Today We Die a Little by Richard Askwith is the biography of Emil Zatopek. The book is subtitled The Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time, which is conveniently a good synopsis of its contents.
Emil Zatopek raced at his peak in the decade after the second World War. Among many world records and victories, winning three gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics was perhaps the most notable feat. Emil won gold in the Olympic 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters, and Marathon (his first marathon ever run) — an impressive accomplishment of running depth that will likely never be repeated in the modern era.
As usual, there are many ways to read this book. It is a great biography of a legendary runner. It is a history of communism and the Eastern European sporting machine after World War II. It is also a great book about running training techniques.
The theme I eventually extracted from the book centers on a quotation from Emil.
Pain is a merciful thing – if it lasts without interruption, it dulls itself. – Emil Zatopek
That’s quite a quotation.
Intuition is that at the onset of pain, you should stop or slow down. Emil, in this quotation, suggests another option — keep going, perhaps even go harder.
How this matters in Running
There is nothing complicated about running. The gear is simple. The venue is simple. The rules are simple. Yet, some people elevate this activity to sport. A rarefied few to a pathway through life.
How do those few do it? There are countless stories of hard-work trumping talent. Emil (although talented) arguably began the era of real hard-work in running. His novel and brutal training tactics — well detailed in this book — created a clear separation from his rivals.
What is the purpose of this hard-work in training? Of course, it conditions the body to endure greater stress, pushing back the perceived envelope of where pain begins.
But, what-if, there is something more that Emil discovered?
Consistent hard-work creates many moments where a runner must face pain or discomfort. In those moments, a runner can learn what happens if he/she continues or stops. Then, when it matters, a runner’s familiarity with pain merely becomes another competitor in the race to be beaten or paced against.
How this matters in Life
The final chapters of this book cover Emil’s post-running political career as an active government employee and private citizen. He was a pro-socialist revolutionary during Soviet-era communism in Czechoslovakia. A lot is covered, but, in the end, it does not turn out well for Emil. He is effectively exiled from his family, friends, and countrymen for over a decade working hard labor in the remote parts of the country. It is worth reading the book just to understand how frightening and totalitarian communism was to its citizens throughout the twentieth century. This is a tough situation for any man to face. But, Emil survived.
The fall from greatness would seemingly crush most. Emil certainly seemed to have bent, but he did not break. Perhaps, it takes having climbed to greatness to survive such a fall. To succeed in running, Emil had learned about hard-work and enduring pain. How to keep going when things got tough. How any uncomfortable situation in life can eventually become manageable if you just keep going.
I do not know if I could have survived what Emil went through. No one really does until they are put into that situation.
However, on a smaller scale, sometimes the daily routine of running or life is draining. Even the prospect of a future race or near-term goal can lack motivation in those times. On those days, maybe it is worth re-framing why you train or even just get up everyday. As Emil learned, maybe it is about learning how to endure when pain arises — to keep going instead of stopping — no matter where it appears in life.
Running is a simple activity. You can only cross the finish line if you do not stop.