November 25, 2016 by DAVE JACK
There can’t be very many people in the road running world in South Africa who don’t know the name Tom Cottrell, the man behind the Runners’ Guide to Road Races in South Africa and in more recent times similar publications for the cycling world and the swimming world.
I remember when it all started way back so I decided that as it was Tom who had discovered and unleashed on the world my so-called poetic abilities (with which some are familiar) that I should return the favour and chat to him about how The Runners’ Guide came about almost a quarter of a century ago.
I asked Tom firstly if he had always been a journalist?
TC: No. I started life as an accountant but I found that corporate life really didn’t suit me at all but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at that stage.
DJ: So where did the idea of The Runners’ Guide come from?
TC: More than 25 years ago I had been a very keen runner and I had already at that stage run 4 Comrades and my wife Kay had run her first Comrades in 1989 and I had a very bad motor accident in which I broke both my legs badly and I was effectively out of commission for about a year. Kay carried on with her running but I obviously couldn’t and I was seriously depressed because I was not involved at all.
Eventually when Kay went off to races I would sit in front of my computer at home with a stop watch and as Kay was running I would describe the routes according to the time as Kay was running so I was virtually running with her in front of my computer and in no time at all I had a whole host of race descriptions filed away in my computer.
Someone suggested that I should write a book with the route descriptions so I started that way and made the writing of the book part of my therapy towards getting better.
DJ: So when was that?
TC: The whole of 1990 and into 1991 and then I started phoning the race organisers of those races where I didn’t have details. My telephone bills were horrendous. I was pleasantly surprised at the response I got from most of them who were quite willing to give me the information I wanted and it was only a tiny minority who didn’t cooperate.
DJ: You must have had a lot of missing information in those early years.
TC: Certainly I did. To give you an idea, the first edition of The Runners’ Guide was under 200 pages and whilst there has been an increase in races the latest edition has over 500 pages. Today I’m in the happy situation where I have people hammering our door down to make sure that their race info is in and correct because they know that it’s the first point that runners go to for race info.
DJ: Changing race info must have been an enormous challenge in those early days before the electronic era that would have made books inaccurate and even today it must surely still cause a problem?
TC: It was in those days. Today with social media which we use extensively it’s a lot easier to get info out there and the number of books that are printed compared to what is used on electronic media is very much reduced compared to the situation 25 years ago. There are still lots of people however who still happier with paper in their hands.
DJ: Have you ever had any catastrophe with any of your publications?
TC: Certainly we have and I still have people coming up to me – and you must remember the very first edition – and reminding me how all the pages fell out and virtually the entire book fell apart! That was about 25 years ago and people still like to remind me of that so I guess that will stay with me forever. It never happened again!
DJ: As the new kid on the block, how long did it take you to get complete credibility with race organisers where they knew that Tom Cottrell was “the real deal” and that you were here to stay?
TC: Probably about 5 years or more and strangely to this day there are still some who are a little dubious. In 1997 the year he won Comrades, I was approached to help with the job of sort of “life coach” to Charl Matteus and in the mix with that and running the book got real traction and I have to acknowledge ASA’s involvement. They appointed me as their publisher and sent out a fixture list which I produced with every licence number.
ASA subsequently took a decision to stop sending out the fixture list so runners turned to The Runners’ Guide but weren’t happy about the cost after having had the free fixture list from ASA so we then produced “RACE DATES” at a cost of just R30 but we chose certain major races in all the provinces at which to hand it out for free every 6 months and we still do that today.
DJ: Runners, cyclists and now swimmers. Who is next to get a race guide?
TC: I don’t have any plans for anything more. There is a huge crossover between these three disciplines hence the reason why I thought I should cater for the three. I don’t think there’s enough in terms of multi discipline events to warrant trying to do anything there so, as I say, nothing right now.
DJ: If I were to ask you what your favourite event in South Africa is chosen from all the events you see, what would that be?
TC: It would have to be Comrades. I have big emotional investment in that race.
DJ: I have asked many other people this question and the answer has been interesting. I have a thing I call my “Super Comrades”. If it were possible to line up all 49 winners we’ve had since 1921 to 2016 in one race – which it’s obviously not – who would you put down as the top 5 finishers in no particular order and whatever you do, don’t forget to go back in history which a lot of people tend to do and they forget some of the greats of yesterday.
TC: The Super Comrades! Wow! A difficult one but here goes. My top five in no particular order. – Bruce Fordyce: David Gatebe: Alan Robb: Jackie Mekler and Charl Matheus and Charl just because I used to manage him.
DJ: Finally, tell me in a few words about Tom Cottrell the man
TC: Well, he’s now in his early sixties. He’s run 5 Comrades – A best of 7:64 (the organisers put it down as an 8:04 for some reason) 4 before the motor accident all those years ago and then another after it. The one after it was in 2000 when they allowed us 12 hours so I used my full entry fee and did 11:57. I’m married to Kay who has run 22 Comrades of her own. Two daughters, Megan and Bronwyn and one grandson, Keegan.
Tom keep up the great job you’re doing. Thousands of runners, cyclists and now swimmers rely on you to know what’s happening every weekend in terms of where they need to be and at what time. What the route is like in terms of the road race route and all the other info that goes with it.
If you are not on Twitter I suggest you get yourself registered on there as well and follow Runner’s Guide because the latest up to date changes are all on there and Tom and his team really are on top of things with race organisers giving them the very latest in information which is immediately given to runners.