The first half mile was, I felt, too fast," said Peter Snell, "but I was carried along by the whole atmosphere and excitement. I could feel the pace catching up with me. I struggled along to the three-quarter mark, and from then on I was hanging on desperately."
The thing about Peter Snell is that he can hang on desperately at speeds faster than most men can run feeling fine. Last week in Auckland, New Zealand, when he raced the mile in 3:54.1 to break his own world record by three-tenths of a second, the first half mile was timed in 1:54, stunningly fast time at that point in a mile race. The second half mile—Snell's desperate, struggling period—took a tenth of a second more than two minutes flat, which means that Snell, hanging on, ran that half in almost precisely the pace required for a four-minute mile.
If the searing 1:54 beginning bothered Snell, it took even more out of his two prime rivals, Josef Odlozil of Czechoslovakia and fellow New Zealander John Davies, who had finished second and third behind Snell in the 1,500-meter run at the Tokyo Olympics and who are, judging from their Olympic performances, currently the second and third best milers in the world. In Auckland, Odlozil and Davies were right there with Snell at the half mile, and at the finish they turned in the fastest miles of their careers (3:56.4 for the Czech, 3:56.8 for Davies) but, even so, in that torturous second half mile they fell far, far behind. At one point Snell led by 25 yards, and though at the very end Odlozil, coming on again, closed the gap to 16 yards, with Davies another long stride back, the only question in the minds of the 20,000 Aucklanders watching in Western Springs Stadium was whether Snell—running down slowly like an unplugged electric motor—could hang on long enough to break his record.
He did, of course, holding his form courageously and striding through the tape looking as calm and all-powerful as ever. Afterward, though, he put his arms around Odlozil and Davies and for a moment sagged wearily between them. Then the world record was announced. Peter regained his breath, jogged a happy victory lap around the stadium track, waving to the cheering crowd and basking in its affectionate applause (Auckland is Snell's home town), and then made a graceful little speech that went out over the public address system and a national radio hookup. "I feel quite good," he said.
Snell now owns six world records (the outdoor half mile, 800 meters, 1,000 meters and the mile; the indoor half mile and 1,000 yards) and three Olympic gold medals (for winning the 800 meters in 1960 and 1964 and the 1,500 meters in 1964), and it would seem that there are few worlds left for him to conquer. Yet, in a sense, he is disappointed. Before he gives up running he wants really to smash the one-mile record, bring it down to the neighborhood of 3:50. But he faces a basic problem. No one doubts that he is physically capable of running such a race, but temperamentally Snell needs stern and challenging competition right into the final straightaway to rouse the terrific unconscious drives that, he says, come into play for him only under extraordinary stress. Such competition does not seem to exist. Indeed, the only runner in recent years who would be rated even with Snell is the retired Australian, Herb Elliott, whose world record for the mile Snell first broke in 1962 by one-tenth of a second. Elliott still holds the record in the 1,500—Snell tried vainly to break it in the course of last week's race but failed by two full seconds—and those who saw him set it in Rome in 1960 remember him with awe. Sports fans love dream matches. Put this one on the big screen: Snell vs. Elliott at one mile. How could either one lose?