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Ron Clarke's fatal disposition took shape early. His older brother Jack was long an outstanding professional Australian Rules football player. "My only consolation," says Ron, "the only one I could have, since he beat me at everything, was the satisfaction of trying my hardest."
When he began running competitively Clarke was moved by the examples of two men, Emil Zatopek and John Landy, both inexhaustible trainers, front runners and gentlemen. Zatopek, the only man ever to win the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon in one Olympics, was the more distant idol. The Czech ran as if tortured by internal demons. He seemed a sign, a proof that if athletes chose to force themselves through the pain and doubt, there could be no limit to human performance.
Landy, the second four-minute miler, helped plan Clarke's early training. His races, as did Clarke's later, often demonstrated a kind of noble perversity. Though he recognized that his best chance to win the 1954 Mile of the Century against Roger Bannister lay in upsetting the Briton's wait-and-kick strategy by sitting back himself, Landy led from the gun. The race had been the object of so much attention he felt obliged to ensure a fast time, "otherwise the sport might have suffered." Bannister outkicked him.
In the 1956 Australian National Championship mile, Clarke, then 19, fell during the third lap. Landy bounded over him and, thinking he had spiked him in the head, stopped, came back and helped him up. Once assured of Clarke's safety, Landy went after the field, now 60 yards ahead. He drove into the lead with 10 yards to go and won in 4:04.2.
In that same year Clarke set a world junior mile record of 4:06.8. Thereafter, because of a chronic sinus infection and the demands of business and family, he fell away from running. In 1961 through the urging of a neighbor, former Olympian Les Perry, he began again. This five-year hiatus, which has no parallel in the career of any other world-class runner, seems a key to Clarke's determination to run on his own terms. "It was a hobby when I came back to it, and although I was totally involved in each of my races, my whole life did not hang on the results. I could afford to take a few chances." Clarke had then and has today strong views on the relative importance of amateur sport and earning a living. "I just read something of Jim Ryun's financial sacrifices for his running. Jim was wrong. If you have that conflict there is only one way to resolve it. You shouldn't run."
Clarke's confirmation in his ethic came when he began to break records. "I've never felt more depressed or disappointed than in the days following my first world record. I was down, completely adrift. I realized that the excitement had been in the challenge of the training and in the race itself. The competition was what drew me on, the actual testing, not the hope of good results, because the best of all possible results, a world record, made me miserable."
He understands the strangeness of this remark and turns up to Helen, across whose lap he is sprawled, for corroboration. "Do you remember how bad it was?"
"Yes," she says softly. "And everyone else so happy."
For years Clarke scoured the world for tough races. "I had a need, almost like a gambler's compulsion, to test myself against the best." It didn't matter that he had raced hard the day before or that the local champion was lying in wait or that the distance was not his best. In 1965, to have a 10,000 put on the program, Clarke had to promise an Oslo meet promoter not only that he would break the world record in the event but would come back the next day in a featured 3,000 against fresh Olympic champion Mills. He set his world record, one that stood for seven years, and won the short race as well. But neither was in the Olympics.
Clarke changed his basic tactic in the last years of his career. He devised one that added to his suffering: a full-bore sprint away from the field with a mile or more to run. "It increased the challenge. But in a way it was refreshing. I knew I could make it through. So instead of dreading those footsteps behind I wanted them to stay there because whoever was making them was killing himself." If the footsteps were not there and Clarke had broken contact in this way, he was never beaten. He tried to sprint away in Mexico during the 10,000-meter race with a kilometer to go, but he could not escape the altitude natives who swarmed past on the last lap. Clarke finished sixth. Three steps past the line, for the only time in his career, he lost consciousness. When he awoke a few minutes later, an oxygen mask was pressed over his face. The Australian physician attending him was cursing the IOC for having permitted the Games at that altitude. "Oh, God," he railed. "Look what the bastards have done."