Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Jim Peters era...

Without a doubt the period from 1946 to 1954 can be viewed as the 'Jim Peters' era'. The training methods adopted by Peters and his coach 'Johnny' Johnson, and the results which followed, completely transformed the marathon event. He lowered the world marathon best three times, taking 872 minutes off the previous mark, and his fastest time - the 1954 world best of 2 hours 17 minutes 39.4 seconds - still remains a club record 33 years later.

Peters followed a punishing lifestyle, travelling each day from his Chadwell Heath home to Mitcham where he worked as a dispensing optician. Fitting in a lunch-time session at the nearby 'News of the World' ground, he returned home around 6.30pm and set off for his second daily run. The 80 - 100 miles he clocked up each week were revolutionary for the period. His dedication and the willingness and pride with which he donned the club vest week-in, week-out, even at the peak of his international success were an inspiration to other club members who were able to see that by personal effort the glittering prizes could be brought within reach. At first it was Jim Peters' individual success which brought glory to the Beagles, but as a strong group developed around him team success followed on the roads. track and country.

If the world record holders' tragic collapse at the 1954 Vancouver Empire Games marked the end of the era, then Peters' January 1946 Essex cross-country championship success probably marks the start. His subsequent win in the AAA 6 mile event in July 1946 was the first National title won by a Beagle since 1909, and he followed it up with a 10 miles AAA track championship victory the next year. His 10,000m selection for the 1948 White City Olympics matched the achievement of George Constable 20 years before, and of A Townsend who ran in the 1912 Games marathon - a prophetic event for Peters as it turned out!

By the time that the Chadwell Heath optician broke the British record in his 1951 marathon debut, other Beagles were starting to emerge as distance runners of quality. Peters' constant training partner in those days, the 25 year-old Reg Robins, that year won the SCAAA six mile championship in the following January finished runner-up to Jim Peters' record breaking run in the Morpeth to Newcastle half marathon, where the Beagles picked up the team prize. Robins' hopes for 1952 Olympic selection did not materialise unfortunately and Peters, by now world-record holder, went to Helsinki as the favourite for the marathon gold. The outcome is well-known: the Czech Zatopek ran on to take his third gold of the Games, while the Beagles' hope was forced to drop out with severe cramp at 20 miles.

Another young Beagle, who was later to perform with distinction in domestic and international competition alike, was also coming to the fore in 1951: George Knight - an outstanding addition to the junior scene. At the same time the slightly built Ted Baverstock was making a similar impact on the senior ranks as his four successive county cross-country titles (1953-1956), his places in area and national events, and his track performances testify. Led by the still improving Peters, the Beagles' blend of youth and experience began to pay off. In the London to Brighton road relay in October 1952 the squad just failed to pull off a giant-killing act and had to settle for a creditable third place. As a fitting climax to a successful winter season the Beagles junior team beat the 41 others contesting the National junior race at Reading in March 1953 to lift
the title for the first time. Dick Douglas (11th) George Knight (18th), Johnny Mercer (24th) and Terry Learmouth (34th) - the winning junior team in the 'Southern' a few weeks before - again made up the scoring four.

Peters' vintage form during the 1953 summer season, when he twice trimmed his own marathon best and broke the English hour record, carried over into the winter season when he was an important part of the club's greatest team success since the 1901 National victory: the win in the London to Brighton Road relay on 10 October 1953. Superb runs by the Beagles early runners - George Knight, Don Corney, Dick Douglas, Johnny Mercer, Reg Robins and Alan Murray - Carter - handed the team over in third place to Ted Baverstock whose fine run took them up to second. Less than a week after breaking the world best in the T\rrku marathon, Jim Peters smashed the course record on the next stage to give the team the lead. Bernie Hames, who was to die in a tragic drowning accident three years later, kept the Beagles in front and there was no stopping Terry Learmouth who ran on to breast the tape at Brighton over a minute ahead of the second placed Belgrave team.

The story of how Jim Peters failed to finish in the 1954 Empire Games marathon at Vancouver is now part of the legend that surrounds his name. There is little doubt that he was then at the peak of his form, as his track marks that summer and his bronze medal in the 6 miles earlier in the same Games show (the first major medal won by a club member). Understandably after the events of that hot and humid afternoon, Jim Peters hung up his racing shoes, thus bringing an end to another epic period in the history of the Beagles.

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