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.
"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."
Zatopek was a balding, 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 snapped the tape for his third Olympic record.
Races for Zatopek 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. You can't pay someone to run with such infectious joy. You can't bully them into it either. Certainly not Zatopek. When the Red Army marched into Prague in 1968 to crush the prodemocracy 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, Zatopek's 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 kind of guy that Zatopek, by all rights, should hate. While Zatopek had taught himself to run in the snow, at night after sentry duty, the Australian pretty boy was enjoying sunny morning jogs along the beaches of Mornington Peninsula and expert coaching. Everything Zatopek could wish for, Clarke had to spare: freedom, money, elegance, hair. Clarke was a star, but still a loser in the eyes of his nation. Despite breaking 19 records in every distance from 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 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. Only later would Clarke realize that Zatopek wasn't talking about the hug. In his suitcase, Clarke found Zatopek's 1952 Olympic gold medal for the 10,000-meter victory. "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."
So here's what Coach Vigil was trying to ﬁgure out: Was Zatopek a great man who happened to run, or a great man because he ran? Vigil couldn't quite put his ﬁnger on it, but his gut kept telling him there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to love running. The engineering was certainly the same: Both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you had, being patient and forgiving and undemanding. Sex and speed—haven't they been symbiotic for most of our existence, as intertwined as the strands of our DNA? We wouldn't be alive without love; we wouldn't have survived without running; maybe we shouldn't be surprised that getting better at one could make you better at the other.
Look, Vigil was a scientist, not a swami. He hated straying into this Buddha-under-the-lotus-tree stuff, but he wasn't going to ignore it, either. He'd made his bones by ﬁnding connections where everyone else saw coincidence, and the more he examined the compassion link, the more intriguing it became. Was it just by chance that the pantheon of dedicated runners also included Abraham Lincoln ("He could beat all the other boys in a footrace") and Nelson Mandela (a college cross-country standout who, even in prison, continued to run seven miles a day in place in his cell)? Maybe Ron Clarke, a champion runner and Zatopek admirer, wasn't being poetic in his description of Zatopek; maybe his expert eye was clinically precise: His love of life shone through every movement.
Yes! Love of life! Exactly! That's what got Vigil's heart thumping when he saw the Tarahumara scramble happy-go-luckily up a dirt hill outside Leadville on that August day in 1994. He'd found his Natural Born Runner—an entire tribe of Natural Born Runners, and from what he'd seen so far, they were just as joyful and magniﬁcent as he'd hoped.
Vigil, an old man alone in the woods, felt a burst of immortality. He was on to something. Something huge. It wasn't just how to run; it was how to live, the essence of who we are as a species and what we're meant to be. Vigil had read what history there was about the Tarahumara. A Norwegian explorer had spent five years with the Tarahumara and called them "the founders and makers of the history of mankind." Perhaps all our troubles—all the violence, obesity, illness, depression, and greed we can't overcome—began when we stopped living as Running People. Deny your nature and it will erupt in some other, uglier way.