French Bloke Runs

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Tag: Legend

Inspiring runners: Marie-José Pérec

After Emil Zàtopek, Marie-José Pérec is probably the second great runner who contributed to making running an inspiring sport in my eyes. Like most French people, I still remember Marie-Jo (that how all French people know her) draping herself in the French flag after winning the gold medal for the 400m at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. After 20 years, her time of of 48.25 seconds still makes her the third fastest woman of all times!

Marie-Jo Perec - Atlanta 1996

Marie-Jo Perec – Atlanta 1996 Photo by sd_ukrm

I know, she was a sprinter and I’m more into long distance running, but I still find her inspiring, and her career impressive! The funny thing is that she wasn’t really into running when she was young, but she was really digging basketball. She only discovered her talent in her late teens. At 20, after just one year of training, she became the French champion on 400m! Three years later, in 1991, she became the world champion on the distance in Tokyo. The following year, she won the gold at the Barcelona Olympics and 4 years later, our standard-bearer wons 2 gold medals in Atlanta (400m and 200m). If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is.

I know the end of her career was a bit disappointing and a lot of people remember the bad rap she had at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but I prefer to remember her as a legend of French athletics and of sprint in general.

Inspiring runners: Emil Zátopek

Emil Zátopek is certainly the first legendary runner I’ve ever heard of. I remember him being the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question during a family game. My grandfather was surprised I didn’t know the famous ‘Czech Locomotive’ (hey, I was just a kid and he was a runner from the fifties!) and went on about how he had won everything in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. I recently checked these facts and even though he didn’t win any medal in hammer throwing, diving or gymnastics, he is still the only athlete to have won gold on the 5,000 metres, the 10,000 metres, and the Marathon in the same Olympics.

Schade Mimoun Zatopek 1952

Herbert Schade, Alain Mimoun and Emil Zátopek racing the 5,000m at the 1952 Olympics
(and Christopher Chataway, the poor sod who’ll be remembered in history for his faceplant)

I love the story of how he won the marathon in Helsinki. He had originally only enrolled for the 5,000m and the 10,000m and had won both of them (in both races, fellow Frenchman Alain Mimoun finished second because of this damn Czech). After that, he had nothing to do for the rest of the Olympics and had never raced a marathon, so he said “What the heck, I’ll just enrol for the marathon then”. He had nothing to lose, and lose he didn’t! He decided to use Jim Peters as his pacemaker (at the time, the dude was holding the world record for the distance). Zátopek being of a chatty nature, after 15k, he asked Peters what he thought of the race. Peters took this opportunity to try and nip the competition in the bud and replied “too slow”, when he was actually going too fast to try and exhaust the inexperienced Czech. Zátopek was a trusting character so he followed Peters’ advice and went faster. Eventually, Peters was caught out at his own game and didn’t even finish the race. Zátopek went on winning the race only 2 minutes slower than Peters’ record at the time. Not too bad for a first Marathon.

There’s another bunch of anecdotes about the Czech legend in Born to run, once again I strongly recommend you buy this book and you’ll read even crazier things about Zátopek. Like how gruelling was his self-inflicted training, how friendly and wholehearted he was (he gave one of his medals to an unlucky Australian runner he’d just made friends with). It’s no surprise he was selected as the Greatest Runner of All Time by Runner’s World Magazine.

Documentary: Town of runners

Ethiopia is a big country in the world of running. I didn’t know it before Lanky Pole went there to spend a month-long holiday (I already mentioned that this mad man mostly travels for running) but it is the home of running legends such as Haile Gebrselassie and Abebe Bikila, who both held the World Records for Marathon & Half-Marathon in their times, and a plethora of super fast men and women.

I recently watched Town of Runners, a documentary by Jerry Rothwell about young runners in Bekoji, a town in central Ethiopia, famous for producing top notch runners such as the olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba and her two amazing sisters Ejegayehu and Genzebe. Unsurprisingly, many younglings in this area train hard (very hard) to follow the footsteps of these giants. For many of them, it is the only hope for a better life, they dream of going to the capital Addis Ababa and then to Europe or North America to make a living out of running or even to become legends themselves.

Town of Runners

Town of Runners

The documentary follows two hopeful and talented young girls who dedicate their lives to running (on top of going to school and helping their parents at home and in the fields). The beginning made me feel quite optimistic, as we meet their ever-smiling coach who’s confident that he can train world-class athletes, as he has already done. But disenchantment comes soon enough as they encounter cheating and nepotism in competitions they enrol in.

When they finally make it to running academies, things get worse and worse: they’re far from their families, underfed and poorly treated. In short, the documentary isn’t really optimistic and gives us a glimpse into the misery of the masses who fails for a few chosen ones.

You can watch the full documentary on Vimeo or on Netflix UK. Once you’ve watched it, you can read an update one year later, but I got attached to the characters and I wish I could read an update now, five years later.

Inspiring runners: Paula Radcliffe

The way I see it, Paula Radcliffe is to British running what Jeannie Longo is to French cycling (the Brits will see it the other way around): a living legend who’s been there forever, who’s won everything and who won’t age, to the greatest despair of the younger generation of athletes who could not hold the candle to her. She’s not just part of the landscape, she is the landscape for long distance runners.

Just imagine. Her 2003 marathon World Record in London is north of 3 minutes better than the second best time for a women’s marathon, and it has been holding since then! As a comparison, the ten best times for men’s marathons all fit within a 90 seconds range. Oh, and just for fun, the same year she set this historic record, she also set the World Record for women’s 10K on road in Puerto Rico, this record still holds 13 years later. Yep, that one too. Cherry on the cake, in 2003 (same year again!) in Newcastle, she also set the World Record for a Half Marathon. It hasn’t been ratified by the IAAF (the world’s athletics ruling body) because the Great North Run goes slightly downhill. The record held for 11 years anyway.

Paula Radcliffe, Berlin 2011 - Photo by Ramon Smits

Paula Radcliffe, Berlin 2011 – Photo by Ramon Smits

But it didn’t start that well for her. When she took up running at 7, she was anaemic and asthmatic (and she still is because asthma doesn’t just go away). Way to go! It didn’t prevent her to join the elite before her twenties despite multiple asthma crises and other injuries, running distances between 1500m and half marathon. She then went on winning so many medals nationally and internationally that I gave up on counting them in the Wikipedia article. But it wasn’t enough so she decided to give a go to marathon running in 2002. On her first competition on that distance, she immediately set a record for a women’s only race. Later the same year, Paula set a new World Record for the distance. Easy Peasy. And of course, there’s 2003, the year she set her 3 World Records, 2 of which still hold. Alongside all that, she also went 4 times to the Olympic Games (1994 to 2008) and when she ended her career in 2015, her times were still good enough to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio!

What did you expect? Of course she became a legend! So much that when she runs, her bib doesn’t have a number printed on it but her first name. When she ran her last marathon in London last year, the crowd chanted “Paula! Paula!” for 42.195 km. And because I’m a dick, I’ll end with my favourite moment of her career, when Denise Lewis tried to interview her on the same day, but Paula’s marathon pace was faster than the journalist’s sprint pace (despite her being an elite heptathlete in the past), which left the journalist breathless after the shortest interview of her life. A moment to watch and watch again on the BBC.

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