens’ record — and 1:45.1, both of which were the world record (the race footage followed by the Snell interview HERE or you can watch almost the entire race without sound HERE). His 800m record on this day in 1962 still stands as New Zealand’s national record. This despite new generations of great Kiwi middle distance runners such as John Walker (1976 Olympic 1500m champion) and Nick Willis (2008 and 2016 Olympic 1500m medalist) attempting to better it; yet, it outlasted these challenges for over a half a century!! (59 years)

Snell would go on to break his own mile world record one more time down to 3:54.1 a few years later. In 1975, fellow Kiwi, John Walker became the first man to break 3:50 for the mile with 3:49.4. He would improve this time down to 3:49.08 in 1982 — this time, not world record but his PB and still standing NZ record and one of his 135 sub-4-minute miles. Suppose, roughly, grass track is 0.5 second per lap slower than cinder track; and cinder track is 1-second per lap slower than modern rubberized track. Peter’s 3:54 would then be equivalent to 3:48. And his 1:44 for 800m would be 1:41 — current world record being 1:40.91 by Kenya’s incredible David Rudisha (2012). During his relatively “short” athletic career (again, back in his days, there was no money in the sport and most “amateur” athletes retire fairly early), Snell ended up breaking total of 8 world records including one relay (4 X 1-mile) and 2 indoor races. But perhaps his first mile world record and this epic 800m record in Christchurch are probably most significant. His 800m record (1:44.3) stands at 177th fastest time of ALL TIME at this moment. This means; by average, there had been 3 runners ran faster than him every year since he ran it. In reality, it took 11 years for the rest of the world to cautch up to him. Italy’s Fiasconaro broke Peter’s record with 1:43.7 (95th on the all-time list) in 1973 — on the rubberized track. There is NO 800m time faster than Snell’s that was run on either cinder or grass track. According to Lydiard, Snell’s “bouncy” running style would be perfectly suited for rubberized track surface. “He would have gotten a lot more benefit than other runners (would have run faster than 1-second-a-lap),” Lydiard said. Records will be broken; whether it’s because of advancement of training, training environment, financial incentive, better pacing (rabitting), or simply improvement of technologies…. But legends and legendary performances will live on. And Peter Snell was such a legendary athlete, and his 3 magnificent performances on this “Magical Week” were such legendary performances. Surely, Peter was a superb athlete to begin with. But coupled with the Lydiard Training System and the mental preparation by the master psychologist, Arthur Lydiard, as it is said in English, “the rest was history.”— Nobby Hashizume

PS: Anybody interested in Peter Snell documentary, here’s one of the best short documentary films of him by Bud Greenspan, “NUMERO UNO”.

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