RIP Peter Snell: One of, if not, the Greatest Middle Distance Runner of all-time

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Peter Snell at 1960 Rome Olympics winning gold in the 800m

Before performance-enhancing drug usage became rampant, before professional running was a thing, before high-tech shoes, six or seven-figure endorsement contracts, before satellite watches and technical fibres, altitude training or heart rate monitors and before rubber tracks, there was Peter Snell.

Possibly the greatest middle-distance runner of all-time, he passed away just four days before his 81st birthday on Friday, December 13, 2019. He laid down for a nap and went peacefully, the way it should be.

“Peter Snell and Edmund Hillary were my inspiration and heroes growing up,” shared Rod Dixon, one of the most versatile runners of all-time. “I was always fascinated with the Kings of Distance and Peter Snell In 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games 3 x Gold was the Mt. Everest of Running.”

He is the only athlete since 1920 to win double Olympic gold in the 800m and the 1500m in the same Olympics. He competed in both the Rome 1960 and the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, winning three gold medals. He won gold in the 800m in Rome and gold in the 800m and 1500m in Tokyo.

He held world records in the 800m on a grass track at 1:44.3 a feat that his legendary coach Arthur Lydiard said was worth a 1:42.00 on the rubber track (said before the even faster Mondo tracks were used). The 1:43.00 benchmark wasn’t eclipsed until Sebastian Coe ran 1:42.33 in 1979, on the rubber track in Oslo, Norway.

Snell also held world records in the 880 yards (1:45.1), 1000m (2:16.6), mile or 1609m (3:54.1) and 4 x1 mile relay (16:23.8) with Gary Philpott, Murray Halberg and Barry Magee, the latter two of which made up the original Lydiard’s boys along with Snell.

The threesome, a 21-year-old Snell and Halberg were part of New Zealand’s golden hour during the Rome 1960 Olympics when unexpectedly Snell won gold in the 800m and Halberg in the 5000m.

It is an underdog tale that was set to the silver screen in a documentary called The Golden Hour. Magee added to the Lydiard-boys success at the games with a bronze medal in the marathon.

Snell retired after 1964 and went on to earn a PhD in exercise physiology. He was one of two people to discover that long-distance runners can activate fast-twitch muscle fibres during a two-hour-plus long run, by using up glycogen stores in the slow-twitch muscles when running at least seven-minutes per mile pace.

Asked if he would change anything about his training program under Lydiard now that he was a scientist, he said, “very little, but perhaps reduce a little of the volume.”

Snell would run 90-miles (154km) per week and over 100-miles (162km) on occasion. His long run was over 22-miles some weeks, yet he raced for under two minutes and under four minutes in the 800m, 1500m and mile (1609m), respectively.

His reported training volumes did not include supplemental jogging that he would do which today could add 10-50km per week.

Snell was part of the ground-breaking Lydiard style of training, which put an emphasis on developing the aerobic system through a higher-than-usual volume of weekly mileage (for a middle-distance runner). Anaerobic training that was at that time commonplace all year round, was engaged in for only a few weeks at a time leading up to his racing season.

Lydiard and Snell permanently changed the way training was approached.

During both 800m Olympic finals, he was the slowest over the 200m distance of all of his competitors, yet, because he had the best primed aerobic system, he could continue to sprint over the final 200m ahead of everyone else, while they all gasped for oxygen.

Snell moved to the US in 1971 to study exercise physiology at Washington State University. He later moved to Dallas, Texas to work at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Snell was known to be an excellent cricket player and a competitive table tennis player. In fact, he was expecting to play table tennis on Friday after his nap. He took up orienteering while in the US and won his age-group 65-plus in the US Championships.

Snell was knighted in 2009 by the Governor-General of New Zealand, Sir Anand Satyanand.

He will be remembered as one of, if not, the greatest middle-distance runner of all-time.

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