It’s Snowing! Grab the Boots, the Gas Mask and the Wife

JAMES KELLY’s marathon blog: “Maybe I should channel the spirit of Emil. Ladies, jump on board, there’s plenty of room!”

James Kelly London Marathon marathon running

“If you want to win something, run 100 meters.  If you want to experience something, run a marathon.” – Emil Zátopek

The marathon, perhaps more than any other event bar the mile, has developed a legendary status within the athletics world.  Its profile has been lifted by a number of heroes, the near-mythological titans of distance running.  These characters inspire hundreds of thousands of people to follow their lead.  (And by follow, I mean stagger over the finish line long after their hero has been wrapped up in a foil blanket, hugged by all sorts of minor employees of the sponsors desperate for a bit of reflected glory, and forcibly dragged over to Sue Barker for awkward interview).  I’d like to intersperse these weekly blogs with profiles of a few of the men and women who have driven the marathon forward.  We’ll try to separate the stories from the hagiography and meet some of distance running’s most inspirational figures.

Any discussion of marathon legends must being with ‘The Czech Locomotive’, Emil Zátopek.  A strange starting point, perhaps, as he only competed in two marathons, and only won once.  But that win revolutionised distance running, and may be singlehandedly responsible for the misery of would-be serious athletes from that time onward.  Yes, we loathe Emil as much as we admire him!

Zátopek’s annus mirabilis was 1952, when, in the space of eight days, he became Olympic Champion and Olympic Record Holder in the 5000m and 10,000m on the track and the marathon at the Helsinki Games.  The track victories were dramatic enough in themselves, but we’re more astonished by the third race of the trilogy.  Having never before attempted a marathon, and having already triumphed in the two longest track races, Zátopek broke Jim Peters, World Record Holder at the time, to claim his third gold medal.

And if we’re honest, ‘broke’ is a pretty generous description.  It was sort of like that time you took an ‘indestructible’ bit of kitchen ware and put it under your car tyre.  Then you reversed over it to demonstrate its quality, only to find it completely shattered.  No, you haven’t done that?  Okay, maybe it’s just me and Kit Dynamite.  Anyway, I digress.  With Peters pushing the pace, Zátopek asked his opponent whether he thought they were going quickly enough.  (Emil must have been a right little nuisance to race – not only did he wheeze and grimace the whole way, therefore giving him his nickname, but he was also fond of a mid-race chat.  A 26.2-mile run with a little balding chatterbox would be enough to break anybody!)  Peters, in a tragically misguided attempt to dent the confidence of Zátopek, responded that he felt the pace was a bit slow.  Our Emil, with a proverbial shrug of the shoulders, proceeded to accelerate.  For the record, Peters, that wise guy, dropped out.

Although he’d never before attempted the marathon, Zátopek’s victory was neither fortuitous nor coincidental.  It arose from a revolutionary approach to training, one that has served as the template for distance runners ever since.  Zátopek figured that training himself to run quickly with little recovery would improve his efficiency and his performance.  And the idea of the reps session was born!

I think we can all accept that conditions in post-war Czechoslovakia were pretty grim, but surely they can’t be solely responsible for the masochistic streak that Zátopek displayed.  I mean, most athletes prefer to train in pleasant conditions (Sammy Wanjiru, are you reading?).  And train in lightweight running attire.  But not our Emil!  For his favourite session of 10 x 200m, 20 x 400m, 10x200m (all fast, and all with a 200m jog recovery!), Zátopek sought ways to make his life a bit more difficult.  So he’d run in the snow.  He’d run in his heavy workboots rather than running spikes or trainers.  He’d run in a gas mask, which he believed would help him breathe more efficiently.  And after he married a Czech javelin thrower, he would train with her on his back.  A literal ball-and-chain, eh?

Happily the convention in more recent times has been to move away from such extreme measures, there’s no denying that Zátopek’s reps session has become a staple of the distance running training regime.  (It’s also become a weekly misery for many athletes, but perhaps we’ll forgive Emil for his revolutionary ideas).  Nor is there any denying that his remarkable performances have inspired us all the push that little bit harder, to stagger that little bit further and to hold out that little bit longer.  And maybe we’ve all gone soft.  Maybe his extreme methods really are the secret to success.  Maybe I should channel the spirit of Emil.  Ladies, jump on board, there’s plenty of room!

“When a person trains once, nothing happens. When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, then he certainly has developed in more ways than physical. Is it raining? That doesn’t matter. Am I tired? That doesn’t matter, either. Then willpower will be no problem.” – Emil Zátopek