VERY SPECIAL COMRADES FEATS

If you can run and finish the Comrades Marathon within the time limit it’s always been regarded as a feat but, in my saying that to complete Comrades is a feat it could be regarded as something of an oxymoron when you consider that some time ago I wrote that Comrades isn’t hard.  So what on earth am I going on about then?

It’s been said many times by many people that if Comrades was easy then everyone would do it but when you consider the number of South Africans who could fall into the category to qualify to run Comrades and you compare it to the total number in the 94 editions of the race that we’ve had since it all started in 1921, the percentage is very small so what on earth am I on about when, on the one hand I say that it’s a special feat to run this race yet on the other hand, I say it’s not hard?

Allow me to try to explain before we look at some of what I think have been very special feats we’ve seen in this event over the years.

I don’t think that Comrades itself is hard and as always, I am talking to those who run between 9 and 12 hours because that’s what I know and that’s where I have been other than two of mine where I dipped under 9  hours and I’ve written previously that the hard part of Comrades is getting to the start.  The training is hard and you need to be both physically and mentally prepared and it’s that preparation that makes it a special feat to run and finish the 90km between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in decent condition.

The training takes extreme dedication over at least 6 months (and sometimes longer) and that’s the part that’s hard. That’s the part that makes it a special feat for anyone to finish this race. Race day itself to the ordinary runner who has trained properly is not hard. I always found it to be a great day in my runs, and “they” say it’s something every South African should do at least once and I totally agree but be careful because once it gets into your system, it’s very difficult to get rid of it. Certainly there can be times when you might have prepared properly and on race day you still come undone. It’s happened to me but I’m not alone. That’s when the mental training kicks in and gets you home but you go back the following year to “fix” it.

What I want to look at in this article, and this is not intended to take away anything from anyone who has run Comrades (and I’ve started and finished 14 of them) are the very special feats that have been achieved in this magical event over the years and it’s some of those I want to look at.

There have been some very special feats in Comrades, feats that in some way set themselves apart from the others and in looking at them, the one that immediately springs to mind has to be Bruce Fordyce. Eight wins in successive years, then a one year break before coming back to win his 9th, something that no other male runner has come anywhere near.

                                                        Bruce Fordyce as he’s best remembered                                                                                                                                             

 The closest to Bruce’s 9 wins was the 8 in the women’s race by Elena Nurgalieva, one of the famous Russian twins we got to know so well at Comrades.

                         Elena Nurgalieva during one of her 8 wins

 

Second to Bruce in the number of wins by men are 4 runners who have each won 5 Comrades. Arthur Newton in the 1920s, Hardy Ballington in the 1930s, Wally Hayward in the 1950s and Jackie Mekler in the 1960s.

Fordyce won his 6th Comrades to put himself ahead of all the others in 1986 and that was 33 years ago and since then nobody has come close to 5 wins let alone 9 of them. There have been a couple of 3 time winners since then but 3 is a long way short of 9!

Will we see any other runner achieve this? It’s always possible – anything is possible but if that happens it’s going to be a fairly long time away because 2019 was the start of the new “cycle” with both the winners in 2019 notching up their first wins and those few runners with 3 wins already before 2019 are going to have to work hard to better that to push those up to 4 and beyond.  

Whilst Bruce and the 5 wins group had very special achievements there have been other “very special feats” at Comrades and it’s also some of those I want to look at briefly as well.

I’m going to start by going way back to the first few Comrades. The man whose name will go down in history is Bill Rowan, winner of the first Comrades in 1921. He did a time of 8:59 which by today’s standards is pretty slow but there is a medal named after him if any runner can break 9 hours (they were introduced after I ran my sub 9 races), and that medal is symbolic of the fact that they have run a time faster than the first winner. I wonder how many runners even realise that.

Was 8:59 a very special feat in 1921? When one considers that it had never been done before, and to win a footrace over 54 miles on roads like those they had to use which were dirt almost the entire way, one has to say it was a “Very Special Feat”.

That was the only Comrades that Bill Rowan ever won but that doesn’t matter because he will forever be remembered as the first winner. Rowan ran again in 1922 and finished 3rd after having travelled from what was then known as the Belgian Congo to get to Comrades.

What was so special about those early Comrades that, incidentally, had a 12 hour time limit for the first few years? Well firstly, most of the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban was dirt. It was quite a long time before we saw tarred roads all the way from start to finish. That in itself must have been pretty tough running.

Take a look at photographs of the clothes they wore and at the shoes and you’ll understand why these were very special feats.

Bill Rowan running gear when he won in 1921

 

It’s not only Bill Rowan, the first winner of Comrades we need to salute. I wrote a blog some time ago in which I said that winning this race is no easy job although to the untrained eye it may look that way. The history of the race has literally dozens of names of runners who would dearly have loved to have been amongst those winners that some refer to as “The Winners’ Club” and some of those who didn’t quite manage it were exceptional runners in their own right but on the day, there was always someone better and membership of “The Winners’ Club” never came to them and many of those runners have been forgotten.

Amongst the men who have won, it’s a touch over 50 of them in total and 30 women have yet to win the women’s race.

Go through the list of 5 time gold medal winners who have their name and race number in perpetuity but don’t feature amongst the winners. Most people don’t have the slightest idea who they are, but having said that, to come away from Comrades with a gold medal is a very special feat.

 Arthur Newton in the 1920s

 

Make no mistake, these were all very special feats, but what of those less known that could be called “very special feats”?   An example was the 1940 win by Allen Boyce who finished just under 2 hours ahead of the 2nd placed runner. It’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever see that again.

Another very special feat was by Wally Hayward in 1953 when he became the first man to run Comrades in under 6 hours. That was a Down Run and it was another 7 years before Jackie Mekler became the first person to run the Up Run in under 6 hours. Jackie did that in winning the 1960 Comrades.

Jackie Mekler becomes the first man to run the Up Run in under 6 hours

 

Those two gentlemen who were the first to break 6 hours are sadly no longer with us but they achieved very special feats with those first ever sub 6 hour runs.

As far as the women were concerned, we had to wait 36 years after Wally Hayward did it for the first woman to run the Down Run in under 6 hours and that was Frith van der Merwe in 1989 but it was 59 years after Jackie Mekler broke 6 hours before we had our first woman to run the Up Run in under 6 hours when Gerda Steyn did this in 2019.

Frith van der Merwe after becoming the first woman to run under 6 hours

 

Some might be tempted to say that Frith’s sub 6 hour Down Run in 1989 was no big deal but it’s worth remembering that on the Down Run only three women in the history of the race have run under 6 hours and prior to 2019 no woman had run the Up Run under 6 hours until Gerda Steyn did it with a brilliant run in 2019 so Gerda’s run is certainly a very special feat and is certainly a very big deal when you realise that she is the only woman to have run under 6 hours on the Up Run.

                           Gerda Steyn on her way to the first woman to run sub 6 hour Up Run

 

Alan Robb with his 4 wins was the first man under 5 hours 30 in 1978 and he finished some 19 minutes ahead of the second placed man.

Alan Robb coming home to win

 

David Gatebe was the first, and at this stage, only man under 5 hours 20 and that was in 2016. Whilst Alan Robb’s 5 hours 30 has been broken again on both the Up and the Down runs, Gatebe’s 5:20 hasn’t yet been equalled, or bettered, in either direction and Gatebe himself hasn’t come close to that time again. 2016 just happened to be “his day”.

David Gatebe the only person to go sub 5:20 for the Down Run

 

As I said at the start, merely finishing Comrades is a feat but the performances I have outlined lift it a notch higher and allow me to include the words “Very special” in front of the word “Feats” and these are but a few of more I could mention.

There have been blind runners who have finished having to be led the entire distance either following something like a handkerchief tucked into the waistband of the shorts of the runner in front of the unsighted runner or a cord held between the blind runner and his “guide”. One of the best known unsighted runners was the Late Ian Jardine who was led mainly by Gerry Treloar,   Ian Jardine finished Comrades 14 times whilst unsighted.

Ian Jardine (left) being led by Gerry Treloar during a Comrades

 

We have seen runners having to crawl on all fours across the finishing line when their legs simply “gave in” when they were in sight of the finish line – and still finish in the gold medals.

Another very special feat was Tilda Tearle who won the race in 1993 but then went on to get a triple green number for finishing over 30 Comrades but there are also two men who have won and gone on to notch up a total of ridiculously high finishes. Alan Robb who was 4 time winner has a total of 42 medals to his credit whilst Bruce Fordyce has 30 in in his collection.

Whilst we’re looking at Very Special Feats, let’s not forget Barry Holland and Louis Massyn.  Both have run 47 consecutive Comrades. The question on everybody’s lips is who will get to that magical 50 medals first but quite honestly, I don’t think that matters. The fact that they have both run 47 consecutive medals goes way beyond simply “A Very Special Feat”

                                                   Barry Holland                                            

                                       Louis Massyn                       

 So whilst we salute each and every person who has completed Comrades within the time limit which is now 12 hours, as a feat, do yourself a huge favour and have a look at Comrades history if you want to add the “very special feats” to those of the ordinary runner.

But make no mistake, just to finish Comrades is a feat but train properly and run properly on race day, and it can be a great day out as well as a feat to brag about.

4 November 2019

LSD – COME BACK ALL IS FORGIVEN

In recent years, whilst the top runners have stuck with the concept of Long Slow Distance (LSD) – and slow is releative to your race speed – as part of their training for races especially like Comrades, however, the idea of spending hours out on the road for the “ordinary” runner, the runner who is going to get home between 9 and 12 hours simply doesn’t appeal and even at peak Comrades training time you’ll find many of the “ordinary” runners taking part in half marathon races rather than LSD and those who claim to do LSD are running 20 -25km and claiming that’s LSD.

The result is that LSD training has lost a lot of ground in recent years.  I was talking to a coach very recently who said that LSD should be present in every runner’s training whether fast or slow.  He went on to say that the latest research into polarised training (also known as 80/20 training) is that 80% is at extremely slow pace and 20% at maximal. It can’t make you slower  as was the original thinking. What it does is it saves you from being tired on the fast stuff all the time – these are the words of a coach and not my words and I stress once again that I am not a coach.

He went on to say that the “easy” runs that most follow are not easy enough and have a negative effect so to the average runner the message is clear. Get out there for Long Slow Distance and you’ll feel the difference.  OK! So you don’t get a medal at the end of it but it makes life so much easier in the longer term.

I’m delighted to see that almost every coach I hear talking and many clubs that organise club runs, are putting in long runs which are generally gentle and enjoyable and are not intended to be races.  

When I last wrote about LSD, I spoke to a couple of top runners. Bruce Fordyce said that a long slow training run should be about an hour slower than would been a race over the same distance.

Bruce Fordyce in one of his 9 wins

This doesn’t really work too well if you are a 4:30 marathon person. An hour longer and it’s going to be a long day but I would think this would work well for anyone who is a 3:30 marathon runner and faster.

2018 women’s winner Ann Ashworth, when I asked her about long slow training runs felt that it can be measured if the running is at “conversation speed”. 

This means that whilst you are out there on the road with others on a training run, you should be able to hold a comfortable conversation with your fellow runners.  If you can’t do that then you are in effect running at race speed.  This also works well if you are genuinely running at training pace and not race pace – some might say that in their opinion it’s the same thing.

So that takes care of the “slow” part of LSD but how far is the “long” part of  Long Slow distance?  I think this depends to a very large degree on what you’re training for.  If it’s a half marathon and that’s your limit there isn’t really any LSD involved in your training.  If you read the autobiography of that great Comrades man, the late Jackie Mekler, his idea of a long training run (and it probably wasn’t that slow as he was a top runner) was to go out on a Sunday morning and do the better part of 100km training runs.  

Jackie Mekler wearing his famous race number 9

I had the privilege of running many times with Dave Bagshaw in long slow runs and on those runs, Dave did run slowly and quite a few of those runs were with the Ian Jardine group I mention later and we did around 4 hours for our 32kms every week..  If you’re not sure who Dave Bagshaw is, he was the second man after Arthur Newton 40 years earlier, to win three Comrades in three successive years and most of that was on LSD.

Dave Bagshaw coming in to win his first Comrades in 1969

Incidentally, after Dave Bagshaw did his “hat trick” of wins only three more male runners have achieved that and just three female runners have done it.  You’ll find the details in my article titled COMRADES – “THE HAT TRICK CLUB”

If Comrades is what you have in mind, take the advice of your coach (if you have one) or of your club.  What generally happens is that many people start to look at qualifying for Comrades in November with races like the Kaapsehoop Marathon which many will tell you is not tough or the Soweto Marathon which,  whilst it is without doubt a great experience to take in the streets of South Africa’s biggest “township” is a very tough (and hot) race so be prepared. Almost certain that it’s unlikely to be your fastest marathon time.

Many people will tell you that Comrades training starts proper in March although many will have been running regularly at distances of 30kms before then but in March the distances slowly start to increase as you head towards April and that’s the big distance month.  I remember that the year I ran my best Comrades (it was only 8:29 which is not spectacular if you normally run silver or faster) during April I did about three runs of 50km or more and ended it up with a very long run over the first weekend of May.

I’ve heard some runners saying that they regard 15 or 20kms as LSD.  It really isn’t  because by April your long mid-week runs are often that distance.  

Another mistake that many “would be” Comrades runners make is that during that crucial month of April they are running in half marathons as their long training runs.  If you’re running 20kms to get to the start of the half marathon and then the half marathon, that’s probably great but the half marathon itself is not going to be what you need on the second Sunday in June.  Remember that on that day you have 90kms to do and even if by some kind of miracle your legs are happy with short run training (even if it’s a race), there’s a good chance that somewhere around 60kms your head will start to tell your legs that its had enough.

If that happens, you’re in for a very long and probably painful last 30kms and 30kms after you’ve already done 60, is fairly heavy going

Some people enjoy the “camaraderie” in a race but try  spending the better part of anything up to 6 or 7 hours with a group of good mates whilst out on a long training run. It’s amazingly good fun and makes running very enjoyable.  I have many very fond memories of the days when I ran 32km every Sunday with the famous blind runner of the 1950s and 1960s, Ian Jardine and his group on part of the Comrades route.  We started at the top of Botha’s Hill and ran to what is now Inchanga Caravan Park and back and that was until the beginning of March when after that it was increased week by week. 

LSD became part of my life for many years and I ran my best of 8:29 using the same method of training and my distances grew each Sunday as I felt myself getting stronger and stronger.

I mentioned training over the Comrades route as often as I could for my first 8 Comrades but I was fortunate to have lived near the route and got to know it extremely well and I also think that’s important and for that reason, I publish my detailed route description every year in the hopes that it will assist those who don’t have the good fortune to be able to train on the route itself.

In my first Comrades in 1968, I eventually reached the finish in 10:25 in around position 320 – something of a change from the position you would find yourself in today with a time of 10:25! 

Coming in to finish my first Comrades in 10:25. Alone on the track!

One of the things of which I am still proud today were my splits for that first Comrades and I put that down firmly to LSD. First half 5:10 and second half 5:15. Whilst 10:25 can’t be regarded as a spectacular time by any stretch of the imagination, when I look at the way some runners today who battle to get to the finish in 12 hours really struggle, that 10:25 was OK.

Incidentally even my best run when I did my 8:29, my splits were pretty even because I had the strength to maintain my speed and for that I thank my LSD training.  I have always believed that is the key to Comrades. Get stronger both physically and mentally and that’s what I firmly believe LSD will do for you but you must do it properly.

One thing that is very difficult though, is to try to do LSD on your own.  I ran many long runs of up to 50kms on my own and it’s not easy.  I found that having friends around me and even if we heard the same jokes every weekend and laughed at those jokes every weekend, it was that, that made my running so very enjoyable.

Then of course, there’s the other aspect of it.  It’s a lot cheaper to do a long training run with friends using either shops or service stations to buy your drinks (or if you are fortunate enough to get your life partner to get out of bed and do the seconding) than it is to run in races every weekend that some people do.

Over the last couple of years, a few women runners I know have said that from a security point of view they would rather be in a race with lots of people around them than on a training run with just a few others.  I fully understand their concern and it’s for that reason that I say “hats off” to those clubs that are organising long and seconded  training runs over weekends.  It’s a huge job to do that and if your club is one of those doing that, support them. They deserve the accolades. 

Get to understand the importance and the role of LSD and then go and thoroughly enjoy yourself doing them.

October 2019

DAD, I’M READY. WATCH ME FROM ABOVE

“Dad I’m ready. Watch me from above. Watch me from up there”.

COMRADES STARTLINE 2019 AS JENNA LOOKS UPWARDS

 

These are the dramatic words spoken by Jenna Challenor seconds before the start of the 2019 Comrades and a moment captured in this photograph.

Always a self-confessed “Daddy’s Girl” Jenna lost her father tragically late last year and as he was her hero, she looked up to the skies on Comrades morning and said these words with a smile on her face.

She certainly was ready and first time out at Comrades, Jenna took home the gold medal for finishing in 6th place on the 10th of June 2019.

I had the chance to sit with Jenna and to try to find out a little bit more about her.

Jenna Challenor      

 

DJ:      Are you a Durban girl born and bred?

JC:      Yes. Born and bred, I love Durban and have lived here my whole life. I was very privileged to go to Durban Girls’ College and had the absolute best time at school. I’d go back there any day 😉 and am so grateful to my Dad for all he did to send me to this prestigious school. I actually had my 20 year school reunion there a few weeks ago and – wow – since I was there, there has been a lot of development and I must admit I felt a little hard done by – hahaha! They have an amazing new aquatic centre, a beautiful gym above it, and a full size astro turf to name a few upgrades. We had awesome facilities back then too and were very spoilt but nothing like the facilities there now.

 

DJ:     Were you involved in a lot of sporting activities when you were at school or did that only come later?

JC:      I was a sporting all-rounder at school and having two older brothers with whom I had to keep up, made me very competitive. I did everything they did, from judo to gymnastics, ballet, swimming, hockey, running, you name it I did it. I was even put in a bin and used as their cricket wickets often and I was just happy to be involved- haha! I was competitive on the beach in life saving. I loved it, it was the absolute best way to grow up in Durban, learning about the ocean, whilst doing sport with your friends, on the beach.

 

DJ:      Am I getting it wrong but didn’t you represent South Africa at lifesaving?

JC:      Yes, I did lifesaving “nippers” when I was young and then juniors and seniors. I represented Durban Surf at World Champs in 1998 in New Zealand and that’s when I met my husband, we were in the same team (lucky me). I was 16 then and Durban Surf won the World Champs that year. When I was growing up I regarded myself more as sporting all-rounder. I played provincial hockey, I ran provincially at both athletics and cross country but I never focussed on one sport. I was in the swimming team too, did some diving, and a little netball too. I never had a coach for running so I just did what I thought should be done and ran on fitness I got from other sports. A coach only came much later in life.

 

DJ:      With all these sports there must have been one that you preferred above the others

JC:      It was definitely running but I did also loved hockey. In KZN there’s not a lot of opportunity for track athletics so it was cross country mainly. My passion was definitely there, I wasn’t a track athlete.

I was also very fortunate that my parents never put any pressure on me or tried to push me in one direction. They were supportive and happy for me to do whatever sports I wanted to do and I think that with two older brothers, I learnt to push myself hard to keep up. I thank them for never being easy on me and for their torturous ways – they made me tough.

 

DJ:      A question you perhaps won’t like, but with all your sporting success, how was the classroom and results there.

 JC:      I was by no means super academic but I did alright in the classroom. I was never an academic or “A” student but I worked hard and had pleasing results as a “B” student and I was happy with that.

 

DJ:      After school you went and studied to become a teacher didn’t you?

JC:      Yes, I got a B.Ed foundation phase degree. I was offered a scholarship to go and run in America when I was in matric but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to make running my life so we didn’t pursue that and I decided that I would rather stay here and study and see what lay ahead. I did the usual varsity thing. After school, I didn’t concentrate too much on running. I did a bit of social running and I took a break from competitive running. It was only after the birth of my first daughter that I decided to get back into competitive running.

 

DJ:      You must have taken a break from running during your pregnancies?

JC:      NO, actually not. I ran during all of my pregnancies right up to the day I was in labour, although I was VERY careful using a heart rate monitor and I didn’t race. My soul focus was a healthy baby and just keeping sane with a bit of running. A funny story; When I went into labour and went to hospital for the birth of my first daughter I wasn’t quite ready so the doctor said I should walk around the parking lot. My immediate reaction was “Oh! You are kidding me” so I went down to North Beach and ran 7kms along the promenade and then went back to the hospital in the hopes that the run would speed things up! It didn’t, 36 hours of labour and eventually an emergency C-section, but I got a beautiful healthy baby girl. The best day of my life.

 

DJ:      So how long were you out of running whilst all the babies were arriving?

JC:      I absolutely loved the “new born” stage with my children and didn’t rush that stage to run. They grow up so fast. I got back into running after, Nicolette, my first baby, only to decide 15 months later that I wanted another one. After Rylee, my second, I started running seriously again and I think this is where I was noticed for the first time since school. 15 months later I did want another   baby, but my husband was hearing none of it, hence the big gap to my third, Tao. I had to beg for her for 4 years but I did get my way eventually – hehe! One positive, the big gap did give me more time to get my competitive running established.

 

DJ:      In the middle of all this sport there was also a period of photography. Tell me about that.

 JC:      When I was teaching I started photography as a hobby at the pre-school where my kids were. It was mainly self-taught with some professional guidance from Brett Florence. My focus was family photography and new-born shoots and I built a photographic studio at home. Teaching, photography, running and two children became too much so I decided to resign from teaching and do my photography which gave me the flexibility to run more and make sure I was there for my children.

THE VERY CLOSE CHALLENOR FAMILY ON THE TRACK

 

DJ:      How long have you been a professional runner?

JC:      Well, I guess with working I was considered a semi-professional runner but I would say it was after my third daughter was born in 2012. She is 7 now so I have been a professional athlete for 7 years. Soon after she was born I was back into my running seriously and the time was right to start running professionally.

 

DJ:      So you were over 30 when you started running professionally. That’s a bit late isn’t it?

JC:      Well yes, before that I was semi- professional as I was still teaching and doing photography. With three births it was a bit stop-start. After my third in 2012, it was “babies done, time to run” and I really put my head down and decided I wanted to give it a full go and that’s when I guess I turned pro. I tended to do things the other way round in life. I had my daughters very young and now I’m running professionally. It is a juggling act as a mum but it’s also so awesome because I am a young mom and they are now able to train with me and share in my passion, they are my biggest fans along with my incredible husband who dreams my dreams as big as I do. He is the reason I am able to run as a mom of three children.

A huge part of what inspires me to run now, is the ability to inspire women, especially moms, to do things for themselves and to show them that sport doesn’t have to stop after having children. If I can do it with 3 children so can they, I believe a little ME time doing what I love makes me a better mom.

 

DJ:      With everything you’re involved in, where do you find the time for your own training?

JC:      Where there is a will there is always a way, everyone has their things. I train around my children. My first session is always at 4:30 in the morning. I then get the girls ready for school, drop them off and go to my second session, well – after a cup of coffee of course! That’s about 2 hours. I start fetching children at 12.30. Tao is first then we go to her extra murals (either gymnastics, ballet or swimming). At 2pm I fetch the other two from school , take them home to eat lunch then I will drop them wherever they need to be (running, hockey, swimming ,matches etc.) and I will do my third session while they train, before I fetch them again. It works but I have a strict schedule and can’t fit much more into my day and by 7pm I am shattered. My husband helps a lot and my mom in law where she can, so I am very blessed.

 

DJ:      From the point of view of your own running, do you coach yourself or do you have a coach?

JC:      Yes I do have a coach but he prefers to be low key, all the same I’m honoured to call Ernie Gruhn my coach, my friend and a person who believes in me and pushes me to be the best that I can be. He is a very special person to me and my family.

Jenna with her coach Ernie Gruhn

I started training with Ernie just before World Half marathon champs in 2014 and it was one of the best decisions of my running career. He has taught me the value of consistency and has given me belief in my abilities and myself.

 

DJ:      I’ve read someplace that a lot of your Comrades inspiration has come from Bruce Fordyce with encouragement from him.

BRUCE AND JENNABruce Fordyce and Jenna

JC:      Yes, Bruce is a really good friend and I have had a lot of encouragement from him. He has nagged me to run Comrades for many years but I didn’t really know when the right time was so I worked my way up through the distances until a started looking at ultras. I also only ran my first marathon in 2014 when my last born daughter turned two. I have run 5 marathons in total and raced 3.

I still run so passionately and competitively because I believe our children are influenced by what they are exposed to and I want to show my children life through sport, how amazing it is and to teach them to be grateful for their health and mobility and never to take it for granted. I always tell them that sport takes you places, opens doors, creates opportunities and makes you so many friends.  

My girls have already experienced doors opening through sport with their sports bursaries to Epworth High School in Pietermaritzburg, a school we simply couldn’t afford to send them to without the bursaries and that is credit to them and what they have put into their sports.  I also want them to do ALL sports right now and to choose the sports they like the most and not just run because I do.

Of my three daughters, it’s the middle one who is absolutely besotted with running, she’s is 12 now and doing very nicely but I follow a LESS IS MORE philosophy with her while she is so young. My oldest also loves sport, she is a very good swimmer and her passion is surf life-saving like her dad. They both also enjoy hockey, paddling, biathlon and triathlon. Rylee wants to be a professional athlete like mom one day, Nix says she definitely doesn’t want to, it’s far too much hard work – classic, I love their honesty.

 Sport definitely has the power to change people- I love how, in a race or on a run no matter what religion or race we are, we are all equal, all friends, supporting each other doing what we love with so much passion.

 

 DJ:      Apart from people like Bruce has any other runner inspired you?

 JC:      Yes. Without doubt it’s been Helen Lucre, she helped me a bit when I was younger and I always loved hearing about her running and Comrades days. Sadly though I don’t think that Helen has had as much recognition as she perhaps should have had. The trouble is that people don’t seem to know much about Helen because of the fact that she was at the top in the mid-1980s when road running and even Comrades didn’t have the exposure it has today. She was a really good runner and a very humble athlete who won Comrades three years in a row as well as many other races.

 

 DJ:      Over the last couple of years you have emerged as a better than average ultra-distance runner and it was probably in Two Oceans in 2017 that people first started to take notice of you as an ultra-runner when you finished 2nd.

Jenna takes 2nd place at 2017 Two Oceans

JC:      It’s definitely the longer races that I’m enjoying now. I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to run ultras, I couldn’t do it when my daughters were younger, I felt it wasn’t fair on them or me but they are older now so now I can.

All I wanted from Comrades this year was to simply love it and I did just that. I loved every step of the way – ok, except perhaps the last 2kms which were hard. I love running so much, to me it’s more than just winning. If I run a race and finish 4th/5th or 6th like I did at Comrades this year, but I enjoy it, have fun and feel good, it’s a win for me and it’s the reason I RUN. Comrades was next level, I LOVED the crowds, they were ABSOLUTELY awesome and it’s an incredible feeling to race in my hometown. I literally smiled and waved to friends from start to finish.

Jenna comes home 6th in COMRADES 2019. Note the rose she’s holding

 

DJ:      Tell me about the Olympics. A few years ago you qualified to run the Olympic Marathon but injury stopped that from happening and now the rules have been changed in terms of the times you would need to run to qualify. Right now, you’re about 7 minutes short of the new qualifying time. Are those 7 minutes too big an ask now?

JC:      It’s every athlete’s dream to run the Olympics and I was really sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to run in the Olympics because realistically it’s probably the only opportunity I would have had. I dream big but I’m not unrealistic, if Olympics came to me I would take it with open hands but I’m not focussing only on Tokyo next year, and to be honest, I think it’s just too far for me to take 7 minutes off my time and I feel at my age its too late to focus on marathons now.

 

DJ:      Is there going to be a big focus on Comrades next year. Are you planning to run again?

 JC:      I don’t think I’m going to change what I’ve been doing. I’ve been having so much fun and I’m just so grateful to be running again after my stress fracture don’t think I’m going to change what I’ve been doing. I’m just so grateful to be running again after my stress fracture last year and yes I’d love to try the Down Run. It’s a totally different race being a Down Run and longer than the Up Run but I definitely want to line up for it, all going well. It’s a long way away still. I don’t want all my eggs in one basket. I will race other races too.

 

 That then is Jenna Challenor. Wife, mother and runner and 6th in Comrades and a gold medal in her first Comrades run in 2019 and a gold medal in both 2017 and 2019 at Two Oceans.

I think we can expect more medals in that gold colour from this lady!

 ******************************************

 A FINAL WORD by Jenna

A little girl. A big dream. A COMRADES ROSE            

For as long as I can remember I have said I WILL RUN Comrades and I will get that red rose (given to the first 10 men and first 10 women just before the finish line). The day before a race Brett often gets me roses, this time he arrived home and said “I didn’t buy you roses, go out and get your own tomorrow!

 10 September 2019

THE LADIES OF COMRADES

SINCERE THANKS TO THE COMRADES MARATHON ASSOCIATION FOR THE PHOTOGRAPHS

It was in 1975 during the running of the Golden Jubilee Comrades that women were permitted to run officially for the first time and since then we’ve seen some fantastic performances.

Before we move forward from 1975, let’s first go back to the days when women were not permitted to run officially but some ran as unofficial competitors. One small thing though before we move onto the stories, you will notice that the heading of this article refers to “ladies”.   Many years ago when I was still a radio reporter covering road races around South Africa and a couple in Europe, I referred to the “ladies” and I was severely taken to task and told in no uncertain terms by a race official (can’t remember who it was) who said to me that there were no ladies in any road races and that they were women.

Women were running and I should stop referring to anything other than women. I did have a major problem with that as I had been using the term “ladies” for quite a few years and even in this article I keep swapping between “women” and “ladies

The first woman to finish Comrades – in an unofficial run – was Frances Hayward in 1923. It was the third running of Comrades and the second Down Run. She took 11:35:28 seconds to do the distance and she managed an unofficial 28th position of the 30 men who finished. “After the race, Miss Hayward said:  

Frances Hayward – first woman to run Comrades – 1923

“Now that I’ve done it, I think it’s too much for women.  I think it’s the last 10 miles (16km) that kill” 

It seems that nothing much has changed since then in terms of those last 16km!

The difference then is that the route between Pietermaritzburg and Durban was almost all dirt road!

1928 saw the time limit lowered to 11 hours (it had previously been 12 hours) and it stayed at 11 hours for many years only changing for the first time in 2000 to 12 hours.  It then went back to 11 hours for two years but was soon changed again to 12 hours where it remains today.

It was almost 10 years before we saw a woman completing Comrades in both directions when Geraldine Watson was the first woman to do this.  She won the Down Run in 1931 and then the Up Run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg 1932 and was then back again for the Down Run in 1933 when she ran her best time of 9:31. I can’t find any record that she ran again after 1933.  

Geraldine Watson. The first woman to run 3 consecutive Comrades – 1931-1933

For many years The Geraldine Watson Trophy was awarded to the last runner home in the time limit.

After Geraldine Watson it was a fairly long time before we saw women running again as they were still unofficial. I remember Maureen Holland, with whom I did a fair amount of running in the late 60s and early 70s, being the first woman home in three consecutive years but not recognised because she was still unofficial.

Interesting that for quite a while she was reflected in the results on the Comrades website but her name has since been removed as all her runs were prior to women being allowed to run officially.

In 1975, Comrades organisers approached the controlling body of athletics in South Africa to have the race open to all people irrespective of race or sex. I was a member of Collegians Harriers at the time and Collegians were the custodians od Comrades before the formation of the CMA and the heated arguments at the Harriers AGM about whether the approach to the controlling body should be made. Eventually sanity prevailed and permission for the race to be open was given.

Two women started although the first woman home that year was declared to be unofficial after a problem with her entry. That year, novices had to qualify in a marathon in under 3 hours 30 and there was something wrong with the qualifying. Whether she didn’t qualify or not I don’t remember. Elizabeth Cavanagh finished in 10:08:00 and goes down in the record books as the first official women’s winner.

BETTY CAVANAGH FINISHING IN 1975

From 1976 to 1978 it was Lettie van Zyl who won three in succession.  In 1977, she broke the Up Run time set two years before and then set a best time (record) for the Down Run in 1978, the year incidentally, that Alan Robb became the first runner to finish Comrades in under 5 hours 30 minutes.

lettie van zylLETTIE VAN ZYL – winner 1976-1978

 

Two years later in 1980 on the Down Run and we had started to see bigger fields, it was Isavel Roche-Kelly after whom the women’s medal introduced in 2019 is named who set a new best women’s down run time of 07:18:00 and in doing that was the first woman to earn a silver medal (no gold medal for the winner at that time) for finishing in a time under 7hr 30min.

isavel roche-kellyISAVEL ROCHE-KELLY

Isavel won again in 1981, this time in 6:44:35, the first woman under 7 hours. Sadly Isavel was killed in a cycling accident in Ireland soon after this.

The interesting winner of the ladies race in 1982, was Cheryl Winn, the last lady to get a silver for winning and who many years later went on to become the Chairperson of the Comrades Marathon Association, the first time that the winner of either the men’s race or the women’s race achieved the distinction of being elected as Chair of Comrades.

                                                                    CHERYL WINNING                                    CHERYL WINN COMING IN TO WIN 1982                                                                      

It was Lindsey Weight who was first home in both 1983 and 1984. In 1983 (an Up Run) she ran 7:12:56 and in 1984 it was 6:46:35 to set a new Down Run best time.

LINDSEY WEIGHT (2)LINDSEY WEIGHT WINNING 1984

 

1985 saw the next of the multi winners of the lady’s race when Helen Lucre won in 6:53:24, beating the winner of the two previous races, Lindsey Weight who had to be content with 2nd place. Helen went on to win the next two races in 1986 in 6:55:01 and 1987 in 6:48:42, the second lady to win three in a row after Lettie Van Zyl did it a decade previously

 In 1988 we saw Frith van der Merwe home first in 6:32:56, a new best time but the best was yet to come for Frith because in 1989 history was made for the ladies when Frith ran the first sub six-hour women’s Down Run in a record time of 05:54:43 to finish in 15th position overall. That time still stands as the best Down Run by a woman 40 years later. Frith went on to win three times in total but they weren’t in successive years.

FrithVanDerMerwe_1989ComradesVictory-768x253 (2)FRITH VAN DER MERWE AFTER HER 1989 WIN

 

In 1991 Frith was again on the winner’s podium for the last time when she came home in 6:08:19, the second fastest Down Run time by a woman after her own run two years earlier. In 1997, Ann Trason, the America runner was the second woman to go under 6 hours on the Down Run with her 5:58:25.

Only three women have run under 6 hours on the Down Run, the third one being Tatyana Zhirkova, the Russian runner in a time of 5:58:50. That was in 2005 and there have been no women under 6 hours on the Down Run since then. The first woman to go under 6 hours on the Up Run was still 14 years away but more on that later.

The 1990s saw the first of the Russian women winners when Valentina Liakhova won in 06:41:23 in the Up Run of 1994.

It was the Russian twins, Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva, however, who captured the imagination of the running world and the public and still today people ask if “the twins” are running. Elena won a total of 8 Comrades while her sister managed 1st place in 2007 and 2009 but several 2nd place finishes behind her sister.

THE NURGALIEVA TWINSTHE NURGALIEVA TWINS

 

By the time we got to the “Twenty-teens” we started to see South African women dominating Comrades once again after a spate of foreign, mainly Russian, winners in the 1990s and early “noughties”.

The first of the “good” Up Run times by a South African was in 2015 when Caroline Wostmann ran 6:12:22 to win comfortably although that was almost exactly three minutes slower than the best Up Run time set by Elena Nurgalieva. It was 9 years before Elena’s time for the Up Run was improved by Caroline from the 6:09:24 the Russian had run in 2006.

CAROLINECAROLINE WOSTMANN – WINNER IN 2015

Caroline once again looked set for the win to make it two in a row in 2016 but just a few kilometres from the finish, the cramps that had been bothering her all day started to make their presence really felt and at one stage her legs gave in completely and she ended up on all fours in the road just a few kilometres from home.

This gave the lady in second place, Charne Bosman the opportunity to pass Caroline to take the win in 6:25:55, so two South African lady winners in two years.  Charne, incidentally has been a women’s gold medallist every year that she’s run the race since her first Comrades in 2013. 

CHARNE BOSMAN – 2016 WINNER

 

In 2017 it was the American distance runner, Camille Heron who won in 6:27:35, not an especially fast time given that the previous Up Run in 2015 had been 6:12 but Camille had led the race from start to finish and was some 4 minutes ahead of second placed Alexandra Morozova, the Russian runner.

camille finishCAMILLE HERON – 2017 WINNER

 

In 2018 it was the turn of Ann Ashworth who was home first in 35th position overall in a time of 6:10:04 and that was on the longer Down Run route with a new finish at the Moses Mabida Stadium in Durban. This time it was close to 91km and the third longest Comrades in the history of the race.

ANN ON THE ROADANN ASHWORTH NEARING THE FINISH IN 2018

 

Some 5 minutes behind Ann in second place was Gerda Steyn who had been the pre-race favourite in many circles for the 2018 Comrades but nobody had taken much notice of Ann in the build up to Comrades when she deliberately kept a low profile.

Gerda’s turn to make history was still to come and she didn’t have to wait too long.

It came in 2019 when she was the first woman to get home on the Up Run in under 6 hours, running a 5:58:53 and finishing in 17th place overall. She ran a near perfect race to take that win. I had the opportunity to chat to Gerda after the race and you could be forgiven for thinking she hadn’t run at all. That’s how fit she was and an indication of what a brilliant run she had.

gerda winsGERDA STEYN WINNING COMRADES 2019 IN UNDER 6 HOURS

 

It’s not only the ladies themselves where the interest lies because the Comrades medals won by women has an interesting history too.

When women first ran officially from 1975 they could only earn a bronze medal but that had all changed by the time Frith van der Merwe ran that brilliant Down Run in 1989.

From 1979 to 1982 a Silver Medal was awarded to the 1st Woman (the last winner to get silver was Cheryl Winn in 1982) then in 1983 a gold medal was introduced for the first lady home but it wasn’t until 1988 that gold medals were given to the first 3 women and in 1995 this was increased to the first 5 Women and eventually in 1998 gold medals went to the first 10 women home to match the number of gold medals earned by the men.

The Isavel Roche-Kelly medal was introduced in 2019 for any women who finished outside the top 10 but broke seven and a half hours. This in effect means that no woman can win a silver medal any longer with the very special medal now recognising the feats of the women.

There has twice been the debate as to whether a woman could earn a gold medal that would usually go to a man if she happened to finish in the top 10 overall. The first time this debate raged was in 1989 when Frith van der Merwe finished in 15th position overall and then again in 2019 when Gerda Steyn ran herself into the history books with her sub 6 on the Up Run and 17th position overall.

Whilst I use the word “overall” it’s actually incorrect as technically, Comrades is made up of two separate races, the men’s race and the women’s race which for the sake of convenience are run at the same time.

Most of the big city marathons around the world have two distinctly separate races but the time limit for Comrades and the hours of daylight on race day, makes that virtually impossible and possibly dangerous because of traffic, hence the two races being run together.

One very promising thing with the ladies is the improvement we’ve seen and are continuing to see in women’s running in South Africa, firstly that South African women are once again winning Comrades but also in the times being run, not only in Comrades but in standard marathons as well.

I have little doubt that the time will come when we see women in the top 10 overall at Comrades and I can only hope that the race organisers will have made it completely clear if that happens that there are two separate races and that 10 gold medals will go to the first 10 men even if more than one woman happens to beat one or more men and finishes in the overall top 10, but also gold medals to the top 10 women in their race.

 

1 August 2019

MY MEMORIES OF JACKIE MEKLER

I was deeply saddened on the morning of the 1st of July 2019 when I heard the news that Comrades great and 5 time winner, Jackie Mekler, had passed away at the age of 87.   What made it even worse was that I had spent time with him at Comrades this year less than a month earlier.

JACKIE MEKLER    Jackie Mekler. Superb athlete and absolute gentleman

 

Jackie had been my hero when I was a child and when I was a teenager watching Comrades in those early days of the late 50’s and early 60’s and when he won his 5th Comrades in 1968 it was the year I ran my first one.  By winning that year, Jackie became only the 4th runner to win Comrades five times and I remember clearly where I was at the exact moment that happened.

JACKIE IN No 9Jackie in Comrades wearing his famous race number 9

I had come through Drummond and over Inchanga and was heading towards the Enthembeni School when a spectator at the side of the road shouted “He’s coming in. Jackie’s coming in to win Comrades”.

I stopped where this spectator was and whilst I didn’t have a clue who the spectator was, I stood with him and listened on his portable radio to the commentary by the SABC’s Michael Toms of Jackie Mekler coming in to win his 5th Comrades.  I looked at my watch and it was just after 12 noon.

My hero had done it!  He had joined that elite group of Newton, Ballington and Hayward as the only runners to have won 5 Comrades.  It would be another very nearly 20 years before anyone else achieved that when Bruce Fordyce won his 5th in 1985.  We all know that Bruce went on to win 9 of them, 8 in succession.

It was a special day for me, the 31st of May 1968. Jackie Mekler had won his 5th Comrades and I had finished my first one – albeit it almost four and half hours later. For some strange reason, and I have never known why, I felt a special bond between Jackie and me and I still do because of the 1968 race, despite the fact that it was still many years before I would meet him in person.  I mention this about Jackie Mekler  that I published in January 2016.

The following year in 1969, Comrades was one of very mixed emotions for me. I took a little under 2 hours off my time of the previous year and I was thrilled beyond description, and Jackie Mekler was tipped by those “in the know” to win his 6th that would have put him as the man with the most wins ever.  

That 6th win didn’t happen for him though, as Jackie had problems on the road that year in what was his last competitive Comrades, and he had to be content with his 3rd place.

My mixed emotions, apart from my own run, were because whilst I had wanted to see Jackie get his 6th win, Comrades 1969 was won by a friend of mine, Dave Bagshaw, with whom I had done quite a bit of running because he was a regular visitor to Ian Jardine’s Sunday morning group and that’s where I ran my weekly long runs.

Dave had won in 5:45:35 to set a new best time (record) for the Down Run, the first of his three successive Comrades wins.  He set a new best time for the Up Run in 1970 as well and just missed beating his own Down Run time in 1971.

Fast forward to the 90’s and I had, by that time, stopped running having been forced to do so because of a back injury that turned out to be permanent, but what had happened after my 14th Comrades was that I had become involved with Radio 702 and I was a regular at road races all around South Africa, giving details of road races that were being held.  I had got onto 702 by pure accident (but that’s a story I have already told elsewhere) and through hard work I had managed to get 702 (and not me) to the point of being regarded, in many places, as the voice of road running, particularly in Gauteng, but Comrades every year was the highlight for me on radio.

This had come about mainly because we were virtually everywhere reporting races but at the same time I got to know a lot of the top runners and at some stage during the 90’s an absolute thrill when I was introduced to the man who had been my hero in the late 50’s and into the 60’s, Jackie Mekler.

My initial thought was that he wouldn’t really have too much interest in me. After all, I was a very mediocre Comrades runner (although all 14 were under the time limit of 11 hours at that time and 9 of them had been under 10 hours and 2 of those 9 were under 9 hours) but instead I found a genuine, sincere and humble man who had time for everyone he met and I have always regarded myself as a friend of Jackie’s after that first meeting as I saw him regularly almost every year after that.

Jackie never, in my opinion, regarded himself as anything special because of his 5 wins but in my eyes and in the eyes of many people involved with Comrades, he was something very special.  He will always be remembered, not only for his 5 Comrades wins but also as the first man to break 6 hours on the Up Run

JACKIE 1968 WINJackie Mekler breasts the tape in 1960 Comrades – the first man under 6 hours on the Up Run

When I got to the 60th  Comrades I had attended in 2018, I phoned Jackie to ask him how many he had attended as I was keen to find as many of the people as possible who had attended as many, if not more than me.  I thought that Jackie could well be one of those bearing in mind that he ran his first one in 1952 finishing in 7th place that today would have won him a gold medal but in those days he was the first person outside the six gold medals awarded then.  I had attended my first one in 1956 so that in effect gave him a four year start on me.

I chatted to Jackie about what I was looking for and he told me that he honestly didn’t know how many he had attended as he was not at Comrades at times during the 1950’s (some of the reasons given in his autobiography) despite coming back for his second run and first win in 1958.  He said simply to me that he thought I had been at more of them than he had which disappointed me because I would very much like to have been 2nd or 3rd behind him in the number attended and to be able to say that only Jackie Mekler and maybe one other had attended more Comrades than I had. 

It turned out that Brian Swart who is very well known in Comrades circles has in fact attended 4 more than I have but whether Jackie attended more than I did, I don’t know.

I saw Jackie at Comrades 2018 and he congratulated me on being at my 60th race and I hadn’t said anything more to him about the matter. I was absolutely “gobsmacked” that the great man of Comrades should have remembered such an insignificant thing.

Fast forward another year to about early May 2019 (I am not sure exactly when it was) that Jackie phoned me to ask if I would help him with making known, through my activity on Twitter and any other social media, the fact that his autobiography titled “RUNNING ALONE” would be launched at Expo for Comrades 2019 after he had spent the better part of over 30 years writing it! 


I told him it would be an honour to do so and that I had a friend who writes under the name of “The Running Mann”, Stuart Mann, and I would get him involved as he has a large following on both Twitter and with his blogs.

Our conversation ended with two things I’ll never forget. The first of them was when Jackie asked me if I would be attending Comrades 2019 and when I said that I would be there, his response was “enjoy your 61st”.   Why and how Jackie remembered that is beyond me yet he did but that’s was just the kind of person he was.

The other thing he said just before our conversation ended was that with the book launch he was worried, and in his words “I wonder who even remembers Jackie Mekler”.   I assured him that many, if not most runners remembered him and one of the things that had kept his name known was a race in Pretoria named after him.

I then called Stuart who said that he would be thrilled to help although he had never actually met Jackie.  He managed to put that right at Comrades 2019 and one of Stuart’s prized photos was taken with Jackie at his book launch at Expo.

JACKIE AND STUARTStuart Mann, The Running Mann, with Jackie at Comrades Expo 2019

All of Jackie’s successes in the running world are told in his book and he won at almost every distance from 10km to 100 miles and at one time he held the world records for both 30 miles and 40 miles and it’s a book well worth reading if anyone has any interest in road running.

The book launch at Expo 2019 was very successful and when I asked Jackie on Comrades day whether most of the buyers had been older runners and former runners, I was very surprised when he told me that a large number of books had been bought by people who had probably not even been born when he won his 5th Comrades.

This thrills me as I am one of those “older former runners” who has a passion for the history of Comrades and the fact that so many young runners have an interest in Jackie Mekler and his achievements makes me very happy.

jackie mekler at expoWith Jackie at his book launch at Expo 2019

 

I spent some time with Jackie, both at Expo and also on Comrades day and on Comrades day we were chatting about nothing in particular and everything in general and I spent a good time with him.

Just three weeks later, my hero and my friend had gone.

Goodbye Jackie Mekler. You were a great athlete and an even greater gentleman.

I’m going to miss you at Comrades every year.  R.I.P.

 

9 July 2019

COMRADES – “THE HAT TRICK CLUB”

In the build-up to Comrades 2019, and in my blog about three time winner, Dave Bagshaw, I happened to mention what I regarded as a Hat Trick, the fact that he had won three Comrades in three successive years and that only five men and three women in total in the history of the race have been able to do this.

Shortly after I published the blog that mentioned the “hat trick”, I received a Whatsapp message from Bruce Fordyce to tell me that he had enjoyed reading the article about Dave Bagshaw (whom he knows) and that he felt proud to be a member of “The Hat Trick Club” – and so the term was born!

In the run up to the race itself, I referred to “the Hat Trick Club” quite a few times on Twitter and especially speculation as to whether we would see a 6th male member of this exclusive “club” if Bongmusa Mthembu won his third Comrades in as many years. Sadly Bongmusa had to settle for second place after a brilliant and tactical run by Edward Mothibe saw Edward take the win.

So for the next few years anyway, “The Hat Trick Club” will still have just 5 men and 3 women members but who are they and what makes winning three Comrades in three successive years so special?

In a previous blog some time ago, I made reference to the fact that winning Comrades is something very special irrespective of the number of Comrades a runner may have won and that there is a very long list of runners who had finished high up in the final positions but who couldn’t actually win the race and amongst them some extremely good Comrades runners.

I thought then that it would be a good idea to look at the members of this exclusive “club” that Bruce Fordyce dubbed “The Hat Trick Club” and how proud he was to be a member of that club.

So who are the members of this “club”?

The first person to win three Comrades in three successive years was Arthur Newton but he went beyond a hat trick of wins with four wins in four years in 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1925. 

There are some who might say that given the small fields in the early days of Comrades that this wasn’t a special feat but as I’ve said there is a long list of runners who were good but just not good enough to pull off the win.  Bear in mind that even Newton was beaten when he finished 2nd in 1926 and beaten by a runner who had finished in second place a few times so the argument that one runner had to be dominant with those small fields doesn’t actually work.

ARTHUR NEWTON RUNNINGArthur Newton in action

 

The runner who beat Arthur Newton in 1926 was Harry Phillips and not only did he beat Newton who finished second that year, but he also set a new “best time” (record) for the Up Run but he could only manage that one win in the years he ran Comrades.

In the first Comrades in 1921, Phillips finished second to Bill Rowan some 40 minutes behind Rowan.

Phillips was again 2nd in 1922 this time behind Arthur Newton. He was again 2nd to Newton in 1925 and he managed just that single win despite what were epic battles against Newton and it was those wins that set Newton apart in the 1920’s and gave him the 4 successive wins and the first “hat trick”.

We had to wait virtually 40 years before anyone achieved three wins in three successive years again and bear in mind some of the great Comrades runners like Hardy Ballington, his younger brother Johnny who had 5 gold medals and a best position of 2nd in 1949 but never won, Wally Hayward who ended up with 5 wins in total but no hat trick (to be fair he never ran three years in a row), Gerald Walsh with two wins and a heap of gold medals, Gordon Baker with 9 starts and 8 gold medals some of which were for 2nd place and Jackie Mekler who won 5 times but not three in three years.

All of these great runners were around in the years before we saw the second person to win three times in three successive years.

It was Dave Bagshaw in 1969, 1970 and 1971 when we saw our second Hat Trick of wins. Dave Bagshaw had his first win and as a novice also broke the record.

BAGSHAW 4Dave Bagshaw crossing the finish line in 1971

 

In 1970 Bagshaw won again and again broke the record and then his third win came in 1971 when he was just short of his own record so a hat trick of wins for him despite some intense competition from people like Dave Box, Manie Kuhn and even Jackie Mekler. Dave Bagshaw was the favourite to win his fourth Comrades in 1972 but he had to be content with second place when he was beaten by Mick Orton.

 

Next to get a hat trick of wins was Alan Robb who won in 1976, 1977 and 1978. Robb was beaten in 1979 by Piet Vorster but won again in 1980 beating Bruce Fordyce in a huge battle for the win.

ALAN ROBB 1978 FINISHAlan Robb crossing the finish line in the 1976 Down Run

 

The three wins had given him his hat trick and it was in 1978 on the Down Run that Robb became the first runner to run Comrades in under 5 hours and 30 minutes.

 

1981 and enter Bruce Fordyce. Bruce actually did a “Double Hat Trick” when he won 8 Comrades in successive years from 1981 to 1988.

Bruce Fordyce crosses the finish line in one of his many wins

 

I have little doubt that he would have made it a “triple hat trick” had he run the race in 1989 but he didn’t run in 1989 after having run (and won) a 100km race against a number of foreign so-called 100km specialists earlier in 1989 in Stellenbosch. He then came back in 1990 to win his 9th Comrades.

 

We then had to wait another 20 years for the next, and at this stage, last member of the “Hat Trick Club”. In 2009, 2010 and 2011 it was Zimbabwean, Stephen Muzhingi who was first home in those three years.

stephen muzhingiStephen Muzhingi in full cry

 

Muzhingi was a better than fair runner with a collection of gold medals for finishing in the top 10 both before and after his hat trick of wins.  He won gold medals in 2007 and 2008 before his first win and in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 after his third win so he in effect earned his green number in two ways. Three wins and five golds.

 

There are also three members of “The Hat Trick Club” in the women’s section of Comrades.  The first of them after women were official entrants in 1975 was Lettie van Zyl.

She won in 1976, 1977 and 1978 but before that, Lettie van Zyl had initially been the first woman finisher in 1975. She clocked 8:50 but she wasn’t recognised as the women’s winner when it was discovered she hadn’t met the qualifying standards.

Those who were around then will remember that for novices in 1975 it was a requirement that they qualify by running a standard marathon in 3 hours 30 minutes.

lettie van zylLettie van Zyl three time winner in 1976, 1977 & 1978

 

The honour of being the first official woman finisher in 1975 then went to Elizabeth Cavanagh in 10:08.   Interesting that whilst Lettie was achieving her hat trick of wins, Alan Robb achieved his hat trick in the same three years.

 

Then it was almost 10 years before our next women’s hat trick member came along. New Zealander turned South African Helen Lucre won in 1985, 1986 and 1987.

 

The interesting thing about Helen is that she only started running towards the end of 1979 after she settled in Pretoria and started running just to keep fit but by the time she finished her running career, she had won every major race in the country. She was also instrumental in starting what has now grown into the Spar Ladies race and also spent many years in road running administration.

 

The last of the women’s hat trick winners – but with four wins in succession – was one of the famous Russian twins, Elena Nurgalieva who managed four wins in four years in 2010, 2011, 2012 & 2013

 

She had a total of 8 wins and although she didn’t emulate Bruce Fordyce with his 8 wins in 8 years and 9 wins in total, her Comrades runs were an incredible performance nonetheless.

 

So in both the men’s and women’s races, our chances of another member, either male or female – of “The Hat Trick Club” is going to have to wait until, at best, 2021 because for both the winners in 2019 it was a first win and either of them would need to win the next two Comrades.

 

I said at the start of this article that we must never and can never take away anything from any winner of Comrades, it’s a fantastic achievement in anybody’s language but three wins in three successive years is very special and not easy to achieve when you consider that only 8 runners have managed it since that first Comrades in 1921 and we have now had 94 Comrades Marathons.

I mentioned the fact at the start that some people might say that it was easier to achieve a hat trick of wins in days gone by with smaller fields but it should never be forgotten that even though the winning times may have been slower than those being recorded in recent years, the competition up front was as intense as it’s ever been and irrespective of when the three wins in three successive years were run, it was a massive achievement.

 

 

June 2019  

COMRADES MARATHON 1969

The following is a report on the 1969 Comrades Marathon which was written by Dave Bagshaw who was running his first Comrades.  The report was written for the newsletter of his club, Savages in Durban.  

One interesting thing about this report is that after Dave wrote it, he hasn’t looked at it again until about two weeks ago when I asked him for a copy.

At this stage, Dave Bagshaw is one of only 5 men who have been able to win Comrades in three successive years. On two of his three runs he broke the record (best time) and on the third one as just 2 minutes outside his own record.

************************************************************************************

I arrived at the starting point in front of Pietermaritzburg City Hall about fifteen minutes before the start of the race.  I felt nervous.  I suppose over seven hundred other runners felt the same way.  For each of us this race was the culmination of months of training and now we were face to face with the big test.

For my own part I was very apprehensive.  Even though many friends had expressed confidence in my ability to do well I doubted that I could last fifty-four miles with men like Dave Box, Jackie Mekler, Manie Kuhn and Gordon Baker.  All these and many others had years of distance running behind them.  In contrast I’d only run my first marathon nine months before.

Nevertheless I had confidence that I would survive the distance.  Even though my training had been lighter than that of most of the stronger runners it suited me and had paid off in my other marathon races.

My early morning preparation for the race had been a little confused.  I intended rising at 3.30 a.m. but after a rather restless interrupted sleep for most of the night I slept soundly towards the end and did not wake until 4.30 a.m.  After loosening up exercises and a visit to the bathroom, I ate a light breakfast without much enthusiasm.  Then off to the start.

It was a cool morning and the odour of liniment hung heavy on the air in front of the city hall.  The bustling crowd was enormous and I had difficulty locating my seconds but eventually found them.  Last minute instructions were exchanged and I went out onto the road to stand in the front rank.  No problem here.   In a race this distance people have no illusions about the need for a fast start unless they have hopes of finishing well up so the faster runners are pushed to the front.

Shortly before 6.00 a.m. the Mayor of Pietermaritzburg presented Gordon Baker with the baton containing the message for the Mayor of Durban.  Then Max Trimborn gave his famous cock-crow, the gun fired, and the race had begun.

There was no sudden rush at the start.  This was to be a test of strength and stamina not so much of speed and a few seconds lost at the start were unimportant.  However the field soon opened out and, leaving the city via the main street, John Tarrant was leading followed by a group including Box, Mekler, Baker, Bill Brown (8th last year), Roland Davey, Olaf Vorster, Eric Renken and myself.

Tarrant was setting a good pace and had a lead of fifty or sixty yards after the first mile.  I was at a loss as to what to do because I seemed to be running slowly.  For a moment I was tempted to move off after Tarrant then I glanced at Mekler, the most experienced runner in the race, apparently unconcerned by the fact that Tarrant was ahead.  No one else seemed interested in chasing John so I decided to follow the approach of my more experienced fellows and let him go.  By the time we left the street lights of Pietermaritzburg behind we could not even see him on the road ahead of us.

I found it necessary to run at the front of the leading group to avoid tripping people in front with my long stride.  My confidence increased on finding I could keep up with the leaders easily.

After seven miles I discarded the jersey in which I had started the race.  It was still cool and I remember hoping the overcast sky would shelter us from the sun all day.

The leading group maintained a steady pace down Polly Shorts and up the long climb to Umlaas Road.  At Camperdown (14.7 miles), reached in 1 hour 37 minutes, Box, Mekler, Baker, Davey, Brown, Vorster and I were still together, Davis and Renken just behind and Tarrant four minutes ahead.  Even hearing the size of Tarrant’s lead did not seem to perturb anyone.  Everyone seemed to have settled into a rhythm and there was obviously going to be no excitement or radical changes in front positions for some while.  At this point Manie Kuhn (1967 winner) was a minute behind.  A slow starter, Kuhn usually moved up to the front in the middle of the race.

The 11 and a half miles from Camperdown to Drummond were uneventful until we reached the foot of Inchanga.  I still felt comfortable and worked to vary the pace a little and lose some of the group.  Box obviously had the same idea.  Together we led up the one and a half mile climb and by the time we were over the top and beginning the steep descent into Drummond we had achieved our objective.

At Drummond (26.2 miles) in 2.51 hours, Box, Mekler, Baker, Vorster and I were left together.  Still no sign of Kuhn whom I expected to catch us about here (in actual fact he was 4 minutes behind).

Beginning the climb out of Drummond I noticed the others dropping, Mekler seemed unhappy (I learned later he changed his shoes which were giving him trouble) and Baker and Vorster seemed to decide the pace was too fast.  I hoped they were wrong.  I felt good, running very relaxed and took my first sponge to freshen myself up.

Two miles out of Drummond we caught Tarrant.  He was really struggling (suffering from stomach trouble) and dropped back to finish 28th in 6 hours 55 minutes 46 seconds.

Box and I were now out in front alone.  Both of us seemed to be running easily and the stiff climb up Alverstone presented no problem.  However shortly after Dave Box seemed to be losing ground on me.  We had been running side by side and suddenly I found myself alone – with Dave 10 yards back.  I was striding well and so, with twenty miles to go, I decided not to wait but to keep running my own pace regardless. 

Many were the warnings I’d been given by old Comraders about the seven miles from Drummond to Hillcrest.  “Don’t worry about losing a few minutes on those hills” was the advice, and here I was running out ahead of the field.  I knew many of those just behind would think I was committing suicide running so fast.

I really began striding out.  It had got warmer and I was drinking frequently but conditions were still favourable.

In Pinetown, with thirteen miles to go (4.24) I had a six minute lead over Dave Box (4.30) who was followed by Rencken (4.31) Davis, Baker (4.32) Davey and Mekler (4.33).  Encouraged by the fact that I had such a big lead, and the large crowd in Pinetown, I climbed Cowies Hill striding powerfully.

I felt fairly confident I could win but felt no elation at the prospect.  An error of judgment even then could have cost me the race.  I was more concerned over the fate of the team trophy, the Gunga Din Shield.  I knew we, Savages, were first, second and sixth, but what of our fourth scorer? Germiston had Mekler and Davis well up.  I had to stay ahead.

From Pinetown to Durban the run was uneventful except for one incident.  After a short distance on a dirt road we had to climb three steps up to the main road again.  This after 49 miles hard running.  I couldn’t make it, fell forward and went up on all fours.  Then back to running rhythm again.

The streets were crowded the last five miles and I was told I’d be well inside Gomersall’s course record.  My seconds were working hard now.  I was still running smoothly but I wanted drinks, sponges and salt tablets more frequently now it was getting hotter.

The crowds were thicker closer to the DLI grounds where we were to finish.  The baton containing the message to the mayor was thrust into my hand as I ran up to the tape. 

BAGSHAW COMING IN TO THE FINISH OF THE 1969 COMRADES

 

Then it was over I could stop running.

By the time Dave Box finished, twelve minutes later, I felt recovered.  Elation at my victory kept the full effects of fatigue at bay for several hours.

Dave finished, suffering from large blisters on both feet.  Four minutes later Jackie Mekler came in.  Shortly after Drummond stomach trouble had slowed him down and he’d dropped to eleventh, seventh in Pinetown, he moved through well to take third place.  In my opinion his was a magnificent effort.  To have a bad run and yet put up such a good performance further enhances his reputation as a great runner and competitor.

I was fortunate.  I had the sort of run that every runner dreams about – trouble free, no bad patch, no struggling, no blisters, just a gradual tiring towards the end.

Throughout the afternoon streams of runners arrived in Durban.  In all 587 out of 703 starters completed the course within the time limit of eleven hours.

For the first time in the history of the race two runners from the same club finished inside six hours and Savages became the first club ever to win the Gunga Din Shield for the fifth year in succession.

 

Dave Bagshaw 1969

YOU CAN GET TO DAVE BAGSHAW’S LIFE STORY BY CLICKING HERE.

COMRADES THREE IN A ROW WINNER – DAVE BAGSHAW

It’s the 31st of May 1969 and the Comrades Marathon winner has just crossed the finish line in Durban to win his first Comrades in a time of 5h 45m 35s and he’s just set a new best time (record) for the Down Run.  It’s the young Savages runner, Dave Bagshaw.

Mention the name Dave Bagshaw however, to the modern day Comrades runner and you’ll probably get a blank stare in return but yet I think he was one of the really great Comrades runners with three consecutive wins to his name in 1969, 1970 & 1971.

Twice he set best times (record), first in his novice year in 1969 on the Down Run and then again in his second year in 1970 when he ran 5h 51m 27s for the Up Run.  In 1971, Dave missed breaking his own record by less than two minutes on what is generally regarded as the longest ever Comrades at 92km.

With his “Hat Trick” of wins he became only the second man after Arthur Newton in the 1920’s – and that was 40 years earlier – to achieve three wins in successive years

 Since his wins, only 3 others have managed a Hat Trick of Comrades wins in successive years, so now only 5 men in total have managed to achieve it in the 93 Comrades that have been held at this stage, and that’s the reason why I would put him in my list of really great Comrades runners. 

The 4 in addition to Dave, who have managed the “Hat Trick” of wins in successive years are Arthur Newton with 4 wins in succession in the 1920’s, Alan Robb in the second half of the 1970’s, Bruce Fordyce with his 8 wins in succession in the 1980’s and Zimbabwe’s Stephen Muzhingi won 2009, 2010 and 2011.

  BAGSHAW 5DAVE BAGSHAW, BRUCE FORDYCE & ALAN ROBB, 3 OF THE 5 RUNNERS TO ACHIEVE A HAT TRICK OF WINS

 

I was privileged to have known Dave and to have been able to run with him many times when he joined the late Ian Jardine’s group (with whom I ran for about 4 years) almost every Sunday morning to run over part of the Comrades route starting at the top of Botha’s Hill to what is now Inchanga Caravan Park, and back.  A total Sunday run, summer and winter, of 32kms.

I haven’t seen or spoken to him for many years and very recently I managed, with the help of Bruce Fordyce, to get Dave’s email address, so I wrote to him and got his response, in which he reminisced briefly about his running days and the people with whom he ran during his all too short a stay in South Africa. 

This year is 50 years since he won his first Comrades so what better time to “chat” to him than now?

I asked Dave a couple of things that I hope will give the reader a better knowledge of one of the greatest runners the Comrades Marathon has, in my opinion, ever seen.

DJ:    I know you’re from the UK originally but where did you grow up and do your schooling?

 DB:    I was born and raised in Sheffield, and attended grammar school from September 1955, age 11. Earlier that year I had spent four weeks in hospital suffering from a blood disease, and the hospital doctors informed my parents I should not do any sports because of the danger of severe bruising and bleeding. Fortunately our family doctor had the view that I should be allowed to do whatever boys my age might want. Twelve months later I had a week in hospital with the same problem, and two days after discharge ran the school cross country race for my age group finishing 21 out of 130. 

DJ:    Have you had an interest in sport from a young age and when did running come into your life?

DB:    I had always enjoyed running but was unsuccessful as a child, the longest race being 100 yards at primary school. Once at secondary school, I raced cross country, quarter mile, half mile, and mile track races competing for school and club in county championships.

 DJ:     When did you discover your ability to run the longer distances?  Was that only after you came to South Africa?

DB:      While in London at University (1961 -1964) I ran for the University and continued club running after graduation running 5 and 10 mile races, and a 20 mile race in 1966, finishing sixth in 1 hour 49 minutes. Later that year the Polytechnic Marathon proved too much and poor pace judgement left me exhausted, sitting at the side of the road after 15 miles, when a kind lady pulled up and gave me a lift in her Rolls Royce to the finish.  I had met Jackie Mekler briefly, and later Tommy Malone and Manie Kuhn in 1966 when they ran the London to Brighton, seconding Manie in a race won by Bernard Gomersall. So I knew a little about Comrades before I came to SA.

DJ:      Your stay in South Africa was relatively short. Was that always the intention to be here for a short time?

DB:     I worked as a volunteer lecturer at a college in Northern Nigeria from January to December 1967 arriving in Durban just before Christmas to visit my wife’s relations. After our voluntary service we had asked for tickets to fly to Durban rather than back to the UK, intending to stay a few months and then return home via East Africa. I met Manie again, joined the running fraternity with Savages, got a job and stayed much longer than we had originally intended


DJ:       Had you heard about the road running “scene” in South Africa before you came to live here?

DB:      Yes and I loved the friendliness, support, comradeship I experienced on arrival. I was made so welcome and on joining Savages I remember my wife sewing the SAVAGES name onto my vest by the dashboard light as we were driven to Stanger for my first race in the club colours.

 DJ:      I have often told people that I had the privilege of running with you on those Sunday morning training runs with Ian Jardine’s group. Those runs were very slow but yet you sometimes joined them.  What was your training strategy in your Comrades build up because it seems that LSD (long slow distance) was part of it? 

DB:      My first few races showed improvement after relatively little running whilst in the heat of Nigeria, but I was constantly getting injured, resting and recovering, racing again, injured again, another recovery, another race and yet another injury. It was suggested I train slowly for a few weeks, take things easy, to maintain strength and fitness while putting little stress on my body. Running with Ian’s group was what I needed. At first it seemed very slow but the friendly chat and humorous conversation made it enjoyable and introduced me to a more relaxed training routine than I had experienced in England. After that I rarely suffered any injury.

DJ:       It’s 50 years since you won your first Comrades and I remember talking to you at the start that morning and you were very calm despite the fact that less than 6 hours later you will have won and set the record. Despite the calm exterior, do you remember what was going on in your thinking?

DB.      In the 1969 Comrades, most people didn’t think I had the strength or the experience, to be successful. At the start I felt at ease even though I had been awake most of the night with excitement. As usual I felt lacking in energy, hardly able to warm up, but knew I would be fine once we were running. No race plan, but going to play it by ear, and not be overawed by the reputations of others.  As I joined the line-up I found myself pushed to the front rank, and patiently waited for Max Trimborn’s cock crow and the gun.

BAGSHAW 1DAVE BAGSHAW WITH HIS FAMILIAR RUNNING ACTION DURING COMRADES

 

DJ:     You were up against some seriously strong competition in your first Comrades with people like Jackie Mekler who already had 5 wins, Manie Kuhn, the defending Down Run champion, Dave Box, a former 100 mile World record holder, Gordon Baker, who had a whole lot of gold medals in his collection. ….and here you were a novice to Comrades

DB:    A novice yes. But I had seconded Bernard Gomersall in 1968, Manie in the 1966 Brighton, and raced Manie, Dave, and Gordon over shorter distances. Most people didn’t give me chance, and I heard a spectator near the Lion Park, seeing me at the front of the group, say “What does Dave think he’s doing? Does he think he can win this?” but I was feeling quite comfortable.

DJ:     You and the others in the lead pack went out hard from the start but one by one the other big names fell back. By the time you got to Pinetown it looked pretty certain you would win. Did you have that feeling despite the fact that you still had the better part of 20 kms to go? What had happened earlier in the race to lead to that?

DB:    After Drummond, Dave Box and I were running together and as we approached Alverston I noticed that I was a couple of yards ahead, so slowed so we were running side by side again. Then that small gap appeared again so I decided to run at my own comfortable pace, be unconcerned and let others wonder or worry whether they could catch me. Somewhere near the Botha’s Hill Hotel Vernon Jones and his family were watching. His wife and daughter enthusiastically shouted encouragement, while Vernon was very quiet. I found out later that he believed I had blown my chances by taking the lead so early and had been told not to say anything that might put me off.

BAGSHAW 2  WITH HIS SECOND DURING COMRADES

DJ:   You were always very strong mentally and if I remember correctly, you used that successfully against competitors in races. I remember you telling me how you beat John Tarrant (known as the Ghost Runner in South Africa) in the London to Brighton purely by a mental approach.  Do you remember that year and how you did that, especially with Tarrant?

DB:   In the London to Brighton in 1969 John Tarrant led early on and opened a gap approaching a minute. He set a fast pace and I knew that if he was allowed to settle down and relax he could be difficult to catch, so I didn’t let his lead increase. His second (his brother I think) was informing him of his lead, every mile or two and when it wasn’t getting bigger he increased his pace a little. As he went faster so did I, steadily reducing the gap between us until I caught him and tried to pass. I caught him at 20 miles (1 Hour 56mins 21secs).   He speeded up, I dropped behind then tried again and again he wouldn’t let me pass. This happened several times, and eventually we were running side by side for a mile or two until he yielded the lead, fell back and soon dropped out.  A few weeks later he set a new world 100 mile record.

DJ:    At one time you held both the Up and Down records and you are one of only a handful of runners with 3 consecutive wins. Did you have a preferred run if you had to choose between Up and Down? 

DB:      Perhaps I had a slight preference for the Down Run for the larger crowds towards Durban, but I appreciated the hills on the Up Run as a challenge and opportunity. When Mick Orton left me just after Drummond in 1972 he gained less than six minutes over the second half of the race. A large gap and I was well beaten yet I think few could have limited the lead as much over that distance.

BAGSHAW 4COMING HOME TO WIN THE 1971 COMRADES

DJ:     Who was your toughest competition in Comrades and I’ve already mentioned people like Mekler, Kuhn, Box, Baker and Davey…..?

DB:     Dave Box was tough and I always knew he was going to be there if I faltered. And of course Mick Orton.  My time in 1972, was the third fastest Up Run but a long way behind him. (Ed. Note:  Dave finished 5 minutes behind Orton that day and the two faster times to which he refers were Orton’s time in 1972 and Dave’s own time in 1970)

DJ:     You went back to live in the UK before the 1973 Comrades, but if I remember, you did come back to run again. When was that and how seriously did you take any Comrades after moving to the UK?

DB:    I came back in 1975 for the 50th race after doing relatively little training for two years, running a few road relays, the odd marathon, and two Brighton’s finishing third and sixth when untrained for ultras. I was determined to run well, hoped to be competitive and offer a serious challenge.  Things were going well when I ran a 2.26 marathon on a very hilly course.  Shortly after, in April 1975, I had a fall, all my weight on my right knee severely damaging the patella. Treatment five days a week followed, very limited training, and the consultant instructing that I could start but must not take painkillers and to drop out if I suffered much pain. My hopes shattered, I ran, finished in 7.00 in 82nd place and had a different Comrades experience, enjoying the camaraderie, encouragement and support of those not competing for the gold medals.  When I returned with my silver medal, the medics expressed astonishment as they hadn’t expected me to make it beyond three miles.

DJ:      You are still running albeit a lot slower than your days here.  Have you never really stopped running after leaving South Africa and if not, did you remain competitive when you returned to the UK.

DB       I continued running a little after a long period of recuperation, and turned to canoeing and skiing. In the early 80’s I ran a few half marathons and marathons, two London Marathons, before a knee operation, and the increasing occurrence of my blood disease proved too limiting. I still run, little and slowly, and enjoy a hill session every Saturday with people over forty years younger, doing fewer, slower, shorter reps.


DJ:      And finally, I remember a funny story about a fitting for a suit you went to buy after that first Comrades and the tailor suggesting that you should do some exercise to build yourself up because he was having some trouble finding a suit with the right fit.  Tell me about that. 

DB:   The tailor had commented on my slim build and needed to alter the trousers to fit. The conversation went something like this:

            “You should have run the Comrades”

            “I did”            

            “Did you finish?”

            “Yes.”

            “What time did you do.?”  

            “5.45”

            “You must have won” 

            “I did”

He was astonished and embarrassed and I was offered a free tie.

 

That then is Dave Bagshaw, a man I put into my list of really great Comrades runners and incidentally, one of the nicest people you could hope to meet.  The man who wore race number 303 – aren’t those bullets?  The way this man ran Comrades certainly looked like it!

READ DAVE’S RACE REPORT THAT HE WROTE FOR SAVAGES ATHLETIC CLUB AFTER HIS FIRST WIN in 1969.  CLICK HERE.

31 May 2019

 

HOW LONG & WHAT SPEED IS LSD? :

It’s important to understand that this article is not aimed at the people who are in line for a gold or even a silver medal at Comrades.  I have said many times that never having been in those exalted positions, I am not qualified to comment on or give advice to those runners.

 

I have just read a very good article written by Bruce Fordyce about the fact that April is the most crucial training month for Comrades and I totally agree. 

FORDYCEBruce on the way to one of his wins

 

I dug out my own logbook from days gone by and every April was my big distance month – and it paid off.  The year I ran my best – and remember that my best was only 8:29 (so hardly a threat to the winner), I did two runs over 60km and one over 50 in April and then another of just under 60km in the first weekend of May.  I have always been a firm believer in LSD.

But what exactly is LSD?  It stands for Long Slow Distance and not the stuff that was freely available at Woodstock in 1969!  So what is “Long” and what speed is “Slow”? 

A lot of runners these days regard a 20km or a 25km as LSD and sometimes even as little as 15km!  I don’t think that’s LSD and neither do some of the runners who should know about these things.  In his article to which I referred at the start, Bruce Fordyce says that a “long run” should be between 40 and 70km.  I asked Bruce what he considers as being the speed that an average “slower runner” should be doing in a race that is being treated as a training run and we fully understand that many Comrades runners take part in races during April and May for a variety of very valid reasons.  Bruce tells me that he thinks those runs should be an hour slower than race pace and then it’s a training run and as Bruce says “It’s about time on your feet in April”. So if you are a 4 hour runner for the marathon, do the 42kms in close to 5 hours. 

If you’re a 4:45 runner in a marathon, it would be difficult to slow down by an hour in a race over a distance of 42km so listen then, to the advice from Ann Ashworth the 2018 Women’s Comrades Champ, about the speed she suggests for a good training speed in April.

ANN FINISH LINEAnn Ashworth breaking the tape to win the women’s 2018 Comrades

 

She told me that she tells her athletes to “run at conversational speed, in other words they must be able to hold a normal conversation throughout the run”.  This is great advice because it covers any runner at any speed ability. What Ann is saying is that if you are battling to talk in normal conversation terms, you are running too fast for a training run!

Ann tells me that she thinks the right thing is about 3 (or maybe even 4) runs of 50km to 60km in a Comrades build up in April.

When I think back the “conversational runs” were pretty much the way I ran in all my long training runs. They were considerably slower than my race pace, we didn’t bother with the time it took us and the group I was running with, chatted, laughed and joked the entire way. Some of the jokes had been told before but we laughed again anyway!  I remember doing training runs on the Comrades route from Pietermaritzburg to Pinetown which is around 65km and taking around 8 hours to do them depending on seconding stops and that sort of thing.

We certainly weren’t in any hurry but you have no idea what a boost those long runs gave me. It meant firstly that my legs could do that distance so they were taken care of for Comrades day because I have always said that if your legs can do 60 or 65kms they can certainly do the 87km needed for Comrades this year.

It also gave me a huge mental boost knowing that I could do the distance without any stress and I could go into Comrades knowing that barring any major problem I would have no trouble getting to the finish in the 11 hours we had available back then and if I did have a major problem as happened in 1976, I still had time.  1976 was a shocker for me with severe cramp from before half way but I still managed 10:06.

It’s important to remember that I was never a top runner in my Comrades running years but I started 14 of them and finished 14 of them and didn’t need medical attention at the finish of any of them, and that included the 1971 Comrades that we’re told was the longest Comrades of them all where I finished in under 10 hours despite the fact that I was forced to walk the last 20 km because I had ITB in the days before we knew what ITB was!  That walk of the last 20km wasn’t a physical thing at all.  It couldn’t be because my knee was wrecked.  The LSD training kicked in when the “90% of Comrades is above the neck” part had to take over.  On that day in 1971 it certainly did.

A short while ago, I read a training tip by Comrades coach Lindsey Parry where he advised that if you have Comrades in mind that you shouldn’t be racing any marathons or ultras from now to Comrades and there are a few of both categories on the calendar.

LINDSEY PARRYComrades coach Lindsey Parry

 

What he said was “No more racing. This applies to marathons and ultras. They should not be raced and you don’t want to be chasing seeding in your peak training block. For those who need to qualify, you should aim to run at the minimum possible effort to qualify and use the race as a training run.”   Sadly many runners will ignore that very sound advice.

So what is LSD during the month of April that is so important to get into your legs and to spend time on your feet?

I think that depends to a large degree on individual runners and the times you are able to run in Comrades but one thing I do know is that LSD is not 15km or 20km or even 25km as some runners think.  Don’t think that running three or four half marathons in April and nothing much more is going to make your Comrades day easier. I don’t believe it will.  It may get you to the finish but it will in all probability also get you a visit to the medical tent at the finish.  In chatting to the man who heads the medical facilities at Comrades, Jeremy Boulter, he tells me that the majority of those needing attention in the medical facilities at the end, finish in the last two hours of the race and in most cases are undertrained.

I’ve been on the road in recent years and seen the looks on the faces of the runners in the “Rescue Busses”.  They might have avoided the medical tent at the finish but they have also avoided that precious Comrades medal and in many cases (not all I agree) that’s as a result of inadequate training.

In the article that Bruce wrote and to which I referred at the start he says the thinking behind long runs, is that they build the stamina, endurance and strength that is so essential for Comrades and I agree with him.  I doubt that you can do that on 20km or 25km runs alone.  In my running days I did the long training runs to build my stamina, endurance and strength – both physical and mental and it worked – 14 times!

The important thing to understand is that we don’t all have the ability of a gold medallist or even a silver medallist if we are the average runner and that one should therefore, aim to do whatever is within your ability for your own LSD runs.  I know that when I was running long runs at the weekend, I would never do more than one long run over a weekend.  I knew my limitations.  Some people have said that had I done two long runs over the same weekend, my times would have been a lot better but I don’t think so.  I wasn’t built to do that sort of running and I’m not convinced that back to back runs over a weekend for the average runner is a great idea anyway, but that’s my opinion.

So bottom line is that April is the biggest distance month in the build up to Comrades. It’s not a good idea to race any marathon or ultra but instead treat them as training runs. 

So if you’re wanting a good day on the 9th of June, listen to what Bruce Fordyce says about training runs when he says it’s all about time on your feet. Listen to what Lindsey Parry says that you shouldn’t chase a PB or better seeding in April.  Listen to what Ann Ashworth says when she says that your training runs should be at a pace where you can hold the conversation with your fellow runners throughout the run.

It’s not too late to get those long runs in for Comrades. Do them this month and you won’t regret it. Most people running Comrades this year have a 42km under their belt already as a qualifier so to run three or four long runs in April shouldn’t be a problem.

 

 

APRIL 2019

COMRADES – MODEST TO MEGA

One dictionary definition of the word modest states “Moderate or limited in size” and whilst Comrades had started in 1921 and was very modest, it had many exciting tussles by those runners winning in those early days and we had the first three of the five time winners in Arthur Newton, Hardy Ballington and Wally Hayward all by the early fifties as well as the slowest winning time set by Bill Rowan in 8:59 when he won the first Comrades in 1921.

bill rowan (2)

We’ve seen a couple of very close finishes. Phil Masterton-Smith beat Noel Burree by 2 seconds in 1931 and Manie Kuhn beat Tommy Malone (who had won in 1966), by just one second in 1967. The biggest winning margin was set by Allen Boyce by almost 2 hours in 1940 but it was really only in 1959 that the transformation to what we have today slowly started.

It was in 1959 that entries went to 100 for the first time and spectators at the finish to around 200.  It was also around that time that we started to see spectator interest from parts of South Africa other than the Durban and Pietermaritzburg areas of this “thing” held annually. 

Runners had been travelling to Natal to take part in Comrades from the early days and there had been non Natal winners (Bill Rowan was the first one) but interest was fairly low.  The same spectators in small numbers came out every year to watch what was simply called “The Marathon” by locals.

It was the sixties when the changes really started to happen and by the end of that decade entries were up to 1000 although it was fairly lonely running at times.

COMRADES 1968

I don’t remember exactly where this photograph was taken but it was during my first Comrades in 1968 and not too many other runners around me.

It was also in the sixties that we saw the first foreign runners in the form of a team of four Englishmen running for the Road Runners Club in England up against a South African team.  The fairly small band of Comrades supporters had always regarded Comrades as a South African owned event so it was a major dent to the ego when Englishman John Smith won the race.

JOHN SMITH 1962

He led the rest of his English team to four of them in the top five with Jackie Mekler, the sole South African in the top five. Jackie himself told me years later that he misjudged that race very badly and ran like a novice and by that time he already had a couple of wins to his credit!

It wasn’t until the early seventies that interest from the UK was seen again when a team from Tipton Harriers arrived and against all odds, Mick Orton won the race beating Savages favourite Dave Bagshaw who had won the previous three races.

DAVE BAGSHAW

Bagshaw was a superb runner and his wins in 1969, 1970 and 1971 during which he set a course “record” twice showed just how good a runner he was.

Orton was back again in 1973 to defend his title but failed dismally in his attempt to repeat his win, so Comrades became the property of South Africa again when Dave Levick was first home. Levick, from UCT, was also the first university student to win Comrades.

Orton, incidentally had something like an 11 minute lead going through Pinetown with about 20km left to run. He was caught and passed by Gordon Baker and with just a few Kms left it looked as though Baker was going to get that elusive win. He was in the lead and could virtually “smell” home but it was Levick who came through to win, leaving Gordon Baker with yet another gold medal to his collection. In 9 Comrades, Baker had 8 gold medals but was never able to achieve his dream of a winner’s medal.

Orton, after his 11 minute lead with about 20km to go, finished in 5th place.

The 50th Comrades in 1975 was certainly the year that changed everything.

The first thing that troubled the organisers was whether the “old road” could handle more than 1500 runners. It was (and still is) narrow and with seconds’ vehicles on the road, it was a major problem. Organisers limited the field to 1500 with the requirement that novices had to qualify with a marathon time of 3:30 or better. Interesting that we all thought we would have to qualify in under three and a half hours so most of us ran our best marathons at that time.  I ran my three best times when I thought I would have to qualify in under 3:30.

That wasn’t the only thing that happened in 1975. Organisers approached the SAAAU, the controlling body of athletics in South Africa at the time and after numerous discussions, the powers that be allowed Comrades to be open to all races instead of only white males between 18 and 65 as had been the case previously and also to women.

The one thing very few of us could understand and it still remains a mystery to me, is why black runners were required to wear ethnic tags denoting “Zulu” or “Xhosa”, etc.  An embarrassment to everybody.

Comrades survived the seventies and the second half of the decade saw the race dominated by Alan Robb who was the first person to finish the Down Run in under 5:30.

ALAN ROBB 1978 FINISH

All the while the entries grew and at the end of the seventies the roads really were too busy, but there were no further limit on the number of runners, so only one other thing could be done.

Get rid of vehicles from the road and so we saw the introduction of refreshment stations and after a few years a total ban on motor vehicles except those with special permission to be there such as the media.

By this time TV was becoming firmly entrenched in South Africa and in the second half of the seventies, the SABC staged a race in central Johannesburg that was screened live and the numbers of runners started to explode as the sport sparked the imagination of “ordinary people” who took to the roads. 

Then came the eighties and the Fordyce era and Bruce’s persona did a huge amount to swell the fields even more but as we were still in isolation the runners were all South African.

FORDYCE

The early nineties saw the start of the political change in the country and in 1993, the German runner, Charly Doll took advantage, came to Comrades and won it.  1994 and American, Alberto Salazar did the same thing. 

NICK IN COMRADES

After that for a few years South Africans claimed the race back with wins by Shaun Mieklejohn in 1995 and Charl Matteus in 1997 but then came the late nineties and the wave of runners from Eastern Europe and particularly Russia dominated.

By the time 2000 arrived, Comrades had moved another step forward with the appointment of a woman, the late Alison West as Chairperson and marketing got under way for the 2000 Comrades.  The finish was moved to Scottsville racecourse in Pietermaritzburg to accommodate the numbers expected and numbers there were.  

24,000 people entered “The Millennium Run” and at the same time the time limit for the race was increased to 12 hours to allow as many people as possible to finish and earn that precious medal.  Russia’s Vladimir Kotov won the 2000 event and the Russian dominance continued for years.

The race has continued to grow and for the 2019 race there have been 25,000 entrants. The entries sold out in 6 days, such is the popularity of Comrades now.  The 12 hour time limit has given the “ordinary” runner who could never have dreamt of running and finishing Comrades in the 11 hour time limit as it was previously, the opportunity to be part of it.

I’ve seen all but three Comrades Marathons since 1956 and I have watched the race grow and the changes taking place as we moved into the modern era of online entries, the Expo and highly professional refreshment stations providing virtually anything and everything a runner might want. That’s a far cry from the early days when runners had their own seconds and when those seconds were stuck in traffic jams which has always been the case on Comrades day.

I remember in my first Comrades in 1968, my second arranging to meet me in Westville for my first drink – if he could get there, but if not it would have to be in Pinetown.  20Kms to my first drink but I didn’t think anything of it. That’s the way things were then.

So Comrades has gone from a very modest race in 1921 with just 16 finishers of the 34 who started to what we have today where we expect around 19,000 or even 20,000 to start this year.

We have seen the time for the first Comrades which was a Down Run, won in 8 hours 59 minutes to the fastest time for the Down Run set in 2016 by David Gatebe in 5:18:19 and that’s going to take some beating.

DAVID GATEBE

That’s an indication of the way the race has changed and grown.

The medical facilities at Comrades have gone from none in the early days to the biggest temporary medical facility in the world outside of a war, disaster or conflict zone and with radio contact between ambulances on the road and the finish medical facility. The medical facility at the finish has around 45 Interns, 20 or more medical doctors, over 10 specialists and over 20 nurses working in the tent and that’s apart from the medical staff on the road.

Old Mutual Underprivileged Runners Project 2017

Comrades has certainly gone from “Modest to Mega” but was it better back then when things were a lot more “personal” because of the size of the fields or is it better now?  The answer to that is easy.

Yes it is – and the reason I answer that way is because each Comrades is unique. Each with its own stories of the heroes and heroines who win and the “gladiators” who finish a lot further back.

We look forward eagerly to the 2021 race which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Comrades in 1921, but that’s not the only thing we have to look forward to.  2025 will be the 100th running of this amazing “happening” (the race wasn’t run during the Second World War) that we call the Comrades Marathon. 

A “happening” because for the vast majority of the runners it isn’t a race against anyone else. They race against themselves and the clock and it matters not where anyone else finishes. The average runner leaves the racing to the fantastic runners up at the front. Those who re-write the history books every year.

For the rest of the field, it is an event that is much more than just another road race. In many instances it’s a life changing experience that can’t be explained to anyone who has never run it.

For the last 5 years Comrades has been in the hands of its Race Director Rowyn James who has done a fine job with this very special event.

Photo Rowyn James for souv mag

The advantage that Rowyn has is that he is a 15 time finisher of the race himself and he knows what the runners want from every facet of Comrades.

They train for months and complete hundreds of kilometres in training and in races just so that they can go home with that precious medal.

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That’s the “happening” that’s gone from “Modest to Mega in the last 100 years.

 

 

February 2019