Jerzy Skarzynski

Long-Distance Running Secrets

Words: Werner Jessner & Arek Piatek
Photography: Bartosz Wolinski & Michal Jedrzejewski/Red Bull Content Pool    

Secrets of long-distance longevity from an athlete with over 30 years of marathons under his belt. With no signs of slowing, Jerzy Skarzynski plans to go ultramarathon in his seventh decade. 

It wasn’t easy being a world-class athlete in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, but Jerzy Skarzynski defied Poland’s politics and poverty to win marathons in two countries and come within four and a half minutes of the then world record. And he hasn’t lost his love of the long- distance challenge since retiring in 2004; he’ll be trying to reach his favorite mark of 26 miles 385 yards in the Wings for Life World Run in May.

Wings for Life World Run

Marathon Man

© Marcin Kin

THE RED BULLETIN: Why did the marathons become your thing?

JERZY SKARZYNSKI: Even when I was a child I wanted to win. I gradually worked my way up from [soccer] and 400m races to 10,000m and beyond. To start with, I couldn’t imagine completing a marathon.

How did you prepare mentally for races?

I thought to myself, “What’s the price I have to pay? How much do I want to win?” I visualized my opponents, the way they ran, when I’d overtake them. I could see the spectators I’d run past. Those thoughts alone were enough to flood my brain with adrenaline.

How can someone who only does sports for fun do that?

By having a clear goal and using common sense. Common sense will tell you, “Every time I go for a run I get closer to my goal.” You should run as long as you’re healthy. If your body doesn’t want to run, even though you’re healthy, it’s just you being lazy. Train consistently, even if you think it’s not enough. Overzealousness is bad for you, so be careful and gradually work your way up to longer distances. Once you can run 10km, try 11km next time around and see how your body reacts. The mental side of things starts to come into it at 25km. 

What do you mean by that?

By 25km [15.5 miles] at the latest you’ll start having stupid thoughts. “There’s still too long to go,” or “I’m not going to make it.” They bring you down. And you have to counteract them, push back the barriers in your head, take control of your psyche.

How do you do take control?

Try to see long-distance runs as an adventure or an outing. You’re going to have to run slowly and for a long time. So don’t try to escape that mentally. Before you start, be clear that this is going to take time. Your attitude before you start makes a big difference. 

Do world-class runners do that too?

They keep an eye on GPS and their pulse, and don’t have time for stupid thoughts.

You once said that you were afraid of the marathon distance.

It’s good to be afraid. It’s OK to be afraid. You should be afraid. And you should conquer that fear each time.

How do you do that?

You get out there and compete. You don’t bottle it. Ever.

Is it even possible to like marathons? It is. It’s wonderful when you know what you’re doing and do a good job of improving your form long term. I ran my personal best for the marathon of 2:11 30 years ago. Now I’m training for another marathon and, yes, I’m happy about it. 

“Conquer the fear of long runs by getting out there to compete.” 
Jerzy Skarzynski

You’re taking part in the Wings for Life World Run in May. What are your goals?

I want to get as close to marathon distance as I can. For 2016, the aim is any distance beyond that, ultramarathon distance.

How far have you run in your lifetime?

About 170,000km over the last 43 years. People told me I’d suffer from wear and tear, but I’m in great shape. Nothing hurts. You just have to listen to your body.

Fast Facts

January 13, 1956

Personal best
2:11:42, set in April 1986 in Debno, Poland

Tape taker
Won the 1989 Warsaw Marathon and the 1991 Leipzig Marathon 

What were training conditions like in Poland behind the Iron Curtain?

A friend of mine had to sew my tracksuits. I’d get trainers sent to me from the West, and there was no proper altitude training. I don’t look back fondly. The most painful thing was that we had a strong team but weren’t allowed to go to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Having said that, as a professional sportsman, I had a better life than a lot of other people in the country.

What’s your best career memory?

New Zealand: One time I trained for a race there for two weeks and then did the same again another time. There was beer and ice cream and whatever I wanted to eat … I had the time of my life.

And a memory that motivates you?

The 1984 Vienna City Marathon. The favorites from Ethiopia set off too quickly and my teammates and I reeled them in one by one. Our fans were singing Polish songs and cheering us on. My teammate Antoni Niemczak won and I came second. 

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