Saturday, October 22, 2011

Run with dreams in your heart

“A runner must run with dreams in his heart, not money in his pocket” – Emil Zatopek

A sideline story in Born to Run was Emil Zatopek. This character really appealed to me and I wanted to know a little more about him. Many of you probably know his story. Indulge me here...

What I love about this man is that he is imperfect (only as far as technique and form is concerned). His running was described as a man who had been stabbed in the heart or was like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt. One coach said that he did everything wrong except for win. Zatopek was well aware of how unorthodox his style was. When he was asked why he ran with a tortured expression, he said “It is not gymnastics or ice skating you know.” It wasn’t the technique or even his great strength that made Zatopek great. He was a runner in the mold of Liddel and Prefontaine. He ran with sheer guts but had a joyous heart. He was brave and loved for his accomplishments. This photo of him is fantastic. It shows the spirit of the man.

Zatopek jumping a bench courtesy of Corbis.

The full story behind the Born to Run snippet goes like this… Zatopek was in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. He had already won gold medals in the 5K and 10K. His wife had won the javelin. He had become an Olympic darling. His Czech team was a bit light, so he had the choice of running any race he wanted. He decided he’d like to try the marathon, even though he had never run the race before. When it came time to race, Zatopek asked to be pointed to England’s Jim Peters. He introduced himself and asked if he could run with him. The reason he did this was because he was so inexperienced, he had no idea how to pace himself. Just to put Peters in perspective, his record time was 5 minute faster than any of his rivals had ever run. Peters was the clear favorite. When the race started, Peters went out at a very aggressive pace and Zatopek admitted to being really tired. It was 10 minutes faster than Peters’ own World record at the 10 mile mark. Peters had hoped to wear Zatopek down in the hot weather. Zatopek asked Jim Peters if the pace was fast. Jim Peters lied and told him it was slow (probably being sarcastic). Zatopek believed him and accelerated. The heat got to Peters and he was unable to finish the race. Zatopek came into the stadium a few minutes before the pack to take another gold and an Olympic marathon record. The crowds chanted “Za-to-PEK! Za-to-PEK!” Amazingly, these three hard races and gold medals were won in only 8 days. When Zatopek described his marathon win, he said “I was unable to walk for a whole week after that, so much did the race take out of me. But it was the most pleasant exhaustion I have ever known.” I don’t believe that Zatopek loved the marathon like his other distances but he did give the distance tribute by saying that if you want to win a race you should run the 100 meters but, if you want to experience a race, you run a marathon. Here’s a video of Zatopek winning the marathon. Peters looks like a mess. It would have taken a lot to break a man of that caliber. 

Zatopek winning the '52 Olympic 10K courtesy of Corbis

Zatopek’s accomplishments are pretty impressive:
  • He invented interval training. He said that people had called the technique stupid until he started winning and then they called him a genius.
  • 4 Olympic gold medals, one silver. His 1952 5K, 10K and Marathon has never been repeated.
  • 18 World records. First to run 10K under 29 minutes. First to run 20K in one hour
  • He loved to run. In the 40’s he raced nearly every week for three years and never lost 69 races. He averaged 165 miles a week in training.
  • He Dominated distance running from 1948 to 1954 winning 38 consecutive 10,000 meters races, 11 in 1949 alone.

In 1968 when he condemned the Soviet Union for the invasion of his country, he was stripped of his stature and sent 500 miles from his home to work in a uranium mine. It wasn’t until 1990 that he was rehabilitated by the Czech president. He died in 2000 at the age of 78. The president of the International Olympic Committee resided over his funeral and told the Czech people that he was the embodiment of the Olympic spirit. He remains a national hero and he is still regarded by many as being the finest distance runner in history.

I had never seen this Adidas commercial before now. The Adidas training shoe made me laugh. It’s almost as ridiculous as running in an army boot.
This Czech Miller Ad cracks me up too
Zatopek's 1952 Olympic racing shoe


  1. Simon-what a great blog! I loved watching this guy. In fact I loved running as I was a keen runner in my youth. I know it is hard to believe but I still have my medals :-) I had a pair of Adidas spikes and an excellent orange Gola bag. God, I loved it. New Balance should sponsor you as there is nothing like some good gear.
    What about the film about Prefontaine? Have you seen it? Also a very good documentary about those Ethiopians..that is worth seeing. It was lovely to see you and you must come and visit with the family...

  2. AKA _Eric
    Steve runner did a good podcast on him check it out:

    Emil Zatopek was an amazing athlete, highly celebrated for his excellence.
    But for all the glory given to him, he remained an intensely modest man.

    In this episode of the internet radio show (PodCast) Phedippidations, we give a biographical review of the Czech runner Emil Zatopek. He was the first to run the 10K under 29 minutes and the first to run the 20K in an hour and set 18 world records in his 15 year career.

    In the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, Emil Zatopek won the gold in the 5K, 10K and then a race he had never run befo the marathon.

    Duration: 41:42

    1. Good link:


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