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