My buddy is a huge baseball fan. He is quick to pull out a statistic from a player that died well before he was born, and talk at length about why he is better than whatever current player is leading off SportsCenter these days. Statistics and numbers are so important in baseball and there is always talk about who is the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). Could The Babe hit off today’s pitchers or if Ty Cobb would make it out of today’s game without being booed like John Rocker? He’ll make mock GOAT fielders teams and hitters lineups at certain parks based on where the outfield is positioned. I am a baseball fan, but not at that level. One day he asked me if runners debate the same minutia about who is the best runner of all time. I explained that yes, we do talk at nausea about certain runners from certain eras and about how many gold metals Pre would have run and yada yada yada. However, when it comes to the GOAT, most everyone who is in the know doesn’t really need to debate it; It’s Emil Zatopec. What I think interesting is that most people have never even heard of him.
Zatopec was a Czechoslovakian born runner who turned the running world on its head during the late 1940’s to the mid-1950’s. During the height of his running he set world records in the 5k, 10k, 20k, Hour Run, 25k and 30k. He also had the greatest Olympics of all time (sorry to any swimmers reading this). At the 1952 games in Helsinki, Zatopec looked to improve on his 1948 Olympics where he won gold in the 10k and silver in the 5k. During the first 6 days of the games he won gold in both the 5k and 10k and setting Olympic records in both events. Instead of celebrating and watching his fiancé compete in the javelin, he decided to go ahead and jump in another race. Why not, right? So despite having never competed in a marathon in his entire life and only two days after setting an Olympic record in the 5k, he found himself on the starting line of the marathon. He ran next to Jim Peters, the current world record holder, through the first 10 miles as they ran at breakneck speed.
Having never run a marathon and not knowing the type of pace they should be running, Emil innocently asked Jim if they were in fact going too slow. Jim, in an effort to trick Zatopec into running too hard early and dying off, told him that they were indeed running too easy and that Emil should make a move. The good natured Czech did just that and ran the rest of the way alone, winning the gold and setting a third Olympic record. He is the only runner in history to win the 5k, 10k and marathon in a single game.
Emil was known not only for his loud breathing, unorthodox form, and pained facial expression (which garnered him the nickname the Czech Locomotive), but his intense and brutal training techniques. He competed while serving in the army and often did his training while running in place in his army boots. He would run up to three hours in a large laundry tub full of the army’s dirty clothes for resistance training. His favorite workout was 400’s and he would often do up to 100 before his bigger races. When it snowed, he would run while carrying his wife on his back up hills to build leg strength. The stories of his training are legendary and often amusing. He was always regarded as respectful, polite, upbeat, and hilarious. A classic example of his temperament and naiveté occurred during his gold medal debut in the marathon. Emil went past every aid station and water stop without indulging in anything from a sip of water to a quarter of an orange offered along the route. Asked after the race if that was a strategy, a confused Zatopec answered it was not a strategy – he did not run with his wallet and did not know those items were free for runners.
There are so many interesting and amazing stories about Emil Zatopec . I sometimes feel like not enough people study or appreciate the older generations of runners who paved the way for the Ritzes or Flannigans of today. Runner’s World used to do a great section on a historical runner or race but even they have stopped sharing those wonderful stories. Next time you are looking for a good book, pick up a copy of Running with the Legends, Duel in the Sun, or The Four-Minute Mile and learn about and appreciate some of the heroes in our sport.