“Today we Die a Little: The Rise & Fall of Emil Zátopek” by Richard Askwith

The bravest thing I have ever done is watch an episode of Button Moon. This seemingly innocent 1980s TV programme about a bottle man with kitchenware for arms filled my childhood with terror. At night the Freddie Krueger-esque presence of Mr Spoon would enter my dreams, leering horribly and dangling his merciless spoons of violence ever closer at my face. I couldn’t bear to see the show or hear its demonic theme tune. My so-called friends thought this was hilarious, and would regularly send me Button Moon-themed birthday cards and children’s TV soundtracks. One day in my 20s I gave in, and decided to face the peril. Loaded up on Plymouth Gin I sat through the opening credits and about 2 minutes of utensil-themed space action. Then I ran screaming into the night.
A story, then, of bravery and cowardice, both of which are the overriding themes of Today We Die a Little, the excellent new biography of Emil Zátopek by Richard Askwith (see earlier reviews of Feet in the Clouds and Running Free). Zátopek can rightly be regarded as one of the greatest athletes and Olympians of all time. He is one of only 4 athletes to have his own statue outside the Olympic Museum in Switzerland. At the 1956 Helsinki Olympics he won gold in the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon (his first ever race at the distance), a feat that is unlikely to be equalled. He broke an extraordinary 18 world records during his career, which lasted from 1941 to 1958.  However, today his world records have been comprehensively demolished, and there were other athletes of his era – Vladimir Kuts, Lasse Viren, Gordon Pirie, Ron Clarke – who can all lay a claim to similar athletic greatness. Why then has the name of Zátopek passed into legend?

Bravery is part of the reason. Zátopek took training and endurance of pain to new levels. When Roger Bannister and Chris Chattaway were training to run the sub-4-minute mile, they were running 25-30 miles a week. Zátopek was regularly doing 20-mile interval sessions a day, doing 50, 70, 100 x 400m reps, all at eyeballs-out pace. In army boots. He wasn’t afraid to give everything he could on the track, and the resulting grimacing and gurning was a gift to sports journalists. “He ran like he was a man wrestling an octopus on a conveyor belt” is one of my favourites.

His appeal was about more than just guts. Despite only having a basic school education, Zátopek taught himself multiple foreign languages so he could converse with the people he met on his travels. If foreign fans knocked on his door, he would insist on speaking their native language of Finnish, English French etc rather than Czech, to make his visitors feel more welcome. A consummate sportsman, he famously gave Australian Ron Clarke – a great champion who never won an Olympics – his gold medal from Helsinki on the grounds that Clarke deserved it. He would tie his competitors’ shoelaces on the line if he noticed they were loose. He would cheer other runners over the finish line long after he completed a marathon. In many ways he was the Olympic spirit.

All of this was against the background of the Cold War, with Zátopek on the Communist side of the Iron Curtain. Here is where his story becomes troubling. In 1950 he was a signatory to a letter justifying purges of opponents of the Czech Communist regime, several of whom were executed. Many Czechs today regards him as a collaborator and even a snitch for the secret police. Askwith shows that Zátopek’s relationship with Communism was more complicated than that. Zátopek was a firm believer in the ideals of Communism and creating a fairer society for all, but he became disillusioned with the Soviet system.  In 1968 he joined the protesters of the Prague Spring, pressing for greater freedom of expression and liberal reforms. When the Russians subsequently invaded and clamped down on dissent, Zátopek manned the barricades against them. As the David Beckham of his day, and internationally famous, he was ‘too big to jail’, but the authorities slowly ground him down.

Small humiliation after small humiliation was piled upon him. He was dismissed from his role as Director for Sport in the army. The man who had once been the first person to break 29 minutes for 10,000m was forced to join a mobile drilling crew. To evade further persecution he was forced to recant his support for liberal reforms, dismaying many of his comrades of 1968 who had chosen to suffer imprisonment or exile. Friends on both sides of the political divide abandoned him, and it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that he re-emerged into public life. Ultimately, the bravest athlete of his day was a coward when it came to facing up to bullies.

Or that’s how some see it. But let’s be honest, who of us today can comprehend the horrors of life under totalitarian government? Who amongst us would be brave enough to risk death to preserve our ideals? Most of us, however famous, would just do and say what was expected of us in order to survive and keep our families safe. Sometimes the Mr Spoon-like tentacles of the State are too terrifying to resist.

 

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“Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila” by Paul Rambali

1956 was Year Zero for African running on the world stage, a 60th anniversary that few people appear to have noticed in the build-up to the Rio Olympics. For sure, South African teams had competed in global sporting events prior to that date, but the teams were entirely white. Given the dominance of East Africa in distance running nowadays, it is amazing to think that there was once a time when there were no African champions.

Ethiopia, under its dictatorial emperor Haile Selassie, repeatedly applied to join the Olympics in the 1940s and 1950s, and was just as repeatedly dismissed with laughter, until the International Olympic Committee finally relented and allowed Ethiopia to compete in Melbourne in 1956, where its athletes failed to make much of an impression. The prevailing view was that Africans lacked the discipline and temperament to be athletes, and would therefore humiliate themselves in global competition. Barefoot Runner tells the story of when everyone stopped laughing and paid attention: the day when a member of the emperor’s bodyguard seemed to come from nowhere to win the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome, barefoot.

It was Hollywood stuff. Abebe Bikila had only joined the team as a last-minute substitute when a first-team member injured himself playing football. The marathon itself was scheduled late in the day, so that it finished at night, the final miles lit atmospherically with burning torches as Bikila and Rhadi of Morocco duelled it out for gold. In a sweet moment of national vengeance, Bikila won his victory by passing under the arch of Constantine, the very spot from where Mussolini had set out 25 years previously to conquer Ethiopia, known then as Abyssinia. He even set a new world record of 2:15:16 to boot. Four years later, and just a few weeks after having his appendix removed, Bikila won gold again in Tokyo, becoming the first person to score double marathon gold medals.

Bikila’s final years ended in tragedy. Involved in a car crash, he became paralysed from the waist down, and spent months recovering at Stoke Mandeville hospital in the UK. He toured Ethiopia for a while, giving inspirational talks to schoolchildren, but eventually died in 1973 from complications relating to his injuries. He was just 40 years old.

The words “story” and “Hollywood” that I used earlier are important here. Barefoot Runner is a fictionalised imagining of Bikila’s life. Although Rambali has clearly done a lot of research, he has filled in the gaps with speculation and incidents that may not have happened. There is a horrifying scene during Bikila’s first journey to Addis Ababa where a thief in a marketplace is identified by a boy in a trance and then hacked apart by a mob. Bikila himself is nearly fingered as the culprit before the trance-boy changes his mind. It’s a shocking and vividly described moment, and perhaps such things are known to have happened in Ethiopia at the time, but was Bikila actually there, and was he really nearly the victim of mob justice? Similarly, there is a roll-call of 20th century figures that have cameo roles in the narrative: Nelson Mandela prior to his arrest; Lee Evans, who was one of several US medallists who gave the Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics; and Wilma Rudolph, the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and worthy of a biopic in her own right, to name a few. Rambali imagines how these conversations might have unfolded. There’s no proof of course.

None of which actually gets in the way of enjoyment of the book. It’s beautifully written, and Rambali gets into the minds and motivations of his three main characters: the humble Bikila; his guilt-ridden Finnish coach Onni Niskanen; and the powerful and paranoid Selassie. Indeed much of the books is actually a fascinating portrait of an absolute monarch facing the pressures of modernity. And what an eccentric king he was. Selassie split his day into Hours in which certain types of business took place: the Hour of Informants; the Hour of Purse; the Hour of Judgements etc. The most pivotal moment in the story comes when two of the emperor’s’ western-educated “next generation” betray him and launch a coup, supported by the imperial bodyguard. It’s here where I feel Rambali crosses a line into dangerous embellishment, depicting Bikila as an (unwilling) witness to the massacre of aristocrats by his fellow bodyguards. Once the coup is defeated, the perpetrators are hanged and Bikila is only saved by a royal pardon because of his sporting success. It is a fantastically dramatic account…but there’s not a shred of evidence for it either way.

Ultimately the reader has to make up their own mind about where fact and fiction part ways. I have read some alternative accounts that suggest Bikila was not the mild-mannered man depicted in the book, but rather like later tragic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru, he succumbed to drink and womanising as he grew famous and wealthy, and was possibly drunk at the wheel at the time of his crash. We will probably never have the full story.

Don’t let any of this stop you from reading the book. It’s a cracking story, blisteringly told, and unlike any other work of ‘sporting fiction’ you’ll ever read.

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“Running with the Buffaloes: A Season Inside with Mark Wetmore, Adam Goucher, and the University of Colorado Men’s Cross Country Team” by Chris Lear

Running with the Buffaloes follows the 1999 season of the University of Colorado XC team, from initial training in August through to the national championships in November. At this point in time Colorado was amongst the top 5 XC teams in the country, with a national star athlete – and future US Olympian – in the shape of Adam Goucher. During the course of the book we witness every day of their training schedule, following their long runs in the trails of Boulder and their brutal interval sessions. It’s like a training diary told in narrative fashion. We learn what they eat, how their coach Mark Wetmore bollocks them when they underperform, and most of all, how an elite team trains for the biggest stage of their college athletic careers.

The approach is probably not for everyone, and the layers of running geekery mean I wouldn’t recommend this book to non-runners, but for those who want to go on the journey, you are in for a treat. After a while the team becomes family. The monotony and routine of their training starts to seep into you. You feel like part of the team, and actively will them to succeed. The thought of a “#5” breakfast of two eggs, hash browns and wheat toast at the Village Coffee Shop for $3 sounds very appealing.

A shocking tragedy strikes during the season, and it changes the whole course of the story. The book is dedicated to the relevant team member, so while you’re reading about each training session, the apprehension levels rise as you know something horrible is going to happen, but not how or when. When the moment comes, you feel the desolation along with the whole team.

Unsurprisingly, the book is unremittingly American, with little concession to international readers less familiar with American college sports. I found myself regularly looking up unknown terms and acronyms that were not explained. When an athlete “redshirts”, for example, it means they’re sitting out a season in order to extend their eligibility, because US college athletes can only participate in four seasons . Similarly, I was unaware that “NCAA” stands for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and is the organisation that regulates all inter-college sports in North America.

However, not being American or an aficionado of US sports can be an advantage too. As I was reading the book, I genuinely had no idea how the 1999 season would pan out, where the team would finish at the Nationals, and whether Goucher would take the individual title. If I had a criticism, it is that as a reader it’s something of a shame that the very first page of the book tells you who makes it to the finals. Only 7 athletes of the initial starting squad of 23 can be chosen for the varsity team, and throughout the book the competition for the spots is intense. Chris Lear would probably tell you that the journey is more important than the “who”, but as you follow the various members of the squad, it really isn’t obvious who is going to make the final 7…except you already know.

Of course, how that squad is chosen is a major piece of the story. For his time, Wetmore was an unconventional coach, emphasising high volume and a return to the training philosophy of Arthur Lydiard. The mileage these guys do, my god. 100+ miles a week is made to feel normal. After a while, you start to wonder why you aren’t running those kind of miles yourself.

Just about everyone gets injured at some point, unsurprisingly, causing headaches for Wetmore’s selection process. There is also real emphasis on being thin, and the coach unashamedly bashes some of his skeletal stars for gaining small amounts of weight, something which makes me deeply uncomfortable after recently reading about the story of an elite male marathoner with bulimia. You do have to question whether all of this is healthy for young athletes, and it is noticeable that for most of them, the NCAA is the pinnacle of their running lives. Adam Goucher’s adult career never quite matched his college promise, and you have to wonder if the demands of college XC meant that he peaked too soon.

For those of us who only took up running later in life, and will never come close to matching the fitness and performances of these young men, Running with the Buffaloes allows us to dream of what might have been if we had only discovered the sport a little sooner, had a little more talent, and did not spend their teenage years with a loyalty card to Hussein’s kebab van.

 

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“The Competitive Runner’s Handbook”by Bob Glover and Shelly-lynn Florence Glover

Regular readers of these reviews will be aware that my writing has a pattern; start with a silly, occasionally humiliating, story from my past, then make an incredibly tenuous link to the book in question. For those of you for whom my schtick is getting a wee bit tiresome, you will be delighted to hear that I am stumped here. Not because The Competitive Runner’s Handbook is a bad book. Far from it. The problem is that it’s like reviewing a Haynes car manual. Vital as a reference source when the wheels fall off, but not exactly my ideal companion for a long flight.

The Glovers are coaches and heavily involved with the New York Road Runners. Their book is a huge compendium of running knowledge and wisdom gleaned from years of training runners of all abilities for races. Virtually everything you could wish for is covered here: training plans for specific distances, heart rate training, running form, dealing with injuries, to name but a few. The authors are not sports scientists, so some of the advice might be considered dated, but it’s not as if people are running significantly faster times these days than when the first edition of this book was published in 1983.

I have dipped into this book over the years repeatedly when I have needed suggestions for solo interval sessions, to get me out of the monotony of doing 6 x 3mins or 10 reps of 400m. The relevant chapters have a number of suggestions for speedwork, along with tables indicating how hard runners of different abilities should run and recover from each rep.

Ah yes, the tables. This is probably the standout feature of the book. It is stacked with data and charts. I feel delightfully smug every time I look at the “Categories of Competitive Runners” tables at the front of the book, which breaks runners down by their race times. When I first bought the book, I was a Basic Competitor for my gender and age group, running 5ks in around 24mins and half marathons in 1:52. Over the years I have progressively moved through the ranks to the point where I am somewhere between Advanced Competitor and Local Champion. Something tells me I will never make it to Semi Elite status, but it’s a gratifying ego boost nonetheless.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book is the comprehensive pacing chart in the appendix. This lists out what each minute-per-mile speed – down to the second – will achieve for specific distances. Sub-3 marathon? 6:51 pace. Sub-40 10k? 6:26 pace. You get the idea. It shows everything from 5 minute mile-ing (a 2:11:06 marathon) to 11 minute mile-ing (4:48:25 marathon). Although this information can be found on the web, I have yet to find a more convenient source for working out my desired speed than quickly flicking through these pages.

Overall, if you are looking for guidance when putting together a new training plan, want to think about your running in a more data-driven way, or need advice on whether you should run when ill, then I heartily recommend this handbook. There is something here for everyone, although you probably won’t ever read more than a third of it. There’s even an index entry for “pre-race arousal”, although I would not dream of making a puerile joke out of that…

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“Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance” by Christopher McDougall

My son and I are currently making our way through the collected works of Roger Hargreaves. The greatest of his novels is unquestionably Mr Silly. In this parable of the 2016 US election, our hero enters the Nonsense Cup, awarded to the person who has the silliest idea of the year. Entrants include a square apple and a teapot that pours onto itself. Mr Silly beats them all by painting the trees of Nonsenseland (where the trees are of course red) green.

Natural Born Heroes would have been odds-on favourite for winning the Nonsense Cup. It tells the story of Second World War resistance heroes on Crete who kidnapped a Nazi general, interwoven with present-day anecdotes about the sport of parkour, ‘natural movement’ and nutrition. Christopher “Born to Run” McDougall clearly had two different books he wanted to write, but neither was quite fully formed…and judging by the cover illustration his publisher was probably desperate that it be another running book, not a history book about Greeks and eccentric Englishmen. Inspired by the Percy Jackson series of children’s books (yes really), he decided to mash them together, drawing links between the urban free-runners he encounters in Paris, London and Pennsylvania, and how the heroes of mythological and wartime Greece proved to be such impressive warriors.

On the positive side, the story of how British spy Patrick Leigh Fermor and his band of Cretan partisans successfully bogged down the Nazi war machine is a true adventure story, full of spies, derring-do and colourful characters. To train the agents of the Special Operations Executive, whose role was to go behind enemy lines and cause trouble for the Nazis, the British high command recruited the two toughest policemen from the world’s most dangerous city: Shanghai. These cops fought dirty, and taught their students how to knock out an enemy using just a box of matches, then kick him in the groin for good measure. On Crete, their students would mastermind one of the greatest feats of espionage of the war, kidnapping General Heinrich Kreipe near his residence and smuggling him off the island. When the Nazis discovered his abandoned car the next day, they found some Cadbury chocolate wrappers, Player’s cigarettes and an Agatha Christie novel littered around it, just in case the Germans needed a clue as to the nationality of the cheeky kidnappers.

McDougall thinks that combining this narrative with present-day accounts of people rediscovering the “lost” arts of fitness, athleticism and nutrition is a successful way of telling something profound about the nature of heroism, but unfortunately for me it was a real failure. Part of the problem is that so much of his story is incredibly tenuous, based on the smallest of evidence, and some of it is outright cobblers. Take this little gem: “When England was rebuilding after the Great War, [Plutarch’s Parallel Lives] was its guide”. Really? England rebuilt itself after 1918 based on the values of ancient Greek literature? McDougall has clearly never seen Peaky Blinders, or even Downton Abbey for that matter. England after the war was a country filled with violent and traumatised demobbed men, militant trade unions urging a general strike, and a wildly unequal class system. He bases this sweeping statement on a single quote by Narnia author and Oxford professor C. S. Lewis, who was in any event actually talking about England after 1945.

Later, when McDougall used the phrase “tough London borough of Westminster” I threw the book across the room. It’s one of the richest parts of the city.

And then there’s the dangerous, pseudo-scientific aspect to the book. Born to Run was a rollicking romp through the world of ultrarunning, exploring the amazing endurance feats of the Tarahumara people and popularising the exhaustion-hunting theory of why human beings run. It’s an easy, gripping read, and McDougall’s evangelism for running without shoes almost single-handedly started the current barefoot running boom.

Reading Natural Born Heroes, I couldn’t help thinking “here we go again”. Deploying his trademark brand of infectious certainty, McDougall has got a new fitness lifestyle to sell his readers: High Fat Low Carb (HFLC), aka the Paleo or Banting diet. In McDougall’s account, the sports nutritionists have been getting it wrong for years, and carbohydrates are actually a terrible fuel for endurance sport, being both completely inefficient and a source of health and injury woes. Instead, we should be training our body to burn its fat reserves, which is a much more natural fuel source. He cites several examples of elite runners who switched to a fat-based diet and saw colossal improvements in their performance. In a link to his history of the heroes of Crete, he is quick to point out that the traditional Cretan diet involves lots of fat and limited carbohydrates.

Why “dangerous”? McDougall writes in such an accessible style that it is easy to forget he is not a scientist, and that the scientists he does cite do not necessarily reflect mainstream opinion. Many people injure themselves making ill-advised shifts to running barefoot without proper training. Equally, many people may be setting themselves up for health problems if they switch to a HFLC diet without proper consideration. In some people, the diet seems to lead to insulin and ‘bad’ cholesterol issues, not to mention reduced performance.

My own view about both barefoot running and HFLC is that we are all individuals, and what works for one person’s body may not work for another. I also think there are a lot of separate issues being confused in McDougall’s book. Many of the people mentioned as HFLC converts in the book will have seen benefits simply by switching from bad eating habits to thinking more proactively about their diet. It’s noticeable the author himself says he previously would eat pizza and cheesesteaks, but lost the cravings for that kind of junk once he switched to HFLC. Have you ever seen a cheesesteak? It’s a crime against food.

The other thing that makes me very suspicious about movements such as HFLC and barefoot running is that they often come hand in hand with someone wanting to sell you something. With barefoot running it was Vibram Fivefingers – the nonsensical concept of shoes for barefoot runners. With HFLC there is a whole industry of cookbooks and fat-crammed ‘natural’ food products. But perhaps the thing that truly offends me is the Bulletproof range, spearheaded by Bulletproof coffee, mentioned briefly in Natural Born Heroes as the secret potion that helped the LA Lakers NBA team turbo-charge their basketball skills. Bulletproof coffee, sold online and in London hipster coffee shops, is highly expensive gourmet coffee. With a big knob of butter in it.

As Roger Hargreaves might say: how silly.

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