Australian runner Ron Clarke died this year from an event that occurred at the Olympics in Mexico City 47 years ago.
Clarke was one of the greatest distance runners who ever lived, even though he never won an Olympic gold medal. He was my hero when I competed in long distance races in the 1960s, the time when he broke 17 world records, often by huge margins. In 1965, on a 44-day tour of Europe, he broke 12 world records in 18 races. He was the first runner ever to run three miles in less than 13 minutes and four days later, he became the first runner ever to run 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in less than 28 minutes. After the 1968 Olympics, where Clarke failed to win a medal, the legendary Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia felt that Clarke was still the best runner there and gave Clarke one of his own gold medals from the 1952 Olympic games, where he had won the 5000, 10,000 and marathon events.
A Born Athlete
Ronald William Clarke was born in 1937 in Melbourne, into an athletically gifted family. His father and older brother, Jack, were outstanding Australian-rules football players. As a 17-year-old in 1955, Clarke ran 4:19.4 for the mile and 9:17.8 for two miles. The next year he ran a mile in the very fast time of 4:06.8 and barely missed making the 1956 Australian Olympic team. As a reward for his outstanding mile run as a student, he was chosen to carry the Olympic torch into his hometown stadium that was the site of the 1956 Olympics.
As he ran onto the track carrying the Olympic torch, chunks of hot magnesium fell on his arm and he was badly burned. In the next few years, he gave up competitive running, played football, married and worked as an accountant. His weight ballooned up to 178 pounds. At age 24, he started to train for running again with Trevor Vincent and Tony Cook, two very good Australian runners. He started to run 20 miles every Sunday, the weekly long-depletion run necessary for top flight competition. His times improved considerably and he made the Australian team for the Commonwealth games at the 3-mile and 6-mile runs. He dropped out of the 6-mile race, but in the 3-mile race, he passed Olympians Bruce Tulloh and Bruce Kidd on the last lap to come in second. He was now a runner of international quality and made the 1964 Olympic team.
Why He Never Won an Olympic Gold Medal
Some people say that Ron Clarke could not sprint fast enough at the end of a race, but this is just not true. He was a very fast runner. He set 17 world distance running records. He won many races by outsprinting many of the fastest runners in the world: Bob Schul, Bruce Kidd, Gerry Lindgren, Pyotr Bolotnikov, Michel Jazy, Harald Norpath, Bruce Tulloh, Billy Mills, and Kip Keino.
Some say that he lost in the Olympics because he always tried to lead a race from its very beginning. That could have hurt him in some races, but in his Olympic races, he ran intelligently with the pack. From 1963 through 1970 he won 202 of 313 races, from the half-mile to the marathon.
I believe that the problem was his training. You have to damage muscles to make them stronger, and you have to run into severe oxygen debts to increase your maximal ability to take in and use oxygen, so you train on one day by taking a hard workout intense enough to burn your muscles and gasp for breath. Then you go slower on the next day to allow your muscles to recover.
Clarke loved to run hard and fast and did this in most of his training. He was less likely to take easy slow days. Running hard and fast all the time made his hard days not hard enough. If he had taken easier workouts on the previous day, he could have run much faster on his hard days. It is the muscle damage and oxygen debt in training that helps you run faster in races. Running hard and fast on days when your muscles are sore causes injuries and then you can’t run at all.
At that time almost all serious runners, from high school through Olympians, were already doing interval training. Emil Zatopek became the best long distance runner in the world by almost always doing some form of fartlek training. On most of his runs, he would alternate picking up the pace to become short of breath and then slowing down to recover his breath, based on how he felt at that time, not on a specific time sequence on a clock as is done in interval training. In the 1960s, the best runners were running interval workouts two or three times week with a long hard run on Sundays. The rest of their workouts were slower to allow them to recover for the next day’s intense workout. Clarke should have done the same.
My Marathon Training Program in the 1960’s
I trained regularly with Lou Castagnola, who had run the fourth fastest marathon time by an American. We would run three times a day on weekdays. The weekday morning and noon workouts were slow and easy. His weekday evening runs were by himself because he was so much faster than me. Twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, we ran intervals on the local high school track. On Tuesdays we did repeat short intervals in which we ran a distance that takes less than 30 seconds (110 yards, 176 yards or 220 yards), slowed down until we recovered our breath and our muscles stopped burning and then repeated the alternating fast-and-slow runs. On Thursdays, we ran long intervals of more than two minutes each (repeat quarter miles, half miles, and miles). On most Sundays, we raced or took separate single long fast runs of more than 15 miles. Lou ran his Sunday runs with other fast runners because running with me would have slowed him down.
Disaster at the 1968 Olympics
Prior to the 1968 Olympics, Clarke was unquestionably the best long distance runner in the world. However, he lived in Australia near sea level and Mexico City was 7400 feet above sea level. He had to compete against runners who spent all their lives in high-altitude areas of countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Living and training at oxygen-sparse altitudes gives runners a very distinct advantage because it helps them to transport oxygen faster to their muscles. The limiting factor to how fast you can run over distance is the time it takes to move oxygen into muscles. Living at high altitudes:
• raises red blood cell counts to increase oxygen carrying capacity of the blood,
• widens large blood vessels and capillaries to allow them to carry larger amounts of blood to your muscles,
• strengthens the heart muscle to pump more blood to your muscles and
• enlarges mitochondria in muscle cells to help them to convert food to energy faster and longer.
He Knew He Was in Great Shape
Just before the Olympic games, Clarke lowered his two-mile world record by 0.2 seconds at 8:19.6, ran a wind-hampered 10,000 meters (6.25 miles) in 27:49.4, just ten seconds off his world record, and had six of the top nine times that year in the 5000 meters. He took five months off from work to train in the mountains in the United States and France. However, five months is not long enough to improve a person’s ability to compete in oxygen-sparse air with athletes who have lived at high altitudes for their entire lives.
The Olympic 10,000 Meter Final
In the finals of the Olympic 10,000 meter race, he was in the lead group when on the 22nd lap of a 25-lap race, he stayed with Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia when he increased the pace from 71 to 73 second laps to a 68.4 second lap. On the 23rd lap, he stayed with Wolde for a 69 second lap. On the 24th lap, Nafteli Temu of Kenya took the pace down to 64.4 seconds and Clarke lost contact. Clarke finished in sixth place, 17.4 seconds behind the winning Temu. He passed out and lay unconscious for more than 10 minutes, even though he was immediately seen by a physician and immediately given oxygen from a tank. Afterwards Clarke said that “In the last 200 meters, on the last lap, I went from running as easily as I ever had in my life to suddenly suffering and I was just crawling. I think it was about a 95-second lap . . . (I was) running 66 second laps and then a 95 second lap, or about 30 seconds slower in that last 200 meters.”
Something was Wrong
After that race, he ran in the Olympic 5,000 meter race to finish a disappointing fifth, but he ran the last lap in 61 seconds and didn’t collapse at the finish. He was clearly the best distance runner in the world at that time, but he had lost his chance for an Olympic gold medal. At the end of the 10,000 meter race, he knew something serious had happened to him. He had chest pains and was unable to finish at his expected pace. Months later, he entered the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, after having run 28 minutes and 3 seconds, the fastest 10,000 meters in the world that year, but he only came in second. Afterwards he ran three more races in Europe and then retired from competition at age 33.
He Ruptured a Heart Valve in the 1968 Olympics
In 1972, four years after his disappointing loss at the Olympics, he was told that he had a heart murmur that was caused by a leaky heart valve. He did not find out what had really happened to him at the 1968 Olympics until 1981, at age 44. He had lost his Olympic 10,000 meter race because the oxygen-sparse air had forced his heart to beat so fast and hard that it tore a valve lose from its attachment on his heart. That means that after each heart contraction, the valve was not closing properly so much of the blood that was pumped forward would leak backwards. His heart was so strong that he could still live with this terrible leakage. In 1983, at age 46, he suffered from atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat, so his doctors replaced the leaking heart valve.
Legacy of a Great Athlete
After Clarke retired from competition, he kept running for fun with friends on Sunday mornings, doing 17 miles uphill on gravel. He became a sports shoe executive, travel agent, newspaper columnist, author and charity fund-raiser. In 1966, he received the Order of the British Empire, and in 1985, he was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. In 2004 he was elected mayor of Gold Coast, an eastern Australian city of a half-million residents. While in office he helped secure the 2018 Commonwealth Games for the city.
The rupture of his heart valve that occurred in the 1968 Olympics ultimately caused the heart and kidney failure that killed him 47 years later.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com