Posted in ALL MY BLOGS, COMRADES PERSONALITIES

ALAN ROBB – A TRUE GENTLEMAN OF COMRADES :

In my early days of running the men who took part in Comrades – and it was only men who were allowed to run officially back then – were called “gentlemen of the road” and the one person who has always epitomised this and still does is multiple winner, Alan Robb. Humble, quietly spoken and almost shy he is a real gentleman both on and off the road and in all the years I have been privileged to have known Alan I have never seen him any different and so it was a real honour to have been able to sit down and chat to him and to have found out things about him that I previously didn’t know.

DJ.     What was it that attracted you to running and to Comrades in particular and       when was this?

AR.     When I was in school I was a very good swimmer and in particular at backstroke but I started to get tired of the same old thing all the time and started to run cross country in school and discovered that I had a natural ability to run and so I gave up swimming and started running instead and I started winning cross country races. It wasn’t too long before I started seeing all the badges that people had on their tracksuits that they were getting at road races and I was attracted to those so I started running in road races and found that I was performing well there so that’s where my attention started to focus although I didn’t know too much about it.

 

DJ.      And Comrades? When did that first start to call you and tell me about that first run of yours?

AR      I was young. I ran my first Comrades when I was only 20 in 1974 and I knew absolutely nothing about it at all. My parents dropped me at the start and said they would see me at the finish and off they went and I was seconded by my 15 year old sister, Pam and her boyfriend, who were on the back of a “bakkie” driven by my cousin and they knew even less than I did so between us, we were completely clueless. Remember there were no official refreshment stations in those days so it was a case of fighting their way through the traffic. She sat on the back of the bakkie and her boyfriend got off the bakkie and ran alongside the bakkie and handed me a bottle with my drink – it was Coke – and then when I had had enough to drink he hopped back onto the bakkie alongside her as well. There was no planning as to where or how often I would get my drinks. I didn’t know the route or the hills or even the names of the hills or any of the landmarks so we knew nothing. I didn’t know where I was or how far I was from the start or how far I still had to go. I don’t remember that we had distance marker boards or anything like that. I knew nothing. I just ran and somehow I ended up finishing third in that first year just 4 minutes behind the winner Derek Preiss. It was then that I realised that I could possibly perform at Comrades. 1974 was an Up Run which was not all that enjoyable.

 

DJ.        Were you a lot better prepared the following year for your second run?

AR.      I thought I was but I realised shortly afterwards that I was probably just a little too arrogant and as badly or even worse off. In 1975 we had another Up Run because of the Comrades Golden Jubilee and I still didn’t know a lot about Comrades and that year I finished 5th after actually being in the lead at one stage. I took the lead around the top of Field’s Hill and led to around Harrison Flats and then “blew” and that was the better part of 30km out. I had two friends seconding me and I now thought I knew the route but I ended up slower than I ran when I had my sister seconding me in my first year because of the way I ran it.

DJ.     Then came your first win in 1976. You must surely have put in a lot of work in preparation for that and with a completely different approach?

AR.    It was also my first Down Run and it’s no secret that I much prefer the Down Run and I put in a lot of speed work and hill work and changed my training a lot and I had a better knowledge of the route and my seconds were also by that time seconding me in all my races so they knew what they were doing and even a marshalling error in Westville didn’t stop me from winning and I had a very big lead and went on to win comfortably. The following year we were back for the Up Run in 1977 and I was able to win that again despite it being Up and then came what was probably my best ever in 1978 when I was the first person to go under 5:30 to win and I had been running at around 3 mins 45 secs per km to do that and very proud of that. It took quite a long time for that speed per km to be bettered.

DJ.    You were on a serious roll and expected to make it four in a row in 1979 but that didn’t happen despite being the firm favourite to win you finished 5th.

AR.   Hindsight is the only exact science and had it been today I would probably not have run but I had had the flu a couple of weeks before and I thought I was completely over it but I was completely flat on race day and shouldn’t have run. Only a miracle would have got me home first that day and the gold medal was miracle enough. I made amends in 1980 by coming back for my fourth win on the Down Run that year though.

 

DJ.    If you look at the leading gold medal count I think you stand at the top of the list. How many do you have and who is behind you in the gold medal standings?

AR.    I’ve been fortunate to have been able to have won 12 gold medals over the years and that is more than anyone else so I am very proud of that. Bruce Fordyce is in second place on 11 Golds and Jackie Mekler and Shaun Meiklejohn in third place with 10 Gold medals each.

 

DJ.    And then in terms on total medals. You must be near the top of the list of total medals with your 42?

AR.    I am but there are chaps who have more than I have. Dave Rogers is in top spot on 45 and then a couple of other guys on 43 before you get to my 42 but quite honestly the number doesn’t really matter too much to me.

 

DJ.     I have asked others this question so I am going to ask you too. There have been 48 men winners of Comrades in the 90 Comrades we have had at this stage. If it were possible to have a “Super Comrades” of just those 48 winners who would you think would be in the top five and let’s assume that Alan Robb would be one of them, who would your other four be?

AR.    That’s always a very difficult question but I would have to go with Bruce at the top of my list and then the other three would be Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler and Vladimir Kotov.

 

DJ.     You have run 42 Comrades in succession and that’s simply amazing. What is it that keep you going back year after year and how many more do you think you have in your legs? You have gone from being up there in the gold medals year after year to now being firmly amongst the bronze but still you go back. Why?

AR.     If I can keep finding the motivation to train I will keep running and the time doesn’t really matter too much at all. I have a few aches and pains in my knees these days and that might stop me from doing too many more but I love everything about the race. I love the tradition. I find it quite amusing when the newer runner looks at me as though I’m crazy when I greet Arthur Newton when I get to “Arthur’s Seat” every year. The history. The day. The crowds. The other runners. Everything about it and even if – when – I stop running I will go back every year for as long as I can.

 

DJ       And in those 42 years you have had your very own nutrition plan in Comrades that you have never changed since that very first one way back in 1974. Tell us about that.

AR      I have. I call it the 4Cs.   Coke, chocolate, chips or crisps and Castle Stout. The Coke and chocolate on the road and the chips and Stout at the finish as the recovery and it has always worked for me. I have always preferred Kit Kat as the chocolate and my preferred crisps flavour are cheese and onion for no reason other than I enjoy the taste.   The Castle Stout is like “mother’s milk” for me!

 

That’s Alan Robb. If you come across him he’s never too busy to talk to you and to offer some friendly advice. That’s just the way he is.

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

89 WONDERFUL KMS TO DURBAN

In May 1921 one man with a somewhat crazy idea saw his dream of a foot race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban become reality and at the end May every year we see the running of the Comrades Marathon. 90 of them are behind us now and we look ahead to 2025 to the 100th race, something that the man who came up with this crazy idea could not possibly have dreamt about.

That man in 1921 was Vic Clapham

It’s the road followed by the runners that I want to more or less look at. Comrades is run in alternate directions each year unless there’s a reason to change that and have two races in the same direction in successive years but this is not all that usual but as the original race was a “down run” I’ll look at that direction and as the next race we have in 2016 is a Down Run that’s another good reason to look at the Down Run in this chapter of The Marathon.

The “down run” starts outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall which still claims to be the biggest red brick building in the southern hemisphere. Originally built in 1893, the Pietermaritzburg City Hall was badly damaged by fire in 1895 but rebuilt to its former glory in 1901.

The city hall organ is one of the largest pipe organs in the southern hemisphere. It has 3806 pipes ranging in size from 11 metres down to the thickness of a knitting needle.

If you look carefully at the photograph of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall you will see towards the left, the permanent structure that marks the start of the first Comrades in 1921.

Most people believe that the city got its name from two famous Voortrekker leaders, Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz but there is another thinking that it was named after Piet Retief alone.  Retief’s middle name was Maurits and there is therefore some who think that the city started off as Pieter Maurits Burg – but who knows? However in 1938 the city fathers took the decision that the second part of the city’s name should honour Gert Maritz. Interestingly, history tells us that neither Retief nor Maritz ever actually got to the city. Retief killed by Dingane and Maritz died of an illness in the Estcourt area.

We leave Pietermaritzburg and make our way onto the “old road” which until the new highway was built, carried the traffic to Durban. Perhaps one of the most famous – or is that notorious – landmarks on the road must be “Polly Shortts” which – particularly on the Up Run – has been the undoing of many a runner. Polly Shortts is named after a farmer who lived nearby in years gone by, and whose help was often sought when, after heavy rain, the road up the hill became muddy and impassable and one can imagine that, when you consider almost 2km of an extremely steep hill in the days before tarred roads that Mr. Shortts’ tractor was needed.

Not too far after Polly Shortts we dip down to a little river and we find the Tumble Inn and in the days when Comrades started at 6am it wasn’t uncommon to see spectators having dragged double beds onto the route and would be watching the race as the runners went by, from the comfort of their beds, glass of champagne in hand. Naturally very warmly dressed as at that time on a winter’s morning it was very “fresh” in that part of the world.

Tumble Inn Teapot is situated on a Stud Farm in Ashburton. It’s a quaint little farmhouse offering a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy a timeout with the girls, a quick snack with hubby or a get together with the moms group! It sits at the bottom of a little hill that runners in the “old days” used to incorrectly call Mkondeni which is actually a suburb of Pietermaritzburg. The modern runner calls it “Little Polly’s” and again, on the Up Run, not a very pleasant little climb.

Nothing much to see as we climb up through suburbs to reach the N3 as it’s still dark on the Down Run and to the turnoff to the Lion Park and apart from the game that obviously includes lions you will find elephant and various antelope and certainly worth a visit.

But let’s move along the road back onto the Comrades route as we head to the highest point between Pietermaritzburg and Durban at Umlaas Road we get to the highest point on the route between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

That’s right. You have been running for 20kms UPHILL to reach the highest point on the route of the DOWN RUN! You have been warned and it’s mainly in the dark so you can’t clearly see that it’s uphill.

After that it’s on through to Camperdown and

then to Cato Ridge and then onto the “old road” proper and the crowds start to gather to give you that much needed encouragement.

Along what is known as “Harrison Flats” and the turnoff to Nagel Dam and into the start of the Valley of 1000 Hills but for a better view of the Valley we need to travel a bit further along the route and to resist the temptation to stop on Comrades Day to look at the view which is really quite spectacular.

On from the turnoff to Nagel Dam a few kilometres further we reach the Entambeni School for the Disabled who have long been recipients of part of the charity from Comrades for many years. The children are out in numbers at the side of the road cheering the runners on race day.

Another couple of kilometres and we get to Inchanga. At the top more fantastic views this time towards the N3 down far below with scenic KZN in the background and ahead lies the little village of Drummond that is the official half way in Comrades and the point where the dreams of many runners are shattered when they are pulled off the road because they couldn’t make the cut off in the required time. Drummond comes alive on Comrades day as hundreds of spectators gather to see the runners and that dreadful gun the signals the half way cut off time.

But Drummond hasn’t always had its tarred roads for runners to use.

About a kilometre on the Durban side of Drummond, a couple of really important things.  Firstly a really nasty little climb out of Drummond that doesn’t really have a name that can be mentioned in polite circles and at the top of that is the famed “Arthur’s Seat” a seat carved out of the bank which is reputed to be the spot where the great Arthur Newton took a breather every year during his races in the 1920’s and runners are encouraged to stop and put a flower on the seat and greet the “spirit of the great man” with “Morning Arthur” if they want him to help them in the second half of the race. You can laugh about this if you wish but even the great Alan Robb greets Arthur Newton every year!   Are you prepared to take a chance and do the second half without Arthur’s help?  I certainly wouldn’t!

A few hundred metres further is possibly the best view of the breath taking Valley of a Thousand Hills and it’s also there that we find the Comrades Wall Of Honour that any runner who finishes the race can buy a plaque and have his or her name put up of the wall for all to see for all time.

The Valley of 1000 Hills is one of those few holiday destinations that has something for everyone. Unspoilt nature, wildlife, magnificent scenery, wining and dining, and warm country hospitality just a half an hour’s drive from the centre of Durban. The area is named after the thousands of hills which tumble down to the mighty Umgeni River, which flows from the Drakensberg Mountains to the Indian Ocean.

The old joke goes about sending mother in law for a one week holiday on each hill! Unkind and old but still used by many a downtrodden son in law.

Then on, into Botha’s Hill village, and another of the “big five hills” and some famous landmarks, probably the best known is the old Rob Roy Hotel that has now become a retirement home and one can but envy the views that the residents have with a different view over the Valley of 1000 Hills.

Not much further along the road is one of KZN’s most famous boys’ school, Kearsney College that excels in virtually every area. The classroom and the sports fields.

Comrades Day and it’s usual that the boys from Kearsney will be sitting and watching the runners go by and cheering for most of the day.

The beautiful entrance to Kearsney College seen in the autumn and incidentally, Kearsney College was founded in 1921, the year in which Comrades was first run.

Down the valley and into Hillcrest which about 30 years ago was no more than a village that has exploded into a good sized town offering everything from shopping to accommodation.

Leave Hillcrest and make your way through the leafy suburb of Winston Park and through into Kloof (heaven help you if you don’t pronounce it “Clue-oof” if you visit KZN). It is here in the Old Main Road that hundreds of spectators set up their areas to watch the race and cordon them off the day before Comrades to see the runners come through. The braai and beers forming as important a part of the day as do the runners.

After Kloof, it’s the drop down Field’s Hill into Pinetown and into the Josiah Gumede Road (formerly The Old Main Road) and well known to all Comrades runners since 1921.

Pinetown was a quiet little family type town until the early eighties but over recent years has boomed into a commercial hub. It has a rich history and as one travels through the centre of the town and you reach the Municipal Buildings one will find the stumps and bails on the commonage between the Pinetown Civic Centre and the Library alongside Old Main Road (now Josiah Gumede Road) to commemorate the founding of the Pinetown Cricket Club in 1878, when the first match was played there.   Please don’t stop there on Comrades day to look at the wickets as that will serve only to waste valuable time.

The wickets are some 20kms from the finish of Comrades on the Down Run and on your left hand side!   Interesting that when they were set up such cricketing greats as the late South African and Australian captains, Jackie McGlew and Richie Benaud were at the ceremony. There was also a small boy watching all this who grew up in Pinetown and who would many years later go on to run in Comrades Green Number 482 – but that’s another story altogether!

Leave Pinetown and it’s up and over Cowies Hill where at the top there is a fantastic view back over the town. On the Down Run it’s a tough climb but once you reach the top of Cowies Hill you know that most of the really hard work has been done and now it’s just “vasbyt”.

Cowies Hill has always been a very nice suburb of Pinetown with lovely houses and gardens. A sought after suburb.

Then it’s into Westville. Westville is an area near Durban and is some 15 km from Durban itself. Formerly an independent municipality governed by a Town Council, it is now part of the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, which also includes Durban. The town was laid out on the farm Westville (named in honour of Martin West, who was the first British lieutenant-governor of Natal) and it was formed in 1847. It developed from a settlement of German immigrants who arrived in 1848, and was proclaimed a borough in 1956.

When you get to the bottom of Cowies Hill on the Durban side the distance marker boards suddenly start to get invitingly low in terms of distance to go and it’s not long and suddenly you are into single figures as you reach 45th Cutting and you are now on the very outskirts of Durban and home is a mere 8kms away.

From 45th Cutting it’s a climb up from the traffic lights, over the top and down to what Durbanites call the Western Bypass and then it’s along a bit and the final little climb to the Tollgate Bridge.

Then it’s just 5kms home and it’s all downhill and flat running through the city centre to the finish at Kingsmead after you have spent the day running through some of the most beautiful parts of South Africa. A part of the country that thousands of runners who live the dream of a man who started this magical experience called The Comrades Marathon in 1921 have experienced.

It’s estimated some 300,000 runners have travelled this Old Road to Durban or from Durban over the years since 34 hardy souls set off to create history from outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall on 24 May 1921.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in COMRADES PERSONALITIES

BRUCE FORDYCE – KING OF THE COMRADES :

I can’t remember when I first met Bruce Fordyce. All I remember was that it was a very long time ago and I watched his career with amazement and admiration. The way he went about Comrades. The way he went about demolishing his opposition and the way in which he timed his race. There was never any panic. He was never in the lead at half way and that was always part of his plan. As part of the media I was always extremely frustrated because I simply couldn’t get to him before Comrades but that was also part of his plan. He gave away nothing and left us all guessing and as a result he had no unnecessary pressure on himself. He had enough anyway. I only had one clue and that was the year he came across to chat to me before the start in Pietermaritzburg and the clue was that he wasn’t going for a win that year although he said nothing and as a result I had the story ahead of most of the others in the media, so thank you for that Bruce.

This is the first time in all the years I have known him that I have had the opportunity to ask him these few questions. I hope you find them interesting. I have waited something like a quarter of a century to ask him some of these questions.

DJ.   The 31st of May 1981 and South Africa was “celebrating” 20 years of the “Republic” and the winner of Comrades on Monday, the 1st of June that year, a Wits student came across the finish line wearing a black armband in protest of the celebration. Not a very popular winner with many people but it wasn’t very long and Bruce Fordyce was everybody’s darling. Did you work hard to change that initial reaction or did it just happen because as far as I can remember you never came out apologising for that armband but yet the South African public embraced you completely and it didn’t take long.

BF.  I didn’t apologise for wearing the black armband and it actually took longer than you think because it wasn’t only the black armband that was my problem but also the fact that I had beaten the darling of Comrades, Alan Robb so the double whammy.  It even went on into 1982 which was a cold and wet year and I had one spectator shout at me “Where’s the black armband to keep you warm this year Fordyce?” but fortunately by the time I got to my third win in 1983 that was all behind me and the public seemed to have accepted me and it was time to go forward but there was really nothing I did, or could do to change that first perception. I’m just pleased it changed.

 

DJ.   You have often thanked your parents for the genes they gave you enabling you to run as you were able to do, but there was another part of your running and Comrades ability that stood you in good stead and that was your mental strength. I don’t ever remember seeing you flustered. You worked to a plan and that was it and if something did happen as it did in 1984 when you had to run like the wind to catch Bob de la Motte your incredible mind strength took over and you did what was required. I remember another time and I don’t remember the year when you were a little “ragged” and running alongside Hoseah Tjale about 25km out and he was strong but yet you beat him and that wasn’t your legs that did that but again that incredible mental strength. Did that come naturally or was it something that was part of your training?

 BF.  When things are important I have that mental strength. I would rather pay someone off the street to mow my lawn at home than have to do it myself because I hate it and I don’t have the mental strength to do that but when it came to Comrades that was different. I think the fact that I was sent to boarding school at a young age played a large part in that mental strength. I learnt endurance there to a large degree. The school where I was, was very old and had those old lead lined windows and each one in my dormitory was, for me, a week and I would tick one week off in my head before I could go home to my family so I picked up some endurance in how to “hang in when things were tough” there when I was quite young but the best advice I got was from Gordon Howie who said to me that I had to go to time trials and short races and learn to run in front and this was after I had already finished second and third in Comrades and I did that but I didn’t race long races other than those one or two crucial races a year. So I guess the mental strength was to a large degree something that I trained myself to do when things needed it.

DJ.     That handshake that became something of a trademark almost and that many thought was such a nice gesture from you as you went passed your opponents and into the lead.  Had you been a gladiator in ancient Roman times it wouldn’t have been a handshake, it would have been plunging your sword into your fallen foe to end it and I’ll never forget Mark Page surrendering to you by putting out his hand to you even before you extended your hand to him virtually saying “I’m done, take it”. When did you first decide that this was a great way to show your opposition exactly who was in charge at a crucial time.

 

BF.    Not entirely true.  The only person who could actually relate to you at that crucial time in the race was the person running alongside you and whilst you obviously wanted to beat the guy, the handshake was saying to him that whilst you were still strong it was also saying “I’m proud of you”.   Mark Page seemed to give up that day and he asked me who was behind me when I caught up to him on Polly’s.   I never saw the handshake as “I’m in charge” and I think the first time I did it was in 1986 with Bob de la Motte and it certainly wasn’t anything intentional at the time.   It was just one of those things that happened.

 

DJ.   Something I’ve wanted to ask you for the better part of 25 years. 1988 and eight    Comrades wins in a row and then came 1989 and an unofficial international 100km in Stellenbosch and you chose to run that rather than Comrades that year and what would undoubtedly have been your 9th successive win. Then in 1990 you came back and won again to make it your 9th win and that was it and the 10th was gone. I still to this day believe that you could have won both Stellenbosch and Comrades in 1989 and come back in 1990 and won Comrades – as you did in 1990 – and had your 10 in a row. With the benefit of hindsight, which is the only exact science, would you agree with me, even if it’s only a tiny bit?

BF.   I don’t think so. The first five of us were on a drip after the race and only Jean-Marc Belloq refused to go onto a drip but he was broken the day after the race. It was in my head that it was never going to happen. We South Africans had been going on about the fact that we were the best in the world and this was our chance to prove it and we took that chance against the best in the world over a recognised international distance but for me with that 100km in February, Comrades was never going to be on that year.

DJ.   In the 90 Comrades we’ve had up to the 2015 race there have been 48 different men’s winners. If it were possible, which it obviously isn’t, to take those 48 athletes at their peak and line them up for a “Super Comrades” who do you think would be the top five at the finish? Fordyce would have to be one of them, and probably the winner, but who do you think would be the other four and why?

BF.   If you look at Arthur Newton his times were slow but you can only ask him to be as   good as he could be at his time. If you look at Wally Hayward and you look at what he did at 80 you realise exactly what he did and of course Alan Robb provided it was a Down Run. Jackie Mekler if it was an Up Run. The fifth is a man who is someone who was probably a lot like me and that’s Hardy Ballington.  Four wins before the war and his fifth win after the war.

DJ.   Finally, you’re still putting a lot into running and you’re very involved in the         parkruns which are gaining in popularity all around the country and in fact around the world. It’s a fantastic concept. Tell us a little about it.

BF.   parkruns were started by my old Comrades second, Paul Sinton-Hewitt. He used to   run the Rockies Time Trial at Zoo Lake and he missed this when he emigrated to the UK because time trials don’t happen there and he started what he called “UK Time Trials” in Bushy Park in London in October 2004 and 13 people came and it continued like that for a long time until a second one started in Richmond Park and then another in Leeds and so it grew. I went to London Marathon in 2011 and was invited to run in the parkrun and decided to start in Johannesburg and we had our first one in Delta Park. We now have 325,000 parkrunners in over 70 different parkruns around South Africa and growing at a rate of about 5000 a week and we estimate that by the end of 2016 we should be close to 500,000 parkrunners in South Africa and worldwide we hope to be about 20 million in the next three or four years.

 

If you want to know more about parkruns you can find all the information on http://www.parkrun.co.za. You can register online and it doesn’t cost you anything at all and with over 70 of them around the country there’s bound to be one not too far from you and they are only 5kms and they are all on a Saturday morning and most of them at 8 o’clock.

There have been many brilliant Comrades runners over the years but King of the Comrades?   Probably fair to say that title belongs to just one person although Bruce might humbly say others deserve it.

 

 

Posted in COMRADES PERSONALITIES

BOB de la MOTTE – RUNAWAY COMRADE :

Whenever any conversation about the greatest Comrades runner never to win the World’s greatest Ultra starts, one name that always comes up is Bob de la Motte. The man who ran a 5:26 in the 1986 Comrades and finished in 2nd place and that time – even today – would have given him a pretty fair chance of a good win.

One of the strange things though, for me, is that of all the many top runners – and winners – I have met and come to know well over my years of involvement with this amazing race, Bob is not one of them. We have never actually met and by the time I became involved with the media, Bob was on the brink of emigrating to Australia so we have come to know each other through what I choose to call this “Blogbook” and through Twitter and by email.

Bob’s book “Runaway Comrade” which is a good read has his story in full, both during and post Comrades but I asked Bob to jot down a brief summary of the start of his Comrades story for me and here it is.

My dad had been the school mile and half-mile champ and my mother had been tennis singles champ three years in a row at our local tennis club. They had an athletic gift referred to as “stamina”, and fortuitously I inherited heaps of it winning the 800m at school and inter-school levels. Unfortunately I would painfully discover that Comrades required significantly more than my natural endowment of “stamina” over 800m. From a very early age I knew I could run long distances and despite my involvement in multiple sports (school colours for tennis, hockey and athletics) I simply loved running. As a young boy I discovered running to be totally liberating, blissfully simple and spiritual.

In 1981, aged 27, I made my Comrades debut after “jogging” a mere 844km in training over the four preceding months from a base of zero. My goal was a Comrades finisher’s medal as lifelong proof of my anticipated heroic achievement. I had been physically inactive for a decade whilst completing my BCom CA(SA) at Wits and then working abroad for three years in London and the USA. Let alone getting married, children, dealing with military conscription and pursuing a stimulating and challenging career with KPMG where 50 hour workweeks were the norm. Both my level of fitness and Comrades knowledge were woefully inept. On the other hand I had youth on my side bridled with blinding optimism and a “guarantee” from Dave “Smooch” Hodgskiss, the Chairman of my club (Varsity Kudus), that I would finish Comrades. He had already run nine silver medals en route to his Green number, so what was there for me to doubt?

On 1 June 1981 I limped across the Comrades finish line in Pietermaritzburg in 9:02 – exhausted beyond exhaustion. I was one of 1,332 novices in the field of 3,925 runners. A guy named Bruce Fordyce had crossed the line three and a half hours earlier to win his first Comrades. In my physically depleted universe I equated his athletic performance to landing on the moon. Simply beyond my comprehension.

In the ensuing weeks, once my body had thawed and my ego had been reflated, I joined SA’s running revolution of the 80’s as an enthusiastic participant. It was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me.

I soon learned that the running trophies (or bragging rights) most sought after at the time seemed to consist of a sub-40 minute 10km, a sub-3 hr marathon, and the magical Comrades silver medal (sub-7.5hrs). Despite my torturous Comrades debut I now had something to aim for.

My first quantum leap in performance improvement was due to Hodgskiss. He introduced me to long distance training concepts like consistent daily runs, week after week, month after month, hard/easy sessions, 8km mid-week time trials, interval training, speedwork, Saturday cross country and Sunday LSD group runs. The latter being the social highlight of the week.

I managed to run almost every day, consistently logging 80km training weeks. By the end of 1981 the results were trending positively – 26.55 (8km), 33.32 (10km), 73.28 (21km) and 2:37.40 for the marathon. Intuitively I knew I had the potential to improve my marathon PB so I aimed for membership of the exclusive “sub-2:30” club – the next level of bragging rights. Fortuitously Mark Plaatjes got wind of my plans and gave me some more unsolicited, invaluable advice… “don’t run junk miles!”

I had no idea of the profound impact that his single bit of advice and enduing friendship would have. Within months I had shaved at least another minute off all my PB’s capped with a 2:26.01 at the 1982 Peninsula Marathon – barely one year after starting running from a zero base. Three months later I returned to the 1982 Comrades for an attempt at a silver medal and ran 6:04.12 for 16th place in my debut “down” run. Bearing in mind that the course was 91.3km in 1982, my time would have been a sub-6 in virtually every other down run despite my second half being 24 minutes slower than my first half. I had clearly faded in the second half but so had all the thousands of runners behind me. That unexpected result got me tantalisingly close to a previously undreamed of “top-10” finish, an even higher level of bragging rights. Then again it was like sitting at Everest Base Camp and looking at the summit, oh so close but still another 3000m of vertical climbing including a passage through the death zone. I knew there would be no short cuts to a “top-10” Comrades finish.

Fordyce had won his first down run in 5:34 – half an hour ahead of me. I had been running for barely 16 months while all 15 finishers ahead of me were seriously tough nuts – highly experienced Comrades runners hardened with tens of thousands of km’s already in their legs together with invaluable Comrades wisdom. Understandably my 1982 Comrades performance would have been seen by many as nothing other than a fluke or a flash in the pan, never to be repeated. I saw it differently. By running intuitively and without fear I had experienced my first glimpse of the pointy end of the Comrades and, despite a tough second half, it had been a profoundly more comfortable experience than my ill-prepared nine hour debut a year earlier. My consistent training and daily running since my debut had produced results. Regardless, I knew I still had to serve my Comrades apprenticeship – there was no magical elixir.

A broken ankle due to a windsurfing accident kept me out of the 1983 Comrades which, in hindsight, was probably a very lucky outcome for me. Following rehab I did not run a race further than 42km throughout the year and focussed on the shorter, faster events … and no junk miles. So when I lined up for the 1984 Comrades, hoping to crack a top-10 finish, I had accumulated some 10,000km of quality running since my 1982 Comrades outing, including a 2:20 (4th pos) at the 1984 Peninsula Marathon and a nifty 3:17 (2nd pos) for the “slow poison” 56km Milo Korkie at altitude. Although I was still improving overall distances my Comrades knowledge and experience remained seriously lacking. I had run the Comrades only twice –once in each direction. Fordyce had seven medals to his credit including five golds and three wins. This guy was already the General Eisenhower of Comrades. His cumulative running amounted to 42,125km (Lore of Running) – I had clocked up a lifetime 16,771km not even 40% of his training. Noakes did not include me in his selection of top-10 finishers. That was all about to change.

A few hours later I almost caused the upset of the decade when I stole the lead from Chris Reyneke shortly after passing halfway. Understandably Fordyce had his eye on elite runners like Bernie Rose, Willie Farrell and Brian Chamberlain. However, in order to eventually catch me at 45th Cutting he had to run the second half in 2:37.16 (equating to a 5:14 Comrades) and based on my research 32 years later he still retains the record for the fastest second half for the down run. He also broke Alan Robb’s record of 5:29.14.

My second place finish of 5:30 created history on a few fronts – the fastest losing time in Comrades history – the three runners who had previously broken 5:40 all won the race (Levick, Robb, Fordyce) I became the fourth sub 5:40 runner – Let alone breaking 5:40, let alone running a massive negative split of almost six minutes ( 2:48.14 / 2:42.45) I was desperately close to breaking 5:30 and still lost. I had been vanquished by Fordyce’s “turbo-charged” finish (3.30 per km for 44.9km).

 

That 5:30 Comrades performance suddenly made me realise I had serious potential as an ultra-runner – something I had never really anticipated. Simultaneously I had great potential in my stimulating professional career as a partner with KPMG. One of my personal lifegoals was a successful career and financial security. Fortunately I did not have to rely on my running talent to get me there. Running would always remain a sideshow for me. The interesting paradox was that Fordyce would be doing exactly the opposite, investing all his intellectual talent and athletic ability in pursuit of the Comrades as the first ever fulltime Comrades professional at the expense of his ten year tenure at Wits as a fulltime university student. One had to respect his courage and commitment. Inadvertently, as a consequence of my spirited 5:30 dice with Fordyce at the 1984 Comrades the media unexpectedly identified me as the one runner capable of beating him, causing much hype within the running community. Our casual friendship became very strained and tense. He posed no risk to my career at KPMG while I suddenly posed a significant threat to his prospective professional Comrades career – his future livelihood.

I knew I could be a top ultra-runner and I would give it a good crack as a “weekend warrior”. What was there to lose?

The cover photo for the book was taken at the 50km JSE ultra marathon in August 1985. Bob and others jostling for gold medals after the marathon mark and in hot pursuit of race leader, Sam Ndala. Gibeon Moshaba in white cap and Ben Choeu in black cap. Bob won in 2:50.45.

If you haven’t yet read Bob’s book “Runaway Comrade” do yourself a favour and get a copy. It’s a good read and proceeds go to benefit disadvantaged runners from Bob’s competitive era