I first met Helen Lucre shortly after she arrived in South Africa in 1980 when she and I found ourselves, of all places, in Pretoria, we both arrived at Harlequin Harriers as our running home. Helen had decided that she wanted to do some running in her new home in South Africa and what better place to start than with a bunch of guys who were able to go out and run 30kms a week or two after running this thing she had heard about called Comrades which she had listened to on the radio a few weeks before.
If the people at “Quins” could do that then they had to be the people who would best suit her to join. And that is how our very long friendship started.
When I chatted to Helen I asked her whether she had done any running in her home country of New Zealand?
HL: No. Not really. I played a fair amount of sport. I had been travelling for about 3 or 4 years and I had met a couple of guys when I was skiing in Austria who were runners and they suggested that I should come to South Africa with them, which I did and that’s how I ended up getting into running as a sport.
I had always been quite fit and played a lot of basketball and drifted towards Quins to get fit. I started by running the time trial and then I heard about Comrades. I started to build up slowly and then towards the end of the year I had the confidence to try to run a club long Sunday run and by the time we go to early 1981 I was ready to try a marathon to qualify.
I was provided copious amounts of wisdom from all the guys at Quins/Phobians, in retrospect, some good, and some questionable…. The fun side was that if they saw a gap to tease you it was quickly taken. I can recall them telling one poor novice, the worst thing to eat was tomatoes when training for comrades, not sure where that came from other than the fact they knew he loved tomatoes. For a while with input from many, running seemed far more complicated than putting one foot in front of the other!
DJ: So did you run your first Comrades in 1981?
HL: Yes I did. I had listened to Comrades on the radio in 1980 and Isavel Roche-Kelly had won and I remember working out that she had run at around 5 minutes per Km and “naively thinking” “I could do that” so I went about qualifying and ran my first Comrades in 1981 and ran my first two out of Pretoria. My first one was wonderful. Everything went right but my second one wasn’t as so comfortable so I started to think this running was not for me. I had run a few Cross Country races and some of the people I had met suggested to stop all the “long stuff” and run shorter events, So I gave up Comrades. In 1983 and 1984 I focused on shorter events, winning Two Oceans, City to City, Joburg Marathon setting records in these events. Then towards the end of 1984 I moved to Durban.
Helen in Comrades
DJ: You started winning some of the serious stuff like Two Oceans and City to City and set course records before you went to Durban but what was it that changed in terms of your approach to Comrades when you moved?
HL: I think I got a lot more confident after my success over shorter distances. In February 1985 I ran a 2:47 at Hillcrest Marathon which was then the 5th fastest marathon time in South Africa. It was over a very tough route on a very hot day so I was very happy with that.
DJ: Were you a believer in LSD as part of your training?
HL: I never considered myself a seriously elite runner. I didn’t mind racing every week especially the short distances, never thinking “I shouldn’t be doing this” so I did a mix of long and short. Living pretty much on the Comrades route, I did those long 35km runs at the weekend as well as a tri weekly morning run up Cowies Hill. There was a strong middle distance track league in Durban so I would often arrive to race the “trackies” over 3000 meters. It was all great fun.
DJ: Who did you consider to be your biggest competition in Comrades in those years when you were winning Comrades
HL: Lindsey Weight because she had won the two years before my first win, the media and everyone boosted up the “rivalry”. After the first win I thought it would be good to aim for a “hat trick” of wins which I achieved. On my fourth win, attempt I was up against the very talented Frith van de Merwe who took the race to another level. I was fit for the following year, but my interest in Comrades was waning, this was confirmed by accepting a beer at 45th cutting from the Varsity students, sacrificing time and positions. So that was my last Comrades for several years, I went back to Marathons and shorter races.
DJ: When you dropped out of competitive running you stayed involved in administration. Weren’t you involved in getting what is now the SPAR 10Km Ladies races going?
HL: You might remember that Clicks started a Ladies Race in Cape Town, we encouraged them to also have an event in Durban which my club, Durban Athletic Club became the organisers. I had the attitude if women wanted to benefit more from sport in general, don’t sit back and complain, do something to change it. To encourage more participation and boost numbers for the ladies race I started a ladies running clinic for novices, first session over 100 arrived. The goal was to take part and complete the 10km distance. The race grew from there, after Clicks pulled out SPAR picked it up and the event has continued to grow.
DJ: It must feel good knowing that you were instrumental in being involved in the start of something that has been so successful.
HL: Yes, it does and what I love is when someone who I think is a stranger, will come up to me and thank me for the encouragement and support I gave them over 25 years ago, they will share how it helped them in life and that is why they still walking and exercising today.
DJ: And also served on the KZN provincial body as well as the Comrades Body?
HL: Yes, I was very involved in administration, it was during the ‘sports unification” process. I gave two or so years, but let me say I was a bit naïve and withdrew from administration.
DJ: When did your broadcasting start and has that been only Comrades?
HL: SABC often ask me to help with commentary on road races, specifically Comrades and Two Oceans. It is way to keep involved and aware of what is happening in the sport. Through the process I have learnt a lot about media broadcasting, which has been interesting. This year I commentated with Ellie Greenwood, the winner in 2014 who was side-lined through injury. She is very knowledgeable and brought a very enjoyable element to the day’s commentary.
DJ: You’ve been pretty successful in business as well. Tell me a little about that.
HL: I’ve been in IT and HR and married both skill sets going on my own in 2004 starting my own IT recruitment and HR consultancy. My running discipline has helped and to date it has gone pretty well.
DJ: And to keep fit now. No more running?
HL: I love the sea and have got into swimming. We have a surf swim group and conditions permitting that is where I head. I jog 2-3 times a week, taking advantage of low tides and running on the beach whenever I can.
DJ: Finally, is there a little part of you that sometimes says “I wish I could run just one more Comrades”.
HL: Nope, I really have no desire to run another Comrades. The only way I would even consider it was if I could raise R1m+ for charity or cause that I felt strongly about, but even then I would have to think about it very carefully.
There we have it. The girl we used to call the Wagga Wagga Whirlwind in those far off days at Harlequin Harriers when we thought the girl with the funny accent was from Australia before we knew she was a Kiwi.