Born to Run
Long-distance running legend Joe Vigil followed a reclusive tribe of Mexican ultramarathoners into the Rocky Mountains hoping to find the secret of its success—and discovered a way of life.
Their training was as primitive as their shoes. They ran way too much: "We ran twice a day, sometimes three times," Boulder's Frank Shorter would recall. "All we did was run—run, eat, and sleep." They ran way too hard. "The modus operandi was to let a bunch of competitive guys have at each other every day in a form of road rage," one observer put it. And they were way too buddy-buddy for so-called competitors: "We liked running together," recalled Bill Rodgers, a chieftain of the '70s tribe and a four-time Boston marathon champ. "We had fun with it. It wasn't a grind."
They were so ignorant they didn't even realize they were supposed to be burned out, overtrained, and injured. Instead, they were fast—really fast. Frank Shorter won the '72 Olympic marathon gold and the '76 silver, Bill Rodgers was the No. 1 marathoner in the world for three years, and Alberto Salazar won Boston, New York, and the Comrades ultramarathon. By the early '80s, the Greater Boston Track Club had half a dozen guys who could run a 2:12 marathon. That's six guys, in one amateur club, in one city. Twenty years later, you couldn't ﬁnd a single 2:12 marathoner anywhere in the country. The United States couldn't even get one runner to meet the 2:14 qualifying standard for the 2000 Olympics; only Rod DeHaven squeaked into the Games under the 2:15 "B" standard. He ﬁnished 69th.
What happened? How did we go from leader of the pack to lost and left behind? It's hard to determine a single cause for any event in this complex world, of course, but forced to choose, the answer is best summed up as follows: $.
Sure, plenty of people will throw up excuses about Kenyans having some kind of mutant muscle ﬁber, but this isn't about why other people got faster; it's about why we got slower. And the fact is, American distance running went into a death spiral precisely when cash entered the equation. The Olympics were opened to professionals after the 1984 Games, which meant running-shoe companies could bring the distance-running savages out of the wilderness and onto the payroll reservation.
Vigil could smell the apocalypse coming, and he'd tried hard to warn his runners. "There are two goddesses in your heart," he told them. "The Goddess of Wisdom and the Goddess of Wealth. Everyone thinks they need to get wealth ﬁrst, and wisdom will come. So they concern themselves with chasing money. But they have it backward. You have to give your heart to the Goddess of Wisdom, give her all your love and attention, and the Goddess of Wealth will become jealous and follow you." Ask nothing from your running, in other words, and you'll get more than you ever imagined.
Vigil wasn't beating his chest about the purity of poverty, or fantasizing about a monastic order of moneyless marathoners. Shoot, he wasn't even sure he had a handle on the problem, let alone the solution. 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 Vigil could transplant it back into American culture like an heirloom seedling and watch it grow again.
Vigil already had the perfect prototype. There was this Czech soldier, a gawky dweeb who ran with such horrendous form 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'd grab a ﬂashlight and go off on 20-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 whiteys. 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 90 repetitions, resting in between by jogging 200 meters. By the time he was ﬁnished, he'd done more than 33 miles of speed work. 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 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 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." ...