Emil Zatopek at the 1952 Olympics.

Emil Zatopek at the 1952 Olympics.

by Dante Zappala

“A runner must run with dreams in his heart”

Emil Zatopek said that. If not the greatest distance runner in history, the “Czech Locomotive” pulled off the greatest feat in distance-running history. He won gold at 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and the Marathon at the same Olympic games in 1952. This effort has never been and never will be duplicated.

None of us will achieve such greatness, but we can still dream to be like him. Zatopek was a rebel, and that’s something we can all aspire to. He challenged the conventional wisdom of his time. Taking some cues from a Finnish runner, he practically invented many modern training methods. If you’ve ever done intervals, you can thank Zatopek for that.

As I begin writing a column on running for this newspaper, I think Zatopek’s quote is the perfect place place to start. Running is, after all, the stuff of dreams. When challenged, our brain and our bodies tell us all sorts of practical things: “Slow down. Quit. Were you born stupid?” So it’s left to our dreams to keep us going – the dream of earning a new personal record, the dream of finishing a big race, or, simply, the dream of completing your first mile of training.

In this space, I hope to share in those dreams with you. I bring to the table 25 years of running experience; a good chunk of that spent as member of this community. We’re a lucky bunch that gets to run in Northwest Philadelphia. I’ve had the privilege of traveling and running in some far flung places and nothing compares to the Wissahickon Valley.

My route to becoming a runner was pretty straightforward. I simply ran away from another sport. I played Little League for the Chestnut Hill Father’s Club and had no desire whatsoever to graduate to Pony League. I could throw and catch just fine but there was no way I was standing in on 60 mph. plus fast balls.

My father was an avid runner, and my logic was that if the old man could do it, so could I. He started taking me out on Forbidden Drive with his running group, the New Freedom Striders, in the spring of eighth grade.

I grew up in the Valley. A good deal of what I find useful in life now I learned from that crew. You get out what you put in. You win with patience. At some point, we’re measured by our results. Teenagers don’t absorb these types of lessons easily. I credit them with cutting my bad choices at least in half.

Most in that group took up running in their late 30’s and early 40’s. As I enter that phase of life now myself, I’m gaining newfound insights into the wisdom they were trying to impart. The challenges and rewards of running are different. We’ve got some combination of jobs, spouses, and kids (and maybe ex-spouses and step-children). Running is a component of a complex ecosystem where carving out something for ourselves is both prudent and elusive.

Hopefully, we can get at all of that and more in the coming weeks and months. I’d be thrilled to get your ideas, hear your questions, and be both a resource and a facilitator as we collectively analyze what running means to us.

Today there is a ton of information out there. There are countless columns and blogs telling you what you should do to become a better runner. In the end, only you can make yourself a better runner. This column will not shy away from offering advice, but day in and day out, you’ll be the one lacing up your shoes and starting your watch. If we succeed at anything here, it’s that this column helps you know yourself and see yourself as a runner. From there, we can dream big.

Dante Zappala, of Mt. Airy, is a lifelong runner.

  • D_runner

    Good read. good luck with this space. LONG LIVE THE NEW FREEDOM STRIDERS