Will Cockerell: Forever Gentle On My Mind

This article was originally featured in issue #1 of Like the Wind Magazine.

Will Cockerell, author of The 50 Greatest Marathon Races of All Time, has his heroes. But rather than simply picking favourites, Cockerell examines the mindset and approach that set these particular runners apart from the crowd.

Emil Zatopek

During the 1950s, the shadow of Emil Zatopek hung over every aspiring distance runner. Zatopek was the unbelievable 145-pound human piston, the thrashing, churning, agonizing, grimacing, running automaton. He won “the Nickel, the Dime and the Big One” at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics (the 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon, over just eight days). At the time, serious runners thought the way to get ahead was to train two or three times a week. Suddenly Zatopek was training two or three times a day. In his hob-nailed boots. It blew the whole sport wide open – we can all trace the hard training we do today back to Zatopek.

But Zatopek was no natural – and maybe that’s why so many of us identify with him. He looked ungainly and running obviously hurt.

It seemed almost cruel to place him in a last-lap burn-up in the Helsinki 5,000m alongside the balletic Chris Chataway, Herbert Schade and Alain Mimoun, who had far too much pace for Zatopek.

And yet he triumphed.

Zatopek’s struggles continued after he retired. As the 1968 Prague Spring faded from memory, and he seemingly dropped off the face of the earth, booted out of the army and sent to live in exile, boring for uranium in the countryside. He didn’t complain; he found it interesting. Zatopek was a simple man who was a friend to everyone who sought him out and ran with a courage rarely, if ever, seen before or since.

Ron Hill

“How’re you feeling, Ronny-boy?” Thus spake perennial Boston runner-up Tom Fleming in 1975 as the athletes cantered at world-record pace, thanks to a spicy tailwind. “Bloody knackered. I’m hanging on to you,” replied Hill. And that pretty much sums up Hill.

Five years after his miraculous 2h 10m 30s Boston Marathon win in a freezing sleet storm, and three years after the despair of messing up at the Munich Olympics, here was Hill trying to re-create former glories. Noticeably carrying more girth, Hill looked rather barmy that day at Boston in ’75. Long hair, handlebar moustache, ghoulish string vest and garish Union Jack shorts somehow summed up a man who, despite his endeavours, never quite tted in with the crusty ways of British athletics.

Hill rocked the marathon world in 1970 with two performances of stunning skill, elegance and grace – Boston and the Commonwealth Games – that shocked and humiliated bigger names such as Derek Clayton. At the turn-around point in Edinburgh (the Commonwealth Games), Hill, feeling pretty smashed, and running at world record pace on a broiling day, knew he had to exude confidence. He did a huge mug grin and “thumbs-up” to his quarry, and then went back to suffering. A true one of a kind. British distance running owes him a debt of gratitude.

Bill Rodgers

“Beware of the runner who arrives with his kit in a brown paper bag! That’s your real runner.” Although this quote doesn’t apply directly to Rodgers, it could. “Boston Billy” forever rejected the herd instinct and did it his way.

More and more, we see today’s top runners becoming pampered and aloof. They race less; the pre-race elite service must be perfect, it’s all so deadly serious. Even top club runners crave the free hotel and private facilities leading up to the race. And yet, when that gun goes, mother nature doesn’t care if you carried your kit in a swanky Adidas rucksack or a paper bag. She doesn’t care if you slept in a hotel or your beaten-up Micra. She cares about three things: who’s fittest, who’s toughest, who’s best.

Rodgers, the four-time Boston and New York marathon winner was many things before he became a runner: a smoker, a drinker, a drifter, a conscientious objector, a motorcycler, a teacher and a hospital orderly pushing around dead bodies. “This can’t be it!” he said to himself at a bar. “There has to be more to life than smoking and drinking.” And of course there was, and he found it. A raging lion on the race course, but a pussycat off it, what I love most about Rodgers is his humility and low-key approach. He exudes immense star quality, but without a shred of ego.

Joan Benoit Samuelson

One of the true pioneers of women’s distance running, Joanie’s outstanding vet career only serves to prolong her icon status. As a racer, in poker terms she was “all in”. Boston 1983, the 1984 Olympics and the Chicago marathon of 1985 were three of the bravest and terrifying pieces of front-running the world had ever seen – and they all came off. The heart was ripped out of a desolate Allison Roe in Boston in 1983, after she had to withdraw from the race. In the first Olympic women’s marathon in Los Angeles the following year, Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen and Rosa Mota were all stunned by Benoit’s audacity and made their bids for gold far too late. Benoit’s 2h 21m 21s in Chicago in 1985 thumped world- record holder Kristiansen by nearly two minutes.

As recently as 2010, Benoit missed the Olympic qualifiers by a mere 1m 50s, (if she’d succeeded, it would have been her eighth Olympics). And at the 2013 Boston marathon – little more than an hour before the dreadful bombs – Benoit crossed the line in 2h 50m 37s, less than half an hour off her winning time 30 years previously. US long-distance runner Shalane Flanagan was having a mild panic on the third floor of the Copley Plaza Hotel on that day, but there was Benoit, ready to share the love: “She’s really good at giving hugs,” says Flanagan. “She gives a really good, mean hug. She just gave everyone a hug.” This story sums up the person perfectly: Joan Benoit Samuelson has been giving women’s distance running one big hug for some 40 years.

Rob de Castella

Another classic example of the laid- back, sanguine approach of a Hill or Rodgers is “Deek”. During his career, he was never ruffled and always in control. A bad workout? Not a problem: “No worries; I’ll just be out banging away again tomorrow.” The secret of his success? “Nothing gets in the way of my work-out. Nothing!”

And then there’s his brilliant summation of what it takes to excel: “To do something well in life, you have to do it with a passion, and once that passion is quenched you can’t do it as well. And I have a passion for running.”

Despite his magnificent career, which included the marathon world record, pioneering wins at Fukuoka and Boston, and of course the hypnotic Commonwealth Games win of 1982, Deek also faced bitter disappointment, particularly at the 1984 Olympics where he was expected to win, or at least medal, but finished fifth. But his nonchalant approach holds sway:

“I don’t have any regrets about the way I did things, just that I didn’t win an Olympic medal. But just as there’s no such thing as a perfect life, there’s no such thing as a perfect career.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *