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Ron Clarke Interview

I interviewed Ron Clarke for The Hunter newsletter in March 1995. The article is reproduced here.

Ron Clarke

In a book published in 1987, legendary coach Arthur Lydiard described Ron Clarke as the best distance runner the world has seen. Triple Olympic Gold Medallist Peter Snell (and possibly the greatest middle distance runner ever) once said that watching Clarke run gave him a strange feeling that his own race didn’t count for much.
Ron set 17 world records including 12 in the space of 16 races over distances ranging from three miles to the one hour run. Given the type of track he had to race on, it is feasible to suggest that the 10 000 m World Record he set in 1965, would have remained his into the eighties, perhaps even the nineties, had he been fortunate enough to have run on a decent track.

Although he had set the junior mile World Record, Clarke gave away running for a few years due to career and family reasons. When he was about 23 or 24 Les Perry, an old friend and an elite runner took him training at Caulfield Racecourse where he met Trevor Vincent, Tony Cook and John Coyle among others. And before you could say ‘Winter Premiership’ Trevor had signed him up.

Weekdays at Caulfield Racecourse and weekends at Ferny Creek (hilly forest area with runs up to 20 miles) was pretty much the norm for Ron Clarke for seven years. He would usually do eight laps (around eighteen km) and sometimes ten or twelve laps of the racecourse. In the last few years he used to go to Sandringham’s grass track where he did an eight km warm up, followed by eight laps sprinting (flat out) the straights and floating the bends, and then another eight km warm down. This was once per week.

He never did long rep work. But he thinks that middle distance runners should do some – mainly 400 m and 600 m reps. He thinks 200 m reps are too short to develop endurance and are too long to develop speed. He raced regularly over shorter distances during interclub to develop speed. Then he went for a run after it. Ron believed doing rep work could be dangerous as these sessions are often timed and the temptation is always there to compare your times to a previously performed session – perhaps completely flattening yourself in the process of attempting to record a best ever session. Clarke never used the stopwatch in training. He wanted races to be his only tests. His training was never flat out. It is interesting to note that Herb Elliott rarely used a stopwatch in training too.

His training didn’t follow any hard / easy day to day pattern. He trained just as his body was feeling. He trained in a group. However, there was no duty to stay with the group. 
The training was pretty much the same for winter and summer. He only eased up his training when he was racing in Europe.

Training for Juniors
Ron thinks the best training for junior distance runners is simply to go for a run. However, he realizes that kids want results and suggests some 400 and 600 metre reps and lots of fartlek. They should be encouraged to run as they feel and to listen to their bodies.

He believes that junior athletes have to be prepared to serve an ‘apprenticeship.’ They probably won’t go from being a champion junior to champion senior immediately. It may take years. 

He advocates that junior athletes, and for that matter all athletes, should regularly do extra exercises e.g. sit-ups, push-ups, chin-ups and stretching. He believes that younger athletes should try other sports as well.

He doesn’t support talent identification programs. He says, “Why should sport just be for the elite? It smacks of saying, “the only reason people play sport is because they can become the best in the world.”
Your Goals
Ron Clarke says that you shouldn’t train with championship times in mind. It’s ridiculous for a 14.30 5 km runner to start training for a 13.10. “The only thing you need to know is that you can run a time, you train some more and you can improve on that time.” Don’t get over ambitious. If you do, you won’t enjoy the sport. You’re bound to be disappointed.

Ron raced often. He raced in all the cross county and road races and at interclub too. Often during interclub, he raced distances that weren’t his main events like the 400, 800, 1500 and steeple. He saw less important races as a part of his training. 

In his autobiography, Clarke states that the result is unimportant yet he tried ‘wholeheartedly’ to win every race. This attempt to win was what made running so exhilarating for him. The thrill of a race is to take a risk and still succeed.

The Comfort Zone

Ron Clarke has been a critic of runners who race in what he calls, “The Comfort Zone.” He says some runners never get out of it and therefore never reach their potential. They get into the habit of being comfortable. It may be only half a second a lap, but that can make all the difference.

He spoke more on this topic. “Pain is something you learn to live with. The fact that I trained pretty hard without actually busting myself, when in racing I did get to that level, when I was very tired, I was able to get into a rhythm and almost hypnotise myself.” Each lap he would push himself and promise himself that he would take the next lap easier – without actually getting around to taking that easy lap.

Oslo 10 000 metres
Probably his best WR was the 10 000 metres at Oslo in 1965. Ron ran a solo 27.39.4 to knock 35 seconds off his own WR. Ran on a cinders track, this was a phenomenal performance. Ron had just run about 20 races in the 35 to 40 days leading up to that run and he even raced the next day.

Main Advice
“Be patient and enjoy yourself. Enjoy the training, the companionship and the racing. If it’s not fun, it is not worth it. It is an enjoyable sport and there so many challenges along the way for all runners.”

If Ron Clarke had his time again…
He had to think about this for a while before his wife, Helen, chipped in. She said he used to train when he had a high temperature. Ron had the ‘never miss a day’ approach and he concedes that he should have taken the day off when he was sick.

The Golden Rule of Training
“You have to train hard enough to have an effect and easy enough to be able to train the next day.”
He says training is like getting a suntan. Too much too soon and you get burnt. Not enough sun and you don’t get a tan. Just the right amount of sun and you can stay out longer the next day. If you are out of the sun for a few days, your tan fades. It’s a building process. 

Tony Wilson