Jean Echenoz’s Running is a fictional investigation of the life and athletic genius of Emil Zátopek, a Czech long-distance runner who is widely regarded as one of the great runners of the 20th Century.
The novel opens in World War II, with the German invasion of Moravia. Emil, a teenager at the time, is working at the Bata shoe factory, his hoped-for future as a schoolteacher having fallen by the wayside. To promote themselves, the factory organizes sports teams and athletic events, and despite his loathing of all athletic activity, Emil is compelled to represent the factory in a cross-country race against several members of the Wehrmacht. To his surprise, Emil finishes second in the race and is invited to join a running club, which he resists at first:
Against all odds, he soon starts enjoying himself. He doesn’t say anything but seems to be getting into it; after a few weeks he even begins running on his own, just for the pleasure of it, which astonishes him, and he prefers not to mention this to anyone. After nightfall, when no one can see him, he does the round trip between the factory and the forest as fast as he can. Although he doesn’t breathe a word about this, the others catch on in the end, pressure him again, and, too nice a guy to resist for long, he gives in since it means so much to them.
Well, nice as he is, he begins to realize that he likes a good fight: the first few times they let him loose on a track, he goes for all he’s worth and easily wins two races, of 1,500 and 3,000 meters. People congratulate him, encourage him, reward him with an apple and a slice of bread and butter, tell him to come back again and he goes back again and starts training in the stadium, at first for a laugh but not for long.
Emil’s running style and training methods are self-taught and unorthodox—Echenoz makes a few attempts to describe Zátopek’s strained and painful-looking style—but these methods prove effective for Emil. He begins winning races around occupied Czechoslovakia and comes in fifth at the European Championships in Oslo, breaking the Czech record. After the end of World War II, Emil is drafted into the army, whom he represents at the Allied Forces Championships in Berlin. During the race he laps several of the competitors and the crowd goes wild—Emil suddenly finds himself world famous.
His fame makes him the perfect propaganda tool for the fledgling communist country, so Emil is made an “Athlete of the State”. He marries a fellow athlete, and he wins gold in the 10,000 meters in the 1948 Olympics in London—the first such medal for Czechoslovakia. This is the beginning of Emil’s dominance of distance running. He wins everywhere he goes and sets a world records almost every time out. He is the fastest man on earth. His career reaches a peak at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where he wins gold in the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 meters, and, incredibly, in the marathon—a race he had never run before in his life.
Inevitably, age catches up with Emil, and he begins losing races, until he finally retires following the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
In Running, Echenoz has chosen a compelling figure to focus on. Zátopek’s story—a reluctant athlete who, through serendipity and will, becomes a legend and a hero to his country—is truly fascinating. Echenoz’s style here is perfectly suited to the action, the races in particular are well described, and Linda Coverdale’s translation is transparent.
The novel, however, can at times feel like a simple recapitulation of Emil’s victories. There isn’t really any psychological depth to the ‘character’ of Emil nor much tension in the telling of his story. This seems intentional for the most part; Echenoz appears to be more interested in the accomplishments, which are astounding, than in the man, and much of the political background of the novel serves more as context, or simple fact, than as motivation for anything that takes place. I’d categorize it as creative non-fiction rather than as a novel. At a really brief 128 pages, Running is a fascinating story that rescues, for me at least, an important and highly influential athlete from obscurity.