By Bob Phillips
19th December 2017
Before Lovelock and Snell, the
First Great New Zealand Miler
When Randolph Arthur John Scott Rose entered the world at Wellington on Christmas Day 1901 as the son of Henry and Grace Rose, he also joined a family which had already established a tradition in long-distance running. He was a second cousin to Hector Burk, who was the conqueror in 1905 of the World’s greatest runner, Alfred Shrubb, when he toured New Zealand. Hector Burk’s father was W.J. (Billy) Burk, who had been the national champion at one mile and three miles in his late 30s.
Randolph Rose’s entry to competitive running was also memorable. During his first season in 1921 he won a three-mile race so easily that he leapt over the finishing tape. When officials disqualified him there was an uproar and Rose became an instant folk hero. By 1922 he was a Wellington champion; by 1923 a New Zealand champion; and by 1924 an Australasian champion. His best mile time in 1922 of 4:29.0 ranked him 34th in the World and his 15:19.0 for three miles ranked him 29th. In 1923 he improved his three miles to 15:13.4 (16th in the World). In 1924 he ran 4:26.8 for the mile (26th) and 14:54.0 for three miles (13th). In 1925 he ran 4:24.0 (29th) and 14:45.2 (4th).
The respective World records then were 4:10.4 and 14:11.2 (plus an unofficial 14:02.0) by Nurmi, but considering Rose’s lack of competitive opportunities, compared to Nurmi’s, it was probably more meaningful to compare the New Zealander’s three miles time with others such as the leading Britons. The British record still stood to Shrubb at 14:17.6 from 1903 (and would last until 1936) and the fastest three miles by a Briton in the years 1921-to-1925 was 14:39.4 by Halland Britton in finishing 2nd to Verne Booth, of the USA (14:35.8) in the 1924 post-Olympic British Empire-v-USA match. Yet Rose had neither the ambition nor the incentive to improve further – until the visit to New Zealand early in 1926 of the American, Lloyd Hahn, who had been 6th in the Olympic 1500 metres final and had a best time worth 4:15 or so for the mile.
Their five races were a classic confrontation, attracting huge crowds and wild enthusiasm. Hahn won the first easily in 4:18.6. Rose, who now began training deliberately for the first time in his life, won the next two in adverse conditions. In their fourth race, at Masterton on 4 March, Hahn sought to recover his fortunes by leading all the way, but Rose swept past him and won by at least 17 yards. According to some witnesses, Hahn did not even finish because a delirious crowd swarmed on to the track and mobbed the barely-puffing Rose. The time was 4:13.6 for an Empire record. Only three men had ever run the mile faster; all of them on cinder tracks and in World-record-breaking races. Edvin Wide (Sweden) had been 2nd in 4:13.1 to Nurmi’s World-record 4:10.4 of 1923; Norman Taber (USA) had run 4:12.6 in 1915.
Hahn succumbed easily to Rose in their last meeting. A film of the race, which is preserved in the National Film Archive, toured the country to loud acclaim for Rose. The NZ Amateur Athletic Association proposed sending him to compete against the best runners in Europe and held national “Rose Days” to raise funds. Within a month double the required amount had been collected, and the surplus was invested and was still funding overseas tours more than 50 years later.
Unfortunately, Rose tour of England was a somewhat makeshift affair and he met with only limited success, as he was suffering from a cold. On 7 June he won a three miles in 15:18.2 by four yards from Charles Constable, of Surrey AC, who was to run in the 1928 Olympic 10,000 metres. On 14 June Rose ran in the invitation handicap mile at the Civil Service Sports at the Stamford Bridge stadium, in London, but after a first lap in 60.8 he “realised the futility of the chase”, according to “The Times”, and finished in 4:32.6. The race was won by A.E. Driver, of Woolwich Polytechnic, from a start of 75 yards in 4:17.8. Even so, “The Times” reported: “Rose was handicapped by a heavy track and the absence of a short-mark man to pull him out, but he showed that he is a fine runner and appears to have power and speed”.
On 21 June, still not in full health, Rose ran another handicap mile at the Enfield AC Sports and finished “only just within the first 12 runners”. It was a typical race of the era (and for many more years to come), with 61 runners receiving up to 175 yards’ start, and was won by W.C. Manning, of the host club, in 4:25.0, off 135 yards. Rose passed the 440 in 61.8 and halfway in 2:11.8, but slowed to 4:36.2. On 26 June he again ran a handicap mile at the London AC summer meeting at Stamford Bridge but in rather different circumstances, as there were only four starters, and he finished 2nd in 4:27.4, beaten by 30 yards by C.J. Wiffen, of the City Police, who ran 4:20.2 off 65 yards. At this same meeting Guy Butler equalled the World record for 300 yards of 30.6 and Douglas Lowe set a new record for 600 yards of 1:10.4.
At the AAA Championships at Stamford Bridge on 2-3 July heats were required for the mile for the first time since the meeting had been inaugurated in 1880. Rose was 3rd in his heat, won by Herbert Böcher, of Germany, in 4:25.6, and the other winners were Bert Macdonald, of Birchfield Harriers (4:28.0); Walter Porter, of York Harriers (also 4:28.0); and Georges Baraton, of France (4:21.4). Baraton won the final by three yards from Böcher in 4:17.4, with Thomas Riddell, of Shettleston Harriers, 3rd in 4:18.4, a yard ahead of Ralph Starr, of Achilles, and Rose 4th in 4:22.4. This was the first time that heats had been required for the mile at the AAA Championships, and so the times in the final the next day were particularly noteworthy. Baraton’s was the 6th fastest in the World for the year, and Böcher, Riddell and Starr ranked 8th, 9th and 10th. Rose, it was said, “had endeavoured to wear down the field by means of his long and rather clumsy stride” – whatever that means !.
These AAA Championships constituted an historic occasion for another reason because it was also the first time since World War I that German athletes had visited Britain, and there were 35,000 spectators in the stadium to see them. The outstanding event had been the half-mile in which Otto Peltzer had set a World record ahead of the Olympic 800 metres champion, Douglas Lowe.
From England Rose went on to France and produced his best performance of the tour, setting a French all-comers’ record in winning a 3000 metres in Paris on Bastille Day, 14 July, in 8:41.2, ahead of Maurice Norland (8:42.6), who had won a team bronze medal for France in the 1924 Olympic cross-country event. Rose’s was the 12th fastest performance of the year at the distance, for which a World record of 8:20.4 had been set by Paavo Nurmi just the previous day in Stockholm. Unfortunately, Rose’s lingering cold then turned into influenza and he never had the chance to meet up with Nurmi or any of the other leading Continental runners. That was the end of his blighted European venture.
Back home in 1927 Rose ran brilliant times of 9:20.2 for two miles and 14:29.2 for three miles, and only Nurmi at the shorter distance and Walter Beavers, of Great Britain, at the longer distance were faster during the year. Yet, while his 1926 mile rival, Lloyd Hahn, went on to his second Olympics, and finished 5th at 800 metres, and Nurmi was losing at 5000 metres to his fellow-Finn, Ville Ritola, at those Games, Rose had declared himself unavailable, virtually retiring to his work as a farmer and making a rare track appearance that year in a 14:49.8 three miles. It was not even a matter of taking the time away from work that put Rose off the 1928 Games; he apparently just could not be bothered because of his chronic lack of ambition. It may also be that the varicose veins from which he suffered punished him severely either during races or afterwards. Brief comebacks ended in 1931 when the varicose veins became too painful.
Rose was a private, shy man, He had a deceptively cheerless expression, a thick 6ft 2in (1.88m) frame, size 11 feet, legs like pillars bearing those varicose veins which were described as being “like bunches of grapes”. His rivals, like Hahn, were bewildered by Rose’s lack of speed, and the secret was his profound stamina. Rose seldom trained, but he seldom needed to, as the years of hard work on his brother’s farm at Wairarapa developed his legs and chest as nothing else could, and before racing in Wellington he would sharpen up by cycling over the nearby Rimutakas mountains. As the late Peter Heidenstrom, the renowned New Zealand athletics historian, has pointed out, if Randolph Rose had had the ambition for it he could undoubtedly have been a world-beater. .
On 8 August 1931 he married his cousin, Doreen Burkitt Rose, who pre-deceased him on 25 November 1977. Rose died on 4 March 1989, which was the 63rd anniversary of his famous race against Hahn. The family miling tradition had been maintained because one of his cousins, Jim Barnes (later Sir James Barnes), was the New Zealand champion in 1933, and a nephew, Bryan Rose, was an outstanding three-miler and cross-country runner of the 1960s who ran a mile in 4:06.3 in 1967.