Jim Peters: The unforgiving minute

We could argue that Rudyard Kipling’s conception of an unforgiving minute was based on his metaphoric reasoning that time is precious and not to be wasted. Also if a task at hand is difficult, painful, and arduous then that minute can be equally unforgiving. Sport can mean a great many things to a great many people: entertaining, stimulating, exhilarating and at times even very profound. Nobody would argue that the 60 seconds of distance ran in Kipling’s epic poem can be unforgiving if it constitutes parts of a marathon.

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The world record for the marathon currently sits at 2:02:57 and surely those 123 minutes constitute some of the most unforgiving moments in sport. However, the only way to get closer to your goal is to fill each of those 60 seconds of distance ran with your utmost effort. Jim Peters was a marathon runner whose last 60 seconds of distance ran, in his final race, almost cost him his life.

The 1954 Empire Games, today better known as the Commonwealth Games, took place in Vancouver, Canada and Jim Peters was one of the favourites for a medal in the marathon, he was one of the most consummate male runners in the world. The Briton had, in the previous two years, lowered the world record three times and he was the first runner to go under 2 hours and 20 minutes. On a balmy, sweltering and humid Canadian afternoon Peters entered the stadium a full 17 minutes ahead of his nearest challenger; in the marathon that distance is almost unheard off amongst elite athletes. Peters was certain of a well-deserved gold medal. Marathon runners almost always enter a stadium to gladiatorial cheers resounding from all corners. The traditional “victory parade” of those final 400 yards gives the winner opportunities to accept loud and colourful plaudits from fans, spectators and friends.

Credit: alchetron.com
Credit: alchetron.com

The stage was set earlier in the afternoon. Prior to the completion of the marathon, the crowd witnessed a one mile race with Australia’s Jim Landy and Dr. Roger Bannister from England achieving times under 4 minutes in the “miracle mile”. Both men had broken the four minute mark previously that year. Bannister was the first man in history to break one of the most talismanic records in athletics with a time of 3:59:04 on 6 May 1954 in Oxford, England. Subsequently, on June 21st in Turku, Finland, the great Australian lowered the World’s best time to 3:58. In Vancouver with only 90 yards to the finish Landy, in the lead, took a surreptitious glance over his shoulder to check on the opposition. And at such moments, fortunes are won or lost and history is made. Bannister powered past Landy and took the gold medal in a time of 3:58.8. Landy came home with a time of 3:59.6 and it was the first occasion that two men had broken four minutes in the same race.
With approximately 20 minutes between the end of one of the great mile races of all time and the marathon runners entering the stadium, the crowd could be forgiven for anticipating another thrilling sporting moment in the setting Canadian sun. It was not to be.
Jim Peters’ final moments in the 1954 Empire Games Marathon produced some of the most distressing, excruciating and heartbreaking moments in sporting history. The initial acclaim that greeted Peters upon his arrival froze into agonized and total disbelief by all who witnessed the final moments. Jim Peters did not enter the stadium in an understandable state of euphoria; he staggered onto the track in a state of ghastly desperation. Peters at this point was suffering from severe heat exhaustion. After the events of the mile race the crowd was in an understandable state of delirium; after Peters entered the stadium, they were confronted with a different and graver type of delirium. Reduced to a slow, weaving walk, Peters staggered and floundered down the track. He stumbled from side to side on crumbling, buckling legs and finally collapsed with the line in view. Jim Peters managed to stand up one final time; however, the gallant runner was rescued 200 yards from the finish line after a ghostly, macabre and staggeringly frightful sequence of events on the track.

After he collapsed, only yards from victory and with the pallor of death on his lips, Jim Peters never ran again. Frank Keating, a great English sports journalist, recalled in The Guardian “Jim Peters could only presume the torment of his marathon collapse at the 1954 Empire Games was an excruciating heartbreak, both for history and for all who witnessed it. ‘But I wouldn’t actually know myself,’ Peters told me, 40 years after that day and five before his death in 1999, at the age of 80. ‘Because, to be honest, I have never been able to recall a single thing about it.’ Instinct and a misbegotten willpower under the merciless sun had Peters keeling over onto the cinder track again and again like a drunken vaudeville tumbler; each time he hauled himself up once more to stagger on in groggy, futile nobility. When some from the grandstands, unable to bear it, began to shout for a stop, the stadium announcer crassly called for order and a respect for sportsmanship.”

Jim Peters died on Saturday 9 January 1999 at the age of 80. After the games in Vancouver he never raced again. He returned to the U.K and his home in Mitcham, Surrey and he worked as an optician. In that same interview with The Guardian’ s Frank Keating in 1994 on the 40th anniversary of that momentous day Peters confessed “ I was lucky not to have died that day.” He also admitted to suffering from his “Vancouver headache” and giddiness for most of his life and admitted to Keating that regrets were still prominent in his life. “I set off to fast in the heat, but that was always my way: to destroy the field …If someone had told me I was so far ahead, I dare say I’d have eased off a bit.. When I woke up in hospital I thought I’d won. When I asked a nurse, she’d said, ‘You did great, Jim, just great’, so at least I went back to sleep a winner, didn’t I”? Jim Peters, after his well-deserved slumber back in 1954, woke up the same way: a winner.

Credit: clappedoutrunner.blogspot.com
Credit: clappedoutrunner.blogspot.com

In 1953, Peters became the first man to run this most daunting of races in under 2 hours and 20 minutes. Between 1952 and ’54, Peters set four consecutive world records in the marathon; he lowered the record from 2:25:39 to 2:17:40. When he retired, he was the world record holder in the marathon and held four of the six fastest times in history up to that point. In comparison to the progression of the record in recent years Peters’ times may seem well back. And indeed they are. However, taken in context, Jim Peters can take his well-deserved place in the Pantheon of great distance running champions.

Jim Peters was a warm, sensitive, caring man who should have the final words on that day in 1954. “ My lasting grief is that all the headlines for my idiocy denied just deserts for the actual gold medal winner -Jim McGhee of Scotland- but at least I’d beaten Jim to the stadium entrance by a whole 17 minutes, so the Duke of Edinburgh struck me a special medal, inscribed ‘J Peters, a most gallant runner’. It’s the most treasured of all my trophies.”

The old black and white footage of his shadow staggering around the Vancouver track is proof of one of the most dramatic moments in running history. Jim Peters, a man who met Kipling’s twin imposters, triumph and disaster, face to face.

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