This morning I'm in Zlin, in the heart of Moravia, where Zatopek started his running career while working at the Bata shoe factory. Aside from an old church and not much else this city was built by Mr. Bata around the Bata factory. Most of the homes are made of red brick in a totally essential style. Mr. Bata's architect could have been Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead."
My friend Zdenek is running by my side. Zdenek is a runner from Zlin. He and I met in Italy in the early Nineties, shortly after the "Velvet Revolution", when not many people from Eastern Europe ventured that far from home. After decades of Communist dictatorship people were suddenly free to go where they pleased, but few dared and even fewer could afford it. Zdenek was penniless back then but that didn't stop him from driving all across Europe with Bohuska, his wife. They were both in their twenties and they drove a Trabant, an improbable car manufactured in Eastern Germany out of... compressed cardboard! The car had a two-stroke cycle engine and needed a mixture of gas and oil for fuel. Zdenek, who is a carpenter by trade, had transformed the seats so they could be converted into a comfortable double bed. He and his wife fell in love with Italy during that trip... a mutual love I must say. They've been to Italy many times since then, with the 1973 VW Beetle they bought after the Trabant was mercifully outlawed and, more recently, with the 1970 VW van they bought to travel in comfort with their two-year old daughter Eliska.
When Zdenek made that first trip to Italy he spoke very little English and no Italian, but his desire to communicate and his sense of humor overcame all obstacles. Once he got pulled over for driving a hitherto unknown vehicle. He just grinned to the cop and said, in what he thought was a cowboy accent "I come from Texas and that's my girl". He had learned that sentence from some old Western movie. The cop got a kick out of that and let him go.
I chuckle in reminiscence of those times as he and I pant up a three kilometer hill. We're just warming up, an unusual feat for Zdenek. He's one of those runners who believe in getting the most out of each mile they run. But today he's going along with what he considers a quirk of mine, and we're exchanging a few jokes in the process. His English has improved quite a bit in the past decade. I think he also graduated from Western movies to more complicated stuff. He speaks a curious mixture of slang and biblical language. I forgot to say: Zdenek is a deeply religious person and he read the Bible from cover to cover in his native Czech as well as in English. As we pick up our pace I suddenly think that he reminds me of Eric Lidell from "Chariots of Fire", the guy who couldn't run on Sundays even if an olympic medal was involved because Sundays are for rest... "Hey, Zdenek, have you seen Chariots of Fire?" I ask him. No, that movie hasn't been through his VCR yet. It's just starting to dawn. A beautiful dawn in a cloudless sky, with the horizon ablaze from East to West.
Now I'm going to test his fitness. He's seven years younger and in excellent general shape, but he doesn't train quite as often as I do. I increase the pace to 10-k effort. He does too. I ask him if he feels like going at this pace for twenty minutes or so. He nods. Okay, then. We run toward the red horizon like two antelopes on a Kenyan plateau. Friendship and competition blend nicely together I think as I pick up my pace further and he suddenly falls silent but still clings to my heels. Now I'm really flying at what feels like 5-k speed. If he's in trouble he's not showing it. His fitness is good. We're turning back, running back toward the night. Zatopek used to run on these hills too, half a century ago.
The twenty minutes of speedwork are over. We're jogging side by side again, recovering our breath, our thoughts unspoken but palpable. "He trains more often but I don't give up" must be on his mind. "I'm turning forty but I'm running strongly" is the thought that crosses my mind. It was a good competition. We both won. That's what's so good about our sport.
We meet a lady with a dog. She makes a comment in Czech I don't understand. Zdenek says she's giving me a motherly talk about running in my T-shirt and shorts when the temperature is below freezing. I wave at her and that brings back another memory from Zdenek's first trip to my country. We were at a supermarket. He had picked up a watermelon and he had insisted on paying for it, even though it probably cost more than a three-course meal in his country. As we were leaving the woman at the cash register waved the receipt at him and yelled, in a bored and rather unfriendly voice: "Your receipt!!!" Zdenek thought he had been greeted, so he turned around with a broad smile, waved too and parroted back: "Your receipt!!!"
Our run is over and it's been a good one. It's nice to run the planet at dawn. Time for a coffee. Bye for now, or rather, "Your receipt!!!".
Giorgio Pogliano’s morning coffee doesn’t come in a cup, but he can still find it everywhere. Running each morning is his daily “coffee” – it gives him the surge of energy, something good to reflect upon during the day, and a reason to look forward to tomorrow. Just like the different types of coffee found around the world, Giorgio finds different surroundings as he runs.