Mystery and Excellence on The Human Body - Running - Zatopek

Running - Zatopek

Emil Zatopek (left), the "Czech Express"

Running - Zatopek

Running - Zatopek


II — Zatopek

Zatopek had first realized his own potential in 1941, when he  was nineteen, and he had improved steadily but unspectacularly  at 800 and 1500 metres until 1945, when the great Swedish  middle-distance runner Arne Anderson paid a short visit to Prague.  Andersen's physical condition, and the quality of his background work,  transformed Zatopek's own training. He added quality to the quantity  he had already established, and blended both with the extraordinary  determination he had acquired for stretching his own body to the  utmost whether in a race or a training session. Even on army sentry  duty he might spend an hour running on the spot, knees high, shoulders  straight, loading ever more stamina into the training bank. He trained,  in those years of his mid-twenties, harder than any athlete had ever  trained before. In the winter, when by unwritten law no-one trained  hard, he put on heavy baseball shoes, or even army boots, and ran  through the snow-covered forests — fast quarter or half-miles with  short intervals of jogging between, bounding sometimes in long, looping strides for half a mile at a stretch — observing all the time the  effect the work was having on his body.

Coaches today would have channelled the work with far greater  economy. They would have tempered the hard workouts with more  relaxed sessions; they would have spent hours streamlining Zatopek's  tortured, hunched style (a contemporary said he ran like a man who  had just been stabbed in the" heart); they might even have made him run  a little faster. But he had built for himself in these long hours of relent less self-punishment a capacity for sustained speed — over ten laps or  twenty laps — that few runners in the world could match, and a reserve  tank at the end of a race to allow him to run flat out for a lap. It was  enough ammunition to beat the world.

He took on the best over the grey cinders of Wembley Stadium on  the first day of athletics at the 1948 Games. In one of the few warm

Running - Zatopek

Running - Zatopek

days of that fortnight he ran the 10,000 metres field into the ground.  The Finn Viljo Heino, world record holder and favorite for the title, ran  with Zatopek's pace for half the race; then Zatopek surged for half a lap  and opened up a gap of ten yards. Heino simply stopped. No-one else  got within shouting distance of the Czech, and to the delighted chants  of his compatriots in the crowd he won by three-quarters of a lap.

The next day he qualified in the heats of the 5000 metres for a final  as strange as it was exciting. Again Zatopek commanded the leading  bunch which soon reduced itself to three men — him, Reiff of Belgium,  Slijkhuis of Holland. Three laps from the finish Reiff pounced, and  opened up an apparently unassailable lead on Slijkhuis, with Zatopek,  who appeared to have lost heart or concentration or perhaps just  strength, in a hopeless position forty metres from the leader. So they  stayed until the start of the final back straight when, with the race as  good as over, all hell broke loose as Zatopek began his sprint.

Within seconds he had raced past the tiring Slijkhuis, and began to  close on Reiff. As the final bend unfolded, with the whole crowd on  their feet roaring, it suddenly began to look as if Reiff could lose. Ahead  of Reiff, eighty yards away over the puddles and the squelchy cinders,  was the tape; but his effort had come, with great courage, three laps  before, and he was nearly spent. And behind him there was the lunatic  sprinting. As the tape drew nearer, even above the yelling of the crowd  he could hear the pattering, splashing danger of Zatopek. He dragged  one last effort out of his legs, and the gold medal — Belgium's first  ever Olympic track victory — was his. Five yards more, and it could  have been a dead heat. Ten yards more and Zatopek would have won.

As it was, it was yet another in a whole succession of breathtaking  Olympic 5000 metres finals, and for Zatopek and Gaston Reiff it was  only another act in a long-running battle of wits that would reach an  even more exciting climax in Helsinki four years later.

By 1952 Zatopek was no longer the raw Czech surprise he had been  in 1948. He had broken world records almost at will, he had won the  European 10,000 metres with ridiculous ease, and in the 5000 meters,  before a disbelieving partisan crowd in Brussels, he had unleashed his  famous last-lap sprint and left the local hero Reiff for dead. He was the  undisputed master of distance running and yet now, at the age of thirty,  he had suffered some unexpected defeats, and he was by no means  undisputed favorite for Olympic gold medals — even at 10,000 metres.

Running - Zatopek

Running - Zatopek

Favorite or not, Zatopek's week in Helsinki remains the supreme  feat in distance running history, at the Olympic Games or anywhere  else. True to reputation, if not to current form, he won the 10,000  metres by the usual and tested expedient of systematically running the  legs off the opposition — by running too fast for them, by surging  whenever he thought fit, and by taking a further twenty metres from  them in the last lap. He won by a good 100 metres, received his medal,  and prepared for the 5000 metres.

He knew that by now, despite his capacity for successive fast laps,  he was not really fast enough to break up a 5000 metre field — the  German Herbert Shade would be able to lead the field just as quickly  as he could; Reiff would be in the field again searching for revenge; and Zatopek could not be sure that his final weapon, his 400-metre  charge after the bell, would be enough to outsprint the young British  runners Chris Chataway and Gordon Pirie, who had taken to the distance with such success. At the bell, Reiff had faded out of contention  and Zatopek was positioned perfectly, on the shoulder of Shade who  had led virtually from the gun. Zatopek launched himself into the final  lap as only he knew how — he kicked, laid back his head, and charged.  The crowd roared, and he was away.

Then something happened to Zatopek which, literally, had never  happened to him in a major race before. At the start of the back  straight in the last lap three men sped past his right shoulder — the  young Chataway, Herbert Shade, who by rights should now be struggling in the wake of the Zatopek acceleration, and the French-Algerian  Alain Mimoun. With 300 metres to go he had been striding away from  the field; with 250 metres to go he was a mere fourth, out of the  medals, his tactics exposed.

He responded almost with desperation, but with just the glimmer of  a realization, as they began to lean into the final bend, that all was not  well with the men in front. Chataway, in the lead, was beginning to  druggie, Mimoun was closing on Shade, who was in turn inching up to  the elbow of the leader. Zatopek was on them like a lion. With 180  metres to go there were four men in a line across the track, and the one  on the outside, out in lane three, head rolling, arms thrashing, red  vest heaving with the effort, was moving the fastest of all. Chataway,  exhausted, tripped on the concrete surround and fell. Mimoun and  °hade fought against the numbing fatigue into the straight and towards

Running - Zatopek

Running - Zatopek

the tape. Ahead of them, his face a picture of agony mingled with  power and pride, ran Zatopek, into the tape and through it — the greatest, most exciting victory of his career.

To say that after that triumph the marathon was a formality is unforgivably to devalue the marathon. Twenty-six miles and 385 yards can  never be a formality, and Zatopek had never run that distance in com petition in his life.

But though he might not have known it, his preparation for the long  track events had been ideal — the one-hundred-plus miles a week, the  fast intervals and the long-striding would today be considered a hard  but almost perfect regime for a marathon runner; in 1952 it was almost  certainly a better preparation than even Jim Peters — hot favorite for  the Olympic title — had undergone.

In the event Zatopek stayed with Peters and with Jansson of Sweden  for the early part of the race, and then is supposed to have asked (partly, one would imagine, as a stroke of devastating gamesmanship, and  partly out of a genuine desire for information) whether or not 'we  ought to be going faster?' Getting no cogent answer from Peters or  Jansson, who were understandably quite happy not to go any faster,  Zatopek left them, accelerated away and arrived at the finish with a little over two-and-a-half minutes to spare, tiring, it is true, but tiring less  then the men behind him. The ovation that greeted him as he arrived at  the stadium, from a Finnish crowd for whom distance running was  meat, drink and mother's milk, bore witness to the magnificence of his  triumph. It would need a giant to step into his shoes....

From Sebastian COE, The Olympians, 

in the chapter "The limits of endurance"

Emil Zatopek in 1948

Running - Zatopek

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