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The Bratislava View: Hats off to a tough cookie

The Lore of Running, an encyclopedic work on the sport written by South African doctor and ultramarathoner Tim Noakes, contains some entertaining glimpses of how early 20th century athletes trained.
One man trained for his six-day races by doing half an hour of jumping jacks, three times a week. Another did the occasional 100-yard dash to keep himself in marathon trim. The US men's marathon team, at the Helsinki Olympics in 1920, set out to run the entire course at top speed as a training exercise for the Olympic Marathon, held two days later (they performed poorly). As late as the 1950's, running great Arthur Newton was still writing of the benefits of drinking brandy in the later stages of an ultramarathon, a run of longer than the 42.2k standard marathon distance.

The Lore of Running, an encyclopedic work on the sport written by South African doctor and ultramarathoner Tim Noakes, contains some entertaining glimpses of how early 20th century athletes trained.

One man trained for his six-day races by doing half an hour of jumping jacks, three times a week. Another did the occasional 100-yard dash to keep himself in marathon trim. The US men's marathon team, at the Helsinki Olympics in 1920, set out to run the entire course at top speed as a training exercise for the Olympic Marathon, held two days later (they performed poorly). As late as the 1950's, running great Arthur Newton was still writing of the benefits of drinking brandy in the later stages of an ultramarathon, a run of longer than the 42.2k standard marathon distance.

These stories, apart from prompting a laugh at the chuckle-headed training ideas, also evoke awe. Having run a number of marathons for which I had prepared, and a memorable pair for which I was poorly trained, I can tell you that the latter hurt more and seem to last far longer. It's armed with this insight that I think Mikuláš Dzurinda showed enormous courage in running the November 4 New York marathon.

At a press conference before he left, Dzurinda revealed that he had trained seriously for only four weeks before leaving for the US. Normal marathon training courses last six months, with the last four weeks representing a taper, rather than the apex, of the average distance run.

Having run 16 marathons before, and being a regular if casual runner, Dzurinda clearly had a good fitness and endurance base to work with. But his weekly average of about 40k is not enough to make you comfortable on runs of over 20k, and four weeks of dieting and jumping jacks can't alter that.

On top of this woeful training, Dzurinda had jetlag and a series of high-pressure public appearances to contend with two days before he ran - interviewed on CNN, interviewed again on Larry King Live, taken to Ground Zero, feted by the Friends of Slovakia, feted again at an athletes dinner.

But run he did, finishing in 3:42, in 4,053 place out of more than 30,000 runners. His time works out to about 8:30 per mile, somewhere between a jog and a run. "After 30 kilometres my calves really started to burn and all my joints and tendons were hurting, so I had to slow down. But then again, all marathons for me are simply a matter of increasing pain after 35 kilometres," he said after the race.

One of the best things about running a marathon is getting to take a break from running after you finish - a couple of days to hobble around, drink beer and sport your marathon T-shirt. But far from taking a few days off to nurse his calves, Dzurinda was back in Slovakia the next day to show Lord George Robertson around town.

What's more, for all the state business he took care of while in New York, all the promotion of Slovakia, Dzurinda paid for his trip out of his own pocket. It cost about Sk120,000, or $2,500. He ran without bodyguards and reported that "for half a kilometer a Slovak ran with me - a young man wearing an I love Mečiar T-shirt shouting 'Miki, Miki' at the top of his lungs."

I'm not trying for a second here to say that running a marathon, however bravely, has made Dzurinda a better leader, or makes up for his shortcomings as a politician. But knowing how tough the run must have been, and how much it cost him (financially, physically), may give people a different perspective on the Prime Minister.

It's something I experienced in a cab yesterday - stuck in Bratislava traffic, the driver was grizzling on about how many grievances he had against the government. And then, out of the blue, he shook his head and said "I gotta give the guy credit, though, for lasting so long. Just imagine trying to keep 11 parties together for four years."

And there it is. While daily paper Národná Obroda asks "What do we get out of it?", referring to Dzurinda's New York trip, a taxi driver sees to the heart of the matter. Dzurinda showed toughness and grit in New York, the same qualities he has shown as a politician. Even if they're not enough to win him a second term, they have given Slovaks occasions on which to feel pride. However grudgingly.

Tom Nicholson
Editor in chief

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