Posted in COMRADES PERSONALITIES

ROWYN JAMES – COMRADES RACE DIRECTOR :

One man who seems to have an endless supply of energy and is on the go non-stop is Comrades Race Director, Rowyn James and I managed to catch up with him on one of his flying visits to Johannesburg and sit him down long enough between sponsor meetings to find out a little about the man who drives Comrades and who is largely responsible for making it all come together every year. I started off by asking him when his relationship with Comrades had started.

Photo Rowyn James for souv mag

DJ:      A lot of people are under the impression that your relationship with Comrades started two years ago when you were appointed Race Director but that’s not right because it started way before that because you have run the race 15 times and have a green number. When did your love of this race start and how did it start?

RJ:      It started in 1984. My grandfather was caretaker of a building in Pietermaritzburg opposite the start and we used to gather there yearly to watch the start but I had actually started running fun runs in 1981 when my dad noted that I had an athletic talent at school athletic meets.  I eventually ran my first Comrades in 1987 and ran all 15 consecutively until 2002.   I have Green number 1024.

 

DJ:      Can you give me something that really stands out for you from your Comrades running days?

RJ:      Two things that will stay with me always. I was the second youngest person to ever get a green number (at age 28) because I was able to start at age 18 in those days and I was presented with my green number by Wally

Hayward.

rowyn and wally

DJ:      In terms of your work career you have a long history of being involved in the sports industry? Is that where you always wanted to be and was the job you have now always what you were aiming at as you travelled your career path?

RJ:      I was born and bred in Irene, attended Irene Primary School and then matriculated at St Albans College in Pretoria, then 2 years national service in Port Elizabeth and after that Standard Bank for a while. I then studied BA business admin at Pretoria University and then in 1994 worked for the late Andrew Greyling in his specialist running sports shop until 1997.  In January 1998 I joined Nike SA until December 2007 as Sports Marketing Manager with a specific focus on the road running category.

Then in January 2008 I was appointed as Race Director of Two Oceans in Cape Town and I held that position until May 2013. I then took a sabbatical after leaving Two Oceans and during December 2013 I was approached by Comrades to consider the position of Race Director of Comrades and I joined Comrades in March 2014.

 

DJ:      You have a wife and your job requires that you spend a fair amount of time away from home because of the demands of the modern Comrades. How do you manage to balance your time particularly in the first five months of the year leading to the race itself?

RJ:      My wife is a Grade 1 school teacher and all my jobs have required that I do a lot of travelling and I am very fortunate in that she is very understanding and supportive around that.

 

DJ:      As time passes various things have to change to make Comrades an attractive offering in the world ultra calendar.  I’m sure that people will smile and nod in approval but away from the meetings that decide the changes it’s a very different thing in many cases. Do you find that and how do you deal with it or do you just shrug it off.

RJ:      My career operates with two analogies – DTIP…. “Don’t take it personally” and ” “If you have a perfect event, you have a problem”.   Once something has had the approval of the deciding body or the board or committee then I simply adopt the attitude that it’s not something that I should allow to affect me personally. It’s a business decision and it’s been taken and if it is completely wrong it can always be changed or reversed if need be if it’s shown to have been the incorrect decision.

I want to ensure that the runner has a life changing experience with Comrades. It’s about the athlete and the event. I have been extremely fortunate to experience “both sides of the fence“ so to speak, so I know what the athlete requires and what they in turn experience on race day.

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DJ:      Do you watch and listen closely to what the runners are saying all the time to continually provide the best product to your customer – the runner.  If so an example?

RJ:      Yes always. I prefer to keep a low profile (it’s not about me) but will always mingle with the crowd and listen to what is being said. An example is the way we loaded the seeding batches this year came from somebody at a club meeting who came up with the suggestion of the way we do it at present and we listened and implemented it. We will always listen to good suggestions.

 

DJ:      You have a very good team but you are still very hands on with a lot of things and I think of even little things like distance marking of the roads as just one example where you get involved with the team.

RJ:       My work philosophies are TEAMWORK and attention to detail (ATD) but I work closely with the various portfolio teams and whilst I am very much steering the ship I am also supporting and involving myself with the crew and stepping off the ship last.  I find that the various teams appreciate the input, involvement and support whatever that might be.  I believe in getting stuck into the tasks and engine rooms with them.

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DJ:      It must be a great feeling as happened this year, to get to the end of a race  and that there was no drug cheating and also to get the results through that the  race was clean as it was for the first 10 men and first 10 women and that generally there were no major problems.

RJ:     It is a great feeling and satisfying but by the same token it’s sad that we should have to celebrate something that should be normal.  In a perfect world there wouldn’t be cheating.

  

DJ:      The launch of Comrades 2017 is due in a couple of weeks. Are we in for any surprises of any sort?

RJ:      Yes, some exciting surprises, changes and innovations are coming but I’m not going to tell you what they are.   You’re going to have to wait until the launch on the 18th of August.  Change is ultimately what keeps the Comrades brand fresh and relevant.IMG-20160317-WA0011

 

DJ:      Any other innovations you would like to see coming in over the next few  years and any you can talk about?

RJ:      One I can tell you is that we’re moving the race date to the second Sunday in June from 2018 onwards because of the clash with the Royal show and problems with accommodation and essential support services in Pietermaritzburg.

Another thing we’re looking at in the future is the possibility is reducing the qualifying time back to 4:45 for a marathon. But that hasn’t been decided and confirmed yet. 

 

DJ:    Finally, it doesn’t take 9 years very long to pass and you just need to blink a       couple of times and those 9 years will have passed and 100th Comrades will be with us.  You may say you’re not but I’m sure that there is a little section inside your Race Director’s head that is already thinking about it.      Am I right?

RJ:    Yes you are. Still just a tiny blinking light in the distance.  Nothing definite but ideas running around and one thought is to see an entry of 30,000  runners but I don’t know if Pietermaritzburg could handle a finish of so many so thought needed there.

Remember too that any novice who finished this year and who carries on every year will be in line to earn their green number at the end of the 100th Comrades          

The other thing we have before that of course is the 100 year anniversary in 2021 since the first Comrades was run in 1921 so that’s going to be another special one.

 

One thing I can tell you is that it was fascinating sitting chatting to Rowyn and I was really sorry when our time was up as I could have spent hours more talking to him about this “thing” that is certainly my passion and which I have no doubt at all is also his passion and I have a pretty good idea that as long as he is around   my passion will be in good hands.

I’m really looking forward to the launch of Comrades 2017 that takes place on the 18th of August in Johannesburg and all being well I will be able to write a chapter on what will be happening at next year’s race for themarathon.co

 

 

29 July 2016

Posted in COMRADES PERSONALITIES

SHAUN MEIKLEJOHN – THE QUIET COMRADES HERO :

One of the things that I have found that Comrades winners have in common, is that they are humble and one of the those who best fits this profile has to be the man who won Comrades in 1995 and who stands in third place in terms of the number of Gold medals he has won with 10, and that alongside Jackie Mekler and just behind Alan Robb who has 12 and Bruce Fordyce who has 11.  Shaun Meiklejohn has 10 Gold medals and very few people know this because Shaun is so quiet and humble about his Comrades achievements and apart from saying that he won Comrades in 1995 he says very little else about his Comrades achievements.

I decided the time had come to find out more about this man so I asked him to tell me something about himself.2016-07-05-PHOTO

DJ:      Where are you from?

SM:     I was born in Pretoria, but I have lived in Durban where I did my pre- and primary schooling, Carletonville where I did my high schooling and I matriculated at Carlton Jones High School in Carletonville.

I went back to KZN to Pietermaritzburg to varsity then back to Carletonville after national service where I worked as an assistant accountant on Western Deep Levels Gold Mine and then back to Pmb where I currently live in Hilton.

 

DJ:      What attracted you to running?

SM:     It was only in 1981 when I went to university that I joined some of my fellow students who had run Comrades in 1980 with the intention of lining up with them that year. It was really just something to do in our spare time, no real attraction at that stage, it did work up a thirst and would we quench that with ice cold beers!

My first Comrades was in 1982. In 1981 I qualified with a 3:50 marathon at the old Richmond Marathon but was knocked off my motor bike going to lectures one morning so I watched from the side-lines. Bruce Fordyce (black armband) and Isavel Rosch-Kelly won that year. I was hooked after that and I didn’t even run!

 

DJ:      Did you have any other sporting interests as a child?

SM:     I was a really keen soccer player and even got Western Transvaal colours U16. I started playing golf in my last couple of years at high school and got my handicap down to 5 at one point. I also enjoyed playing squash & hockey up until I left school.

 

DJ:      What are you by profession?

SM:     Financial Director at Innovative Shared Services

 

DJ:      Do you have any hobbies or sporting interests other than running?

SM:     I still manage to squeeze in a round of golf, no official handicap, but on a good day I’m an honest 14. I also love to watch the Sharks and Bokke performing at their best, which seems to be a struggle these days.

 

DJ:      People remember you first for your Comrades win in 1995 but I remember you quite a while before that when you suddenly burst on the scene in the colours of Carlton Harriers and you had everyone in quite a stir because of how much they thought you looked like Bruce Fordyce.

SM:     Folk first took notice in 1989 when I had moved back to Carletonville and trained properly after finishing 17th in 1988 running out of Queenstown, I had set a top 10 as my goal and led the race until the top of Cowies Hill, Sam Shabalala won that year and I finished 5th. Bruce was in the commentary team that year having won the Standard Bank 100km earlier in the year in Stellenbosch. There was a bit of chirping in the studio if I remember correctly…. I must have looked like a younger version of Bruce back then, ha ha …

 

DJ:      You had been in gold before your win in 1995 but to eventually cross that line to win must have felt amazing! Is it possible to put it into words?

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SM:     I had 5 golds at that point and even a 2nd place to Nick Bester in 1991. In 1995 I decided to run “full-time” from January and put all my eggs in the Comrades basket. It paid off, I was so confident in my build up and mental preparation that I asked Julie, my wife, at the start if “I looked like a winner”! The race was amazing, I felt in control all the way, running my own race and not panicking when Charl took off after Cowies Hill. I passed him going up Tollgate and opening a 1 minute lead by the finish, I was on such a “high” running into the stadium realising what I had achieved.

 

DJ:      Your Comrades performances are quite remarkable. In 28 runs you haven’t gone slower than 7 hours have you?

SM:     I have twice. In 1982 I did 7:17 and 2003 I was 7:15, all the rest under 7 hours

 

DJ:      Your 28 years at Comrades haven’t been in succession and you took a break. Do you think that made a difference and allowed the “old” legs to recover slightly?

SM:     I took 6 years off after 2003, feeling physically and mentally stale and running the last few with niggles. The break allowed my body to heal without a doubt but I had put on around 15kgs so it was a struggle to get running again, it was only after I embarked on a proper eating plan eliminating wheat, dairy, sugar and alcohol, did I shed the weight and I was back in 2010 with a 6:45 …

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DJ:      Do you intend carrying on running Comrades and getting up to 40 Comrades and beyond? Only one other winner has run 40 Comrades and that’s Alan Robb.

SM:     I don’t think so, at this stage I’m taking one year at a time, enjoying my running, if my body allows then 30 seems like a good time to reassess.

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DJ:      How have you managed to balance your running with your business life and family life so successfully?

SM:     It is all about finding the balance, which may mean running at 4:00am so I can get kids to school on time and also making a few sacrifices along the way, in the really competitive days our social life would take a back seat, fortunately I have a really supportive wife and kids that understand my passion for running, even now in my “Master” years.

DJ:      You finished 4th in the 100Km world champs in Japan in 1994. A great performance. Did you find that very different from something like Comrades. A lot of people say that the 100Km is a completely different thing and interesting that it was the year before you won Comrades. Then in 1995 you did the same thing again.

SM:     I was really keen to attempt the 100km distance, I just felt that that little extra distance may suit me. I ran Two Oceans that year in 3:21 so was in good shape, finishing in 6:26 and missing Bruce Fordyce’s SA 100Km record by about a minute. The 100km is not too different from Comrades, the hills in Comrades make up for the slightly shorter distance so if you can handle that you can deal with anything that a 100km event can throw at you, just the support in the form of spectators and drinks is very poor at those other events so you really need to be mentally tough!

 

DJ:      Then in 1994 you won the London to Brighton. So the mid 90’s were good to you.

SM:     I felt that I needed a confidence booster going into the 1995 Comrades so I chose London to Brighton, I had a good 100km under the belt and South Africans have a good track record at the event. It was tough, again little or no support and a hill called “Ditchlings Beacon”, the equivalent of Polly Shortts to greet you around 80km into the race.

 

DJ:      For the last 4 years you have won the Master’s category and this year second by something like 42 seconds. What is it that enables you to just keep going year after year and is this still a target?

SM:     It’s the competitive spirit I guess, I try to get the best out of myself on the day, if its good enough to be first that a bonus, it gets tougher every year now as I reach the mid-fifties!

 

DJ:      Finally, your focus at Comrades now seems to be much more on charities. Tell us about that.

SM:     I would love to do more; there are so many kids that, due to circumstances beyond their control, land up getting involved in activities that get themselves into trouble. Running, in fact sport in general is a great way for them to lead a fit & healthy lifestyle and for those with talent to reach greater heights in terms of personal achievement. I work together with my running club, Save Orion AC, on various projects within local communities to assist those in need.

 

If you would like to look at the blog with all the details of Shaun’s charities you’ll find it at  Meiklejohn.co  so go and have a look at the work he’s doing and give him your support.

28 Comrades to his credit, 10 Gold medals and all the rest silver and only two slower than 7 hours. That’s not too shabby a record. Shaun we salute you!

July 2016