June 21, 2016 by DAVE JACK
I first met John Hamlett, the man whose runners have a total of 46 Comrades gold medals between them, way back in the 90’s before his first Comrades win with Andrew Kelehe. We somehow ended up in what was then Mafikeng for a marathon and Andrew won it and as we had been invited there for the weekend to cover the race for 702, I naturally got to know them both and over the years have bumped into both from time to time.
After his back to back Comrades winners, first with Gift Kelehe in 2015 and then with David Gatebe’s record shattering run this year, it was definitely time to meet for a “coffee chat” which is exactly what we did.
DJ: John when did you first develop an interest in athletics, marathon and ultra running in particular?
JH: Almost as far back as I can remember. I ran my first marathon at the age of 15! Crazy but true and did 3:04 hours and over the years improved on that until I eventually managed a PB of 2:18 which I ran in Botswana. I also ran and won the Jock of the Bushveld Ultra Marathon in Mpumalanga and broke the record for that by some 7 minutes and won the Buffs marathon in East London in 2:20
I ran Comrades seven times with a couple of silvers and a few bronze medals but then coaching got in the way and didn’t go on to get my green number because the coaching became more important.
DJ: One of your Comrades you didn’t finish but it was a deliberate didn’t finish and a very interesting story attached to that. Tell us about it.
JH: I got a small role in a movie called “To The Glory of Sport” that told the story of a young lady who wanted to run – and win – Comrades and was pushed by her coach to do so and it was actually filmed during a Comrades and certain people managed to get small parts and I was one of them. I was required to enter Comrades to give the story a “real feel” but my character had to pull out of the race when he couldn’t go any further, which I had to do, hence I show in the official Comrades results that year as a DNF. Needless to say the heroine did win Comrades in the movie!
DJ: How did the coaching start and are you a self-taught coach?
JH: No, not at all. It basically started in 1990 when I met Andrew and we decided on a 10 year programme to get him to a Comrades win and as you know he won in 2001 but I did attend coaching courses all over the place including Russia and in the USA and those courses are where I learnt what I know now.
DJ: In addition to the coaching you are also involved in nutritional supplements and that’s in fact what you do for a living isn’t it?
JH: Yes. I have a nutrition company called www.johnsnewlifestyle.com and that’s going very well and it’s from there that we do all the preparations for our elite team for Comrades because it’s imperative that they are clean so we don’t take any chances at all that they might pick up anything on the road from anyone else.
DJ: The other thing a lot of people want to know is where does the “Colonel Coach” come from?
JH: That comes from my time in the police a long way back. I was a colonel in police intelligence and somehow the name stuck.
DJ: If we turn to Comrades specifically, how big is your elite squad for Comrades and how does one get into that squad? Is it by invitation?
JH: Yes, it’s by invitation only and I limit it to 4 or 5 athletes only and I carefully select the athletes I want and with whom I feel I can work. If, for example there is a top runner I might feel could be a disruptive influence, no matter how good he might be, he won’t get into the squad.
DJ: So what you do is move your squad to Dullstroom for two months to train at altitude before Comrades in April but then I guess in the second half of the year after Comrades they are doing short and sharp quality stuff and speed work?
JH: That’s more or less it. From October we shift the focus slightly to more Comrades base training and then from January more Comrades specific. So in effect we already have one eye on Comrades 2017 but not too seriously just yet.
The two months in Dullstroom all living in one house is a big reason we can’t have a disruptive influence in the squad. Imagine if we did!
DJ: What is it that makes you know “that’s my man this year”. You must have known before Comrades that Gift didn’t stand a chance and that David was your man but you allowed Gift to take all the media exposure and David to take virtually nothing and he therefore had no pressure going in. That was a very clever strategy but when did you know?
JH: I actually didn’t know until quite close to Comrades when Gift developed an injury and we decided to say nothing about it. Had he not had the injury, I’m confident we could have had a 1st and 2nd place on the day but I think we still would have had David across the line first.
I don’t think there’s a lot of point in making excuses before the race for my runners that they have or haven’t got some sort of problem so that’s why we said nothing about the injury that Gift was carrying and I’m still more than happy with our second place team spot in Comrades this year considering that Gift was carrying that injury and he was part of the team that took us to second team.
As far as the pressure on David is concerned, the media decided to put the focus on Gift and ignore everyone else. There were some runners from other teams who tried to get the focus on themselves with the media without too much success.
DJ: May I ask you a question for the back of the field runners please? You are aware that the dinosaurs taught me my running and as a result I remain a great believer in LSD (Long Slow Distance) and it seems to me whilst I have been writing these stories that many of the top runners do as well – and I am the first person to concede that “slow” is relative – but yet the back of the field runner seems not to believe in it at all.
What is your view on LSD for the runner who is running between 9 and 12 hours?
JH: As you say “slow” is relative but I believe LSD is a crucial part of Comrades training. I believe that every Comrades runner should do two thirds of the Comrades distance three times before Comrades itself. The top runners are doing that so why not the back runners?
DJ: Finally John, I haven’t asked this question for a while but let me ask you. We have now had 49 different winners of the men’s race in Comrades. If we were able to take those 49 winners and line them up in a “Super Comrades” – which we are obviously not able to do – each of them at his best, who would take the top five positions? Don’t worry about the order.
JH: My five would be Andrew Kelehe, David Gatebe, Bruce Fordyce, Dave Bagshaw, Wally Hayward.
I find it amazing how the names change according to the people I ask. I wonder how many of the people I asked before Comrades would now have David Gatebe in their list? A man who can run almost 90km at 3mins 33secs per km certainly deserves to be in most people’s list.
Have a look at John’s website www.johnsnewlifestyle.com and if you want to follow John on Twitter his handle is @colonelcoach and if you want to know more about the Tom-Tom Athletics Club the web address is http://www.hotrunningclub.com It’s not a closed club and anyone can join it. It’s just the Elite Squad that’s by invitation.