"Running" is a fictionalized account of the life of the Emil Zátopek (1922-2000), who reluctantly took up competitive running in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia as a young man, and became one of the premier long-distance runners of the mid-20th century, winning gold and silver medals at the 1948 Olympics, three gold medals at the 1952 Olympics, and setting world records in nine different events.
Zátopek's running style was most unorthodox, which Echenoz describes in detail in this brilliant passage:
"Emil, you'd think he was excavating, like a ditch digger, or digging deep into himself, as if he were in a trance. Ignoring every time-honored rule and any thought of elegance, Emil advances laboriously, in a jerky, tortured manner, all in fits and starts. He doesn't hide the violence of his efforts, which shows in his wincing, grimacing, tetanized face, constantly contorted by a rictus quite painful to see. His features are twisted, as if torn by appalling suffering; sometimes his tongue sticks out. It's as if he had a scorpion in each shoe, catapulting him on. He seems far away when he runs, terribly far away, concentrating so hard he's not even there--except that he's more than than anyone else; and hunkered down between his shoulders, on that neck always leaning in the same direction, his head bobs along endlessly, lolling and wobbling from side to side."
Videos of several of Zátopek's races on YouTube are readily available, which would make any running coach cringe in horror.
Zátopek is hailed as a national hero, and joins the Czech army, which uses him as a tool to promote communism. He is restricted from traveling abroad during the Gottwald regime, and his comments to the press are censored and rewritten by the party. However, he has a good life, with a happy marriage to another Olympic champion, and a good career, until public comments in support of Alexander Dub'ek during the Prague Spring of 1968 led to his dismissal from the Communist Party and internal exile.
The descriptions of Zátopek's running style and accounts of his most famous races were excellent, and the highlights of the book for me, as I ran for my high school's cross-country and spring track teams. His life in communist Czechoslovakia is covered in lesser detail, especially his exile after 1968. I would have liked more detail into his personal life outside of running, but I suspect that these details were not available to Echenoz or were sanitized by communist censors. However, "Running" was a fabulous and quick read, and is highly recommended.