Cooks Gardens in Whanganui made international headlines in January 1962, when New Zealand athlete Peter Snell ran a mile in 3 minutes and 54.4 seconds, setting a new world record. A protégé of the running coach Arthur Lydiard, Snell won gold for New Zealand at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. He is commemorated at Cooks Gardens by a statue gazing towards the finish line.
Archival audio: Arthur Lydiard talks about Peter Snell's record-breaking run at Cook's Gardens.
Narrator: On a summer’s evening in January 1962, Cook’s Gardens attracted the world’s attention when Kiwi athlete Peter Snell broke the world record for the mile on its grass track. He then shattered the world 800 metres record the following week in Christchurch. Snell had a remarkable career, winning a gold medal in the 800 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and gold medals in 800 and 1500 metres at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Snell was a protégé of Arthur Lydiard, whose innovative coaching system incorporated distance, stamina and speed training to produce a number of record-breaking runners, as well as stimulating the international growth of jogging.
Snell’s Whanganui win was achieved in trying circumstances. His problems began before the race started. Privately, he felt he had a good chance of running the first sub-four minute mile in New Zealand. But when he arrived in Whanganui, he discovered that Lydiard had already told the press that he expected Snell to run 3 minutes and 55 seconds. And the race itself did not go as Snell had planned.
Peter Snell (actor's voice): When the gun shattered the tense silence, I didn’t leap away with my usual keenness. Normally, I would have jockeyed for a suitable position fairly near the front. But this time, taking the view that there were plenty of others in the race to help me, I decided to sit well back. When we passed the first quarter mark I heard 61 seconds called. This was still reasonably within the four-minute schedule so I wasn’t unduly disturbed.
Narrator: Halfway through the second lap, Snell was third, to Barry Cossar and Murray Halberg, whom Snell hoped would be his pacemaker for the third lap.
Peter Snell (actor's voice): Then Murray dropped two yards on Cossar. I had to leave him and go past to get a close trail on Cossar. He was doing a tremendous job and two minutes was called as we passed the half-mile. I moved up to Cossar’s shoulder and glanced back to see who was coming through for the third lap. All I saw was a large gap. I moved into the lead myself, determined that I would make the three-quarter mark in three minutes.
Narrator: At the three-quarter mark Snell was on track to beat four minutes, but then, to his surprise, Bruce Tulloh raced into the lead.
Peter Snell (actor's voice): Even though it came from the runner I’d discounted, this was the stimulus I needed. As we swung into the back straight with 300 yards to run, I had him covered. I wasn’t worrying about him. I was racing time, not Tulloh.
At that point, I abandoned the studied relaxation of my running and let go with my finishing drive. This is the moment when you stop consciously controlling what you are doing and pour everything into driving out the utmost speed. I found myself running in complete freedom from restraint. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a glorious feeling of strength and speed without strain as I did during that final exhilarating 300 yards. I knew I must be well within four minutes as I raced the last curve. I straightened, heard for the first time the rising roar of the crowd and kept on driving.
Narrator: Following Snell’s win, confusion reigned. Snell knew he’d beaten four minutes, but it was some time before either he or the crowd understood that he had run the mile 3 minutes 54.4 seconds – a new world record.
Snell’s Whanganui run is commemorated by a life-sized statue of him near the Cook Street entrance of the gardens, looking towards the finish line.