Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

BEATEN BY A WAR AND A PANDEMIC

Only two things have beaten Comrades since it started in 1921. A war and a pandemic.

World War ll saw Comrades stop from 1941 to 1945 and the global pandemic we came to know as Covid – 19 brought Comrades to a halt in 2020 and with it the hopes and dreams of over 27,000 runners.

The last Comrades before World War ll in 1940 went down in the record books because most runners didn’t think it was going to take place and as a result very few continued training and because a lot of the men who were expected to enter had withdrawn and left to join their units at training camps at various centres around the country the field was left to just 23 who set off on the Up Run that year.

Those who did run are said to have eased back on their Comrades training as they were not sure whether Comrades would take place or not and it was only Allen Boyce already with three gold medals and two of them for second place in both 1938 and 1939 in his collection who took the decision that he was going to give his training his full attention in case Comrades did in fact happen.

Allen Boyce won in 1940 by a staggering 1 hour and 50 minutes a gap unlikely to ever be beaten in the future but that was the end of Comrades until 1946 because of World War ll and since then there has not been much that has threatened to disrupt the race.

We had already had the launch of the 95th Comrades scheduled for the 14th of June 2020, the slogan of which was to be “Iphupho Lami – Dare to Dream” and the field had been increased to allow a massive 27,500 runners to take part, the biggest number ever and the excitement was there both locally and from runners overseas.

Entries had sold out in two and a half days which was something unheard of and the organisers got themselves ready to start preparing for everything and then at the beginning of 2020 a city in China called Wuhan, hardly known to the average South African shot to prominence and we started to hear more and more about it on the news. There was clearly nothing much to worry about because the Americans weren’t too worried it seemed and then we started to hear alarming stories coming out of Italy and then Spain and then the rest of Europe about something that was being called Covid-19 or corona virus and it didn’t take long and it was being called a “global pandemic”.

South Africa is part of the “globe” surely but still nothing was happening here or anywhere else in Africa it seemed – then it started.

By March the Americans and the Brits were taking very real notice of what this “pandemic” seemed to be doing but still nothing too much in the southern tip of Africa but we started to hear things and then towards the end of March, we were all glued to our television sets as our president told us just how serious this pandemic was and what had to be done to slow it down even though it wasn’t doing too much damage at that stage and South Africa found itself in “lockdown” so that we could prepare for what was coming, a new experience for us all.

The regulations were stringent. Restaurants had to close as did theatres and other places of entertainment but we then heard that sports events were being affected by the “lockdown” and our national cricket and rugby teams had to cancel overseas tours and we couldn’t leave our homes or exercise in groups and running was affected so what about Comrades we all asked?

The Comrades organisers put out a media release saying that they were going ahead with the planning but unfortunately the media release was incorrectly read by many of the important people and in a flash we had cabinet ministers and suchlike people coming on TV saying Comrades would not be happening without the permission of the controlling body of athletics in South Africa.

The problem was that at no stage did Comrades say that THE RACE would go ahead as planned but rather that the ORGANISING would go ahead. When one considers that it takes virtually a full year to organise this event it then all makes sense but for a short while a lot of unhappiness all round until the confusion was resolved.

Eventually in mid-April a further media release, this time from the controlling body of athletics came out saying that Comrades would be postponed to a future date still to be announced and that – other than announcing a complete cancellation – was all that could be done at that stage. That made sense because we had no idea what this virus was going to do.

It was beyond the control of the Comrades organisers but not all runners saw it that way and many took to social media saying that the Comrades Marathon Association owed it to runners to tell them what was going to be happening. The fact that they couldn’t do this didn’t matter, some people thought that Comrades organisers were duty bound to tell runners something that was impossible for them to do.

The other thing that happened was that the organisers said that if it did take place the latest it could take place was the end of September but that was also not acceptable to all and runners then started deciding on dates for the race and some were quoted in the media giving the “perfect date” with reasons when it should be held, the dates which didn’t agree with those thought by the organisers.

The country however remained in lockdown and slowly – ever so slowly – restrictions started to be eased but we all remained very frustrated, not so much because we had no answer about Comrades but because some of us fall into the so-called “high risk category” of over 70 years of age and “experts” in the field of viruses started to suggest that those of us in that category should perhaps remain in lockdown until the end of September!

Then eventually on the 14th of May the joint media release came from Comrades and ASA telling us that Comrades 2020 was cancelled and was definitely not taking place this year so all the confusion, all the uncertainty and all the anger could finally be laid to rest.

So for the second time in the very long history of this incredible event, it is being cancelled for a reason beyond the control of the organisers but it is still the organisers who will take the anger and abuse levelled at them by many runners and by many members of the public.

Those of us who love this race – and I am certainly one of them – are very disappointed about the cancellation but we need to understand that this is not the fault of the organisers nor of the athletics body nor the government and that it’s been said over and over that just as it was a World War that stopped Comrades once before, so has a war, this time against an invisible enemy, done exactly the same thing again and just as the race came through the last war that stopped it and it survived, so it will do so again this time.

May 2020

Posted in COMRADES ADVICE

TEAM ASHWORTH COACHING

When entries opened for Comrades 2020 there was a crazy rush like we’ve never seen before and a complete sell-out of entries in under 3 days so now begins the hardest part of it all for the runners and that’s to get to that start-line in Pietermaritzburg on the 14th of June later this year.

For many – and there are a huge number of novices – this is going to be a new experience and sadly, many will get things completely wrong come Comrades day and they’ll have a long hot day out on the road and that could have been avoided had they trained correctly – but how does one do this?

Ask 5 different coaches or would-be coaches and you’ll probably get 5 different answers. One will tell you to do this and another will tell you to do that. One of the biggest secrets when you get yourself a coach is that these people generally know what they are doing (although I have come across a couple who don’t have a clue) so that being the case, when you think you’ve found the right coach, whatever you do – stick with that coach.

Jumping around from coach to coach is a disaster and won’t help you at all in the same way that taking advice from a dozen different people will have the same disastrous effect.

With more and more runners wanting to be able to tell the world that their running is improving, the demand for coaches to help runners get to that point, is increasing and no longer is it just the top or elite runners who are enlisting the services of a coach but the “ordinary” runner who is wanting to improve his or her time and doesn’t know how to go about this, is turning to coaches for help.

One of the latest coaches at the disposal of runners is “Team Ashworth Coaching”.   The name Ashworth is not an unknown one in the world of South African running and Ann Ashworth, winner on the 2018 Comrades is half the “Ashworth” part of this new coaching team.

Team Ashworth

Whilst Ann has been involved in coaching the runners in her club “Team Massmart” since the establishment of the club some two years ago, we’ve seen a huge improvement from many of the ladies who run for Massmart and that’s where Ann will continue to focus, it is husband, David, who has given up his job as a teacher to coach fulltime.

David has been coaching for a couple of years on a low key basis and has had success with some of those he’s coached but his credentials need to be known. A green number runner at Comrades (he got his green number in 2019) with a best Comrades time of 6:24 in 2018 and a best marathon time of 2:31, David certainly knows what he’s talking about.

David Ashworth gets his Green Number from the late Jackie Mekler

 

I sat down with David Ashworth to find out more about the new “Team Ashworth Coaching”.

DJ:      Whilst you call yourselves “Team Ashworth Coaching”, as I understand it, you’ll be doing most of the coaching of runners needing a coach whilst Ann continues to focus mainly on the ladies of “Team Massmart” and her career as an advocate with very little in the way of general coaching?

DA:     Because Ann is very involved in her work as an advocate and administration of Team Massmart, I have taken over as the official coach of Team Massmart, coaching a number of the ladies there. I am fortunate to be working with an amazing team of elite ladies such as Lizzy Ramadamitja, the first black South African female to achieve a gold medal in 9 years at last year’s Two Oceans Marathon.

Ann & David at the finish line of Comrades and both under 6:30

 

DJ:      Will she be involved with the elite ladies at Massmart?

 

DA:     There are basically three categories of athletes at Massmart. You’ve got the “Elites” the “Sub-Elites” and the “Development” athletes who can’t afford to get into running seriously and those are coached at no cost to them. That’s where Ann gives back to running in a big way. She doesn’t go out and get athletes who are already performing or poach from existing clubs, but instead, goes out and finds talented athletes who do not have the means to take their running to the next level. Ann recently took on 10 ordinary athletes who do not have the means or support to reach their dream of running the Comrades marathon.

 

 DJ:      What qualifies you as a coach? There are some that I know of who simply set themselves up and don’t actually know what they are doing despite telling the world that they do.

 

 DA:     I’ve learnt from a number of top coaches over the years and I’ve learnt a lot of different coaching styles from them, people like Andrew Bosch, Lungile Bikwani, John Hamlett, Lindsey Parry and Neville Beeton and then as far as the academic side of it is concerned, I’ve done ASA Level 1 coaching, Sports Science Institute: Training essentials and programme design for endurance running, Sports Science Institute: Cycling Science – The essentials of cycling physiology and coaching,

Also, as part of my B.Ed Degree studies, I sub-majored in Physical Education. This included training, coaching, and physiology,

and I’ve done a lot of research and a lot of reading on coaching and coaching methods so I’ve covered a fair amount of coaching training.

 

DJ:      From the things you’ve picked up from these various coaches and courses, have you developed your own coaching methods and do you stick with that for all your athletes?

DA:     There isn’t one coaching method for everyone so it follows then that, it differs for every athlete. Training must fit into the lifestyle of that particular runner. Some athletes do better on high mileage whilst others do better on low mileage so we have to factor this in when designing a programme. An athlete should stick with one coach for some time so that as a team, they can find out what works and what does not work for them. Simply put, there’s no “one size fits all” and each athlete gets a unique plan.

 

DJ:      Let’s assume I come to you with a marathon time of 4 hours, or a Comrades time of 10:15 so I am really towards the back of the field and I would really like to improve on that. Firstly would you take that sort of person and secondly, what do you think a runner of that calibre could get to? I would think that a sub 3 hour marathon is pretty much out of the question as is a silver at Comrades. How do you establish a person’s limit?

 

 

DA:     To answer your first question; I assist athletes who have only started running, all the way up to elite level. Second, you’ve got to be realistic about what that person wants to achieve and you can only do that over a period of time. There isn’t a set pattern for everybody so it’s a case of looking carefully at individual performances and guiding that person to their reach their goal. A coach should not place a limit on an athlete, however, realistic goal setting in collaboration with the athlete to reign in an over-enthusiastic expectation is sometimes necessary. A 4-hour marathoner can achieve a sub-3 time. Many factors must be considered: age, weight, how long they have been running, and so much more will all contribute to their potential ability.

 

 DJ:      I remember that when I ran my best Comrades in 1975, it was 8:29 and to this day I firmly believe that 8 hours was my limit. What would you have done to get me – perhaps – to 8 the hours that I so desperately wanted but never achieved?

 

 DA:     I would have looked at your existing training programme to establish what, if any, periodization there was. I would look at how you progressively build up the mileage and see what Comrades-specific training sessions were incorporated (keep in mind that the ‘up’ and the ‘down’ runs are completely different races). I’d also look at your recovery – the key to a successful training strategy is having sufficient rest and recovery.

 

 DJ:      So I want to run Comrades this year. I have already qualified at Kaapsehoop and I did 3:55 which is Batch D at the start and that’s not too bad but I do want to get to Batch C where I would really like to be and out of the masses at the start? Do you work on my speed or my strength and endurance to get me to Batch C?

 

DA:     I would focus on both speed and endurance. I would also prefer to do the qualifying marathon on a flat course rather than a downhill course like Kaapsehoop. I think it’s not great to use a downhill route for a fast time because of the damage you do to your muscles and joints. I would also exercise caution against putting too much emphasis on racing too close to Comrades. You may find that you run a pretty good time in a situation where you are relaxed and not trying to run so hard.

 

DJ:      It’s no secret that I am a big exponent of LSD (Long Slow Distance) and whilst I may not have been the fastest runner back then I always had plenty of reserve for that dreaded second half and I firmly believe that came from my LSD. You views on LSD?

 

DA:     LSD should be present in every runner’s training. The latest research by Dr. Stephen Seiler reveals that polarized training carries huge benefits in one’s training. Polarized training is similar to 80/20 training in which 80% of running is done at extremely low effort and only 20% at maximal. It won’t make you a slow runner as people are lead to believe. What it does is it saves you from being fatigued on the fast and hard training sessions.

The basic concept has been followed by the Kenyans, cross-country skiers, rowers etc. It’s VERY difficult for the average runner to train this way. The ‘easy’ runs that most follow are not easy enough and have a huge negative effect on the body. They’re not fast enough to get the benefit of a speed session, but are too slow for a quality session. It is a kind of no-man’s land. So, to answer your question… I know that most get it completely wrong.

 

DJ:      Explain what you mean by that because you seem to have two differing views on the subject where you say “It’s VERY difficult for the average runner to train this way. The ‘easy’ runs that most follow are not easy enough and have a huge negative effect on the body. It’s not fast enough and is too slow for a quality session” so what is the best speed at which to train and do you work on that with your runners?

 

DA:     What I mean by that is that it’s very easy to run too fast when we’re supposed to be running easy. When you look at the way your body is responding in terms of where your heart rate is compared to where your heart rate should be. You should be running at a speed where you could be running the whole day at that speed. All heart rate zones and paces are based off percentages of the runner’s threshold values, which are tested at regular intervals.

 

 

So there you have it if you’re looking for a coach to help you get to the finish on “the big day” in mid-June in the best possible shape, take a look at the Team Ashworth Coaching website at www.teamashworth.co.za and you’ll get all the information you need as well as different coaching options and costs.

Train well – and see you in Durban and don’t forget the other part of your training where you focus on getting to know the route for the Down Run. That’s essential. You’ll find that on COMRADES DOWN RUN ROUTE 2020   

 

 

           

JANUARY 2020

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

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

Posted in COMRADES PERSONALITIES

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

Posted in COMRADES PERSONALITIES

MY MEMORIES OF JACKIE MEKLER

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

JACKIE MEKLER    Jackie Mekler. Superb athlete and absolute gentleman

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

9 July 2019

Posted in COMRADES PERSONALITIES

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 him 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. 

Helen Lucre on her way to one of her three wins

 

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 and 2013.

elena NURGALEIVA                                                                                                                                                                                                   Elena Nurgalieva wearing her yellow number before winning her green number

 

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  

Posted in COMRADES PERSONALITIES

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 great runners of the Comrades Marathon.

 

 

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

 

Posted in COMRADES ADVICE

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

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

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.

20151130_163928

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

 

 

February 2019

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

COMRADES – THE GREAT LEVELLER :

A little over 50 years ago, shortly before I ran my first Comrades, I read an article in a Durban newspaper entitled “Comrades – The Great Leveller” and over the years since then, I have often thought about that article as various things have happened during this race.  I have seen race leaders with a substantial lead just 20km from the finish end up just scraping into the gold medals or not finishing at all and I wonder how many people, both runners and spectators have ever thought about the subject of that article?

A couple of years ago, Comrades themselves used the theme “It Will Humble You” and I wrote something at the time in which I expressed my thoughts about how this event can in fact humble one.

I was challenged by someone who said that a road race and especially Comrades, can’t humble anyone but yet the very person who challenged me has been humbled by Comrades and when I sit down and think about it, I know of many more people who have been humbled by Comrades.

I am just one of those who has been humbled by this race on more than one occasion but the biggest lesson I got was in 1976 when I was going for my best time. I had trained for it and I knew I could do it but just a few minutes over 3 hours into the race I ran into trouble in the form of cramp.

Prior to that I had never suffered from cramp (as opposed to sore and stiff muscles) while running and this was my 9th Comrades so there was absolutely no reason for it to have happened that day – but it did and I ended up running just over two hours slower than I had planned, and my second half was slower than the winner that year (it was Alan Robb who won in 5:40:39) took to run the entire race.

ALAN ROBB 1978 FINISH

If that is not being humbled I don’t know what is and I know of many runners who can tell you stories of how they “came undone” in Comrades and ended up either not finishing or having serious problems on the road and finishing a lot slower than they had planned. 

I could rattle off a long list of names but I won’t because it doesn’t take a lot of thought to go back through the history of Comrades and to find many of the people who have suffered the indignity of being humbled by this road race.

Comrades is bigger than any of us when that gun is fired to start the race.

So back to where I started when I said that Comrades can be regarded as the great leveller but what exactly does that mean?

Well, as I see it, and this can be seen almost every year when Comrades organisers take the number of people who have entered and publish the jobs and professions of the runners and how many people fall into each category and you’ll find some of the entrants are company directors or well-known surgeons or some other equally elevated profession many of which come with a reasonably high social status.

At the other end of the scale, you find manual labourers, waiters and, sadly, unemployed people but the big thing is that when that gun fires to start Comrades, every one of those people are equal and their position in life and the amount of money they have and their fame mean absolutely nothing.

On the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, the top surgeon in the country, if he’s running, could find himself spending many hours running alongside, talking to and bonding with the lowest paid person in the race and what they are in life and the status they might have means nothing at all. Not a thing and in many cases it’s probably unlikely that they’ll even bother to ask each other about their status in life. They have far more important things to think about on Comrades day.

CAMPERDOWN

They are all exactly the same as they struggle together up the hills in Comrades and as they share their thoughts about the race and stop together at a refreshment station for that well deserved drink.

It doesn’t end there though. It is completely possible that the labourer and his boss could start together but it is also completely possible that the labourer finishes a good few hours ahead of his boss. Whatever position the boss might hold in the company compared to that of the labourer means nothing – absolutely nothing – on that road when Comrades is held.

So basically what I am getting at, is that it matters not what position or so-called social status you may hold in life or how much money you might have in the bank and how fancy a house you might live in and how expensive a car you might drive, all those things mean nothing.  On Comrades day everybody is equal where all your wealth and status, or perceived lack of it, count for nothing. 

All that matters is that you all get to the finish and the fancy house in which you live and the fancy car you drive and your big salary aren’t going to help you to get to the finish ahead of the runner who has none of those things.

Go to the finish or even sit at the side of the road to watch the race and watch the runners and nobody asks them how much or how little they earn when they offer to help each other to reach their goal. Those runners are simply “comrades” together on that day.

Imagine what a wonderful place South Africa would be if everybody in the country behaved towards each other in the same way as they do on Comrades day. 

I don’t think it matters whether you’re a gold medallist or whether you scrape home just before the 12 hour gun, on Comrades day I believe everyone is equal and I think it can best be summed up by Caroline Wostmann who won the women’s race in 2015 and had that awful run in 2016 and although she finished second, something that many people would be happy to do, she said   “When I crossed the finish line I learnt that winning is not about coming first but rather about challenging yourself to the limit, pushing the boundaries and walking away from the experience a better, stronger person.”

Every runner has the same distance to cover, the same hills to climb, the same refreshment stations to use and the same stiff and sore legs.  It matters not one bit who or what you are on Comrades day or what colour skin you might have because every single person in that race (and I’m not talking about athletic ability here) is exactly the same. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that Comrades is the great leveller.