The week before I left the U.S. last July, I had the immense pleasure of meeting one of my running heroes and one of– if not the– greatest middle distance runners of all time: Peter Snell. Three times the Olympic Champion (two titles which were achieved through the unthinkable 800/1500 double in the 1964 Tokyo Games), twice the Commonwealth Games Champion, and many times the World Record Holder, Snell was the dominant force in middle distance in the 1960’s. Along with his teammates Murray Halberg and Barry Magee, who also medaled in the 1960 Rome Olympics and who were all coached by the legendary Arthur Lydiard, Snell spearheaded tiny New Zealand’s (current pop.: 4.4 million) golden era of track and field.
I’ve wanted to meet Snell, who lives in Dallas and works at the UT Southwestern Medical Center, for as long as I’ve been a serious runner. I was finally able to justify contacting him when I was awarded the Watson Fellowship, which would sling me around the world and to his native New Zealand to run and to learn from other runners. So I e-mailed him, hoping that he’d be willing to answer some questions over the phone. Needless to say, I was delighted when he responded with an invitation to his home near White Rock Lake, my favorite running spot in Dallas, for an evening chat with him and his wife.
I’m not sure what I was expecting to find in the home of such a sporting giant– maybe a dedicated trophy room, a wall plastered with certificates, or a bronze bust of Snell himself. Whatever it was, I didn’t find it. Instead, I found a pretty, cozy, but unpretentious home with a beautiful, artsy backyard, an open and bright living room, and two decks in the shape of ferns, a subtle nod to Snell’s homeland. I also met a lovely couple who melted the intimidation I initially felt as quickly as the New Zealand sun burns through the clouds each morning.
Now that I’m in Auckland, his former training base, my conversation with Peter Snell has become especially meaningful and vivid. As I run in some of the places that he ran on his way to becoming New Zealand’s Sports Champion of the 20th Century, I recall some of the things he told me, which I believe other runners would enjoy hearing as well. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
> Snell was the best runner growing up in his town. Then his parents sent him to boarding school in Auckland, where he was badly beaten in the 880 and 1500 in the annual school championship by regular club, world-trained runners.
> He saw the reason for him being beaten as a talent difference until he was 19, when he did well at a summer race, running a 1:54 800, and one of the guys he beat introduced him to his future coach Arthur Lydiard.
> Lydiard prided himself on never asking anyone to be his athlete and never charging anyone.
> Even though he was a middle-distance specialist, Snell did a standard 22-mile long run on Sundays called Wiatarua.
> Snell mainly trained on the roads, but also ran on a grass race track for horses.
> Even when he was World Record Holder and Olympic Champ, Snell didn’t own a vehicle (just a bike).
> At his prime, Snell worked an 8:30-5:00 job and made the most of his time by running to and from work. To keep up a high volume and save time and money, he’d take the bus to work on Monday with full sets of clothes for the week. For the rest of the week, he ran to and home from work, finally bussing home with his dirty laundry each Friday night. His free time was sparse, but he created opportunities to run and made running a priority.
> Summer was an opportunity to train full-time; he and a few friends went to the beach and trained twice a day. One summer, his standard schedule while recovering from a stress fracture was a 10-miler in the morning and a speed workout in the evening.
> Snell talked at a camp for emerging elite mid-distance college seniors who were all worried about not having shoe sponsorships. He told them the best thing to do is to get a job– “You might have to sacrifice a social life, but if you’re a high achiever, you’ll do that anyways.”
> He was goal-directed, but sometimes had mileage aims he didn’t meet (he wouldn’t do 2 extra miles just to hit 100).
> Keeping records was very important to Snell. However, he has some big gaps in his training logs during down periods when he was too depressed to record training (during times when he wasn’t hitting mileage, blowing off workouts, etc.)
> Snell said it’s important to try to not dwell on failures– he tries to forget them.
> He moved to the US for education when he was 34, and then brought his family over. He funded graduate school by doing well in the Superstars competition (athletic events for famous athletes in which each person competed in 8 or 10 events, none of which could be their own event). Snell excelled in tennis, rowing, and cycling, all of which he did when he was young.
> Snell and his wife got into orienteering after running. They don’t run anymore, but now do a good amount of biking.
> Snell now works as adjunct associate professor in the internal medicine department at Southwestern Medical Center. When I talked to him, he was working on a project to find out how to help disabled individuals become more active.
I concluded my interview with Dr. Snell by filming 2 questions I thought might be particularly insightful. Here they are…
In addition to learning all about Peter Snell, I also got to know his darling wife Miki, who became a runner relatively late in life. She considers herself a product of the running boom as she didn’t start training until she was 26 years old after she watched the 1968 Olympics and decided she could do that. She started running in Highland Park and the Turkey Trot 8-miler was her first race, in which she placed second but didn’t consider herself in good shape. She ran seriously for 15 years, during which time she lowered her personal bests to a 2:12 800 and also dabbled in the 400 and 400 hurdles. In addition to athleticism, Miki also has a creative and crafty side (which I love!). She took me on a tour of their gorgeous backyard and showed me a beautiful mosaic she created as well as an adorable miniature village she molded out of clay. Running and art is a combination I stand behind!
I asked Miki the same questions as her husband, and this is what she had to say…
I owe both Peter and Miki Snell a huge thanks for welcoming me into their home and cheerfully answering the questions I arrived with and more. My conversation with them was the perfect way to launch my Watson year, and I look forward to ending my journey symmetrically with another visit upon my return. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy running in some of the places and meeting some of the people that were integral parts of Dr. Snell’s career. Coming soon: an attempt to tackle the Lydiard group’s standard 22-mile Sunday run. Supposedly it has brought some stellar runners to tears and a dead halt, so I’ll be thrilled to finish it in one piece!