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Plimsolls On, Eyeballs Out: The Rise and Horrendous Fall of Marathon Legend Jim Peters

Book Review

Rob Hadgraft, Plimsolls On, Eyeballs Out: The Rise and Fall of Marathon Legend Jim Peters

Desert Island Books, 2011


Although outshone by his contemporary and Olympic nemesis Emil Zatopek, Peters had a huge impact on marathon running in the early 1950s. It is accurate to say he obliterated the world best for the Marathon. (I say “world best” rather than “world record” because marathon courses have varied in distance and height over the years—the Boston Marathon for example was considerably shorter than the standard distance from 1951 to 1957. As well, it still drops 220 ft. from start to finish.) When Peters started running marathons in 1951, the World Best was 2:25:39, set in 1947 by Suh Yun-bok of South Korea. In three years (1952-1954) Peters lowered that mark four times, eventually running 2:17:39, an unbelievable 8:00 faster. Three of these world-best marks were achieved in three consecutive UK Poly Marathons; the fourth was run in the Turku Marathon in Finland. Two books by Peters have preceded Hadgraft’s new biography. Soon after his retirement in 1954, Peters wrote his autobiography, In the Long Run. As well, with his coach Johnny Johnston he wrote a technical book on training, Modern Middle- and Long-Distance Running. But generally it is hard to find much material on Jim Peters, especially since his autobiography is long out of print and very expensive to buy. With his fifth biography, running historian Rob Hadgraft has moved closer to the present with this superb book on Jim Peters. Following books on Deerfoot, Alfred Shrubb, Walter George and Arthur Newton, he has now tackled the life of a runner who made his name in the middle of the last century—only some 60 years ago! Jim Peters was a great choice because the Essex marathoner has not been given the general recognition he deserves. Although much was written about him during his career in the 1940s and 1950s, his fame has gradually faded. And when he is remembered, it is for his two failures in a stellar career: the tragic conclusion to the 1954 marathon in Vancouver, when he nearly died; and incomplete run in the 1952 Olympics. 

One obvious question arises from this incredible breakthrough: How did he do it? Hadgraft answers this question clearly and in detail. In a chapter entitled “Goodbye to Proper Lunches” (Hadgraft likes zany titles like “Jack Has Been Stalked!”), we learn how Peters and his coach Johnston dismissed the prevailing “even-paced slow and steady running” prescription for marathon training that had been passed down from Arthur Newton. Jim Peters did all his training “at a fast lick” and built up to two sessions a day. In doing this he went against the strongly held view that athletes can easily “burn out.” Hadgraft writes that “Jim changed things by being the first to train by running fast most of the time, getting close to five-minute-mile pace, achieving the intensity by running frequently, eventually up to a dozen times a week.” 

Hadgraft has done an impressive amount of research for this book. Not only has he talked to a lot of those who had direct contact with Peters (Colin Young and George Knight, for example), but he has thoroughly researched the years when Peters competed. Thus he provides not only the background of the sport in England but also the social aspects. One of the strengths of this book is the rich context that Hadgraft provides for Peters’ running career. For example, at 6 am on September 1, 1950, the first day of his training to become a serious marathon runner, Peters heads off on his 75-minute commute to work while “radios crackled into life to serenade breakfasts with the morning news: a plane crash in the desert near Cairo with all passengers and crew lost; printers on strike in London, preventing publication of many weekly papers; a worrying increase in food-poisoning cases in England; nationalized airlines BOAC and BEA reporting worst-ever losses.” Throughout this biography the reader is given such details that enrich the understanding of the life and times of Peters. 

And, of course there are detailed accounts of all his major races, as well as coverage of the many races he turned for his beloved club Essex Beagles. But rich detail doesn’t prevent this book from being readable. Hadgraft has an engaging writing style that enables him to maintain interest throughout the 260 pages. 

There were a couple of topics that I wish had been covered more fully. First, although Peters’ coach Johnny Johnston is by no means neglected, I would have liked to have learned more about his important—maybe essential--role in Peters’ success. Second, I would have liked more information about Peters’ training schedules. Some were published in his book with Johnston, and they make interesting reading. 

Nevertheless, this is one of the finest running biographies I have read. It ranks up there with Dick Booth’s The Impossible Hero (on Pirie), Bob Phillips’ Za-to-pek, Za-to-pek, Za-to-pek and Graeme Sims’ Why Die? (on Cerutty). 

Highly recommended

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