Born to Run


This book was passed along to me by Jay, after a high recommendation from Glenn.  The gist of the book is as follows:

Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.

While the book is incredible so far, I’m not yet finished, so this rating is actually of an individual story told in the book.  This story of a famous Czech runner earns a 10 in my book.  This excerpt is long, but 100% worth it.  I promise.

*              *             *

There was this Czech soldier, a gawky dweeb who ran with such horrendous form that he looked “as if he’d just been stabbed through the heart,” as one sportswriter put it.  But Emil Zatopek loved running so much that even when he was still a grunt in army boot camp, he used to grab a flashlight and go off on twenty-mile runs through the woods at night.

In his combat boots.

In winter.

AFTER a fully day of infantry drills.

When the snow was too deep, Zatopek would jog in the tub on top of his dirty laundry, getting a resistance workout along with clean tighty whities.  As sson as it thawed enough for him to get outside, he’d go nuts; he’d run four hundred meters as fast as he could, over and over, for ninety repetitions, resting in between by jogging two hundred meters.  By the time he was finished, he’d done more than thirty-three miles of speedwork.  One of Zatopek’s favorite workouts combined all his loves at once: he’d jog through the woods in his army boots with his ever-loving wife riding on his back.

It was all a waste of time, of course.  The Czechs were like the Zimbabwean bobsled team; they had no tradition, no coaching, no native talent, no chance of winning.  But being counted out was liberating; having nothing to lose left Zatopek free to try any way to win.  Take his first marathon: everyone knows the best way to build up to 26.2 miles is by running long, slow distances.  Everyone, that is, except Emil Zatopek; he did hundred-yard dashes instead.

And dear God, was he a Chatty Cathy!  Zatopek treated competition like it was speed dating.  Even in the middle of a race, he liked to natter with other runners and try out his smattering of French and English and German, causing one grouchy Brit to complain about Zatopek’s “incessant talking.”  At away meets, he’d sometmes have so many new friends in his hotel room that he’d have to give up his bed and sleep outside under a tree.  Once, right before an international race, he became pals with an Australian runner who was hoping to break the Australian 5,000-meter record.  Zatopek was only entered in the 10,000-meter race, but he came up with a plan; he told the Aussie to drop out of his race and line up next to Zatopek instead.  Zatopek spent the first half of the 10,000-meter race pacing his new buddy to the record, then sped off to attend to his own business and win.

That was pure Zatopek, though; races for him were like a pub crawl.  He loved competing so much that instead of tapering and peaking, he jumped into as many meets as he could find.  During a manic stretch in the late ’40’s, Zatopek raced nearly every other week for three years AND NEVER LOST, going 69-0.  Even on a schedule like that, he still averaged up to 165 miles a week in training.

Zatopek was a bald, self-coached thirty-year-old apartment-dweller from a decrepit Eastern European backwater when he arrived for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.  Since the Czech team was so thin, Zatopek had his choice of distance events, so he chose them all.  He lined up for the 5,000 meters, and won with a new Olympic record.  He then lined up for the 10,000 meters, and won his second gold with another new record.  He’d never run a marathon before, but what the hell; with two golds already around his neck, he had nothing to lose, so why not finish the job and give it a bash?

Zatopek’s inexperience quickly became obvious.  It was a hot day, so England’s Jim Peters, then the world-record holder, decided to use the heat to make Zatopek suffer.  By the ten-mile mark, Peters was already ten minutes under his own world-record pace and pulling away from the field.  Zatopek wasn’t sure if anyone could really sustain such a blistering pace.  “Excuse me,” he said, pulling alongside Peters. “This is my first marathon.  Are we going too fast?”

“No,” Peters replied. “Too slow.”  If Zatopek was dumb enough to ask, he was dumb enough to deserve any answer he got.

Zatopek was surprised. “You say too slow,” he asked again. “Are you sure the pace is too slow?”

“Yes,” Peters said.  Then he got a surprise of his own.

“Okay. Thanks.” Zatopek took Peters at his word, and took off.

When he burst out of the tunnel and into the stadium, he was met with a roar: not only from the fans, but from athletes of every nation who thronged the track to cheer him in.  Zatopek snapped the tape with his third Olympic record, but when his teammates charged over to congratulate him, they were too late: the Jamaican sprinters had already hoisted him on their shoulders and were parading him around the infield.  “Let us live so that when we come to die, even the undertaker will be sorry,” Mark Twain used to say.  Zatopek found a way to run so that when he won, even other teams were delighted.

*              *             *

When the Red Army marched into Prague in 1968 to crush the pro-Democracy movement, Zatopek was given a choice: he could get on board with the Soviets and serve as a sports amabassador, or he could spend the rest of his life cleaning toilets in a uranium mine.  Zatopek chose the toilets.

At the same time, coincidentally, his rival for the title of world’s greatest distance runner was also taking a beating.  Ron Clarke, a phenomenally talented Australian, was exactly the kind of guy that Zatopek, by all rights, should hate.  While Zatopek had to teach himself to run in the snow at night after sentry duty, the Australian pretty boy was enjoying sunny morning jogs along the beaches of Mornington Peninsula and expert coaching.  Everything Zatopek could wish for, Clarke had to spare:  Freedom.  Money.  Elegance.  Hair.

Ron Clarke was a star- but still a loser in the eyes of his nation.  Despite breaking nineteen records in every distance from the half-mile to six miles, “the bloke who choked” never managed to win the big ones.  In the summer of ’68, he blew his final chance: in the 10,000-meter finals at the Mexico City Games, Clarke was knocked out by altitude sickness.  Anticipating a barrage of abuse back home, Clarke delayed his return by stopping off in Prague to pay a courtesy call to the bloke who never lost.  Toward the end of their visit, Clarke glimpsed Zatopek sneaking something into his suitcase.

“I thought I was smuggling some message to the outside world for him, so I did not dare to open the parcel until the plane was well away,” Clarke would say.  Zatopek sent him off with a strong embrace.  “Because you deserved it,” he said, which Clarke found cute and very touching; the old master had far worse problems of his own to deal with, but was still playful enough to grant a victory-stand hug to the young punk who’d missed his chance to mount one.

Only later would he discover that Zatopek wasn’t talking about the hug at all: in his suitcase, Clarke found Zatopek’s 1952 Olympic 10,000-meters gold medal.  For Zatopek to give it to the man who’s replaced his name in the record books was extraordinarily noble; to give it away at precisely the moment in his life when he was losing everything else was an act of almost unimaginable compassion.


To read more, you can buy the book here.  It comes highly recommended from many places, so if you’re looking for a new good read, this might be it!



  1. The big news for Americans in the ’52 Olympics was the winning of the Decath by Bob Mathias. He won it in the previous Olympics of ’48. so, I went an entire life’s time without knowing of Zapotek. Thanks, janice for the push forward into the past.
    semper fi,..snooky

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s