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.