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Ron Clarke: A triathlon legacy

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

One of the greatest distance runners of all time passed away recently in Australia (17 June, 2015). Ron Clarke, for our international readers, broke 17 official world records in his career across distances from 2 miles (8:19) to the one hour record (20,232m).

During one 44 day period in 1965, Ron raced 18 times in 7 countries after travelling to Europe from Australia. In that burst of unbelievable achievement he broke 12 world records, becoming the first man to run under 13 minutes (12:52) for 3 miles, and four days later breaking his own 10,000m world record by 36 seconds, becoming the first man to run under 28 minutes (27:39).

The running and athletics community over the last two weeks have expressed his legacy to their sport much better than I ever could. However, what has been far less reported is Ron Clarke’s profoundly positive effect on triathlon.

To those that had the good fortune to know him, he was one of the most open and helpful human beings on the planet. He would take time for anyone interested in talking to him not just about running, but about the general health and fitness of the community.

If you were dedicated enough to join him on one of his daily walks, he would give you 2 hours of total attention to discuss whatever you wanted – including triathlon.

His views, advice and opening up to me of his personal training history remain a cornerstone of the running philosophy. His training methods, while not appearing ‘scientific’ by today’s standards, were sophisticated in their simplicity and extraordinarily effective as has been proven over a very long period of time.

I believe his advice to me on specific athletes and their running helped their improvement greatly. Talks with Ron about Greg Bennett in the 90s, and Emma Snowsill in the early 2000s are two that come to mind as people who benefitted indirectly from his guidance. Former World Number 1, Andrew Johns, was also fed on the Clarke tempo workouts and even more recently Nicola Spirig ran a simulated “Ron Clarke day” as she was preparing for the European Games.

I mention these names because over the years many triathletes, including those outside my group in the US and Europe, when interviewed about their run programs have referenced Ron Clarke influenced programs without realising they’re doing it. He should get proper recognition, not only for the champion he was but the lessons his legacy still holds for athletes today.

“A fit big man will always beat a fit little man, it just takes longer for a big man to get fit.”

There are plenty of lessons for the age group and professional athlete. Here was a man who ran for the pure love of running. Ron trained almost daily all year, with almost always the same variation on workouts. He thought nothing of running three times a day on grass and roads, all while working full time as a corporate accountant. He didn’t time his workouts and didn’t keep a training diary. (For those of you rolling your eyes about this fact, please keep in mind 50 years later and we’re still yet to see a triathlete who could go close to a 27:40 10km).

When I asked him about how he fitted his training in during a 10-hour work day he replied:

‘It wasn’t difficult as I loved it, but lunch was a bit stressful as I only had 45 minutes to fit in a 10km jog, a shower and three sandwiches.’

Needless to say not many wanted to join Ron for his lunch run.

Not many could go with him on his outside of work runs at the Caulfield horse race track either. The meeting place of the famous Glenhuntly training gang where 50 weeks of the year they would run together lap after lap (2.4km) progressively turning up the pace until only one was left.

I once asked a former steeplechase champion from this group about when they rested, he summed it up quite well:

‘Son, every day was the same when Ron was there. The last lap was world record pace. Some of us would stop a lap short just to watch the mayhem unfold (former marathon world record holder (2:08:33) ‘Deadly’ Derek Clayton would also occasionally join to stick it with Ron). That’s why back then we had runners. There was none of this recovery stuff. Every day we faced the fire and none faced it more than Ron.’

Ron was no doubt a champion on the track and a greater champion off it. The greatest accolade I can pass on is from one of the greatest runners of all time – Emil Zatopek. It is often repeated in track circles but worth repeating for our triathlon followers again here:

After a period in which Clarke had suffered from a series of bad luck and setbacks at major championships, including the near fatal altitude sickness at the 1968 Mexico Olympics debacle, Zatopek embraced him warmly and handed him a small parcel. “Not out of friendship but because you deserve it.”

Clarke kept the package in his pocket until his plane was in the air.

“I wondered whether I was smuggling something out for him. I retired to the privacy of the lavatory. When I unwrapped the box, there, inscribed with my name and that day’s date, was Emil’s Olympic 10,000-metre gold medal. I sat on that toilet seat and wept.”

Ron Clarke, thank you. May you rest in peace. Nobody deserves it more.

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