Fifty years ago today, the Lydiard Revolution was completed with a totally unknown, just like Peter Snell was, skinny white kid from Wesley, suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, ran well-within himself – simply because he couldn’t see anybody else and had no choice but ran his own pace – finishing the classic 26.2 miles footrace “fit as a flea” behind the marathon legend, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, and Morocco’s Abdesian Rhadi to claim the bronze medal.
Along with likes of Emil Zatopek and Frank Shorter, Magee should be counted as one of the pioneers of “Speed Marathon”. He was primarily a track man. But his flawless running style, “ballet dancer on the road” as Lydiard called it, convinced his coach that he would be one of the greatest marathon runners New Zealand had ever seen. Years before Rome Olympics, Lydiard was asked who would be the best marathon runner in New Zealand. Lydiard would answer, “Magee”. And he hadn’t even run a marathon yet! It was hard for public to swallow especially they had some tough marathon guys in New Zealand; Jeff Julian, who would later be nicknamed as “King Julian” by marathon-craze Japanese running fans; and Ray Puckett had already been established himself as one of the toughest runners on cross countries and roads. Not surprisingly, both of these guys were coached by Lydiard also. “Had Puckett been 100%,” Magee would say later, “he would have given Bikila a race of his life in Rome.” Unfortunately, both Julian and Puckett trained too hard. “Because this is for the Olympics,” Magee said, “they thought it should be special… Being a marathon novice, I didn’t know any better so I just carried on my normal training.” Both Puckett and Julian also had some digestive issues once they arrived Rome. “But we were determined that one of us would do well – to do well for Arthur,” Magee says.
The race was epic. Italians staged it so perfectly that it was almost like a Hollywood movie. The course itself would take runners all along the scenic spots in Rome, finishing right underneath the Arch of Constantine, lit only with flames of torch lights. Runners were to race in almost complete darkness. “I had no idea who was ahead of me, who was catching up on me.” “Magee could have been second,” Lydiard would say later, “but he still wouldn’t have won. That (Ethiopian) was far too good.” Nevertheless, he claimed the Olympic medal. “That was still one of the proudest moments in my life,” Magee recalls. Something Lorraine Moller shared 32 years later in Barcelona.
That Olympic race was Magee’s third marathon. And that was also the first time he concentrated on the marathon preparation. But then, Lydiard had observed, his track times improved as well. After having established himself as one of the fastest marathon runners in the world, he had posted the world leading times in both 3 miles and 6 miles in 1961. He was also a member of the world record breaking 4 X 1 mile relay with Snell and Halberg. Now THAT is the range not too many athletes can claim before or since. “I didn’t have the speed of Snell or Halberg,” Magee had told me. “My flat-out 200m sprint was 25 seconds. But Lydiard’s stamina training had transformed me into a world-class runner.” He was also the first man to break 2:20 for the marathon on Japanese soil, with a smile on his face, when he won the original Asahi Marathon (later became Fukuoka Marathon) after Rome Olympics in December of 1960.
While living in New Zealand, I had a chance to meet and talk with Arthur’s original runners like Bill Baillie and Jeff Julian. Ray Puckett was the guy who took me under his wings and taught me, first-hand, what Lydiard training is all about. But I was always very impressed with the way Magee and John Robinson had taught me the principles of “Lydiardism”. If I have any question about Lydiard training, Magee would be the most likely guy I’d turn to. He was the guy who did the schedule Lydiard gave to the tee; just the right amount and at the right effort. And he got the best out of himself. He turned his keen athletic interest to coaching later and helped some notable runners to wear All Blacks uniform with the Silver Fern. Kevin Ryun is probably the most well-known runner Magee had coached. Of course, Ryun later moved to Boston and helped a runner by the name of Pete Pfitzinger. His love for the sport has not burnt out and he is still helping many local young runners.
So there, 50 years ago today, in the dark evening, Athletic Revolution this tiny shoe maker from Auckland, New Zealand, a dozen years earlier had been completed with 2 gold medals in 800m and 5000m and 1 bronze medal in the marathon. And it will be proven time and again over the same range of the distances; by many runners from different nationalities and color of the skins. It is the system and the principles that make it possible. A half a century later, it still works.
Post Script: On a personal note, September 10th also marks the anniversary for Frank Shorter winning the gold medal in the Munich Olympic marathon – the same day Rod Dixon winning the bronze medal in the 1500m at Munich – another Kiwi runner who would later show great competitive range of distances!