A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Would '50s marathon runner Jim Peters have set a world record if he had finished the race in which he collapsed just short of the line?

November 16, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

I have tried for years to find the answer to the following. In I think it was the 1956 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, the marathon runner Don or Jim Peters came into the stadium some 15 minutes in front of his nearest rival but in seriously bad condition. He didn't in fact finish the race and was about 200 yards short of the line when he collapsed and received assistance from the audience, disqualifying him. There was some debate at the time about whether the course was measured incorrectly and was longer than the proper marathon measurement of 26 miles 385 yards but I never found out the outcome of that debate. My main question, however, is this: What was the time that Don Peters achieved before he collapsed and would that time still stand as the world record today if he had finished?

You've been trying to find this answer for years, you say? You must feel like Peters on that last lap.

To answer your last question first, Peters' time certainly wouldn't have beat the current marathon world record of 2:05:42, held by Khalid Khannouchi of Morocco (run in the Chicago marathon, October 1999). Do you have any idea how frigging fast this is? We're talking five minute miles or under for over 26 miles. I'll buy a beer for anybody who can keep up with these guys for two blocks. Some of the world class Kenyan and Ethiopian runners train here in Albuquerque because of the mile-high altitude and I see them (briefly) on the running trails. One young guy I worked with, Jaime, would come in after his lunch hour run, looking dejected because "there's this one guy out there--I see him every day--and I can't seem to keep him in sight going around the golf course trail." Then we saw the guy's picture in Runner's World. It was Nouredine Morcelli of Algeria, one of the fastest runners in the world--he ran the mile in 3:53 in 1998. I had to take Jaime by the shoulders and say, "Look at me. He's one of the fastest humans in the world. You're not going to catch him." Jaime was still pissed.

It was in the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver that Jim Peters, 15-20 minutes (sources vary on this time)--about three miles--ahead of his closest competition, entered the stadium and collapsed just inside the gate. He staggered to his feet and stumbled on, taking 15 minutes to to progress another 200 yards. He fell several more times before crossing the finish line--but it was the wrong finish line, the one used for other track events, not the one for the marathon, which was some distance farther on. The team masseur, acting on the instructions of the team manager, caught him as he fell yet again and led him off the track. Not having crossed the correct finish line, Peters was disqualified and promptly retired from the sport, saying "I could never forget what I suffered in the sun--it cost me my killer instinct." Minutes earlier, the same crowd had watched Roger Bannister beat John Landy, both breaking the four minute mile barrier for the first time in what became known as the "Miracle Mile." (Bannister was also one of the six doctors who attended to Peters after his collapse.)

I've found no sources that identify specifically where the finish line should have been in Peters' race if the course was indeed long, and that theory has still not been confirmed. I have heard about a mismeasurement at a different marathon, and it's possible the two events have been conflated. Anyway, no one would have known it at the time so they couldn't have timed him.

Peters was one of the greatest marathoners of all time. The 26 mile 385 yard race was considered just a grueling endurance event before Peters turned it into a speed race in the 1950s. He set the first of his four consecutive marathon world records in 1952--2 hours, 20 minutes, 42 seconds. (As an aside, the women's marathon record is now only a second over that at 2:20:43, held by Tegla Laroupe of Kenya.) In 1953 Peters brought the world record down twice more and won four top class marathons. He was the first person to run the 26 mile 385 yard race in under 2:20, bringing the time down to 2:17.39 in 1954. This record stood for four years.

Next time you blame your slow times on bad equipment, dehydration or poor training, bear in mind that Jim, an optician, ran in Woolworth's "Plimsoles" (kind of like Converse or Keds sneakers) and drank no water for the duration of the race. Dehydration probably caused his collapse on that warm humid day in 1954. Instead of an easy schedule the week before the race, Jim continued to run hard, including a 6.5 mile sprint at a five-minute pace on the eve of his 2:18 record. One can only guess what kind of times he would have been running if he'd tapered his mileage that pre-race week like modern marathoners do and if he'd kept himself hydrated. The fear of collapsing like Peters is the reason we have water stations along the route in most races 10 kilometers and above today.

Only one of the accounts I saw mentioned the possibility of a mismeasured course in Vancouver. www.indep endent.co.uk/news/Sport/sportother/jimpeters121299.shtml. "It was fitting that after Peters' ill-fated Vancouver run in 1954, when he pushed himself too hard for too long in the mid-day sun, remeasurement of the course should discover that he had actually completed the official marathon distance (26 miles 385 yards) before he collapsed." Collapsed which time?

The race was won by a Scottish runner, Shettleston Harrier (Joe) McGhee in 2:39:36. Subtract the long estimate of Peters' lead--20 minutes--another minute for the possibly long course, and you get a very rough estimate of a finish time of 2:18. That would have been a respectable time for the day, but not a world record even then.

Jim Peters crossed his last finish line in January, 1999 when he died at the age of 80. I guess you could say he just petered out.

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