I recently completed a fantastic online course called ‘Do What You Love’. As its name suggests it is about discovering your true passion in life and connecting more fully with that passion by finding a way to incorporate it into everyday life. The course is run by Beth Nicholls, an inspiring, engaging and adventurous woman who passionately believes that the world would be a better place if more people were doing what they love.
I have learned so much from the course and have connected with people in wonderful and unexpected ways. While I am still digesting a lot of the material, I wanted to share one of the many things that resonated with me. In an interview with artist Kelly Rae Roberts, Kelly Rae spoke about the importance of paying attention to the people we admire as she believes that this speaks to something within us. I have been thinking a lot about this and have concluded that, for me, the people I most admire most in life tend to be people who are passionate, energised and inspired by what they do; people who push themselves to their limits whether physically, mentally or both; people who keep pursuing their dreams despite setbacks or the opinions of others; and people who are open-minded, caring and compassionate. I have long struggled to find my passion in life (hence signing up for Beth’s course!), have too often quit when things got tough and have allowed the opinions of others, whether real or perceived, to hold me back. As obvious as it seems now, the qualities I most admire in others are the ones I aspire to myself but are also the ones I struggle with the most.
Having recently re-discovered my love of running I was also intrigued to hear Kelly Rae say that it was taking up running that led her to re-discover her creativity and that it gave her the confidence to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. She said, “Once I started running and realising that I could push, or lean into the edges of what I thought I couldn’t do, I realised that anything was possible.”
Finally, I want to share the story of Emil Zatopek, a man I admire deeply. Not only did he have an extraordinary passion for running but he had an enormous heart. Even if you are not a runner or are not particularly interested in running I think you will find his story inspiring and moving. I have extracted it exactly as I first read it. I hope you enjoy it.
From the book ‘Born To Run’ by Christopher McDougall (pp 95-98) -
‘There was this Czech soldier, a gawky dweeb who ran with such horrendous form that he looked “as if he’d just been stabbed through the heart,” as one sports-writer put it. But Emil Zatopek loved running so much that even when he was still a grunt in army boot camp, he used to grab a flash-light and go off on twenty-mile runs through the woods at night. In his combat boots. In winter. After a full day of infantry drills.
When the snow was too deep, Zatopek would jog in the tub on top of his dirty laundry, getting a resistance workout along with clean tighty whities. As soon as it thawed enough for him to get outside, he’d go nuts; he’d run four hundred meters as fast as he could, over and over, for ninety repetitions, resting in between by jogging two hundred meters. By the time he’d finished, he’d done more than thirty-three miles of speedwork. Ask him his pace, and he’d shrug; he never timed himself. To build explosiveness, he and his wife, Dana, used to play catch with a javelin, hurling it back and forth to each other across a soccer field like a long, lethal Frisbee. One of Zatopek’s favourite workouts combined all his loves at once: he’d jog through the woods in his army boots with his ever-loving wife riding on his back.
It was all a waste of time of course. The Czechs were like the Zimbabwean bobsled team; they had no tradition, no coaching, no native talent, no chance of winning. But being counted out was liberating; having nothing to lose left Zatopek free to try any way to win. Take his first marathon: everyone knows the best way to build up to 26.2 miles is by running long, slow distances. Everyone, that is, except Emil Zatopek: he did hundred-yard dashes instead.
“I already know how to go slow,” he reasoned. “I thought the point was to go fast”. His atrocious, death-spasming style was punch-line heaven for track scribes (“The most frightful horror spectacle since Frankenstein.”… “He runs as if his next step would be his last”… “He looks like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt.”), but Zatopek just laughed along. “I’m not talented enough to run and smile at the same time,” he’d say. “Good thing it’s not figure skating. You only get points for speed, not style”.
And dear God, was he a Chatty Cathy! Zatopek treated competition like it was speed dating. Even in the middle of a race, he liked to natter with other runners and try out his smattering of French and English and German, causing one grouchy Brit to complain about Zatopek’s “incessant talking”. At away meets, he’d sometimes have so many new friends in his hotel room that he’d have to give up his bed and sleep outside under a tree. Once, right before an international race, he became pals with an Australian runner who was hoping to break the Australian 5,0000 meter record. Zatopek was only entered in the 10,000 meter race, but he came up with a plan; he told the Aussie to drop out of his race and line up next to Zatopek instead. Zatopek spent the first half of the 10,000 meter race pacing his new buddy to the record, then sped off to attend to his own business and win.
That was pure Zatopek, though; races for him were like a pub crawl. He loved competing so much that instead of tapering and peaking, he jumped into as many meets as he could find. During a manic stretch in the late ’40s, Zatopek raced nearly every other week for three years and never lost, going 69-0. Even on a schedule like that, he still averaged up to 165 miles a week in training.
Zatopek was a bald, self-coached thirty-year old apartment-dweller from a decrepit Eastern European backwater when he arrived for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Since the Czech team was so thin, Zatopek had his choice of distance events, so he chose them all. He lined up for the 5,000 meters, and won with a new Olympic record. He then lined up for the 10,000 meters, and won his second gold with another new record. He’d never run a marathon before, but what the hell; with two golds already around his neck, he had nothing to lose, so why not finish the job and give it a bash?
Zatopek’s inexperience quickly became obvious. It was a hot day, so England’s Jim Peters, then the world-record holder, decided to use the heat to make Zatopek suffer. By the ten-mile mark, Peters was already ten minutes under his own world record pace and pulling away from the field. Zatopek wasn’t sure if anyone could really sustain such a blistering pace. “Excuse me,” he said, pulling alongside Peters. “This is my first marathon. Are we going too fast?” “No,” Peters replied. “Too slow.” If Zatopek was dumb enough to ask, he was dumb enough to deserve any answer he got. Zatopek was surprised “You say too slow,” he asked again. “Are you sure the pace is too slow?”. “Yes,” Peters said. Then he got a surprise of his own. “Okay. Thanks.” Zatopek took Peters at his word and took off. When he burst out of the tunnel and into the stadium, he was met with a roar: not only from the fans, but from athletes of every nation who thronged the track to cheer him in. Zatopek snapped the tape with his third Olympic record, but when his teammates charged over to congratulate him, they were too late: the Jamacian sprinters had already hoisted him on their shoulders and were parading him around the infield. “Let us live so that when we come to die, even the undertaker will be sorry,” Mark Twain used to say. Zatopek found a way to run so that when he won, even other teams were delighted.
You can’t pay someone to run with such infectious joy. You can’t bully them into it, either, which Zatopek would unfortunately have to prove. When the Red Army marched into Prague in 1968 to crush the pro-democracy movement, Zatopek was given a choice: he could get on board with the Soviets and serve as a sports ambassador, or could spend the rest of his life cleaning toilets in a uranium mine. Zatopek chose the toilets. And just like that, one of the most beloved athletes in the world disappeared.
At the same time, coincidentally, his rival for the title of the world’s greatest distance runner was also taking a beating. Ron Clarke, a phenomenally talented Australian with Johnny Depp’s dark, dreamy beauty, was exactly the king of guy that Zatopek, by all rights, should hate. While Zatopek had to teach himself to run in the snow at night after sentry duty, the Australian pretty boy was enjoying sunny morning jogs along the Mornington Peninsula and expert coaching. Everything Zatopek could wish for, Clarke had to spare: Freedom. Money. Elegance. Hair.
Ron Clarke was a star – but still a loser in the eyes of his nation. Despite breaking nineteen records in every distance from the half-mile to six miles, “the bloke who choked” never managed to win the big ones. In the summer of ’68 he blew his final chance: in the 10,000 meter finals at the Mexico City Games, Clarke was knocked out by altitude sickness. Anticipating a barrage of abuse back home, Clarke delayed his return by stopping off in Prague to pay a courtesy visit to the bloke who never lost. Toward the end of their visit, Clarke glimpsed Zatopek sneaking something into his suitcase.
“I thought I was smuggling some message to the outside world for him, so I did not dare to open the parcel until the plane was well away,” Clarke would say. Zatopek sent him off with a strong embrace. “Because you deserved it,” he said, which Clarke found cute and very touching; the old master had far worse problems of own to deal with, but was still playful enough to grant a victory-stand hug to the young punk who’d missed his chance to mount one.
Only later would he discover that Zatopek wasn’t talking about the hug at all: in his suitcase, Clarke found Zatopek’s 1952 Olympic 10,000 meters gold medal. For Zatopek to give it to the man who’d replaced his name in the record books was extraordinarily noble; to give it away at precisely the moment in his life when he was losing everything else was an act of almost unimaginable compassion.
“His enthusiasm, his friendliness, his love of life, shone through every movement,” an overcome Ron Clarke said later. “There is not, and never was, a greater man than Emil Zatopek”.