The World’s Greatest Marathon Runners-Part 1

By November 22, 2017 April 2nd, 2019 No Comments

Capt Seshadri is looking at the world’s greatest distance runners. In the first part of this series, we present three of the all time greats in marathon running.

Great runners have shown the world that challenges diminish against our spirit and endurance. In the first of the series, I am talking about runners who were so fast that they gained nicknames for their speed such as The Flying Finnn and the Czech Locomotive. These three runners have awed the world with their speed, skill and determination as they flew across the tracks to stamp their place in history.

The Flying Finn

Twenty two official world records at various distances between 1500 metres and 20 kilometres. Nine golds and three silvers in twelve events at the Olympics. Undefeated at distances of 800 metres and above for 121 races. And, spanning a 14-year career, unbeaten in cross country events and the 10,000 metres.

A non-conformist, both as an athlete and as a soldier, while the rest of his army colleagues walked, Paavo Johannes Nurmi ran with a rifle on his shoulder and a backpack full of sand. To strengthen his legs, he wore heavy boots and ran behind trains while holding on to the rear bumper.

Having made his international debut in the 1920 Olympics, Nurmi became the first and, to date, the only runner to hold the world record in the mile, the 5000 metres and the 10,000 metres at the same time. Such was his endurance and fortitude that he established world records for the 1500 metres and the 5000 metres within an hour of each other, and even won gold in these events in a space of less than two hours at the 1924 Olympics.  Apparently not satisfied with these achievements, he changed focus to longer distances, breaking the world records for the one hour run and the 25-mile marathon.

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The Flying Finn later coached Finnish runners and pursued a career in haberdashery, construction and as a share trader. Nurmi, who would always run with a stopwatch in hand, is recognised for what is known as the “even pace” and credited with making running a major international sport, influencing the running styles of several future generations.

The Czech Locomotive

Working at the Bata factory at the tender age of 16, Emil Zatopek was asked by his manager to run a race against a hundred of his peers. Although initially reluctant to run, he came staggering in at second spot, which eventually drove him to train and excel in the sport. In 1944, a mere four years later, he broke the Czech records for the 2,000, 3,000 and 5,000 metres. In later years, Zátopek became the only athlete to win the 5,000 metres, the 10,000 metres and the marathon in a single Olympics. In fact, his last lap in the 5,000 metres was an astounding 57.5 seconds.

His quite audible wheezing while running earned him the monikers “Emil the Terrible” and the “Czech Locomotive”. While training, weather was never a constraint; snow never deterred him. His unique way of relaxing while running was to gently touch the tip of the thumb with the tip of the index or middle finger; the simple contact ensured that the arms and shoulders remained relaxed.

The Mathematical Finn

This police officer turned athlete employed the technique of the ‘emptying exercise’ of many top runners. This entailed pushing themselves to a total exhaustion or lack of energy level so that their bodies could once again receive more energy, enabling them to repeat their top race performances. At the infamous 1972 Munich Olympics, Lasse Virén won both the 5,000 and the 10,000 metres races. With less than 150 metres to go, Virén caught up with the leading pack after losing about 20 metres owing to getting tangled with other runners. Earlier, with 600 metres to go, Virén had already started an unprecedented lap-and-a-half kick, finally winning in record time.

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Lasse Viren had a special running style that worked to his advantage. He ran all the bends very close to the inner edge of the first lane, which spared him tens of metres compared to his main competitors. This metre-saving practice is called ‘bend’ or ‘curve’ mathematics and is advocated even to this day.


The next part of the series will feature more inspirational runners who have motivated generations to take to the tracks.

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Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.