June 21, 2018 by DAVE JACK
I was privileged to have been part of the seconding team of this year’s Comrades women’s winner, Ann Ashworth, and once I had got myself to the finish in time to see her cross the line, I made my way to the VIP lounge where I saw several of my running friends from many years ago. When they found out where I had been earlier in the day, I was asked “But who the heck is Ann Ashworth?”
I was delighted when I was asked this question because this meant that we had successfully sheltered Ann from too much media attention and this had allowed Ann to get on with her race preparation unhindered.
The question though as to who she is still needed to be answered. Once things had settled down a bit a few days after Comrades I sat down with Ann, a good friend, to ask her what the rest of the media hadn’t already asked since Ann’s brilliant win on the 10th of June.
I knew Ann was from Howick in the KZN Midlands but is that where she was born?
AA: I was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, then moved to the Eastern Cape for a few years, spent a year in what was then known as Zululand and then, when I was four, moved to MerrIvale, which is now considered a suburb of Howick. I grew up in Howick, did all my junior preschool, junior school and high school in Howick and then completely my first year of university in Bloemfontein. While I was in Bloem, my Dad got very ill and I decided that I didn’t want to be so far away or in Bloemfontein and so moved back home to Howick and did my law degree in Pietermaritzburg. I then only moved to Johannesburg when I got my first job as a candidate attorney.
DJ: Now when you went to varsity, had you already decided that law was the way you wanted to go and that was the way you studied?
AA: No, when I did my year in Bloemfontein, I actually thought I was going to do Sports Physiotherapy. I thought that that was a good way to keep in touch with sport and be active and just stay healthy. I also thought that was quite a nice career option and my parents were quite in favour of that because it’s easily transportable. You know, you can move anywhere in the world and take your physiotherapy skills with you and at that stage there was a lot of movement, a lot of people were still emigrating, it was still quite uncertain and so they thought that was a good option. But six months into physiotherapy, I knew that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like how medical it seemed to be. Not that I wasn’t interested in the human body, but it was just….. it was very little sports physio and a whole lot of rehab and medical physio as part of the training, and I didn’t enjoy it at all… and so then decided to study law after that. Law had always been my second option to physiotherapy, so when physiotherapy was off the table, we then went back to law.
DJ: Had you by this time, in school maybe or in varsity, already developed an interest in sport generally – general sport?
AA: Well I’m an only child and so only children tend to do a lot of sport as a way to meet and interact with other people – because you don’t have siblings to play with and so I did do sport at school. I did hockey, I did water polo quite badly because I’m too small to play water polo. I swam a lot. I was swimming up to four hours a day in the summer months and really training quite seriously as a swimmer. Swimming was definitely my best-performing sport at school and then really just did cross-country in the off-season to keep fit for swimming and same with track. Track was the only sport offered in the third term at my school, so everybody did track and I was okay. I really only came into my own in the second half of high school, so from standard eight, nine and ten…..
DJ: Are you talking about athletics now?
AA: …….and cross country. Senior High was really when I started to realise that, look okay, I actually can run, but that’s relatively speaking, because I grew up in Natal and Natal was always on the back-foot in terms of athletics and cross-country. I mean when we came up here to compete against Transvaal schools, you know, Natal was always last, so I didn’t really take my running seriously at all. It really was just something else that I did when I wasn’t swimming.
DJ: Why do you think that is in terms of the Natal schools? Do you think that something like Comrades hurts athletics in schools?
AA: I don’t think so. I think that the weather has a lot to do with it. Because it’s so hot and humid in KZN, our terms are not aligned with the rest of South Africa, so we swim…. In Natal, you swim in the first and fourth term, you then do cross-country in the second term and track in the third term, whereas in the Northern Provinces your track is year round and we’re only running on a term, maybe two terms worth of training and fitness, whereas the Northern Provinces are doing it all the time. Perhaps the Northern Provinces aren’t as good as Natal in terms of your water polo or your swimming or things like that, but I think it has a lot to do with the climate. I cannot imagine running any kind of long-distance in Natal in February. I mean it’s too hot.
DJ: Yet they do.
AA: It’s crazy. I definitely don’t think school children should be doing it.
DJ: When you were running track in school, what were you doing? 800 & 1500?
AA: 800, 1500, 3000.
DJ: As much as that?
AA: Ja. We could only do 3000 as a senior, so for standard 6 and 7 (now Grade 8 and 9), we could only do 800 and 1500 and then when I was a senior in high school, we could do the 3000. My school only had one race for the 3000. Boys and girls of all ages and shapes and sizes in one race, so I mean (chuckling) it wasn’t very serious. I did come up to Pretoria every February. There’s a Menlopark Athletics Meet, where they invite schools from the Midlands and I sometimes I won those races, but really, I didn’t take it seriously at all. Ja and then I did do SA Cross Country Champs for four out of five years, so you know I was running…
DJ: Did you feature there?
AA: No. Top twenty maybe, you know, it just wasn’t my priority. I just wasn’t fast enough …. And I wasn’t serious about my training, I really just did it to keep fit, but you know, I wasn’t super-competitive.
DJ: When did that start?
AA: In matric I actually got a partial Sports Scholarship to Bloemfontein to do my physiotherapy and then as part of that scholarship, had to join, obviously the Kovsie Track Group. That group was super-serious compared to the easy-going English girl from Natal. There were a lot of very serious Afrikaans girls, who thrashed me, quite frankly and I thought, “Shu, I’ve really got to do something about this. I can’t be here on a Sports Scholarship and not be performing.”, but I actually cracked under the pressure. I became severely Anorexic. My studies and my running went completely off the rails. My life generally was a bit of a train-wreck and as I got more and more Anorexic, my running performance got worse and worse, to the point that I stopped running altogether. I didn’t take up running again until after my Dad died. My Dad died in September 2007 and about a month later I signed up for Two Oceans and for me that was the way I was going to honour my Father’s memory, because he had always thought that I should do long-distance road-running.
DJ: Now it was he who actually introduced you to Comrades when you were very little.
AA: Ja, so my… well both parents. My parents used to watch Comrades on the TV all day and so it became a family tradition. There was nothing else on our diary for that day. We’d all sit around in our pyjamas and watch Comrades and if it was an Up-Run, we would go out on to the route and we would be anywhere from Cato Ridge to the Finish. The last year that Bruce Fordyce won was an Up-Run and my Dad and I were actually walking up Polly Shortts. My Mom was also on Polly Shortts, but we weren’t together at that particular moment, when Bruce came past us and I turned to my Dad and I said one day “I also want to run this race” and he said like, “Ja, you go. You must do it.” and it’s something that just never left me. Every time that we watched Comrades whilst growing up I always thought like, “Ja, one day I’m going to run this race” and it really was just a natural step and Two Oceans is a lot less further than Comrades, so that seemed like the first race that I should enter.
DJ: Now when you said that to him, you must have been what…. Six?
AA: Six, ja six.
DJ: And that was it. Decision made. No changing.
AA: Ja, everyone knows once I’ve set my mind to something, it’s not going to change.
DJ: Even from the age of six?
AA: Ja, I always knew. There was no question in my mind. I was always going to run Comrades.
DJ: You’d made your decision that you were going to run Comrades, yet you only ran your first one, probably when you were what….. 26, 27, 28?
AA: 26 I think, – 2008 – which is 24.
DJ: Which is actually fairly late having decided to run it at the age of 6?
AA Ja, you know I always had this idea in my mind that you didn’t really start running Comrades ‘til you were 30, like 30 was a nice round number. So when I got to 30, that’s when I’d run Comrades and so I didn’t really think about it. I just sort of thought, “Ja, ja, I’ll get there in the future.”, but when I started working as a Candidate Attorney in Jo’burg, my boss – or my immediate Supervisor – was a guy by the name of Anton Roets, he was a complete Comrades fanatic. He had done nine at that stage and he invited me to go for a couple of runs and like….. he’s your boss and he wants you to go for a run with him, so you go and we would do like 5 k’s around Illovo together and then I joined up with his running club and you know, I’d go and run a half-marathon with his group of mates and you know, it was quite sociable and he said to me, “Ann, I think you need to enter Comrades”, but he didn’t think I was going to be serious about it. He was like, “Come and run Comrades. Let’s be sociable.” and I’d met a lot of his friends in the running club which was a club called, “The Legends” and it was a nice group of guys and I thought, “Ja, okay that’s nice and sociable….”
DJ: Now were you running other races at that stage?
AA: Not even so much. I mean I’d do like a marathon, but nothing more than that…… but not even lots of marathons, like maybe two marathons a year, like Slowmag and Soweto.
AA: Socially, completely socially. I actually ran my first Soweto Marathon in 2007 and that’s how it started I think. I ran Soweto as a fund-raiser, to raise money for an orphanage just outside of Johannesburg and basically I just asked people to me money per kilometer over 42 kilometers. It was after Soweto that Anton said like, “Well you’ve run a qualifying Marathon now, you might as well sign up for Comrades.” and that’s really what got me in. I ran Comrades the next year. I think I trained four days a week and maybe did…… I think I did two or three long runs, but really socially. I mean, I think I actually ran a long run with The Legends and our long run of 60 k’s ended up taking me far longer than I actually took to run Comrades, like it was really slow and then ran Comrades and I finished on 8:01, which for a first Comrades is not bad. I was first Novice ……
DJ: But somebody had to realise that there was something there if you did 8:01 in your first Comrades?
AA: No, well….. so ja, I mean I did an 8:01 and I was First Novice and I won my age group and then Bruce Fordyce came to the “aches and pains” party or another Comrades-related function for our club and everybody there, all my mates at the club were like “Oh this is Ann. She did the best out of the club.” and he said, “Well what did you run?” I said, “8:01” and he looked at me and I was like expecting him to be like “Oh well done, that’s great.” because that’s all anyone had said about my 8:01 and then Bruce looked at me and said, “Well, what went wrong?” and I said, “What do you mean what went wrong, that’s a great time!” and he was like, “No-one runs at 8:01. You should be running a 7:59…. at least.” and I was like, “Okay….fine…. Let me try and now break 8 hours”.
Around about the same time I had asked another coach to help me and he was terrible, so terrible that I ended up not running Comrades the next year (2009), because the guy totally tanked my running. For some reason he thought that I should focus on half-marathons, even though I told him I wanted to do Comrades, but by the time we parted ways I was completely under-cooked to do a Comrades. So after the 2009 Comrades which I missed I messaged Bruce and I said, “Well, you know, you said that you thought that I could run under 8 hours. Why don’t you coach me and get me under 8 hours?”
At that stage he hadn’t coached anybody and he said, “Look I don’t do coaching. I don’t do this. This is not what I do.” and I said, “Ag, come on, let’s just try.” and he said, “Okay three months to Cape Town Marathon. I’ll try and get you under 3 and a half hours.
Like literally, I was running like 3.45, for a marathon and he said, “Three months training. Let’s see if we can get you under 3 and a half hours and if it works out, then I’ll continue to coach you and if it doesn’t, we go our separate ways.” So I said, “Okay, deal.”
So I trained with Bruce for three months, then a 3.27 at Cape Town and was thrilled. I thought, “Wooh, under 3 and a half hours, that’s amazing!” and then entered Comrades and Bruce then trained me for that Comrades and I ran my first silver medal in 2010. After that I was hooked. Then I was like, “Silver medal…..”
Bruce encouraging Ann during Comrades 2018 whilst seconding her
DJ: That was your second Comrades?
AA: That was then, yes, my second Comrades and now that I’d had a taste of that silver, now I thought, “Shu, now we’re going to work hard.” So it’s been quite a long journey…..
DJ: …..to here….
AA: Ja. (laughter)
DJ: How many left?
AA: I said I would never do more than 10.
DJ: ….and you’ve done 7”
AA: 7 – Ja, so I’ve got three left
DJ: Moving away from that altogether, when you started getting serious about Comrades and training and all that sort of thing, you obviously needed a training partner, so you went and married one.
DJ: How did you meet?
AA: So during the time that Bruce was coaching me and I ran my silver, I was running for the Nedbank Running Club. At the end of that year there was a prize-giving at the running club. David was the top-performing male runner at Comrades and I was then the top performing female at Comrades and so we attended that prize-giving separately. I took a boyfriend that I was dating at the time and David came alone and Gill Fordyce introduced us and she was like “David, this is Ann. She was the best female athlete” and “This is David. He was the best male athlete” and immediately I was like, “Now that’s cool. Like… now I might have somebody that I could run with.
So we became quite friendly and for me, I was like “No, I just want someone to run with, I’m not really interested. I’ve got a boyfriend. I don’t need another boyfriend” and so we went for coffee a couple of times and ja, David just pursued me relentlessly and …..
DJ: And the rest as they say?
AA: Ja, the rest is history, ja. Well his side of the story is that, he met me at the dinner and thought, “What the heck is Ann doing with that stupid guy?” (laughter). But ja, after a couple of coffee chats, I actually then found out that I had a scholarship to go to London and I was open with David and I said, “Look, you know, we can’t really be dating because I’m going to London for a year.” and David’s attitude was “That’s fine, I’ll come with you.” and so within three months of dating, David came with me to London for a while and then came back and we did a six month long-distance relationship, where we ate dinner every night together over Skype. I would make my dinner and he would have his dinner and then we’d Skype eating dinner together, which was very romantic and then about two weeks after I got back, after finishing my studies, David proposed and I said “Yes” and that’s where we are, six years later.
DJ: Now when people ask “Who the heck is Ann Ashworth”, we know
AA: Now you know all about me…..
21 June 2018