Running Heroes #1: Emil Zátopek

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Hi runners

Today I’d like to kick off a new series! There were a lot of great runners in past decades and there are still awesome runners today that are an inspiration to a lot of amateurs. I’d like to portray some of them in this new Running Heroes series. I haven’t figured out who I’ll write about, how long the series will last and what the posting rhythm will be. I guess I go for about ten athletes and will write a post in this series about every two weeks.

I will start today with one of the greatest runners of all time, Emil Zátopek. So here’s what you need to know:

The Early Days

Emil Zatopek

Bird flies, fish swims, man runs.

Emil Zátopek was born in 1922 in a small town in the eastern part of Czechoslovakia. He had an easy childhood but his family was not blessed with wealth. In his early days he didn’t care much about any sports but played a bit of soccer as anybody else. His parents wanted him to be a teacher but they couldn’t afford to send him to college so he started an apprenticeship as a shoemaker.

In 1941 the company Zátopek worked for organized a company run and forced Zátopek to participate. To his own surprise he ended up in the second place of this 1,400 meter race. Soon after Czech talent Jan Haluza noticed Zátopek’s abilities and started to train him to be a professional athlete. In 1944 Zátopek was an elite runner in his country breaking three national records (2,000m, 3,000m and 5,000m) within 16 days.

The last days of the 2nd World War shifted Zátopek’s focus to just survive the war. Soon after he joined the Army which gave him the opportunity to train even more. In the following years he had some decent success in races outside Czechoslovakia and kept on breaking his own national records. His early achievements earned him a spot in the 1948 Olympic Games in London.

Biggest Success

Emil Zatopek

A runner must run with dreams in his heart, not money in his pocket.

It was around that time when Zátopek brought interval training to a new level running up to 60 (!) 400m intervals each day! His training efforts paid off and he dominated the Olympic 10k competition with 48 seconds in front of the second place. On a soaking wet track Zátopek struggled during the 5k race and couldn’t keep up with front-runner Gaston Reiff from Belgium. In the final lap he was able to speed up again and closed the gap between him and Reiff by an epic final sprint. In the end he fell short by 0.02 seconds and won the silver medal. This race is considered as a special one in Olympic history due to the epic battle of Zátopek and Reiff.

The years to come were full of good memories for Zátopek. In 1949 he set several new world records in 10k races though the record holder changed several time between him and his competitor Viljo Heino from Finnland. Despite food poisoning he won the 5k and 10k European championship in 1950 and set a new 10 miles world record in 1951 after battling back from a broken leg.

His most successful year was 1952, the year of the Helsinki Olympic Games. He dominated the 10k race and won with a new Olympic record. In the 5k he started a bit to fast and fell back into fourth position throughout the race. After a tremendous final sprint he was able to pass the runners Schade, Mimoun and front-runner Chataway to win the race again in a new Olympic record. In the final minutes of registration he decided to also compete in the Marathon, a race he’s never done before. Zátopek arrived at the stadium after an epic race with a smile on his face and in great condition over two minutes in front of his competitors. He also won gold in the marathon, again with the best time ever at Olympic Games.

His great achievements made him a national hero in Czechoslovakia and the Army even featured him in a propaganda movie. The press gave him the nickname “Czech Locomotive” due to his unusual running style. Zátopek once stated about his style: “I’m not talented enough to run fast and look good at the same time.”

After His Active Career

Emil Zatopek

If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.

He was able to deliver great performances in the years to come but it was obvious that he was no longer able to compete at the highest level in the second half of the 50s. He quit his great career in early 1957 after running more than 50,000 miles throughout his active years.

After his running career Zátopek played a role in the political controversy of his country and even played an active role in the Prague Spring. His actions were not unnoticed by the government who started to discredit him publicly. He lost most of his assignments and ended up working for a huge company as a regular swagman without any special privileges.

Zátopek died in the year 2000 after a stroke in a military hospital in Prague. He is remembered as one of the greatest runners of all time and an ambassador of the sport. His training methods and running style induced scientists to study the biochemistry and biomechanics of running in the coming decades. He was one of the first athletes that was introduced into the IAAF Hall of Fame and the Runner’s World magazine named him the Greatest Runner of All Time in 2013.

So much for the start of this series and the life of Emil Zátopek. Let me know which great runner inspired you by writing a comment below.

Happy running

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