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

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 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

COMRADES – GET TO KNOW IT. :

A lot of people have asked me over the years what it is with me and the Comrades Marathon.  When I initially thought about it years ago my immediate response to myself was that I really didn’t know what it is that drew me to feel the way I do about Comrades but when I sat down and thought about it, and that was a fairly long time ago, I started to understand.

Its way more than the physical challenge it presents because one has to travel some 90km on foot within a certain time and in some sort of strange way it was a disagreement with someone about Comrades that got me thinking about all this again.  This person, who has never run the race, tried to convince me that Comrades is simply another road race and it’s a simple thing of getting from the start to the finish as fast as possible as one would any other road race.  

His thinking was that it has everything to do with the time you run and nothing else.  This could be right, if it wasn’t for one thing. It doesn’t explain why it is that a huge percentage of the field finishes in the last hour, and that, if you look at the record book, has always been the case.  To my mind it’s easy to convince yourself that time is the most important part of Comrades if you have never experienced it yourself.

Naturally time does play a part and to many people it plays a major part. I for example, always tried to run a respectable time – whatever that might be but when I look back at my Comrades performances, finishing, almost always, was the prime consideration. One of my proudest moments in Comrades was when I ran my first one and I was almost 10 and a half hours on the road that year and so it was with most of my runs and I think this is the reason why we now have so many runners who proudly own a Green Number for having run it more than 10 times.  A “respectable time” was, for me and thousands of other runners, a bonus.

My love of Comrades started 12 years before I first ran it. I was 9 years old when I saw it for the first time and it was love at first sight and I think it cast a kind of magic spell in my young mind at the time. Firstly that anyone could actually run that far was just beyond my understanding at the time so it created a mystery and magic and what 9 year old isn’t captivated by any sort of mystery and magic?

As the years have gone by, this feeling of mystery may have gone to a degree because I’ve been involved so long, but the magic spell it cast all those years ago has never left me despite the fact that the first Comrades I saw and the Comrades we have today are vastly different things altogether. 

This of course, is perfectly understandable because Comrades had to move with the times and change to fall in line with the world as we know it. Imagine if Comrades in the 21st century was still exactly as it was in 1956 when I first saw it!  As the race grew, so the need came to make changes.

The one aspect of it all that does sadden me and that’s the fact that so many modern runners don’t fully experience Comrades. Many will argue with me – and that’s fine – but I believe it’s got to do with the fact that very few have very much interest in, or know the history of Comrades.

Many “ordinary” runners will strive to get a Bill Rowan Medal for example, without really knowing who Bill Rowan was nor the significance of the requirement to break 9 hours to achieve this particular medal.  Some people have said that the lack of interest in the history of the race is because so much of it took place in those dark days of South Africa’s past but as long as there are things that people desperately try to achieve like a medal named after the first winner in 1921, I think it’s difficult or almost impossible to say that we should have no interest in “the old days” that have no bearing on the South Africa of the 21st century.

bill rowan (2)

Photo: Bill Rowan

Comrades has an amazing history and it’s difficult to ignore it because so much of what happened in the past still impacts on the race today and the Bill Rowan Medal is just one of them.

Another example is the fact that all of the 5 times and more winners of Comrades achieved this before we had our much needed political change but yet every modern day winner sets these men as the goal they would like to achieve.

Ask many modern runners, however, to name the 5 men who have won the race 5 times or more and most will only be able to give you Bruce’s name, yet most know that whilst nobody has come close to the number Bruce has won there are 4 others who have won 5 times. Then take it down to the 3 times winners and the only 4 time winner we’ve had and there will be even less knowledge of who they are and in total there are not many who fall into those categories.

My guess is that even our most recent 3 times winner’s name is not known to many of the “ordinary” runners and our latest 3 time winner, Bongmusa Mthembu, achieved his third win this year!

BONGMUSA MTHEMBU

Photo @ComradesRace via Twitter

We haven’t even mentioned the achievements of our women runners that are probably even less known.

The argument that much of what happened took place in the old South Africa doesn’t actually “wash”. For example, who was the winner who wore a black armband opposing things happening in the old South Africa at the time.  Many wouldn’t be able to tell you and that was in 1981.

How many runners can tell you when Comrades was opened to all races at a time when the country was still deep in apartheid days and some 15 years before things started to change politically in this country?  

Even when the race opened up in 1975, the field was limited to just 1 500 runners, and runners had to prove their qualifying times by running a marathon in under 3:30That meant that many potential competitors were excluded and a friend and training partner was one of them after he ran a marathon in 3:32.  He didn’t ever get the chance again to run it.

After cutting the field down from the 1 686 entrants to the allowed 1 500, only 18 “non-white” runners and two women were included in the field in 1975. The main reason was that organisers felt the roads couldn’t handle more than that in terms of traffic, etc as that was before the introduction of refreshment stations and runners each had their own seconds and the traffic congestion was horrendous.

Despite this, how instrumental was Comrades in taking the early steps towards “normalising” sport in South Africa?  

Who was Sam Tshabalala and why does his name feature in the history of Comrades and going even further back in time, who was Robert Mtshali who has only now been recognised by the organisers but who ran it over 80 years ago?  

Robert Mtshali was the first black man to run and complete Comrades way back in 1935 and he did that as an unofficial runner because black runners were not allowed to run it.  

Comrades organisers have now commissioned a bronze memorial to commemorate his run and you’ll find that at the entrance of the Comrades Museum.

ROBERT MTSHALI PLAQUE

Photo: wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Mtshali-gedenkplaket.jpg

A few years after Robert Mtshali ran and in 1940 Allen Boyce recorded the biggest winning margin of almost two hours.  Very few modern runners even know that.

Against that, the two closest wins were in 1967 by one second and in 1931 by two seconds and the man who finished 2nd in 1931 ran the entire race without a drink because his second didn’t meet him as arranged. The photo shows the mad sprint for the finish line in 1931 with Noel Burree who finished 2nd trying to catch winner, Phil Masterton-Smith.

NOEL BURREE

How many people know that Comrades almost died because of an uproar about the traffic problems it was causing and that was in the late sixties?

As recently as 1966 (and at my age that’s recent) the winner, Tommy Malone, was threatened with disqualification by an over enthusiastic race official whilst running up Polly Shortts because he was running in the middle of the road to avoid the camber.  Runners had to stick to the correct side of the road! Imagine that today! 

Fortunately Tommy wasn’t disqualified and went on to win the 1966 race and his win is still the biggest winning margin on the Up Run since then.

TOMMY WINS

These are just a few of the things that hold an incredible fascination for me and that have made my experience of Comrades more than “just another road race”.

When you consider all these things and much more about this amazing event you will perhaps get some sort of idea of what sets Comrades apart and makes it so much more than just a “another road race” but without knowing the incredible history of Comrades, I don’t think you get the full picture.  The history of each race since 1921 is on the Comrades website at http://www.comrades.com

I don’t think that you can fully experience it without that knowledge and I believe people who run it and come away with that special something it gives you, are taking away from themselves the complete Comrades experience.  I don’t think you can take what this race has to offer ordinary people unless you know all about it from the very beginning – and that was actually before Bill Rowan won the first one in 1921!

Run it without knowing it and I don’t think you have fully experienced this great annual “happening”.

August 2018

COMRADES 2018 – ANN ASHWORTH, WHO IS SHE? :

COMRADES 2018 – ANN ASHWORTH, WHO IS SHE?I was privileged to have been part of the seconding team of this year’s Comrades women’s winner, Ann Ashworth, and once I had got myself to the finish in time to see her cross the line, I made my way to the VIP lounge where I saw several of my running friends from many years ago.  When they found out where I had been earlier in the day, I was asked “But who the heck is Ann Ashworth?”

I was delighted when I was asked this question because this meant that we had successfully sheltered Ann from too much media attention and this had allowed Ann to get on with her race preparation unhindered.

The question though as to who she is still needed to be answered.  Once things had settled down a bit a few days after Comrades I sat down with Ann, a good friend, to ask her what the rest of the media hadn’t already asked since Ann’s brilliant win on the 10th of June.

ANN ON THE ROAD

I knew Ann was from Howick in the KZN Midlands but is that where she was born?

AA:     I was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, then moved to the Eastern Cape for a few years, spent a year in what was then known as Zululand and then, when I was four, moved to MerrIvale, which is now considered a suburb of Howick.  I grew up in Howick, did all my junior preschool, junior school and high school in Howick and then completely my first year of university in Bloemfontein.  While I was in Bloem, my Dad got very ill and I decided that I didn’t want to be so far away or in Bloemfontein and so moved back home to Howick and did my law degree in Pietermaritzburg.  I then only moved to Johannesburg when I got my first job as a candidate attorney.

 

DJ:      Now when you went to varsity, had you already decided that law was the way you wanted to go and that was the way you studied?

AA:     No, when I did my year in Bloemfontein, I actually thought I was going to do Sports Physiotherapy.  I thought that that was a good way to keep in touch with sport and be active and just stay healthy.  I also thought that was quite a nice career option and my parents were quite in favour of that because it’s easily transportable. You know, you can move anywhere in the world and take your physiotherapy skills with you and at that stage there was a lot of movement, a lot of people were still emigrating, it was still quite uncertain and so they thought that was a good option.  But six months into physiotherapy, I knew that it wasn’t for me.  I didn’t like how medical it seemed to be.  Not that I wasn’t interested in the human body, but it was just….. it was very little sports physio and a whole lot of rehab and medical physio as part of the training, and I didn’t enjoy it at all… and so then decided to study law after that.   Law had always been my second option to physiotherapy, so when physiotherapy was off the table, we then went back to law.

 

DJ:      Had you by this time, in school maybe or in varsity, already developed an interest in sport generally – general sport?

AA:     Well I’m an only child and so only children tend to do a lot of sport as a way to meet and interact with other people – because you don’t have siblings to play with and so I did do sport at school.  I did hockey, I did water polo quite badly because I’m too small to play water polo.  I swam a lot.  I was swimming up to four hours a day in the summer months and really training quite seriously as a swimmer.  Swimming was definitely my best-performing sport at school and then really just did cross-country in the off-season to keep fit for swimming and same with track.  Track was the only sport offered in the third term at my school, so everybody did track and I was okay.  I really only came into my own in the second half of high school, so from standard eight, nine and ten…..

 

DJ:      Are you talking about athletics now?

AA:     …….and cross country.  Senior High was really when I started to realise that, look okay, I actually can run, but that’s relatively speaking, because I grew up in Natal and Natal was always on the back-foot in terms of athletics and cross-country.  I mean when we came up here to compete against Transvaal schools,  you know, Natal was always last, so I didn’t really take my running seriously at all.  It really was just something else that I did when I wasn’t swimming.

 

DJ:      Why do you think that is in terms of the Natal schools?  Do you think that something like Comrades hurts athletics in schools?

AA:     I don’t think so.  I think that the weather has a lot to do with it.  Because it’s so hot and humid in KZN, our terms are not aligned with the rest of South Africa, so we swim….  In Natal, you swim in the first and fourth term, you then do cross-country in the second term and track in the third term, whereas in the Northern Provinces your track is year round and we’re only running on a term, maybe two terms worth of training and fitness, whereas the Northern Provinces are doing it all the time.  Perhaps the Northern Provinces aren’t as good as Natal in terms of your water polo or your swimming or things like that, but I think it has a lot to do with the climate.  I cannot imagine running any kind of long-distance in Natal in February.  I mean it’s too hot.

 

DJ:      Yet they do.

AA:     It’s crazy.  I definitely don’t think school children should be doing it.

 

DJ:      When you were running track in school, what were you doing?  800 & 1500?

AA:     800, 1500, 3000.

 

DJ:      As much as that?

AA:     Ja.  We could only do 3000 as a senior, so for standard 6 and 7 (now Grade 8 and 9), we could only do 800 and 1500 and then when I was a senior in high school, we could do the 3000.   My school only had one race for the 3000.  Boys and girls of all ages and shapes and sizes in one race, so I mean (chuckling) it wasn’t very serious.  I did come up to Pretoria every February.  There’s a Menlopark Athletics Meet, where they invite schools from the Midlands and I sometimes I won those races, but really, I didn’t take it seriously at all.  Ja and then I did do SA Cross Country Champs for four out of five years, so you know I was running…

 

DJ:      Did you feature there?

AA:     No.  Top twenty maybe, you know, it just wasn’t my priority.  I just wasn’t fast enough …. And I wasn’t serious about my training, I really just did it to keep fit, but you know, I wasn’t super-competitive.

 

DJ:      When did that start?

AA:     In matric I actually got a partial Sports Scholarship to Bloemfontein to do my physiotherapy and then as part of that scholarship, had to join, obviously the Kovsie Track Group.  That group was super-serious compared to the easy-going English girl from Natal. There were a lot of very serious Afrikaans girls, who thrashed me, quite frankly and I thought, “Shu, I’ve really got to do something about this.  I can’t be here on a Sports Scholarship and not be performing.”, but I actually cracked under the pressure.  I became severely Anorexic.   My studies and my running went completely off the rails.  My life generally was a bit of a train-wreck and as I got more and more Anorexic, my running performance got worse and worse, to the point that I stopped running altogether.  I didn’t take up running again until after my Dad died.  My Dad died in September 2007 and about a month later I signed up for Two Oceans and for me that was the way I was going to honour my Father’s memory, because he had always thought that I should do long-distance road-running.

 

DJ:      Now it was he who actually introduced you to Comrades when you were very little.

AA:     Ja, so my… well both parents.   My parents used to watch Comrades on the TV all day and so it became a family tradition.  There was nothing else on our diary for that day.  We’d all sit around in our pyjamas and watch Comrades and if it was an Up-Run, we would go out on to the route and we would be anywhere from Cato Ridge to the Finish.  The last year that Bruce Fordyce won was an Up-Run and my Dad and I were actually walking up Polly Shortts.  My Mom was also on Polly Shortts, but we weren’t together at that particular moment, when Bruce came past us and I turned to my Dad and I said one day “I also want to run this race” and he said like, “Ja, you go.  You must do it.” and it’s something that just never left me.  Every time that we watched Comrades whilst growing up I always thought like,   “Ja, one day I’m going to run this race” and it really was just a natural step and Two Oceans is a lot less further than Comrades, so that seemed like the first race that I should enter.

 

DJ:      Now when you said that to him, you must have been what…. Six?

AA:     Six, ja six.

 

DJ:      And that was it.  Decision made.   No changing.

AA:     Ja, everyone knows once I’ve set my mind to something, it’s not going to change.

 

DJ:      Even from the age of six?

AA:     Ja, I always knew.  There was no question in my mind.  I was always going to run Comrades.

 

DJ:      You’d made your decision that you were going to run Comrades, yet you only ran your first one, probably when you were what….. 26, 27, 28?

AA:     26 I think, – 2008 – which is 24.

 

DJ:      Which is actually fairly late having decided to run it at the age of 6?

AA       Ja, you know I always had this idea in my mind that you didn’t really start running Comrades ‘til you were 30, like 30 was a nice round number.  So when I got to 30, that’s when I’d run Comrades and so I didn’t really think about it.  I just sort of thought,  “Ja, ja, I’ll get there in the future.”, but when I started working as a Candidate Attorney in Jo’burg, my boss – or my immediate Supervisor – was a guy by the name of Anton Roets, he was a complete Comrades fanatic.  He had done nine at that stage and he invited me to go for a couple of runs and like….. he’s your boss and he wants you to go for a run with him, so you go and we would do like 5 k’s around Illovo together and then I joined up with his running club and you know, I’d go and run a half-marathon with his group of mates and you know, it was quite sociable and he said to me, “Ann, I think you need to enter Comrades”, but he didn’t think I was going to be serious about it.  He was like,  “Come and run Comrades.  Let’s be sociable.” and I’d met a lot of his friends in the running club which was a club called,  “The Legends” and it was a nice group of guys and I thought,  “Ja, okay that’s nice and sociable….”

 

DJ:      Now were you running other races at that stage?

AA:     Not even so much.  I mean I’d do like a marathon, but nothing more than that…… but not even lots of marathons, like maybe two marathons a year, like Slowmag and Soweto.

 

DJ:      Socially?

AA:     Socially, completely socially.  I actually ran my first Soweto Marathon in 2007 and that’s how it started I think.  I ran Soweto as a fund-raiser, to raise money for an orphanage just outside of Johannesburg and basically I just asked people to me money per kilometer over 42 kilometers.   It was after Soweto that Anton said like,  “Well you’ve run a qualifying Marathon now, you might as well sign up for Comrades.” and that’s really what got me in.  I ran Comrades the next year.  I think I trained four days a week and maybe did…… I think I did two or three long runs, but really socially.   I mean, I think I actually ran a long run with The Legends and our long run of 60 k’s ended up taking me far longer than I actually took to run Comrades, like it was really slow and then ran Comrades and I finished on 8:01, which for a first Comrades is not bad.  I was first Novice ……

 

DJ:      But somebody had to realise that there was something there if you did 8:01 in your first Comrades?

AA:     No, well….. so ja, I mean I did an 8:01 and I was First Novice and I won my age group and then Bruce Fordyce came to the “aches and pains” party or another Comrades-related function for our club and everybody there, all my mates at the club were like “Oh this is Ann.  She did the best out of the club.” and he said,  “Well what did you run?”  I said, “8:01” and he looked at me and I was like expecting him to be like “Oh well done, that’s great.” because that’s all anyone had said about my 8:01 and then Bruce looked at me and said, “Well, what went wrong?” and I said,  “What do you mean what went wrong, that’s a great time!” and he was like,  “No-one runs at 8:01.  You should be running a 7:59…. at least.” and I was like,   “Okay….fine….  Let me try and now break 8 hours”.  

Around about the same time I had asked another coach to help me and he was terrible, so terrible that I ended up not running Comrades the next year (2009), because the guy totally tanked my running.  For some reason he thought that I should focus on half-marathons, even though I told him I wanted to do Comrades, but by the time we parted ways I was completely under-cooked to do a Comrades.  So after the 2009 Comrades which I missed I messaged Bruce and I said,  “Well, you know, you said that you thought that I could run under 8 hours.  Why don’t you coach me and get me under 8 hours?”

At that stage he hadn’t coached anybody and he said,  “Look I don’t do coaching.  I don’t do this.  This is not what I do.” and I said,  “Ag, come on, let’s just try.” and he said,  “Okay three months to Cape Town Marathon. I’ll try and get you under 3 and a half hours.  

 Like literally, I was running like 3.45, for a marathon and he said,  “Three months training.  Let’s see if we can get you under 3 and a half hours and if it works out, then I’ll continue to coach you and if it doesn’t, we go our separate ways.”  So I said, “Okay, deal.” 

 So I trained with Bruce for three months, then a 3.27 at Cape Town and was thrilled.  I thought,  “Wooh, under 3 and a half hours, that’s amazing!” and then entered Comrades and Bruce then trained me for that Comrades and I ran my first silver medal in 2010.  After that I was hooked.  Then I was like,  “Silver medal…..”

ANN AND BRUCE

Bruce encouraging Ann during Comrades 2018 whilst seconding her

 DJ:      That was your second Comrades?

AA:     That was then, yes, my second Comrades and now that I’d had a taste of that silver, now I thought, “Shu, now we’re going to work hard.”  So it’s been quite a long journey…..

 

DJ:      …..to here….

AA:     Ja.  (laughter)

 

DJ:      How many left?

AA:     I said I would never do more than 10.

 

DJ:      ….and you’ve done 7”

AA:     7 – Ja, so I’ve got three left

 

DJ:      Moving away from that altogether, when you started getting serious about Comrades and training and all that sort of thing, you obviously needed a training partner, so you went and married one.

 AA:     (Laughter)

 

 DJ:      How did you meet?

 AA:     So during the time that Bruce was coaching me and I ran my silver, I was running for the Nedbank Running Club.  At the end of that year there was a prize-giving at the running club.  David was the top-performing male runner at Comrades and I was then the top performing female at Comrades and so we attended that prize-giving separately.  I took a boyfriend that I was dating at the time and David came alone and Gill Fordyce introduced us and she was like “David, this is Ann.  She was the best female athlete” and “This is David.   He was the best male athlete” and immediately I was like, “Now that’s cool.  Like… now I might have somebody that I could run with.  

So we became quite friendly and for me, I was like “No, I just want someone to run with, I’m not really interested.  I’ve got a boyfriend.  I don’t need another boyfriend” and so we went for coffee a couple of times and ja, David just pursued me relentlessly and …..

 

 DJ:      And the rest as they say?

 AA:     Ja, the rest is history, ja.   Well his side of the story is that, he met me at the dinner and thought,  “What the heck is Ann doing with that stupid guy?”  (laughter).   But ja, after a couple of coffee chats, I actually then found out that I had a scholarship to go to London and I was open with David and I said,  “Look, you know, we can’t really be dating because I’m going to London for a year.” and David’s attitude was “That’s fine, I’ll come with you.”  and so within three months of dating, David came with me to London for a while and then came back and we did a six month long-distance relationship, where we ate dinner every night together over Skype.  I would make my dinner and he would have his dinner and then we’d Skype eating dinner together, which was very romantic and then about two weeks after I got back, after finishing my studies, David proposed and I said “Yes” and that’s where we are, six years later.

 

DJ:      Now when people ask “Who the heck is Ann Ashworth”, we know

AA:     Now you know all about me…..
ANN FINISH LINE

21 June 2018

 

TO WIN COMRADES :

The more I have written about Comrades in this blog and in other articles over the years and the more I have spoken to winners over the years the more I have realised just what an enormous achievement it is to win Comrades.

Think about this. At the time I write this, we have had 93 Comrades Marathons starting with that very first one way back in 1921 and we have had just 51 different men’s winners.

Pause for a moment to let that sink in.  In 92 races we have had 51 different winners. That tells us just what an enormous achievement it is to win Comrades. Only 51 men have been able to win this race.

Obviously there have been the multi race winners but that takes nothing away from those who are single race winners when you think of the very long list of those who would dearly love to win this race but have just not been able to do so.  Those who have had to be content to go home year after year with a gold medal but no winner’s medal.

Make no mistake though, to go home with a gold medal is still something pretty special.

The trouble is, that whilst it is very special to win a gold medal or a collection of gold medals people tend to forget the person who finishes second, no matter what the sporting event is.

To demonstrate what I mean, Hardy Ballington, who was a five time winner and who is remembered for that achievement, had a younger brother John, who won 5 gold medals in Comrades with a best position of second in 1949.  Does anyone remember that?  

He wore race number 26 and that was long ago reallocated to the late Ian Jardine who turned it green so even the “honour” of getting a green number for John’s five golds for the number he wore was lost because things were different.

Green numbers were first introduced in 1972 so John Ballington’s number 26 had been reallocated long after he stopped running and long after the concept of permanent numbers for 5 gold medals was even thought of.

I have tried to find somewhere that John Ballington’s 5 gold medals are recognised and I haven’t been able to do so.  He wasn’t a winner – he came second and had a collection of gold medals!

I think also of that fantastic runner from Collegians Harriers in Pietermaritzburg, Gordon Baker. Many runners from the modern era won’t even know the name.  Gordon ran Comrades nine times and won eight gold medals but just couldn’t win the race itself.  The result is that today he’s basically forgotten by most people except those of us who knew him from way back when. 

I have been privileged to have met many of the winners since the sixties and when you speak to these chaps they’re ordinary people and most of them quiet and unassuming – until you see a few of them gathered together and you realise that there’s a bond that holds them together.

That bond that says “We’ve won Comrades” and they don’t have to actually say a word, it’s just there.  A magic in the air that you can feel and almost touch. 

I heard Bruce Fordyce recently refer to the Winner’s Trophy jealously as “Our Trophy” and he made it clear that they don’t actually want just any name on that trophy and if your name is on there you have to earn the right to have your name there and he wasn’t being big headed about the way in which he said it although he had every right to be so. 

It’s a very special club and not just anyone can join and from what I’ve seen as an outsider looking in, it doesn’t matter how many Comrades they’ve won to be recognised by the members of that “special club” they all seem to be equal in each other’s eyes.  All that matters is that they’ve won.

I have had people tell me that it was easier in the “old days” to win Comrades when the fields were smaller and slower but I think that’s rubbish.  Maybe the fields were smaller and slower but there were challenges of different sorts that made winning just as big an achievement as it is today.

Some of the biggest winning margins were recorded in “the old days” when the fields were very small but so too were the two closest finishes in the history of the race when fields were much smaller than they are today so that sort of throws that argument out the window.

I remember that after the 2016 Comrades I organised a dinner with Alan Robb and Tommy Malone and the reason for the dinner is that it was 60 years since the year I had first seen Comrades, 50 years since Tommy had won his Comrades and 40 years since Alan had won his first Comrades so I thought that it had some significance – the 40 – 50 – 60 year celebration.

TOMMY MALONE 1966 FINISH

It was a very pleasant evening indeed and with Tommy’s daughter and son-in-law who were also present and who have also run, there was a total of something around 80 Comrades medals between us but the focus was on Tommy and Alan who were winners. The rest of us didn’t really count.

At my 70th birthday party last year the theme was Comrades Marathon (could there have been anything else) and amongst the guests there were a total of exactly 100 Comrades medals and that included two winners.  They were the two people on whom the attention was focused. The rest of who had run just happened to be there and it was my birthday party!

Winning Comrades is a huge achievement.

I have seen 59 Comrades Marathons at the time of writing this and I am looking forward to seeing my 60th in June this year and recently I was given an old DVD of the 1979 and 1982 Comrades which were won by the late Piet Vorster and Bruce Fordyce respectively.

win (1)

I sat watching this DVD and I was reminded again of the speed at which those two guys had to run to win Comrades.  It’s simply mind blowing and I have seen a lot of Comrades and I still marvel at the speed at which the front runners go and for the distance at which they have to run it.

For many years when I was reporting the race for 702 Talk Radio I was on the road alongside the front runners and it was fascinating to see the strategies  and to watch as one by one they faded and the favourites came through. Then you would hear comments such as “Fordyce is starting to make his move” or “Fordyce is starting to come through”. 

bRUCE WINS

Bruce was an amazingly strategic runner and from where I was, it always looked to me – and I may well have been wrong – that he let the others come back to him.  Sure he seemed to increase his speed a bit in the second half but the others did most of the work for him – or so it seemed as I watched and I have heard him say this in talks he has given. He let them come back to him.

I remember one year I had that great athlete Sydney Maree as a passenger in the 702 car with me and we were on Harrison Flats following the leader who was on his own out in front and Sydney said to me “Do you think he’s looking good”.

I said “Nope. He’s just blown. Watch. In about 1km he’ll be walking and in 2km he’ll be out”.  That particular runner was another who thought he was going to win when he was some 30km out but who wasn’t even going to go home with a medal of any sort and he didn’t!

It’s a huge achievement to win Comrades and not just anyone can do it!

After the 2016 Comrades when David Gatebe became the first person to run under 5:20 and we were told that his average speed was 3 minutes 33 seconds per km for the entire 89kms someone asked me at what speed I had run in my best Comrades.  Not knowing the exact distance of the 1975 race when I ran my best time of 8:29 I guessed it was around 5mins 50secs per km and I am pretty damn proud of that. It was a huge effort for me.

DAVID GATEBE

But when you think of David Gatebe’s 3:33 per km you suddenly realise just what an incredible achievement it is to win Comrades.  At my best I wasn’t able to run even one km at David’s speed let alone 89 of them one after the other!

So before you watch Comrades from in front of your TV and grab for another beer as the winner comes in and you salute him as though what he’s done was no big deal or you hear about his win when you still have the better part of 40km still to go on your journey to Moses Mabhida Stadium on the 10th of June, pause for just a moment to consider exactly what this man and all the winners before him have done.

It’s one hell of an achievement.

Will this year’s winner become the 52nd winner or will the number remain at 51 because on the day, there is nobody new who is able to qualify to get his name on the trophy that Bruce Fordyce jealously regards as “Our Trophy”?

And rightly so. It’s very special that trophy.

 

April 2018