I’ve known Cheryl Winn a very long time and I’m honoured to know the person who has achieved what no other person in Comrades history has achieved.
Cheryl was elected as Comrades Marathon Association Chairperson at the AGM on the 21st of November and with that happening has become the only person ever to have won the race and then gone on to become the Chairperson of either the organising committee of the race as it was in days gone by or Chairperson of the Board of the CMA as it is now.
That, I’m sure you’ll agree, is an amazing achievement.
I first met Cheryl in 1982 when she was on the Committee of what was then TRRA (Transvaal Road Running Assoc) and she and I went along together to speak to Chris Gibbons at Radio 702 about the establishment of a road running diary on radio once a week on Radio 702 where runners could go for the latest information on a Friday morning on what was going to be happening that weekend in and around the Johannesburg area.
DJ: Cheryl, that was 702’s introduction to road running and my introduction to radio that neither 702 nor I knew would last something like 25 years with 702 becoming a major player in the road running world in South Africa and a very big thank you for the role you played in that and very few people know that you were involved in that and I’m not even certain you know just how big a role you played in bringing that about.
CW: It does seem like a hundred years ago and brings back so many fond memories. Running changed the entire course of my life, introduced me to my husband, numerous lifelong friends, interests and experiences across boundaries I might otherwise never have ventured to cross. For me it has at all times been a labour of love and I can only profess that my involvement in athletics has given me so much more than I could ever return in two lifetimes. I sincerely regard this latest development at Comrades, not as an achievement, but a humble responsibility I have been entrusted with by my colleagues to lead softly, contribute and pass on the knowledge and experience I have accumulated over many years.
DJ: Fantastic, but let’s go way back and where for you, did your relationship with road running start? By the time you and I met – and that’s over 35 years ago now – you had already won Comrades in 1982 in what was – I think – the longest Comrades in history and you had two second places in the two years before that but when did you start running?
Did your running start in this country or before you left the United States, your home country and how did it start and at what age and distances?
CW: In the early 1970’s while at university in the USA, I used to jog with my girlfriends around the campus lake, but that was mainly because the female residences were on one side of the lake and the guys’ residences on the other. I can’t really say that it was in any manner related to serious athletic endeavour.
Some seven years later, after having married, moved to South Africa and given birth to two sons, I began regular jogging and then running in about in 1977 under the influence of a good family friend Dr Ivan Cohen (who later founded Run/Walk for Life). I soon hooked up with a loose group of (exclusively male) runners affiliated to Pirates, Wits, Varsity Kudus and Rocky Road Runners, all of whom were focused on one specific goal – the Comrades Marathon – which for me began a love affair with the race. At that stage I didn’t know a single other woman runner.
DJ: I can understand the love affair with Comrades – it’s happened to many of us, and certainly to me – but how many did you end up running in total?
CW: I completed 6 Comrades between the years 1978 and 1984. 1 bronze & 5 silver medals.
1978 4th 9:09
DJ: And when was the realisation that you had the ability to win this thing?
CW: After finishing my 1st Comrades (1978) in 9:09 on relatively little and extremely unscientific training, the so-called “gurus” in my running group convinced me I could break 7:30, which was unheard of for a woman at the time. I began training in earnest for the 1979 Comrades Up Run, with the goal of winning and becoming the first woman to earn a silver medal.
Unfortunately I got side-tracked along the way, running and racing at just about every opportunity. I suppose it was inevitable that I soon picked up a serious achilles tendon injury while running the Boston Marathon. I eventually started the 1979 Comrades Up Run, but was forced to withdraw at the first opportunity to catch a lift with my second which was at Hillcrest, less than 30km into the race.
The following year 1980, I achieved my goal of earning a silver medal in a time 0f 7:22, unfortunately 3 minutes behind a young student from Cape Town named Isavel Roche-Kelly who became the first woman in history to break 7:30. The next year Isavel and I finished in the same order, still the only two women to earn silver, and in 1982 which was the longest race ever, I finally won. I suppose an interesting trivial statistic is that I earned the 2nd, 4th & 5th silver medals awarded to women.
DJ: Do you think it was as difficult back in your running days to fit in all your jobs of being Mom, wife, runner and Comrades winner because you hear a lot of women runners complaining today that they don’t have time. Do you think things have become tougher for the modern runner, particularly the women runners in 2017 than it was in 1982?
CW: I think that just about every aspect of life has become complicated and more hectic than it was 30 years ago. Of course, it was a bit of a juggle at the time, being a mom to two young boys, a wife, and a competitive runner, as well as holding down a full-time job with NIKE and already serving on my club committee and Transvaal Road Running. But I do think that in general life proceeded at a much slower pace back then. We were young, energetic, and we got on with it. On the other hand, it has always been my experience that if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.
DJ: After your win, was that it? Did you then retire from active participation in road running and racing and if so what caused that?
CW: No. After winning in 1982, I did carry on running competitively for a further 3 years, during which time I simultaneously became progressively more and more involved in athletics administration. In 1986 I gave birth to my 3rd son and the original intention was to return to competitive running, but it just never happened. By then I was employed fulltime as general secretary of the SA Road Running Association, which required a lot of travelling, I had two strapping teenagers, and a baby and something had to give. Family commitments obviously came first, so it became an easy decision to relinquish the stress of competition and serious training in favour of the joy and satisfaction I received through my job with SARRA in being part of enabling others to achieve.
DJ: You’ve been involved in admin of road running a very long time. What drew you to that?
CW: I suppose it was just another type of challenge, which I found more rewarding because it was less self-focussed. I enjoyed being part of a vibrant community of passionate, hard-working, dedicated people motivated and inspired by the achievements of others. I have grown so much as a person through the relationships I have made through running. It has been both a humbling and exhilarating journey to witness some phenomenal individual athletic achievements, watch the sport of distance running develop and prosper, participate in the staging of world class events – numerous SA Championships, the Johannesburg & Soweto Marathons, and of course the greatest of them all – Comrades. Most of all during my time with SARRA and later ASA, as well as with Comrades, wherever I have travelled I have met the most amazing heroes at grassroots level giving their time and energy to the sport.
DJ: That said, it must be extremely frustrating at times with all the changes you’ve seen and been through over the years. You’ve seen bodies like TRRA (the Transvaal Road Running Assoc) and SARRA (the South African Road Running Association) go and these were bodies that did a huge amount for road running and there must be times when you’ve wanted to throw in the towel but you didn’t and you’re still there.
Is this a case of you’d rather be on the inside looking out where you can do more than you can on the outside looking in where you perhaps can’t? If that is the case it must take enormous passion and drive. What keeps you going?
CW: I have always been a great believer and dedicated disciple of transformation in sport, so the answer is no, I have never experienced bitterness or regret that the old bodies had to be sacrificed to the cause of unity. There might have been just a little frustration at times, equally directed at both old and new orders – those who needlessly and selfishly resisted change, as well as those who exploited it for their own misguided purposes. I believe the not-so-secret ingredients of true leadership are humility, empathy, trust and respect and there are no shortcuts to true transformation – it demands integrity and sacrifice.
DJ: Have you had a break during the time I’ve known you in 1982 or have you been involved every year in the admin side of things since you started?
CW: The only real break I have had in athletics administration since first serving as Pirates Road Runners Secretary, then Chairperson in the late 1970’s, through involvement in Transvaal Road Running, then South African Road Running, Comrades Marathon and Athletics South Africa was a period between 2007 – 2013. In 2013 CMA experienced some transformational challenges and I was persuaded to come back.
DJ: I know you’ve been involved in many different aspects of the admin side of things from the secretarial to media to where you are now as newly appointed Chair of Comrades. What has given you the most satisfaction to date, excluding the Chairperson position which is brand new.
CW: First and foremost, it has been the lifelong friendships and the collaborative, incredible, mutually respectful and collegial relationships I have experienced at all levels. I have been blessed to have worked with literally hundreds of passionate, selfless, diligent, presidents, chairmen, secretaries, administrators, organisers, officials, coaches and enthusiastic volunteers all over South Africa and it has enriched my life and my personal character immensely.
The second most satisfaction I have experienced is to have borne personal witness to some of the most outstanding and record-breaking athletic achievements, such as:
1984 – to have witnessed Ernest Seleke becoming the first South African to break the 2:10 barrier for the marathon in Port Elizabeth in 2:09:41.
1986 – just two years later to have witnessed Zithulele Sinqe and Willie Mtolo shatter Seleke’s record running 2:08:04 and 2:08:10 respectively (also in Port Elizabeth) which at the time placed them in the top 10 all-time fastest marathons in the world.
1987 – the SA half marathon championships in East London in my mind goes down as one of the greatest achievements in South African sporting history when Matthews Temane pipped Zithulele Sinqe by 1 meter to shatter the world half marathon record in a time of 60:11, with Sinqe credited with the same time. Being there that day was the most electric sporting experience of my life.
Over the years there have been numerous other outstanding performances I have witnessed – such as Frith van der Merwe’s phenomenal Comrades 5:54:43 in 1989, Elana Meyer’s 46:57 15km African record in Cape Town 1991, Sam Tshabalala beating my good friend Willie Mtolo to become the first black winner of the Comrades Marathon also in 1989 and watching my other good friend from my earliest days of running, Bruce Fordyce, claim his 9th Comrades title.
And then, there are the ordinary runners – to this day, I never get through a whole Comrades Marathon day without being moved to tears by their sheer bravery, determination, passion, perseverance, joy and how much the race means to them.
DJ: And the most stress?
CW: To be honest, it is in my nature to strive to focus on the positive, but if I have to give an answer as to most stress I would have to say definitely the effects, the consequences and to this day the legacy of apartheid.
It broke my heart at the time to see athletes of the calibre of Temane, Sinqe, Mtolo, Xolile Yawa and others denied the international acclaim and recognition they rightfully deserved. It still breaks my heart that there is talent out there that goes undiscovered, while some of us bicker over the design of a t-shirt.
It breaks my heart that our modern-day Comrades winners do not enjoy the recognition and associated benefits that Comrades winners did 20 and 30 years ago.
And most of all it breaks my heart that a whole “class” of runners may be being left behind because of lack of access to technology. These are the sort of issues that I dwell on when I can’t sleep at night. These, plus the huge cultural chasms we struggle to breach amid lack of trust, empathy and respect for one another.
DJ: A bit of a fun question that I have asked many people who used to run “way back” is, If it were possible for you to run just one more Comrades in the modern era as it is now with 18,000 runners, would you like to be able to do so?
CW: I would certainly love to experience being on the start line, where the atmosphere is electric and the air is full of anticipation and possibility, and the camaraderie out on the road. However, I’m not so sure I would like to find myself at the bottom of Polly Shortts on an Up Run. I am too old for this.
DJ: You have a pretty good knowledge of Comrades. I have a thing in the men’s race I call my Super Comrades so now would be a good time to have the same thing for the women’s race as it’s been going 42 years. If it were possible to take all the women winners and line them up together in one Super Comrades who would be your top 5. If I remember correctly I think we’ve now had 25 different women’s winners. You can put them in any order and you are welcome to include yourself if you wish.
CW: To my mind there are an obvious top 4 –
- Frith van der Merwe
- Elena Nurgalieva
- Ann Trason
- Maria Bak.
- is a difficult call. Eleanor Greenwood and Caroline Wostmann both have had amazing one-offs, which they haven’t yet replicated. I suppose the other half of the twins – Olesya has to fit in there somewhere with 2 wins and 10 top 10 finishes, but I’m going to be patriotic and go with Farwa Mentoor for 10 top 10 finishes in a row between 2002 and 2011, during most of which she also finished as the 1st South African. During that period she was the only South African who was competitive against the Russians.
DJ: Interesting that you leave out the third of the only three women to have broken six hours!
Do you ever get out and do any sort of running these days? Even the odd parkrun?
CW: I have had two operations on my left foot and have developed a chronic lung disease, so no I am not able to run at all. I do however exercise daily – either gym, brisk walking, or both. Incidentally, I don’t think enough credit has gone to Bruce Fordyce for his introduction of the Park Runs which have instigated a 2nd road running boom in this country.
DJ: I certainly agree with that comment about Bruce.
Finally, how much longer are we going to see you involved in Comrades or are you getting close to calling it a day after your term in the chair is up – or do you have more that you still have to offer after that?
CW: I really am reaching the end of the road and have faithfully promised my family that this is my last term on the CMA Board, however I would like to remain involved with the CMA Official Charities, which is an aspect which is particularly close to my heart.
Our newly elected CMA Chairperson Cheryl Winn, the only person in Comrades history to have won the race and then gone on to hold the position of the chairperson. She has served this race and road running in South Africa in the most amazing ways over many years.
I think we’ll still see her around for a lot more years – but hey- that’s just my view!