|Emil Zatopek was simply the most remarkable athlete in the history of long distance running. Born and raised in Czechoslovakia, a country with little running history, he was a self-made man who conquered the world. In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Zatopek won the magic distance triple-the 5000 meters, the 10,000 meters and the marathon, setting Olympic records in all three. The marathon was his first, and his time of 2:23:04 was a world best for an out-and-back course. As the second finisher came into the stadium 2 1/2 minutes behind him, Zatopek was happily chatting with his wife Dana (gold medalist in the javelin) and munching on an apple, while the air reverberated with the cheer "Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek!"
Zatopek's method was the interval system, though he apparently knew nothing of Gerschler and Reindell when he adopted it. His own common sense led him to intervals; he eventually proved that they worked for marathoners as well as for the 400-/800-meter runners that Harbig represented. Zatopek says he began running repeated, fast 100-meter sprints when he realized long, steady training runs could not instill the speed that competition requires. At first, people thought he was crazy. "You can't train for 5000 meters by running the 100," they argued quite logically. "True," Zatopek acknowledged, "unless I run 100 meters 50 times," which he proceeded to do while the other Czech distance runners looked on in amazement.
So revolutionary was Zatopek's training, so astonishing its intensity, and so phenomenal his racing results, that word of his daily regimen quickly outstripped its actuality. It was widely rumored that he was doing 60x400 meters in 60 seconds, a workout that almost surely surpasses man's ability, as more than one world-class runner discovered in trying to duplicate it. Yet when people saw him racing, they were willing to believe almost anything. The sight of Zatopek on the track was positively riveting. No one has given freer vent to racing's agony. He tilted his head, furrowed his brow, wagged his tongue out of his mouth, rolled his shoulders, twisted his arms across his body, and appeared on the brink of an epileptic seizure. Red Smith wrote that spectators "still wake up screaming in the dark when Emil the Terrible goes writhing through their dreams, clawing at his abdomen in horrible extremities of pain." Few noticed that his running form was perfect from the waist down.
Even today, much contradictory information persists about Zatopek's training. We know for certain that he trained prodigiously and largely on the track, but without a stopwatch and certainly not at anything approaching a 60-second pace. In fact, by the standards of today's track training, much of his running would be considered quite slow.
It was the quantity of Zatopek's interval training that produced results. His training for the 1948 London Olympic Games, in which he won the 10,000 meters, consisted of daily workouts of 5 x 200 meters, 20 x 400 meters and 5 x200 meters. Immediately prior to the London Games, Zatopek reportedly ran 60 x 400 meters for 10 days in a row. Four years later, feeling that he needed even more training to ensure a triple victory in Helsinki, Zatopek began running 5 x 100 meters, 20 x 400 meters and 5 x 100 meters twice a day.
If the training sounds repetitious and boring, Zatopek's approach was anything but. Interval training appealed to him because he found it infinitely variable. He tried hundreds of different combinations of repeats, distances and speeds before he settled on the ones that best suited him. He was willing to experiment with all manner of training. He would run through knee-deep snow in his army boots, he would sprint from telephone pole to telephone pole holding his breath, he would run with Dana on his shoulders (which resulted in his suffering a hernia condition). He was a human dynamo off the track and on. Gordon Pirie, who idolized him, once visited Emil and Dana at their home. "These two used to romp like children or like beautiful young animals in their perfect fitness of body," he wrote. "Once, in fun, he threw her into a stream. Unfortunately, her foot hit a rock and she broke an ankle. I have seen him and his wife hurling a javelin full-tilt toward each other. The trick was to catch it in the air above their heads and return it as fast as possible. A dangerous game, and they Loved it.
"One secret of his success was that he never let himself get bored. He would jog for hours on the same spot, reading a book or listening to the radio. Everything was fun to him. On wash days at home he piled all the dirty clothes in the bath and then ran on them for hours. His mind was always as active as his body."
Ultimately, the specifics of Zatopek's training are less important than his spirit and determination. He won because he was unwilling to acknowledge boundaries. He pushed training for distance running light-years beyond anyone before him, saw it not as drudgery but as a daily experiment, and raised it to the level of art. Typically, Zatopek found nothing unusual about his abilities or his training. His philosophy was as matter-of-fact as it was Promethean. "When a person trains once, nothing happens," he said. "When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, then he certainly has developed in ways more than physical. Is it raining? That doesn't matter. Am I tired? That doesn't matter, either. Then willpower becomes no longer a problem."
Since the day Emil Zatopek toed the 10,000-meter starting line at the 1948 Olympics, distance running has not been the same. Such a sweeping statement can be made of no other man.|