Zatopek was a bald, self-coached thirty-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 ten-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 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.
McDougall, Chris (2010-12-09). Born to Run (pp. 96-97). Profile Books UK. Kindle Edition.