© Copyright – 2016 – Athletics Illustrated
Title: Peter Snell and the Kiwis Who Flew
Author: Vern Walker
Publisher: David Ling Publishing Limited (August 1, 2014)
Available online via Fishpond.co.nz
If you are not already familiar with the legendary Kiwi athletics uprising that took place during the mid-1950s and lasted through to the mid-1960s – the golden era – you may be daunted by the range of accomplishments from the time and the plethora of books available to learn of the storied world domination from the little country that did; New Zealand.
The most well-known are a collection of biographical efforts and training books that do a great job of portraying the legendary times, from a first person perspective.
There is A Clean Pair of Heels: The Murray Halberg Story, released in 1963. Two years later there was Peter Snell’s, No Bugles, No Drums with the help of Garth Gilmour, who was noted for writing several of Arthur Lydiard’s books, the man who coached many of the greats of the time.
Lydiard’s training books included Run the Lydiard Way, Run with Lydiard, Running to the Top and several others.
Other books that came out later include Anne Audain’s Uncommon Heart, Lorraine Moller’s On the Wings of Mercury and Kiwis Can Fly – a view into the lifestyle and training of Rod Dixon, considered the distance runner with the greatest range and John Walker, the all-time greatest miler. The latter books portray a second generation of Kiwis who rode a similar wave during the 1970s, which makes for a potential foreshadowing of a second book by Vern Walker, but first, there is his most excellent perspective: Peter Snell and the Kiwis who Flew.
Asked why he used Peter Snell’s name in the title, he said that Snell’s name would help sell the book. While this is likely true, he could have just as easily titled it: Arthur Lydiard and the Kiwis Who Flew.
Lydiard is credited with not only New Zealand’s climb to the top – both eras, but Finland’s own golden era too. He is also credited with putting together the pieces that make up the template for modern middle and long distance training programs that are used today.
Walker was an athlete who competed nationally during the country’s golden-era depicted in the book. Although he didn’t gain quite as much prominence in the worldwide running community of those he illustrates like Peter Snell, Barry Magee, Murray Halberg Ray Puckett, Bill Baillie and Neville Scott to name a few, he was very much a competitive runner and therefore qualified to give us an intimate view into the special era.
Peter Snell wrote, “Vern Walker has a writing style unlike any author in his field. His ability to capture the essence of track races, which are vividly described, combined with a flair for statistical detail, makes this book compelling reading.”
Walker painstakingly researched results and competitions. He must have interviewed for as many hours as he used to run during the heyday that he writes about. No details are left off the pages.
Walker writes with humility, rarely talking of his own athletic performances, but gives his view from a first person perspective on the training, media and competition of the time. Snell is correct; Walker indeed has the ability to capture the essence of races; the book is choc-a-block full with racing lore.
Walker begins by putting into perspective the Kiwi athletic uprising against the backdrop of other great feats of the 20th century that came before, starting with the Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s 1912 trek to the South Pole, when the mile record was just 4:15.4. He then takes us to 1927 when Charles Lindbergh took the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean; the mile record had improved by this time to 4:10.4. Then we move onto Sir Edmund Hillary, who in 1953 was the first person (with his Sherpa) to climb to the peak of Mt. Everest, when the mile was 4:01.4, which brings us to the great Englishman Roger Bannister, a story so well-known around the world that it does not need re-telling, except when Walker provides us with the tale, it’s worth the history lesson, one more time.
Walker does indeed provide a long look into the three oft-repeated greats from the era, Snell, Barry Magee and Murray Halberg, but he leaves no stone unturned and captures the breadth of the era and includes details of the other greats who competed against the Kiwis from all corners of the planet: England’s Gordon Pirie, America’s Jim Ryun, the former Czechoslovakia’s Emil Zatopek, Kenya’s Kip Keino, New Zealand’s Jeff Julian and Ray Puckett and many others.
Sadly, no one knows the name of Marise Chamberlain, a talented middle-distance runner from Christchurch. She was a pioneer, an Olympic medallist and Walker set aside 19 pages to tell her story, capped with a self-penned poem of the “one and only Marise Chamberlain.”
Neville Scott’s story has seen little more light than that of Chamberlain’s. Scott suffered self-abuse with alcohol. Walker titled his chapter: From Wretchedness to Redemption. Walker doesn’t tell Scott’s story to sell more books, he tells the story because it is a part of New Zealand’s athletics golden era and because it is worth noting, just how great he could have been.
Walker wrote, “I seek not to denigrate the memory of Neville Scott. But rather, I wish to illustrate the depth of which he descended before he sought redemption through the main compass of his life – his running.”
If at least not for the wonderful telling and details that Walker provides of the well-known story of the golden era, it is also of great benefit and perhaps edification that he provides the lesser-known, but at least as valuable stories of the likes of Chamberlain, Scott and others.
Vern Walker may have used the title to sell books; however, we are not mislead, we are treated with the whole of Snell’s story, while the book is dedicated to Arthur Lydiard for whom the era may not have happened and certainly not to the extent that it did.
Peter Snell and the Kiwis Who Flew is at least as worthy as any book on the great golden era of New Zealand Running, if not, it is simply the best and a highly recommended read.
Peter Snell and the Kiwis Who Flew
to the memory
of a coach who inspired, cajoled and guided.
A person who predicted that he would be
far better, far faster than he ever believed
we could be.
PETER SNELL AND THE KIWIS WHO FLEW is available online via Fishpond.co.nz (Auckland, New Zealand). Over to you, if this is possible.