There can’t be very many people, particularly the slower runner and novice who don’t know the name Don Oliver and those who have seen and heard Don speak at the Rockies Comrades Panel Talks that have been going on for many years will be familiar with Don’s words “Picture the Scene” as he goes on to describe how runners will waste time and do very foolish things on Comrades day.
One of my favourite things by Don is when he takes runners through their build-up to Comrades in summary with words along the lines of “You carefully train and you plan your marathons for qualifying and you run them to within a minute of what you planned to do. You carefully do all your study of the route and the off road preparation and then on Comrades Day – YOU MESS THE WHOLE BLOODY THING UP!
I’ve known Don for well over 30 years and I have heard him speak many times and have even been privileged to have been a speaker at the Panel Talks on a couple of occasions and it has never ceased to amaze me the enthusiasm that this man has had for all those years and I asked him a little about it all.
D.J. How did it all start, this love of Comrades?
D.O. I really have always been a runner but not as you see runners these days. I was a wartime child in England and we, me and my brother, used to jog to school, back for lunchtime and then back home at the end of the afternoon. Total was probably.10km.
After the war I ran for Essex Beagles (Jim Peters’ club) (D.J. : GOOGLE JIM PETERS) and was youth and junior county champion for 3 years. 100 yards in those days. I won an award for the best time in the UK in a month. 10seconds for 100yds at age under 15 years old.
For the next 20 years I played hockey and soccer but really enjoyed the training sessions more than the matches. Changed over to road running and my mentor Jeff Fisher tempted me to run a road race, the Florida 16km (10 mile). I enjoyed it and joined Rocky Road Runners.
In 1978 I was very wary of getting neurotic and obsessed with road running so just took a casual first Comrades in 9hrs 42mins with Denis Tabakin from half way and I finished quite easily and said “this is for me”.
D.J. How did the Comrades Panel Talks come about and how did you get endorsement by Comrades for the talks.
D.O. I could not get much advice on how to run Comrades. So two years later Denis and I started the Comrades Panel Meetings with Jackie Mekler as our first speaker. Denis had run 13 Comrades by then and I had only done 2 so I took a minor role in everything. We opened the talks to neighbouring clubs and by 1982 we were filling the SHB 5 lecture theatre and Wits. We had developed a successful format for each talk to involve Comrades Winners, a motivational speaker, a doctor and a physiotherapist. Plus the Chairman of Comrades Marathon Association, Bullet Alexander for the first one. In the foyer of the lecture theatre we always had a “Front of House” area for about 10 companies supplying Comrades related products such as shoes, training gear, supplements and books and magazines. Their exhibitors’ fee was a lucky draw prize at half time.
We initiated the endorsement by CMA and Barry Varty, Chairman in those days was very willing to provide a letter for us. We proudly displayed this “Approved Training Programme for the Comrades Marathon” on all our fliers and still do. There was no ambush marketing in those days. The “Comrades Panel meetings” were awarded their “Green Number” for supporting the runners and the race by training properly.
The Comrades Panel meetings were well respected and we assembled a similar panel of speakers including myself to create the Comrades Road Shows backed by CMA. We travelled to the main running centres from Limpopo to Cape Town ably compared by Ian Laxton one of the anchor men for the TV broadcasts.
At the scattered coastal and rural towns it was apparent that these runners had less access to training methods than the urban area so I started writing monthly articles in Runners World which indeed reached the outlying districts. I was appointed the first Comrades Coach to give talks and set up a forum on the Comrades website.
We soon had a very active response from website readers and we became aware that there was an international interest. I met later at Comrades with runners from Sydney, Austria and Brazil and was presented with a Brazil soccer T shirt by grateful soccer fans that had ascended to Comrades marathon status. At this stage we designed and printed Pacing Charts for race day which I compiled and was, at this stage, a green number finisher. They were sold at the Comrades Coach stand at the Expo and it was then that I realised how far and wide our training programmes had reached. I personally met my audience from the magazine subscribers and the road shows. It gave me a deep feeling of pride and satisfaction that a large percentage of Comrades novices had access to successful monthly training programmes. A sharp contrast to the advice I had for my first Comrades.
One memorable succinct reply to my question; “Should you have something to eat during Comrades?” The very dry reply was “Run fast enough and get in before lunch!”
D.J. Are you able to guess how many runners you have taken to the finish line through the panel Talks over the years
D.O. No doubt that we helped on average 250 runners each year for 25 years and still going in a smaller way. Minimum 6500.
D.J. A lot of people who can thank you for those medals they have! What a lot of people may not know is that you were an above average runner yourself. How many Comrades do you have under your belt and what’s your best time?
D.O. I completed 19 Comrades with a best time of 7 hours 25 mins.
D.J. That’s not a shabby time. And your slowest time?
D.O. 10 hours 31 mins.
D.J. So certainly well qualified across the time field to give advice. You have been very involved in road running administration over the years. Was that also a passion or just an “add on “to your love of Comrades”.
D.O. I have always wanted to share the pleasure and excitement that I get from road running and the most effective way to influence people is to be an administrator. I always had clear vision of what I was trying to achieve which was always to benefit the runners at all levels. I never found the administration a burden but rather an opportunity. I was always very aware of the trust people had given me by voting for me and I always tried to give them something in return. It was therefore a commitment to improve all aspects of road running.
The photo above taken at the Vaal Marathon in 1997 was a Comrades Panel “Bus” to qualify in less than 4:20 to get seeding batch F to give them a better chance of a bronze at Comrades. The lady in the second row to Don’s left behind the RAC runner is Don’s late wife Olwyn.
D.J. Do you ever see this love of this amazing race waning or is it something that you think will continue to attend Comrades for as long as you are able to do so.
D.O. My love for Comrades is not waning as yet and I see no signs of my involvement shrinking although the focus each year does change. To attend Comrades is always a way to recharge my batteries to provide motivation for talks and articles.
If you happen to see Don at Expo when you are at Comrades, go along and say hello to him. One of the nicest and most genuine people around.