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Peter Snell — May, 2011
Peter Snell of New Zealand won the Gold Medal in the 1960 Olympic 800 meter run in Rome, Italy by 0.07 seconds in 1:46.48. Four years later in 1964 in Tokyo, Japan he repeated as Olympic Champion in the 800 meters by half a second in an Olympic Record time of 1:45.1. He added an Olympic Gold Medal in Tokyo at 1,500 meters, winning by over 10 meters in 3:38.1. Snell is one of only three men to win successive Olympic 800 meter titles and was the first in over 60 years to complete the 800/1,500 meter double in the Olympics. He set World Records of 1:44.3 for 800 meters in 1962, 3:54.4 for the mile in 1962 and 2:16.6 for 1,000 meters in 1964, which are all his personal best times. At the British Commonwealth Games in 1962 in Perth, Western Australia, Snell won Gold Medals in the mile and at 880 yards. Peter was named ‘New Zealand’s Sports Champion of the Century,’ made a ‘Member of the British Empire’ and appeared on a New Zealand commemorative postage stamp. He earned a Doctorate in Exercise Physiology and is a world-renowned exercise physiologist at the University of Texas in Dallas. Peter and his wife, Miki, of 28 years reside in Dallas, Texas.
GCR:You’ve had some health issues in recent years which even prevented your attending a 50 year celebration of your first Olympic victory in 1960. How is your health currently and is there anything in particular on which you and your doctors keep a keen eye?
PSMy health is pretty good to be quite honest. It is improved as medication is controlling the arrhythmia and I have a pacemaker and defibrillator inside of me. The defibrillator went off one time when I collapsed on the racquetball court. I’ve concluded that if I exercise too hard it can trigger the arrhythmia. The pacemaker recorded the event and my heart rate was 250. So with no warning I just passed out. After about ten seconds the defibrillator kicked in and I was back to normal. I do ride my bike, but not fast – I don’t try to hit 20 miles per hour! Moderate exercise is the key for me. I can do the 10k distance, but now I walk instead of running. Regarding the 50 year celebration of my 1960 Olympic win, I do get a bit tired of rehashing my exploits each time there is another anniversary year and the health issue gave me an important reason to stay home and not attend the occasion.
GCR:It is hard to believe that five decades have passed since you won the Gold medal in the 800 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics. You weren’t one of the favorites, but how did you feel about your chances to medal and to win?
PSWhen I arrived in Rome I was not thinking about medals or winning. I was thinking about making the final. I kept my expectations within reach. I didn’t like pressure and felt that if my expectations weren’t too high that I tended to have more success. I also looked at what it took to make the final in 1956 and thought I could do it. My form early in the year was a 1:48.5 which I thought was good since I wasn’t in peak training. Though some people were saying with the depth of good 800 meter runners I would have to break the Olympic Record to make the final.
GCR:The original 800 meter race schedule in Rome had to be adjusted due to a huge number of entrants. How did this affect you mentally and physically?
PSI started thinking about getting in the medals after the first heat. I ran a PR of 1:48.2 and thought, ‘I am running better than I dreamed of – I could medal here.’ In that same afternoon I ran the quarterfinals in a pretty comfortable 1:48.5. The key to the event may have been the large number of entrants which required the extra round of heats on day one. This was good for me since I had so much endurance.
GCR:When you defeated 800m world record holder Roger Moens of Belgium in the semifinals most experts concluded that he was saving his best for the final and didn’t pick you to win. Was there anything you noted during that race that gave you increased confidence that Moens was beatable?
PSBy the semifinal I was plotting strategy to try to win the final. I saw Roger Moens as my chief rival and knew he hadn’t done well in some tough races. I wanted to make him worry about me. In subsequent conversations with Roger, he thought what I was doing was sort of freaky and that I wouldn’t be able to repeat my performances in the final.
GCR:In the final, Moens took the lead 100m from the finish and appeared headed for victory, but you charged ahead from fifth place on the final turn to pass him on the inside and win the Gold Medal. What was your pre-race strategy and did you surprise even yourself with your finishing kick and the victory?
PSMy strategy was pretty much what I do all of the time – relax, get into good position on the back stretch and take off. But it didn’t work as I didn’t feel good enough to do that. On the back stretch I couldn’t make my move as Christian Basely was a compulsive front runner and, despite this being our fourth race in three days, he ripped off a 52 something first lap on a track that wasn’t that fast. So I pretty much wrote off my Gold Medal chances right there. Since I wasn’t able to implement the Lydiard plan, I hoped that the others would slow down at the pole with 100 meters to go and incredibly they did. My thought process coming out of the turn was that I felt okay so instead of thinking I had blown it I was thinking that I could get a medal and get third place. Then as we went onto the finishing straight I thought I could finish second and halfway down the stretch I felt I could win.
GCR:Moens looked back at you three times on the home stretch. Did you see this as a sign of weakness and did it spur you even more so toward your triumph? What else went through your mind in these last few seconds before you hit the tape?
PSEven though I have seen the film, I didn’t notice his first two glances as far as I can remember. It was surprising that the inside of the track opened up so much for me. Roger was running wide and was more worried about George Kerr than me. George ran a great race, but didn’t have the endurance down the stretch. George usually slows down considerably in the final 50 meters which Roger didn’t know so he was trying to run George wide. I believe Roger was all the way out in lane three. When he looked left toward me it was too late as I was passing him. To be quite honest I didn’t even know I was passing him as I was focusing on the finish line and going all out. I saw the tape and flung myself at it. I wasn’t sure if I won as Roger was a couple of lanes wide of me.
GCR:How did you find out that you were Olympic Champion – was it when you saw the scoreboard? What were your initial emotions?
PSRoger and I met briefly on the track while we recovered. I asked him who won and he said, ‘You did.’ So that is how I first knew. It was a feeling of total euphoria. The bad part of it is for Roger it was ‘Gold or nothing’ while for me any color of medal was a huge success. Gold was unbelievable. There had been criticism of my selection in New Zealand as people were saying things such as ‘He’s only ranked 25th in the world – what is that going to get?’ I think what got me on the team was in March when the New Zealand team faced off with Australia and I beat the Australian champion.
GCR:What was your feeling when you were on the medal stand, received your Gold Medal and heard your anthem?
PSOur anthem was ‘God Save the Queen,’ which was also the British anthem. It was dreamlike… ‘Was this really happening to me?’ It was unbelievable. Making it even more unreal was Murray Halbert winning Gold and New Zealand having two Gold medals in less than an hour. He was in the tunnel before the 5,000 meters and heard I had won the 800 meters. He told me he said to himself, ‘Dammit, if Pete’s done it, I can do it!’ Murray was a great help to me in Rome as I was in the presence of someone I looked up to.
GCR:Did you do much training with your Olympic teammates in Rome?
PSYes I did and as a middle distance runner I was able to train with both distance runners and sprinters. As a middle distance runner you never have the upper hand in training as the sprinters are faster and distance runners have more endurance. We had a quarter miler named Dave Robinson and I did some fast workouts with him. He paced me through the first lap of a 1:48.8 800 meter time trial before the Games which encouraged me about my chances to make the final. Murray Halberg and I did a ¾ mile time trial. I ran 2:58 and Murray ran 3:06. Amusingly the newspaper headline read, ‘Halberg Ready with 3:06 Time Trial.’ In the story it did include some information that said something such as, ‘…by the way Snell ran 2:58.’ I wasn’t getting any respect which is kind of how I liked it as I didn’t know myself what I was ready to do. I liked being the dark horse.
GCR:Did you attend the Opening ceremonies and after your races did you attend many other track events or other sports competitions?
PSI was very focused and skipped the Opening Ceremonies as my first heat was the next day. I knew it would be exciting to be at the Ceremonies and kick off the Olympics, but the timing was bad. After I was finished running I didn’t go to other track events or different sports competitions because I went with friends of mine to the Isle of Capri.
GCR:What was the selection process to make New Zealand’s Olympic team?
PSOur country couldn’t afford to send a full team so their criteria were they would send an athlete if they felt there was a reasonable chance of making the semifinals. I think they may have been thinking, ‘This guy is only 21, he beat the top Australian runner who is going to the Olympics, he’s been improving – he’ll be good in four years.’ (I mentioned they were right, since he won two Gold Medals in Tokyo in 1964. This got a big laugh from Peter).
GCR:What did you do to build on your success in Rome throughout 1961 that set you up for such great racing in 1962?
PSI was ranked #1 in 1961 in the 800 meters based on a trip to Europe. A significant thing is that after Rome we went to London and I competed for the British Commonwealth against the United States. I anchored the two-mile relay, took the baton just behind Jerry Siebert and beat Jerry by about ten yards. I ran 1:45 and something for 880 yards so that gave me an idea of my capabilities as it was under the World Record, though it didn’t count as it was a relay leg. I ran a couple more meets but didn’t break the World Record. I anchored a 4-mile relay team competing against a British team and we did get that World Record – I was close to four minutes so I was emerging as a miler though that was the only time I ran the distance that year.
GCR:Didn’t you have your best period of distance training to date in that same year?
PSI had a great uninterrupted buildup of endurance training culminating in a marathon where I was headed for 2:30 at 22 miles but I got dehydrated and ended up at 2:41 as my core temperature must have risen too high. I had to walk some and struggle in but it did indicate that I was in great shape. It was summer in New Zealand so I got on the track and ran 4:01.5 mile without any speed training. I thought I was ready to break four minutes with just a bit of speed training.
GCR:You started off a great campaign in 1962 by breaking the world mile record before a huge crowd at Cook’s Gardens in Wanganui. How tough were Murray Halberg, the 1960 Olympic 5,000 meter champion, Ernie Camliss and Albie Thomas in that race?
PSI had raced 800 meters in 1:47 so I was reasonably fast at the time. Halberg had strength as did Thomas who was a two and three-miler, while Camliss was a half miler. Interestingly, Thomas ran in Herb Elliott’s world record mile race and mine.
GCR:It is amazing that you broke the World Record in the mile on a grass track that was only 350 meters long. Did you have any idea what was transpiring during the race or were you just running fast and running to win?
PSIt was a cycling track and was four and a half laps to the mile. Arthur Lydiard had told the newspapers that I was going to run 3:55. I didn’t want to make predictions like that but he was a genius in that he knew what I was ready to do. A big crowd showed up for the mile as they were anticipating a shot at a sub-four minute mile. We had a half-miler take us through halfway in two minutes as we were just aiming for that four minute mile pace. They did have the quarter miles marked and gave us times at each. The surprise was when Bruce Talloh, a distance runner, came shooting by with a lap to go. That galvanized me into action; I took off and ran the last quarter mile in under 54 seconds.
GCR:You also broke the World Record for 800 meters with a time of 1:44.3 on a grass track which is still the fastest time ever run on grass. What do you remember about that race and why were you able to run so well on what was supposedly a slow surface?
PSDave Robinson, who had paced me in the time trial in Rome, did the same thing and ran the first lap in about 50 seconds. He died at the quarter mile post so I was in the lead and had a gap of thirty yards over the field. I ran my second fastest 200 meters from 400 to 600 meters and the last 200 meters was a fairly pedestrian 28. I felt that on a good grass track, just as on a California clay track, I could run faster than on a cinder track. Both the cinder tracks in Rome and Tokyo were slower than a fast grass track.
GCR:The 1962 Commonwealth Games were much later in the year. How did they fit into your training plan since you were racing so well and setting World Records at the beginning of the year and wasn’t 1962 a time where you had your best cross country racing?
PSThe Games did come at an awkward time as it was almost a full year from my January and February racing to the Games in November. One significant thing happened in 1962 in that I won the New Zealand Cross Country Championship and the best I had done before that was fifth place in 1959. It was over 10,000 meters and was a source of pride to win an endurance race. I enjoyed that. The picture that was emerging was that I was developing quite a bit of endurance for a middle distance runner.
GCR:At the 1962 Commonwealth Games you had quite a battle with Jamaica’s George Kerr for the Gold. He set the pace but you took the lead with 300 meters to go. What were your planned tactics against a foe you had raced often?
PSIt was incredibly hot that day. George was faster over 400 meters than me so I felt I needed a lengthy sustained drive to make it tough and to take the sprint out of him.
GCR:With 100 meters to go Kerr got right on your shoulder and fought valiantly though he couldn’t get past you. What had you learned from previous races with him, was there any point where it seemed he might pass you and when did you finally know you had broken his attempt and secured the victory?
PSGeorge had taught me the power of the surprise attack as once in New Zealand he came flying by me with 250 meters to go whereas he usually waits until the home stretch. That time I remember toughing it in, thinking I may not catch him and just beating him at the finish. So I tried to do that to others. It became a psychological ploy of mine to make a move like that which only could be done if I was cruising to that point. In this race when he was unable to go past me I knew I had him. He struggled up to my shoulder, maybe drew even and then he broke. If he had been able to pass me it might have been different.
GCR:In the mile at those same Commonwealth Games you ran a rather slow pace but led your countryman, John Davies, to a one-two finish in 4:04.6 and 4:05.1. Were you in control the entire way and how much more important was the win versus your time?
PSI wouldn’t say that I adopted tactics specifically to help John get a medal though I hoped he would do well. He actually had just managed to scrape through to the final. He knew what I was going to do so he knew he had to make things tough for other runners who were faster than him. For me it was easy as the slow pace made me feel that the other runners were almost conceding me the Gold Medal. They knew I had the finishing kick and it seemed that they were aiming for the Silver Medal. So they ran slow which is typical in big 1,500 meter or mile races. Most people don’t try to ‘run the kick’ out of others as they usually fail. It played into my hands and John was able to pull through and take the Silver Medal.
GCR:In 1963 at Modesto there was anticipation that the American quartet of Jim Beatty, Jim Grelle and Casey Weiseger and Bob Seaman could team up to beat you. However, the pace was modest and you won going away in 3:54.9, though three of them finished within three seconds of you. If they had teamed up and pushed the pace did they have a chance to take some of the sting out of your kick or would it just have pushed you to a World Record?
PSThe background for the Modesto race was that one day in 1962 when I ran the 1,000 yards indoors in the LA Sports Arena, Jim Beatty ran a sub-4:00 mile. Somehow we hadn’t raced each other as we were in different events at a few meets. He announced he would run at Modesto where I was going to run and it increased the media interest. The buildup and pressure was huge as Beatty was sort of an irritating, little pint-sized guy who was very confident and not bashful about predicting good things for himself. So he was predicting that he was going to win. He crossed the line from confidence to cockiness and being beaten by someone who is cocky is hard for me to take. Before the race I was yawning which I didn’t realize was an anxiety response - so I was anxious. We were on the starting line for some time because we were waiting for live television and the boxing ‘fight of the week’ had taken longer than anticipated. And then we were finally on our way. We were on a 4:00 mile pace and I was surprised Beatty didn’t make a move with 300 meters left. I thought, ‘I’ve waited long enough – I’m going!’ A lot of pent-up anxiety went into my finish as I just pulled away strongly. If the pace was faster the outcome would have been the same.
GCR:Were you expecting different tactics from the Americans when you met and raced the mile again at Compton?
PSWhen we had our rematch a couple of weeks later in Compton I ran 3:55 and Beatty was close behind me at the finish. Weiseger had carried the pace on the last lap and I didn’t pass him until halfway around the final turn. I was surprised again that Beatty didn’t make a move. It was a historic race as seven of us ran under four minutes which were the most ever in one mile race at that time.
GCR:You came into the Tokyo 1964 Olympics as the favorite in both the 800 meters and 1,500 meters. How did this change your approach to the races and did you relish being the favorite?
PSIt was interesting as after I set the mile World Record I was never invited to run another race at 800 meters as the race promoters wanted me in the mile. It was a different attitude for Tokyo as I had to think about whether or not I could deliver. Since I hadn’t raced at 800 meters since 1962 I didn’t know what I could do at 800 meters. I wondered if I could still run those times. My mindset was that I would have six races in eight days with the 800 meters occurring first. The first heat of the 1,500 meters was on the fourth day. So the question was whether or not I could win the Gold at 800 meters and then, whether I did or didn’t, if I would be too tired for the 1,500 meters where I thought Michel Jazy was a threat. But those doubts went away when I ran a time trial in the Olympic Village where John Davies helped me with pacing. I ran 1:45.8 and thought, ‘I’m back!’ Roger Moens was covering the Games for television and said he was very impressed as he had always thought my victory in Rome was a bit of a fluke but now he could see otherwise. He finally resolved that in his mind. He told me years later, ‘I’m really glad that your career was so good after Rome because it made my Silver Medal look better.’ I thought that was really sweet.
GCR:Your foe from the 1962 Commonwealth games, George Kerr, and Kenya’s Wilson Kiplagat tried to find a way to beat you, but you made a move with 200 meters to go and secured the victory. Were you a bit concerned with being boxed in and how strong were you compared to four years earlier in Rome?
PSI was boxed in for a whole lap by Tommy Farrell. I kept thinking, ‘We’ve got another 400 meters to go and something will open up,’ but it didn’t. It was an impressive victory for me as the field was good and to get out of the box I had to drop back on the back straight of the second lap, makes a surge to get into a challenging position and then make my move just before the curve. I thought I could do it or otherwise I might have taken a risk of pushing someone aside. As I look back the time was the second fastest ever. I was much definitely much stronger than I was in Rome. George ran very strong and it’s too bad he just missed out on medaling.
GCR:Speaking of being boxed in, with a lap to go in the 1964 Olympic 1,500 meter final it appeared that John Whetton of Great Britain moved over and allowed you to pass on the inside. Did this seem to be a foe being purposely helpful or did he just drift over accidentally which let you get past?
PSJohn and I talked about it later as I had mentioned in my book that he moved over sort of gentlemanly when I put my arm out. His recollection differed as he said he was thrust over. He claims he was shoved aside, but the video tape doesn’t corroborate that.
GCR:On that last lap you ran an amazing 25.4 seconds for the final 200 meters to win going away by over 10 meters. Were you just that much stronger than everyone else that you could harness your kick in an almost superhuman fashion?
PSIt was like I was at Modesto again as I felt very fast and I like that sensation. As I went around the bend I looked back and saw a big gap so I probably eased up a bit as I was feeling euphoric to know that I was winning my second Gold Medal of the Games. Rome to me was a sheer thrill while Tokyo was immense satisfaction and confirmation. After that I didn’t feel like doing much else.
GCR:How did you handle the mental and physical demands of having to run six Olympic races in eight days with qualifying heats, semifinals and finals at both 800 meters and 1,500 meters?
PSThe main concern was the 800 meters. Even though the time trial indicated I could do it, the 800 meters is a daunting race where one can get boxed and bumped. In the 1,500 meters I felt that if I got through the first round I had too many guns for the field, especially since Michel Jazy had already run the 5,000 meters. I ran as slowly as I could the next day in my 1,500 meter qualifying heat and then had a day to rest. I knew the 1,500 meters was my stronger event. By the semifinals where I ran about a 3:38.8 it felt pretty easy.
GCR:What to you is your greatest Olympic feat – defending your title in the 800 meters, which had only been done twice previously, or doubling at 800 and 1,500 meters which hadn’t been accomplished since 1920?
PSI believe winning back-to-back 800s was the tougher thing to do. Neither of the 800 races was a foregone conclusion whereas in the Tokyo 1,500 meters I was favored and it would have been more shocking if I didn’t win.
GCR:In 1965 you twice faced the 17-year old high school American phenom, Jim Ryun. The second time at the AAU Championships he ran an amazing race by taking the lead with 300 meters to go, holding off Jim Grelle on the turn and then turning back your kick as he ran 3:55.3 to win. You had the closest seat in the house – what were your thoughts on a young Jim Ryun, the racer?
PSJim was one of two young runners who I raced against in the Olympic 1,500 meters in Tokyo with Kip Keino being the other one, but they were both a bit too young at that time. I was impressed with Jim Ryun afterward as, even though I wasn’t as sharp as I could have been when he beat me in 1965, I felt he was going to have a fabulous career. I shook his hand just after the race as I was pretty happy for him, though I’m not sure if Jim got that message. I’m as competitive as anyone, but he beat me and deserves all of the credit. I had had enough accolades so it wasn’t like I had to win every race. I planned the trip which included these races as I wanted to do some sightseeing in addition to racing and I knew it was my trip that would be a farewell to racing. Unfortunately I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been, ran well early on the trip, but after that race against Jim I ran poorly and didn’t even break four minutes again.
GCR:You were part of a New Zealand four-mile relay team that squared off in January, 1963 with the University of Oregon’s World Record setting quartet at Trafalgar Park. How exciting was it to be a part of a foursome of such great runners and to outkick the final Oregon runner for the win?
PSI had been a part of a four-mile relay race once before in Ireland and the significant point is that none of the four relay members were mile specialists. There were two half milers, a 5,000 meter runner and a 10,000 meter runner. We ran well but were unable to get the record back. It was nice to win against Oregon’s team, but beating them in our racing season wasn’t quite as satisfying as it would have been to go over to the United States and to beat them during their track season.
GCR:You were at the peak of your career in 1965 when you stunned New Zealand and the athletics world by announcing your retirement. What were the factors that led to this decision?
PSIn those days there were sacrifices in being an athlete as I was married, working a full time job and in some ways the training had become a grind. It was only helping me financially in minimal ways. Those were the days when athletic achievements were only done for glory. For me the only way to go was down and so I lost my desire. I wanted to do something else other than running.
GCR:If you were racing at the level you were in the early to mid-1960s and there were the sponsorship opportunities to make a living that there are today, would you have continued on with your running career?
PSIt would have been totally different. I would have been running in Mexico City. In 1968 I would have been a year younger than Roger Moens was in 1960 at Rome so I believe I would have been running the 800 meters at the Mexico City Olympics. I think running the 800 meters at altitude would have been okay though it would have been a detriment at 1,500 meters.
GCR:As a teenager, didn’t you excel in tennis, even appearing at the Auckland and New Zealand Junior Tennis Championships? What was the impetus to change your sport of primary interest to running?
PSActually, running wouldn’t have been my choice for a sport but I discovered I was good at it. I liked golf and tennis and all sorts of ball games and I wanted to get back to that. Running was for glory and did help me in that I was involved in the ‘Superstars’ competitions and it helped pay for me education. So after retiring from competitive running I did play golf, tennis and some field hockey for a club level team.
GCR:What was your running background as a youth, when did you start training under Arthur Lydiard and how quickly did success come at the New Zealand Championships?
PSI think the key was that success came quickly. I grew up in small towns so I was the best runner by far. I came from a family of engineers and in my small town school they didn’t teach physics or chemistry or calculus which I needed for engineering. So I was sent to a boarding school in Auckland. I did a couple of weeks training for the school championships and I was absolutely buried in third place by about 40 yards in the half mile and in third place by at least 60 yards in the mile. The two runners who beat me were trained runners and the best one was being trained by Arthur Lydiard. I didn’t make the connection and saw it as a talent gap rather than a training gap. They beat me when I was 16 and 17. When I was 18 they were gone and so I won in 1:59.6 for 880 yards which was an Auckland school record. In early 1958 close to my 19th birthday there was a track meet in my hometown and I raced against Bill Bailey. He wasn’t in top form, but I ran pretty well in 1:58 and was asked to be a provincial representative in a meet against Auckland. I did some training which was basically repeat 220s and I won the Auckland-White Carroll provincial meet in 1:54.4. The guy who used to beat me in high school, Mike Mackey, was in the stands, was excited for me and talked to Arthur Lydiard about training me. He invited me to run some workouts with his training group so I ran some workouts with Murray Halberg and Bill Bailey. At the New Zealand National Championships I came in third place in 1:52.8. After that Arthur Lydiard got me started on more distance training at a reasonable pace. It is hard to believe looking back that in four years I went from third in my high school to Olympic champion.
GCR:Accounts have you running 100 mile weeks in training and doing the 22-mile Waiatarua course as endurance preparation for the middle distances. How long had you been training before you were at this volume and completing such a long run? How did Arthur Lydiard instill confidence in his methods which seemed quite radical to others?
PSRight from the outset from that 1958 track season I started doing hour runs. Within three months I did my first 22-miler. Running 100-mile weeks came later as I was inconsistent due to injuries and days off. In the wintertime much of our running was on roads as the grass and trails were muddy and slushy. We had a grass area of about five furlongs that I ran quite a bit. I went to the national Cross Country Championships for Auckland and finished about 55th out of 60 runners in 1958. By 1959 I came in fifth place so from 1958 to 1959 I made a big improvement. In 1959 I was national champion in the mile and 880. My times weren’t that great – 4:10 for the mile and 1:52.4 for the 880 – but I had really improved. The key was that Lydiard was coaching many good runners so I had confidence in him. Lydiard is a pretty persuasive and forceful personality. Once he said rather matter of factly, ‘Look Peter, you want to run a half mile in 1:50? That’s two 55 second quarters. You can run one easily and the only reason you can’t run two together is that you don’t have the endurance. When you get that you will run under 1:50.’ He was so confident and that simplistic explanation worked with me. I thought that it made sense. Even at present times many coaches, especially in the U.S., think that runners don’t have a kick due to lack of speed when it is due to lack of endurance. They have to be cruising early in the race in order to harness their kick.
GCR:Is there any truth to the notion that you once ran a mid-2:20s marathon in training which would have been about 5:30-40 pace per mile?
PSI was running much slower than that though sometimes I did run my hilly 22-mile course at 6:00 pace. There was a steep hill on that course that wound up a mountain for about ten minutes. Occasionally I would run a fast 10-miler in 55 minutes or a 5-miler at 5:00 pace.
GCR:What were the most important elements of your training that built the tremendous strength that allowed you to use your kick?
PSArthur Lydiard based stock in his elaborate schedules. He talked about balancing the training. My conclusion is that the details were relative unimportant though I didn’t realize that until 1962. That was when I did his schedule and trained right through when I ran my World Records when I ‘wasn’t supposed to’ based on the schedule. Like Marty Liquori said, all you need is a decent base, some leg turnover work and a lot of the scientific stuff is bullshit. Many American runners run themselves into the ground because that is what the coaches think they need to do. Half of the published accounts of Lydiard training weren’t what I actually did. At some stage after distance training you have to do high volume intervals and then as you approach your racing you have to do a bit of speed. When you have done distance for many months you feel that you have lost your speed so many runners stopped the Lydiard distance and started doing a bunch of speed work and they raced well. Then they concluded that since they saw the light they don’t need the distance work. Then the following season without the base they don’t race so well.
GCR:There continues to be discussion about the relative importance of tempo running versus interval training. Which do you believe is the most effective?
PSFor a middle distance runner I believe you must run plenty of running at race pace in training without destroying yourself. The only way you can do that is through intervals. Later on as a scientist I learned that the benefits of distance running are achieved after muscle glycogen depletion. So if you run for two hours a lot of the slow-twitch muscle fibers which were initially recruited run out of glycogen and cannot contract any more. Eventually you use the fast twitch muscle fibers which you normally only use when running fast, so that was a stunning revelation foe me. I didn’t know that when I was running my 22-milers. I just knew that the quality of my buildup work had a great relation to how I raced later on the track.
GCR:What were some of the highlights of your training in the base-building phase and then favorite stamina track sessions and speed workouts that got you into your prime racing form?
PSI liked running 20 quarters in 65 with a quarter jog in between which was a 10-mile run with some speed. Later on as the training progressed I did 10 repeat 200 meters in under 30 seconds. Then when I sharpened I would do six 200s in about 25 seconds each.
GCR:When you ran repeats on the track for time did you incorporate ‘negative splits’ or do ‘ladder sessions?’
PSWe didn’t do anything like that. I tried to run everything evenly so we didn’t do those sessions where a runner gets faster as he progresses. I also didn’t do sessions where I went from 200 meters to 400 meters to 600 meters and back down. I think those are little tricks that coaches use to justify their existence. It’s all bullshit. As long as you get an endurance base and avoid the pitfalls of overtraining you will improve. The ideal training is the maximum amount of race related pace running you can do without overtraining. That implies that you must have the base before to allow you to avoid overtraining.
GCR:It often takes a tough opponent to help us reach our potential. Did you have any favorite competitors or adversaries that really helped to push yourself to the limit?
PSBill Caruthers was always tough. George Kerr was a great adversary. The miler Tyrol Burleson whom I ran against a lot always gave me good competition. I only raced Jim Beatty twice so we didn’t have much experience as foes on the track. A funny story is that I was beaten by my compatriot John Davies quite a bit and he observed, ‘I only beat Peter when it didn’t count much!’
GCR:New Zealand distance runners were very successful for many years as along with your three Olympic Gold Medals, Murray Halberg (Gold in 1960 5,000m), John Davies (Bronze in 1964 800m), Rod Dixon (Bronze in 1972 1500m) and John Walker (Gold in 1976 1500m) all scored Olympic medals. Why was New Zealand so successful then and why has this outstanding middle distance running evaporated in your home country?
PSMy belief is distance training is the key. Arthur Lydiard helped build a strong base of top runners and New Zealand runners had gotten away from it until Nick Willis recently. There are some sport scientists in New Zealand who think it’s crazy to be doing lots of distance and I feel that they haven’t a clue.
GCR:You came to the Unites States at the age of 34, enrolled at UC Davies, then moved on to the graduate program at University of Washington and received PhD in exercise physiology. As a world-renowned exercise physiologist at University of Texas in Dallas how exciting has been this second career and how much did your running exploits allow you to understand and dissect your field at a level different from your colleagues?
PSI had a big incentive because I didn’t like what I was doing which was public relations for a tobacco company in New Zealand. I was running a sports foundation which they funded, but the association with their product was bad. I didn’t have the education I needed so I came over and redefined myself as an academic. Given my history in high school this was a very different feeling as in high school I got my strokes from playing rugby, running and doing other sports. I am very grateful to the U.S. for providing the educational opportunity as after high school I couldn’t enroll in a New Zealand University since I didn’t pass the entrance exam. But by the time I was 30 years old I found academic work to be easy as I was interested and studied hard.
GCR:During your many years of research what are some of the most important findings which runners can use to become stronger and faster racers?
PSThe key finding is the understanding of why distance running works in terms of muscle fiber recruitment and glycogen depletion that occurs over time allowing a different population of muscle fibers to be activated when you run long enough and at a sufficient intensity. A runner can’t train slow like an ultra marathoner as they rely on fat as a fuel. That gives total credence to Lydiard’s method of distance training. The second part is understanding a bit more about overtraining and staleness and how important that is. Finally, there is the idea of the relationship between endurance fitness and tolerance of high intensity training. Additionally, I gained an understanding about the hormone cortisol when it is released under stressful situations like intense physical stress or sleep deprivation and its causative effect in breakdown of muscle tissues.
GCR:Is there anything you would do differently in your training if you knew then what you know now?
PSI wouldn’t be a slave to Lydiard’s elaborate training schedules. I would have been smarter about the value of recovery which may have resulted in fewer injuries as I did incur two stress fractures. In the distance training phase I would schedule a session weekly of easy repeat quarter miles to keep my leg turnover.
GCR:At a later age you adopted the sport of orienteering and several times won the United States Orienteering Championship in the age category of men aged 65 and over. Did your competitive drive from your youth and twenties kick into gear in this new sporting adventure?
PSVery much so as I wanted to do physical events as long as I was still capable. I can’t run hard forever and even when doing the local 5ks they are just too predictable as I know how I will race plus or minus 30 seconds so nothing changes much. Orienteering has a navigational component which greatly reduces the predictability of how I am going to do. It is a challenge to see how I can do navigationally. And my wife loves it as she can sometimes beat me! Golf is something I also enjoy that isn’t real physically demanding.
GCR:You are involved in the Lydiard Foundation which was launched in 2006 by others including fellow New Zealand Olympic medalist, Lorraine Moller. Do you spend much time personally involved in clinics or other aspects of its endeavors?
PSI am very supportive of the Lydiard Foundation and am happy to give talks when asked. I do review material that is published to ensure that is as accurate as possible and holds up scientifically.
GCR:You were named New Zealand’s Sports Champion of the Century. Is it both rewarding and humbling to receive this honor?
PSNew Zealand is a rugby crazy nation, but there isn’t a position like the quarterback in American football. Since it is focused on the team, there aren’t individuals who are specifically recognized as in individual sports. The honor for me was highly satisfying and actually made a bit of a difference as to how people perceived me. There was a time when John Walker, Dick Quax and Rod Dixon were running well when people sort of forgot about me.
GCR:Bronze statues of you were erected in both your hometown and at Cook’s Gardens, you have been named a ‘Member of the British Empire’ and you appeared on a New Zealand commemorative postage stamp. Is it incredible the tributes bestowed upon you based on your athletic achievements?
PSIt is especially after so much time has passed. I even received an honorary degree from a New Zealand University which was kind of fun to get because of my poor academic record as a youth. My wife’s theory is that I am more esteemed in New Zealand as, since I have lived for quite some time in the United States, I’m not there to screw it up.
GCR:Have you followed the sport of track and field closely over the years since your retirement and who are some of your favorite competitors?
PSTrack and field has saddened my quite a bit with the infiltration of performance enhancing drugs as it is not clear what is ‘for real’ to a degree. I was very impressed with Said Aouita in part because of his range from 800 meters to 5000 meters. As far as the British middle distance runners in the early 1980s I was glad when Steve Cram knocked Sebastian Coe off as I preferred his personality.
GCR:What goals do you have for yourself in fitness, with your exercise physiology research and other aspects of your life for the upcoming years?
PSWhat I am interested in now is maintaining a reasonably good level of physical and mental independence. I’m not so concerned about physical challenges any more. There were some things on my list I wanted to do such as canoeing down the Wanganui River in New Zealand and some big hiking trips but they may not happen. I want to play a bit of golf. I’m not as interested in watching sports – I like playing myself. I don’t have any desire to be a coach, though I enjoy talking to people about running training. I want to make sure that my wife realizes she is the most important person to me in the world. I’d like to stay an informed person and to keep abreast of current events. I don’t want to be a person who rests on his laurels and has nothing to offer any more. I would like to be thought of as an expert and to demonstrate expertise in my field.
GCR:Are there any major lessons you have learned during your life from growing up in New Zealand, the discipline of running, participating in multiple sports in your youth and any adversity you have faced that you would like to share with my readers?
PSThe most important idea to convey is that as a 17 year old it would not have been predicted that I would have been anywhere near an Olympian, let alone a Gold Medalist. Nor would it even been considered the sanest possibility that I could have earned a PhD. Unfortunately, many judgments are often made on people’s intellectual capabilities and physical proficiencies at age 17 which aren’t always valid. High school kids come through my lab often and I tell them that there is a genetic component which contributes to their success, but that a huge part is their experience and interest in the area in which they are trying to do well. So the big lesson is that you can turn things around like I did quite a bit late in life when no one would have predicted so.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsOrienteering. In recent years I have started taking some classes at the Dallas Creative Art center even though I never considered myself to be artistic. I am really enjoying classes in drawing, fused glass and art welding and have made a few pieces of fused glass. I am very interested in travelling and exploring the U.S. as it is a spectacular country
Nicknames‘Curly’ in high school as my hair tended to curl
Favorite TV showsI liked Burnett’s ‘Eco Challenge’ which was interesting as it was a team race through difficult challenges; ‘Nova’ on PBS; scientific and educational programming; I hate to admit this, but I think Oprah Winfrey has had some fabulous shows – just recently she had a reunion of the ‘Sound of Music’ cast which was terrific – I have no idea how she pulls together shows like that
Favorite musicI don’t sit down and play music on records or compact discs, but I do listen on the radio. I enjoy country music which we didn’t have much of in New Zealand. Some of my favorite artists are Reba McIntire and Garth Brooks. I can’t stand rap
Favorite booksMost of my reading has not been recreational but has been educational. I like nonfiction more than fiction. Not too long ago I read a book about Teddy Roosevelt’s trip down the River of Doubt in the Amazon jungle which gave me a huge appreciation for him as a person
First carsI didn’t have a car for a long time. My first was a cheap little Austin, which is a British brand. Then when I got to the U.S. we had a Buick LeSabre, and then a 1964 VW bus which was a lot of fun
Current carA second-hand Lexus 380SX SUV which has over 100,000 miles on it and is very reliable. I bought it about six years ago when it already had been driven 70,000 miles
Teenage JobsWe all had jobs in New Zealand as teenagers as that was how we got spending money. My first job was delivering newspapers every day starting at six o’clock in the morning. Once a month I also delivered a movie theater guide. One harvest season I did hay baling and sat on the back of a hay baler as I worked. Occasionally I would do odd jobs like cleaning or sweeping floors at a warehouse. I did whatever I could to make a little money and to make payments on my bicycle
FamilyMy wife is Miki and we have been married since 1983. I had two daughters with my first wife, Sally. My oldest daughter is Amanda and the youngest is Jacqueline. I also have two granddaughters who are seven and five years old
PetsMy wife is a cat-lover and we have had other pets that she likes such as chinchillas. We also had a flying squirrel which died a short while ago. As a teenager I had a dog
Favorite breakfastIt used to be fried bacon, eggs and tomatoes. But these days with heath concerns I eat low-fat yogurt
Favorite cuisineI like Thai food and Mexican food
Favorite beveragesNew Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand Pinot Noir; I’m not a purist beer drinker – I like the beers with lime like Miller Chill and Bud Light with Lime; I enjoy orange juice, especially since I came from New Zealand where oranges weren’t very good
First running memoriesWinning the 440 yards when I was about 11 years old and winning a cross country race by quite a long way when I was 13 years old. Both were in our little town of about 3,500 people
Running heroesI’m not a hero-worshiping type though Murray Halberg was someone I respected a lot. Roger Bannister broke four minutes in the mile when I was about 15 which was impressive, but my main sport at the time was tennis so I had a tennis hero. Jack Lovelock, who was a Gold Medalist from New Zealand in the 1936 Olympics, was a remote figure because it was from long ago and there was no film footage, though when Olympics were approaching they would play radio tapes of his Olympic race
Greatest running momentWinning the 800 meters in Rome. Once you’ve let the cat out of the bag it is hard to top! There were other very nice moments such as when I was trying to run a sub-four minute mile and ended up breaking the World Record
Worst running momentIn a relay race when I was 20 years old I was running the anchor leg, stress fractured during the race and had no idea what had happened. There was a terrible pain in my leg and I had to withdraw and couldn’t finish the race. Afterward, when we were leaving, the team that was our big rival drove by in their car and one of them rolled down his window and yelled, ‘Snell, you’re gutless!’ New Zealanders are like that
Childhood dreamsI dreamed of being a great tennis player and going to Wimbledon. I didn’t have any Olympic dreams
Funny memoriesI remember that after Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile the Commonwealth Games were upcoming and he was to face John Landy. I was the best runner in our town so my teacher asked my opinion as to who would win. I said I thought that Roger Bannister would win as he had a better finish. I thought having a superior finish was important even then. We had Provincial Championships and when I was about 14 I was in the mile I was beaten pretty badly. One of my teammates said, ‘Peter, you’ll never be any good because you can’t sprint.’ We remained friends and I reminded him of this after my athletic career was over
Embarrassing momentsAt the U.S. orienteering championships in New York I did what is called a ‘180,’ which is where I thought I was going north when I was actually going south. I was totally lost and people were waiting for me. Then they sent out a search party which was quite embarrassing. Another was when I was in Finland giving talks at an orienteering event and the expectations were for me to race well. I ended up doing so poorly that my fans were very disappointed
Favorite places to travelThe most memorable places are in Utah and Arizona with their spectacular natural formations. A recent trip I really enjoyed was to Zion and Bryce Canyons with their amazing red rocks. What my wife and I tend to do is to combine trips with orienteering competitions. One fun trip was when we went to Nashville for the reunion of the ‘Tiger Belles’ which included Wilma Rudolph-era runners and so we took a side trip to the Smoky Mountains which was quite nice