Alpine Fever

Emil Wolverton Svilar

"eh-Meel Sweeler"

May 3, 2011


Dimple to Dimple.  Emil gives Mom a smooch.

After pronouncing - then spelling, my son's first name I'm usually met with a blank stare.  We came across the name while reading the passage below from the book "Born to Run."  Both Jill and I have running in our families, and more importantly, we just liked the spirit of the man, Emil Zatopek, portrayed in the passage.  We hope our son will grow up with the same passion, toughness, generosity and freedom of thought.  So far, so good.  Emil was born covered in his own feces.  His first act would have made his namesake proud: he stuck his thumb in his mouth. 

The following excerpt is long, but well-worth the read.

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All he wanted was to find one Natural Born Runner - someone who ran for sheer joy, like an artist in the grip of inspiration - and study how he or she trained, lived, and thought.  Whatever that thinking was, maybe he could transplant it back into American culture liken an heirloom seedling and watch it grow wild again.

He already knew he had the perfect prototype.  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 sportswriter 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 flashlight 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 400 meters as fast as he could, over and over, for ninety repetitions, resting in between by jogging 200 meters.  By the time he was finished, he'd done more than 33 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 favorite 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 100 yard dashes instead.

"I already know how to go slow," he reason.  "I thought the point was to go fast."  His atrocious, death-spasming style was punclhine 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 runa 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, English, and German, causing one grouchy Brit to complain about Zatopek's "incessant talking."  At away meets, he'd sometimes have so many friends in his hotel room that he'd have to give up his bed and sleep outside under a tree.

That was pure Zatopek though; races for his 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 '40's, 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 30 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 10 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 the 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 Jamaican 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 he 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 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 kind of guy 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 beaches of 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 19 records in every distance from the half-mile to six miles, "the bloke who choked" never managed to win the big ones.  In teh 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 call 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 his 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 meter 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 moment," an overcome Ron Clarke said later.  "There is not, and never was, a greater man than Emil Zatopek."

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