On the right track with unforgiving minute


ATHLETICS:The one lasting standard in distance running training has been repeat 400 metres. When it came to the great distance runners, there was no shying away from it, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

IF YOU CAN fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run – Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son! That is by Rudyard Kipling, once again – and although I’ve seen those lines quoted in more places than should be allowed, they remain an elegant starburst of writing.

“If –” is one of those beautifully rare poems that holds up as strongly as it did when Kipling first published it 100 years ago.

Something about that simple refrain to self-control and stoicism moves us all, especially when used in a sporting context. Another line from the poem, If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same, is written on a wall of centre court at Wimbledon, right where the players make their entrance. But perhaps more than anything else “If –”, and particularly those closing lines, has been used as some sort of reference to distance running. I did read somewhere Kipling once ran the mile in four minutes 30 seconds, but whatever his inspiration, the idea of filling the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run perfectly captures the essence and purity of completing each 400-metre lap of the running track.

The great Australian distance runner Ron Clarke called his autobiography The Unforgiving Minute, and no prizes for guessing the quote on the inside page. Every distance runner who has ever stepped foot on the track has measured things in those same 60 seconds, the same unforgiving minute. I was reminded of this when at the track in Belfield this week to run a few repeat 400 metres, only to discover I was measuring things in 70 seconds, or an unforgiving minute and 10 seconds. I suppose that’s what happens when you get to my age, but around this time every year – when the air thickens with oxygen and the long evenings set in – the distance runner gets the irresistible urge to step onto the warm tartan track and subject themselves to some rigorous and punishing interval session – otherwise known as speed work.

The track remains the truest and most honest measure for any distance runner – like that famous line Joe Louis uttered on the eve of his fight with Billy Conn: “He can run, but he can’t hide.” The running track does not lie. It’s hard, mentally and physically. It takes only what you can give. And there’s is no way to duck it. The best distance runners have always known this. Look back over the history of it and the one lasting standard in distance running training has been repeat 400 metres. When it came to the great distance runners, there was no shying away from it.

Emil Zatopek was immortalised by what he did at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, winning the gold medal in the 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres, and marathon – yet between 1948 and 1958 he also set 20 world records, at 10 different distances. They didn’t call Zatopek the Human Locomotive for nothing. The great Czech runner was inspired by Paavo Nurmi, the man they called the Flying Finn – who in the three Olympic Games from 1920 to 1928 won nine gold and three silver medals. Nurmi was the first distance runner to base his training on repeat 400 metres, with a stopwatch in hand. When Zatopek read Nurmi would run one hour of repeat 400 metres, Zatopek decided he would run two hours of repeat 400 metres. Athletics Weekly gave seemingly unlimited space to the exploits of Zatopek during the 1950s, and in March 1955 carried an extensive feature, having observed his training in Prague for weeks. Included was a sample of Zatopek’s weekly training from that February – when he ran 420 repetitions of 400 meters, thus covering 168kms.

Monday 7th: am 40 x 400 metres, twice (!) Tuesday 8th: am 50 x 400 metres; pm 40 x 400 metres. Wednesday 9th: am 50 x 400 metres; pm 40 x 400 metres. Thursday 10th: am 40 x 400 metres, twice (!) Friday 11th: am 40 x 400 metres, twice (!) Saturday 12th: am 30 x 400 metres; pm. One hour jogging, and exercises. Sunday 13th: am Two hours jogging and exercises.

Last Saturday in Stanford, California, US distance runner Chris Solinsky ran the 10,000 metres in 26:59.60 – becoming the first non-African-born runner to break 27 minutes (only 30 men have now done it). It was a sensational run; 25 laps of the track, averaging 65 seconds per lap. It was also Solinky’s debut at the distance, and although it was only one small step towards closing in on Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele’s world record of 26:17.53 – which averages out at an incredible 63 seconds per lap – it was one giant leap for non-African distance runners. Solinksy was no stranger to repeat 400 metres.

Unfortunately, Ireland’s Mark Kenneally and Alistair Cragg failed to finish, although earlier in the evening there was a fine run by Mark Christie from Mullingar, who improved his 5,000 metres to 13:37.36, which averages out at just under 66 seconds per lap. In doing so Christie became the first Irish distance runner this season to qualify for the European Championships in Barcelona in July.

This evening, at the Irishtown Stadium in Dublin, one of the traditional track season openers takes place with what is being billed as a sort of Grand Prix concept for Irish track and field. Organised by Crusaders Athletic Club, this is essentially the old GV Ryan-Louis Vandereis meeting in a fresh guise. The aim is to put on a short programme of events, attractive to the competitor and spectator, ultimately to draw more of both into the track and field arena. There is a similar meeting planned by Clonliffe Harriers for July 1st at the Morton Stadium, Santry.

The Dublin Athletic Board have already resumed their annual graded meetings, which take place almost every fortnight throughout the summer, between Santry and Irishtown. For years these meetings have provided easy access to track competition, but one of the challenges facing Athletics Ireland is how to make track competition more appealing, more accessible – not just in distance running terms, but sprints, hurdles and field events too.

The new chief executive of Athletics Ireland, John Foley, is aware of this, and participation levels on the track are marginally increasing, if mostly at underage level. What Foley and Athletics Ireland need to work out is how to tap into the boom of distance runners who are submitting themselves to the proliferation of road races. If some of them can fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run then the overall standard of Irish distance running can only improve. Because, as Kipling wrote – If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”! –there is no better place to discover that than on the track.