If you randomly ask a group of runners today who their role models are in the sport, you’ll likely get a list of the usual suspects: Deena Kastor, Meb Keflezighi, Shalane Flanagan, Haile Gebrselassie, Kara Goucher or Galen Rupp to name a few.
And while all of these champions deserve their place among the distance-running pantheon, for some reason one of the greatest runners of all-time seems to be fading into the fog of history. His name is Emil Zatopek, a Czechoslovakian locomotive who rolled his head and swung his body from side to side and didn’t really look like the only person in history to pull off the Olympic distance triple, winning the 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon in Helsinki in 1952.
Zatopek, who died in 2000, was a running machine, powered by an incessant drive and uncanny ability to suffer through gut-wrenching workouts. His contemporaries nicknamed him the “Beast of Prague” while legendary running journalist Michael Sandrock, who wrote about Zatopek in his soon-to-be reprinted book, Running With The Legends, called him a boundary breaker. “He showed runners who followed what hard work and dedication can accomplish,” Sandrock says. “He was an innovator.”
So what made this humble Czech so special? What was the innovation he demonstrated and how can you apply these lessons to your own running? Read on to learn three key secrets from the greatest runner you’ve probably never heard of.
1. Take chances.
Zatopek reached the top for a number of reasons but one constant element he carried with him throughout his career was his courage. He didn’t fear failure. Andy Yelenak, who hosts the website runningpast.com, which sells inspirational posters of Zatopek, recalls that the great Czech locomotive entered the 1952 Olympic marathon three days after his 10,000m win without ever having raced the 26.2 distance before. “During the race he knows Brit Jim Peters is the favorite and latches on to him,” Yelenak recalls. “At halfway he asks Peters if the pace is good. Peters responds coyly, ‘Too slow.’ Emil drops the hammer, leaves Peters and runs to a new Olympic record, breaking the 30K world record en route.” Zatopek took chances like this in nearly all his races—and it paid off. He didn’t fear failure. In your next race, try something different. Take a chance and do something that might scare you a bit. Surge when you feel strong or start your finish-line kick earlier than usual. Be bold.
2. Connect with the community.
Zatopek was known for doing some eccentric things—like running in place in his bathtub while doing the laundry (old-school multi-tasking)—but he was also someone who connected deeply with his fellow runners. Sandrock recalls an incident in 1968 when Zatopek gave Australian Olympian Ron Clarke his gold medal from the 1952 10,000m event. He made that gesture because Clarke had failed to win gold at the Olympics. “That to me represents a free soul,” Sandrock says. “Imagine, working for years to win a gold medal, and then to give it away. Not for any ego gratification—Emil was an ‘awakened,’ or enlightened human being, meaning he saw the big picture, how we are all connected—but because he knew that Clarke had come close, and Emil had compassion for him.” At your next race, find ways to reach out to your fellow competitors and connect with them. If you finish near the front of the pack, take some time to cheer for those who cross the line behind you.
3. Train like a mad man.
Zatopek’s approach to training was quite simple: In order to run fast in a race, you have to practice running fast in training, he surmised. “He was willing to work for it,” Yelenak points out. “He pushed himself in training far beyond the norms of the day.” An example of Zatopek’s intensity is exemplified in this mind-numbing workout: Once, for two straight weeks, he ran a workout of 50 x 400m in the woods in the morning and then repeated the session in the evening. Ryan Lamppa of Bring Back The Mile says that Zatopek even carried his wife Dana, also an Olympian, on his shoulders in training. “He knew how to train his body and mind to maximal levels,” Lamppa says.
You don’t have to be this extreme with your own training, but remember that you can’t expect miracles to happen on the starting line without putting in the work ahead of time. Make your training count like Zatopek did.