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.