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.

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RESPECT COMRADES. IT’S FUN BUT NO JOKE

So your Comrades entry for 2019 is in and you’ve had confirmation from the organisers that they’ve received it – so now what? 

Easy.  All you now have to do is to run a qualifier before the beginning of May and pitch up at the start of Comrades on the 9th of June, but is it really that simple?

With the right approach, I think it is, and I honestly think that the right approach is not hard to achieve.

During the last couple of years I’ve asked myself the question, more than once, whether my relationship with the Comrades Marathon is a passion or an obsession.  I don’t really know what the answer is because the two words are pretty closely related except that one of them conjures up thoughts that are not quite as nice as the other but look at the dictionary and you will find that the word “emotion” features in both definitions so I guess it doesn’t matter too much which it is.

Suffice to say that I have a pretty deep feeling about that strip of tarmac between KZN’s two cities and I am not able to explain it but ridicule the race or don’t treat it with the respect it deserves and I won’t treat you with the sympathy you would perhaps like if you run it and come horribly “unstuck” during the race. This isn’t something new. I’ve felt this way going back as long as I can remember to my very early days to when I first started running Comrades.

Go into Comrades with no respect for the race, come undone and suffer badly and it’s your problem and you’ll get no sympathy from me and I was sitting thinking about the way I feel about people who take part in the race and who, especially in their first run, don’t take it seriously.  It doesn’t often happen to people who have run it more than once. Those people have learnt that Comrades deserves respect and they give it the respect it deserves.

I have often heard novices say they are really scared and my reaction is always that they shouldn’t be scared of Comrades but if they are properly prepared both physically and mentally for Comrades they need to respect it but not fear it. To my mind there’s a very big difference.

I have never feared Comrades but I have certainly respected it.  I have run it 14 times, finished it within the time limit all 14 times and respected it every time and I believe that’s how I was able – even when I suffered badly – to finish the race and to go home with my Comrades medal every time a ran.

Some people regard it as something of a giggle when they enter and right up to the start and even into the race and perhaps even as far as the first 30km or so and until they start to hurt just that little bit when the first of the hills starts to “talk” to them and there is a tiny change of opinion. Comrades has put people into hospital and ICU with such things as renal failure and which sadly in some cases has even claimed the lives of runners who have gone into Comrades perhaps not as prepared as they should be because they think they know better.

In days gone by when we were asked where Comrades started the answer was always “at the 60km mark because anyone can run that. It’s the rest of it that’s the problem” and that’s always been and still is the case.  I was driving between Durban and Pietermaritzburg recently and when I got to Cato Ridge I had visions of my own Comrades days of getting there and remembering what it felt like to be there and that sometimes that feeling of despair knowing there was still over 25km to go and that I was tired but at the same time I was fit and had trained for this.

I heard recently about one entrant who had a longest run of a qualifying marathon in a time of around 4:14 which she considered made her a fast runner and as a result she intended starting Comrades fairly fast. She had no intention of studying the route or listening to anyone talking about the dangers of the first 25km of the Up Run or the first 20km of the Down Run because she felt she didn’t need to do this.  She also saw no need to run any other long runs in preparation for Comrades. She had done a 42Km run and done it quickly!   Somebody should have mentioned to her that a 4:14 marathon isn’t exactly quick and that it’s pretty average and slightly slower that 6 minutes per km!

Unless she is Supergirl in disguise, that particular lady was going to be in for a very long and painful day on Comrades day if she is able to make it past the 60km mark which seemed doubtful.  I had a problem feeling sorry for her. That sort of arrogance didn’t deserve any sort of sympathy.  The problem however is that she could have become a negative statistic that Comrades really doesn’t need. I have no idea whether she finished that year or not.

I have often heard people say “If Comrades was easy then everyone would do it” but not everyone does it because it’s not easy.  Speak to cyclists and many will tell you that they stick to cycling because it’s easier than running.  I am an avid Twitter follower and there was a Tweet I really enjoyed by someone I don’t know that appeared that read

“Running is stupidly hard.  It’s worth doing once in a while to remind oneself how good an idea the bicycle is”

He said it – not me!

I know one young lady who, a couple of years ago claimed to be very fit and I think she was, so she entered for, and completed, the Iron Man in Port Elizabeth.   I’m told that this event is very tough and you are quite something if you can complete it.

About six weeks later she took part in Comrades. She ended up in ICU in hospital for 4 days with renal failure.  No problem with Iron Man. Comrades put her into ICU.

Comrades is not a joke and it should never be treated as a joke.  I have seen some very sick people at the finish of Comrades.

The Comrades doctor told me that the majority of the people treated in the medical tent at the finish of the race suffer from exhaustion as a result of under training yet we see runners year after year treating this race as something of a joke.

 

The wakeup call on Comrades day I would imagine, is when you realise that after your qualifier distance, you are only at around half way, and you have the same distance to do again and then a little bit more all on the same day.  Sure you need to be mentally strong but if you are physically weak for distance running from not training properly, then your mental strength has nothing with which to work.

In 2016, the Comrades banner was “Comrades – It Will Humble You” and there are thousands of us who have been humbled by this race and who have prepared properly and it’s still happened.

I clearly remember the 1976 Comrades and I was probably fitter than I had ever been.  I had run my best ever in 1975 and I was aiming to do even better in 1976. It was a Down Run and I was on schedule at Cato Ridge at around the 30km mark but by the far end of Harrison Flats, just a few kilometres further I felt a niggle in the muscle at the top of my right knee that definitely shouldn’t have been there.

I wasn’t too worried about it, but by the time I got to Drummond I had decided to adjust my finish time by an hour that would still give me a comfortable 9 hours although the muscle was getting worse.

Alan Robb won his first Comrades that year and I ran the second half quite a bit slower than Alan had run the entire race because of that muscle at the top of my knee and that in the year I was aiming for my best ever Comrades.

I understand fully what the 2016 Comrades banner read “Comrades – It Will Humble You”.  It certainly humbled me in 1976.  I was over two hours slower than the time I knew I could run and the time I had set out to run all because of a muscle at the top of my knee.

The question I ask myself then is how am I supposed to feel about these people who have no respect for this thing which is something that for me is such a passion and for which I and so many others who have run that road many times have such respect?

If you’re reading this and you’re going to be running your first Comrades this year and fear is starting to build up as you read, please don’t let fear be there. I have said to many runners and particularly to many novice runners that they shouldn’t fear Comrades but they should certainly respect it.  That they should respect it whether it’s their first Comrades, their 10th Comrades or their 20th.

I have taken people to see Comrades as spectators.  People who have never seen the race before and the reaction has been amazing but usually along the lines of “how do they do it”?

It doesn’t matter how many times one has run it, one should always respect it because Comrades is bigger than any of us and it deserves our respect.

 

November 2018

COMRADES – GET TO KNOW IT. :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bill rowan (2)

Photo: Bill Rowan

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

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

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

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

BONGMUSA MTHEMBU

Photo @ComradesRace via Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROBERT MTSHALI PLAQUE

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

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

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

NOEL BURREE

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

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

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

TOMMY WINS

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

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

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

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

August 2018

WHY RUN COMRADES? :

We’re getting towards the beginning of August and that means in just a month’s time entries for Comrades 2019 will open and if we look at the speed at which entries were snapped up for 2018 I have no doubt the same thing is going to happen again for next year albeit an up run which, incidentally, I have always preferred.

This means that a tremendous number of novices, fired up by Comrades 2018, will, in all probability, be giving serious thought to tackling the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg on the 9th of June 2019

I’ve been around Comrades a very long time.  In fact, I’ve been around Comrades longer than most people have and I have often been asked “Why run it because it can’t be good for you.”

I know one chap who won’t run it for that very reason. He feels that he would rather give Comrades a miss than risk any sort of permanent damage to himself.  I feel very sorry for him because of what he’s missing but that’s the decision he’s made and I would never try to change his mind. He’s of the opinion that Comrades is simply a race to see who can get to the finish in the fastest time and is not really any different to any other race.

It’s so very much more than that. Only 51 men have been able to win this race but many more have tried to do so and failed but it’s not the winners I want to talk about.

It’s the ordinary runner. The person who has perhaps watched it on TV for the last number of years and has finally taken the decision to run Comrades and earn that prized medal.  Comrades is, however, much, much more than just that very precious medal but make no mistake, it is a very precious medal.  Small in size but massive in meaning.

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Let me try to explain.

I have a couple of permanent injuries because I ran all those Comrades all those years ago in shoes that one could hardly call ideal but I have often said to people that had I been told when I was 21, and I was about to run my first Comrades that when I reached 70, I would be suffering from a very bad back and very bad knees because of those Comrades, I would still have run the fourteen I ran, because Comrades gave me so much more than it ever took away from me and it did that in so many different ways, not only in the running world but in life in general.

Allow me to give you just a few examples of the things Comrades can offer you for the taking and all you have to do is to realise that they are there and take them and use them.   

There’s the old saying that Comrades isn’t easy because if it was, then everyone would do it, but it’s not easy and this is confirmed by that very small overall number of people who have done it since it was first run in 1921.

We’re not sure of the exact number who have run Comrades since it started but we guess between 150,000 and 200,000 but as a percentage of people from the eligible age and health group in a country that now has 57 million people of whom probably at least 15 million are in the right age and health group to take part, it is pretty small percentage.

In fact it wasn’t until around 2000 that the numbers actually picked up when the race organisers increased the time limit to 12 hours making it that much more accessible to many more people who might otherwise not have attempted it, have the numbers increased in any significant way.

There are other factors that come into play obviously, such as the restriction on the number of entries that the narrow “old road” can safely handle as well as the facilities at both ends of the race.  Imagine an entry the size of one of the major overseas city marathons trying to fit onto the road through Drummond!

Then there’s this inexplicable thing of why it is that so many of us go back and run it again and again and if you ask anyone who has run more than once, why they’ve done so, you’ll get a variety of answers many of which don’t really make a lot of sense.

Many years ago I sat down and something came to me and I put it down and when Comrades themselves saw it they even used part of it on their banners for the 1999 race and on the front of the runners’ T shirts that year and the “verse” they chose to use from what some people called a poem, was 

It’s something that changes lives forever

and makes those who do it different

Not only to others but to themselves.

It takes ordinary people who struggle to achieve mediocrity

and allows others to look up to them in awe.

COMRADES T SHIRT 1999

What I was getting at in the verse I quoted above when I said that Comrades takes ordinary people and allows others to look up to them in awe is seen in the reaction of non-runners who find out that you have run Comrades. It takes ordinary people who are no more than mediocre in most things they do in life and allows them to move beyond that mediocrity somehow. They are suddenly seen in a different light.

It certainly did that for me and people still look at me in awe when they find out how many I ran – and I only ran 14 of them. That’s nothing compared to some people.

The other thing I have always found amazing and I recently had a huge disagreement with the same non-Comrades runner I’ve mentioned, who regards Comrades as he does any other road race, about this because he simply couldn’t understand it, was that people very seldom ask me what my Comrades times were, but are far more interested in the number I’ve run and the response to that is then “WOW”.

To the ordinary public, Comrades times don’t mean a lot. The number of times you’ve run Comrades means a huge amount!  To the ordinary South African there’s a kind of magic associated with Comrades.  A magic that’s difficult, if not impossible, to explain to someone like my non-Comrades running friend.

Comrades is more than simply a road race between two of KZN’s cities. It’s a lesson about life and if you come away from Comrades having learnt nothing then it’s best to have a good hard look at yourself because you’re missing something important.

One of the many things it taught me is that sometimes we throw away the opportunity to do things better than we actually end up doing them.

My final Comrades in 1987 was a fairly hot day, and at the time I didn’t know it was my final Comrades as the injury that eventually stopped me from running hadn’t made itself known at that stage. It did very shortly after that and before I had the chance to run my 15th.

On that Comrades morning I stood at the start line prepared to run under 9 hours.  I had run under 9 hours a couple of times before and close to it a further few times so I knew I was capable of doing it and I had trained to do it again but when I realised how hot it was and how hot it was going to be my attitude was “I couldn’t be bothered” and I ran to a very sociable 10:14 and that was way slower than the limit of my ability and I knew it was.

In hindsight it was NOT the right thing to have done and I still regret it over 30 years later when I stupidly decided to run my sub 9 “next year” but “next year” never came because the permanent injury and the end of my running came instead.

I should have aimed for it because I could have done it had I tried – if only I had tried but now it’s too late. How many of us do things like that? Not only in our running but with many other things in life.

We don’t give it our all “because we couldn’t be bothered” just as I had done on that Comrades morning in 1987 and we never get the opportunity again. That’s very sad and even worse when we can look back and realise that we have done it to ourselves.

It was after that 1987 Comrades that I messed up because of my “couldn’t be bothered” attitude that I was most successful in business and other things I tried. There was no way I was going to adopt that attitude again and lose any more opportunities in life!

Just one thing of many things Comrades taught me.

Back to my original question though. Why do people run Comrades?  Is it a challenge? It’s certainly that without any doubt and with the time limit having been increased to 12 hours instead of the old 11 hour limit, this has made the challenge a bit more accessible to a lot more people.

Does this mean that it’s a lot easier?

Not at all.  It’s just a lot more accessible to a lot more people. Durban and Pietermaritzburg are still where they have always been and on the Down Run this year the total distance was a touch over 90km and the third longest Comrades ever, so it was certainly a challenge.

comrades finish 2018

PHOTO: pdgpix.com

To cover 90km on foot in under 12 hours is a challenge make no mistake. It’s a huge physical challenge to the ordinary person but what is probably an even bigger challenge is the mental aspect of it all. When you’re out there on the road on Comrades day it’s just you and the road to the finish and you get the opportunity to prove to yourself exactly what you’re made of and that’s another thing Comrades taught me.  I learnt not to give up on something I had started and that was something that was to stand me in good stead in ventures in later years.

The runners up at the front are in a race against other runners but those further back are in a race against themselves or against the clock.  If you’re in your personal race against the clock, very few people actually care what time you run.  Will I do this? Can I do this?  People are more interested in whether you finished rather than the time in which you finished. To a non-runner your time doesn’t mean much and other runners are more interested in their own times than they are in your time.

When you are on that stretch of road still some distance from the finish and every part of your body is screaming for you to stop and your legs are aching and your head is telling you that you can’t actually go on but you know that you must go on because you need to do this that’s when you learn about yourself and those words were never more real.

It’s something that changes lives forever

and makes those who do it different

Not only to others but to themselves.

 

That’s why you run Comrades.

 

July 2018

COMRADES 2018 – ANN ASHWORTH, WHO IS SHE? :

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

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

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

ANN ON THE ROAD

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

DJ:      Are you talking about athletics now?

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

 

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

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

 

DJ:      Yet they do.

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

 

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

AA:     800, 1500, 3000.

 

DJ:      As much as that?

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

 

DJ:      Did you feature there?

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

 

DJ:      When did that start?

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

 

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

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

 

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

AA:     Six, ja six.

 

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

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

 

DJ:      Even from the age of six?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

DJ:      Socially?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANN AND BRUCE

Bruce encouraging Ann during Comrades 2018 whilst seconding her

 DJ:      That was your second Comrades?

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

 

DJ:      …..to here….

AA:     Ja.  (laughter)

 

DJ:      How many left?

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

 

DJ:      ….and you’ve done 7”

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

 

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

 AA:     (Laughter)

 

 DJ:      How did you meet?

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

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

 

 DJ:      And the rest as they say?

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

 

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

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

21 June 2018

 

TO WIN COMRADES :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOMMY MALONE 1966 FINISH

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

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

Winning Comrades is a huge achievement.

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

win (1)

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

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

bRUCE WINS

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

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

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

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

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

DAVID GATEBE

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

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

It’s one hell of an achievement.

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

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

 

April 2018

COMRADES ISN’T HARD :

We’re into March and most Comrades runners should by now be well into their Comrades training and I’ve just read Bruce Fordyce’s latest blog in which he says it’s now time to start training hard for Comrades and I totally agree with him. March used to be when I started the serious stuff in my running days but it’s not the physical training I want to talk about.

I have often been asked by “ordinary runners” – as opposed to the elite or even those running for silver medals – if Comrades is hard and my answer has always been the same.  Comrades isn’t hard. 

By implication, that would mean that Comrades must be easy and I can immediately hear runners and “would be” Comrades runners saying that I must be completely round the bend.  If Comrades wasn’t hard, then everybody would be doing it.

When you consider that in the 92 years we have had Comrades, we have had something like 120,000 different people who have run Comrades (that is something of a guess) and that is only a very small percentage of the total population of the country who could qualify to take part that, so if it is “easy”, why then do so few people actually take part and why have so few people taken part since the race started in 1921?

The answer, I believe, is fairly simple. Getting to the start line of Comrades is hard but Comrades itself, if you’ve prepared properly both physically and mentally, is not hard.

I started off by excluding the elite or professional runners and those running for silver medals etc. because I know nothing about how they feel on Comrades day.  I have never been there so I can’t comment on what it feels like to run Comrades at 5 minutes a km or faster but I can comment on what it feels like when you are running a Bill Rowan or slower because I have run in both those categories and its those runners I’m wanting to “talk” to in this blog.

The first big challenge is to commit to running Comrades, often from having done little or nothing at all in the way of exercise previously in many cases. I know one person who promised himself for 20 years that he would run before he eventually did!

That’s quite a long time to make up your mind!

The problem after you’ve made up your mind to run is that you are still a long way from the Comrades start line and almost immediately second thoughts and doubts start to creep in, and often it’s only the fact that you can’t keep your mouth shut and you’ve told people that you are going to run Comrades that keeps you going. In many cases you elect to shift the goalposts a little from this year to next year’s Comrades in order to give yourself more time. 

The trouble with that is the shift in the goalposts often comes with an easing up on the training and in most cases stopping completely “because my knees are taking too much strain”.  Old rugby injuries you understand!

Where the runner doesn’t move goalposts and the training and racing distances get longer and longer there are other problems that come along.  Pains in places you didn’t know pains could be. Trips to physios and doctors and it’s only the end of March… but we carry on.

We feel better. We have qualified. We’re sometimes even running better times but it’s getting harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning because it’s getting darker and colder. Some of our training partners have fallen by the wayside.  Old rugby injuries you understand!

We start hearing horror stories about things called Inchanga, Botha’s Hill and Cowies Hill and there’s talk about cut off times and being pulled off the road if we don’t reach certain places by certain times. Our mind starts to do cartwheels.

We go out and buy ourselves a very expensive watch that works out our speed per kilometre, which by the time we get to the 65km mark on race day is going to drive us completely insane as we work out that we’re running at 3 mins 15 per km!  No! That can’t be right!

The marker boards count down in Comrades but nobody told us that. Now we’re trying to calculate our times with that fancy watch and marker boards that count down and so we try again.

Ah! That’s better! We’re doing 25mins per km.  No! Hang on! Now we’re in very serious trouble.

Bottom line – save yourself the money. You don’t need the fancy watch. Use an ordinary wristwatch. You start at 5:30 in the morning and you need to be at the finish before 5:30 in the evening and at certain cut off points by certain times of the day and the organisers tell you what time of day those are.  Keep things as simple as possible!

So where is this all leading me? 

You may not have noticed but I haven’t said a thing about how you should prepare physically for Comrades.  There are plenty of people around who can do that for you.  Some of them will confuse the hell out of you but I leave you to work out which training schedule works best for you – just don’t jump from one to the other.  

Everything I’ve said has to do with that part of you from the neck up!

That crucial 90% of Comrades from the neck up that needs to be very well prepared to get you through from Pietermaritzburg to Moses Mabida Stadium on the 10th of June.  The legs and the physical training only account for 10% on Comrades day.  We’ve been saying that for more years than I can remember.

I remember being told as a very young Comrades runner 50 years ago that if my legs could get me through 60km, they could get me through 90km.  The other 30km is up to your head but if that hasn’t been prepared properly you are in for a rough day.  We’ve always said the Down Run actually starts as you get into Pinetown!

I’m certainly not by any stretch of the imagination a hero of any sort when it comes to running Comrades but I started 14 of them and I finished all 14 inside the time limit which in those days was 11 hours and not once did it even enter my mind during the worst of my runs to stop and get into a car.

In the 1971 Down Run I started with what we later found out was ITB but at the time we had no idea what the pain at the side of the knee was so I ran. Or at least I tried to run but by the time I got to Pinetown I wasn’t able to run so I had only one thing I could do and getting into a car wasn’t the one thing. Walking to the finish was the only option I had, so I did that and I got home in a touch under 10 hours and I put that down to the fact that I was strong mentally and I always worked on that preparation in all my Comrades.

That day in 1971 if I hadn’t prepared mentally there is simply no way I would have finished and it was only that mental strength, that got me through in what I regard as a fairly respectable time in what I have very recently learnt is regarded as the longest ever Comrades distance-wise.

The longest ever Comrades and I walked from Pinetown, effectively with a leg that wasn’t working but my head was!

If you have put in the distance in your legs and you have done at least one but preferably two or three runs of 60km or maybe a bit more, your legs will see you through on “the day”.

So how do you prepare mentally for Comrades?  There are just a couple of things to do before race day. Those 60km runs in your legs go into your mental “bank account” and count big time on Comrades day when you remember that at the end of those training runs you felt “pretty OK” to face further distance so now your physical is taken care of and you can focus on the mental preparation that literally hundreds of Comrades runners ignore at their peril.

So what do you do to train mentally?

The major thing is to get to know the Comrades route. This is easy if you live in KZN and get to run on it regularly and things like Inchanga, Botha’s Hill and Cowies Hill become regular parts of your training runs.

Not so easy if you live far away and the first time you see the route is on race day or the day before.

I have done a detailed description of the route and it’s available on another chapter of this blog. Study it and get to know it.  Not just a passing glance. Read it several times so that when you get to know the various places where you are.

Then the crucial thing you must do is break up your Comrades into small pieces.  There are usually seven time based cut off points (including the finish) and the longest is usually no more than about 19km or so.  Whatever you do, don’t stand at the start thinking you have to run 90km to Moses Mabida Stadium in Durban.  That will just blow your mind.  

Stand at the start and think that all you are going to do is your 19km run (or whatever the distance is to the first cut-off) and that’s all.

You have all run 19km and much more in training so that’s not an issue at all so your longest run on Comrades day is 19km or so.  The next cut off is about 11km further so that’s your next run.

So that means that your first run on Comrades day is about 19km. Your next run is about 11km and so you go for the rest of the day.  Don’t worry about anything other than the run you’re busy with.  No point in stressing about Inchanga when you’re in Camperdown!   Concentrate on Camperdown when you’re in Camperdown!

So on Comrades day you will end up doing seven little runs.  That’s all it is. Seven little runs! That’s not too much to ask of anyone.

One long run of 90km is a huge job – but seven little runs.  That’s no big deal!

The great thing about these cut off points is that Comrades tells you where they are and then they put up huge big boards about 1km from the cut-off point to let you know it’s up ahead. 

So all you have to do is to learn to identify the landmarks of the cut-off points and then tie them back to the route description I have given you.  Six of them on the route!

This is getting easier and easier all the time!  That’s why I say Comrades isn’t hard.

Do the hard work before the 10th of June and enjoy Comrades day.  That’s what it’s there for.

 

 MARCH 2018

2018 MY VERY SPECIAL COMRADES

I have written about the fact that I’ll be attending my 60th Comrades in 2018 and I have spoken about it and I have also written and spoken about the fact that it’s the 50th anniversary of my first running of Comrades in 1968.

SELFI have often told the story of how as a 9 year old boy I stood at the side of the road in Pinetown and watched the Comrades Marathon for the first time and was immediately captivated by it and I turned to my father who had taken me to watch the race and said to him “when I’m big I’m going to run this” and I have said over and over that I don’t know why I said this to him or what prompted me to say this. Whatever it was it proved to be something that was to define the path of my life in so many ways over the years since then, both in business and personally.

In 2017 I met one of our top women runners, Ann Ashworth, and I discovered that she has almost the exact same story as mine. Her father took her to watch the race when she was very young, younger than I had been when I saw my first Comrades and obviously many years after my experience, and she stood at the side of the road and as the runners came past she turned to her Dad and said “when I’m big I’m going to run this”. Comrades has had also had huge impact on her life.

I don’t know how many people have a similar story to the two of us but I certainly know many people who have thrown themselves into this race and given so much to it.  People who have their Comrades numbers as their car registration numbers or part of their email addresses for example as I have.  Just a small example but that sort of thing but at the risk of boring you to tears please allow me to tell you my story again.

After having not missed being at a Comrades since watching that race which Gerald Walsh won in 1956, on the 31st of May 1968 as a 21 year old young man I lined up at the start of the Comrades Marathon in Durban as a first time runner and 10 hours and 25 minutes later I crossed the finish line in Pietermaritzburg to earn the first of my 14 Comrades medals.

The strange thing is whilst I’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of my first Comrades, I don’t remember much about that day. I only remember about half a dozen or so bits of what happened during the day. I remember a few things that happened before I trotted down into Drummond and looked at my watch (an ordinary wristwatch) and it was 8 minutes past 11 and thinking that was OK and that if I could repeat that for the second half to Pietermaritzburg I’d be fine in terms of the 11 hours we had in those days.

I remember stopping about 200 metres before I got to Enthembeni School to listen to the radio – no TV sets back then – that a spectator had as Jackie Mekler – in my opinion one of the greatest Comrades runners – came in to the finish for his 5th win, a touch after 12 noon and thinking that I could only hurt for another 5 hours because then it would be 5pm and I would either be at the finish or I would have to stop because I would have run out of time and I had done 6 hours already so I and the pain were over half way.

Then I remember very little more until I reached Polly’s.  Going up Polly’s that first Comrades of mine is crystal clear to this day. I knew how I was going to do that. I had planned that over and over before race day.  200 paces run. 100 paces walk. 200 paces run. 100 paces walk. 200 paces run. 100 paces walk and so on whether I was tired or not that’s what I was going to do and that’s what I did and soon the top was there.

POLLYS 1968The result was that Polly’s, and in fact no hill on Comrades or any other race, was ever a problem because that’s the way I handled them all and I’ve often spoken about controlled walking many times over the years.  It’s as simple as that.

Does it hurt? Of course it hurts but it helps to get the pain over much quicker!  Remember the old adage?  If it didn’t hurt everyone would do it!

Back to that first Comrades and I remember nothing more until I came into the grounds of Collegians Club where we finished in those days. I don’t remember hearing any announcer and I don’t remember if there was one. Then suddenly it was all over and the watches had stopped at 10:25.  

4:25pm on the 31st of May 1968 and I had finished Comrades!

I was alone on the track. No other runners.  Just me.  We weren’t given our medals on the day as happens now. We had to attend a “Medal Parade” a few weeks later where they were presented to us or they were posted if runners couldn’t get to the Medal Parade.  The medals were engraved with our name and time.

COMRADES FINISH 1968

I did 5 hours and 8 minutes for the first half and 5 hours 17 minutes for the second half.  Still very proud of that split although I still have no idea what the distance of each half was.  I didn’t care and I still don’t! 

I had trained for four and a half months from absolute scratch to get there but I was very strong mentally because I had given lots of attention to that side of things as well as the physical side and the way I went up Polly’s was proof of that.

So the 10th of June 2018 I’ll be 71 and I’ll be attending my 60th Comrades and at the same time celebrating the 50th anniversary of that first run in 1968.  I find it hard to believe that its 50 years ago but it is and so much water has flowed under that bridge since then but there are two things that have stayed in the same place.

Durban and Pietermaritzburg!

The start and finish may have been moved around a bit but Durban and Pietermaritzburg are still where they’ve always been! The distance may have changed a bit over different years but the race is always between those two cities and they’re where they’ve always been! 

I have often been asked what distances I ran in my various Comrades.  I have no idea how far any of them were.  The distance made not one scrap of difference to me nor should it to anyone running Comrades.  I’ve asked a couple of winners if they knew what distance they ran and those I asked also didn’t know. I was told to get to the start before 6am and run to the finish before 5pm as it was in those days – so I did!

 

I’ve missed only three races since 1956 and those were deliberate misses which I did after being at 50 races in succession and I did so because I thought that I had probably got Comrades out of my system by then. Those three were 2006, 2007 and 2008 and by the time the 2008 race came round I was going crazy because I wasn’t there and I even took myself overseas so that I didn’t feel it but it didn’t help. I sat in front of a computer all day in the UK and watched as much of the race as I could that was streamed live via the internet so whilst I regard myself as not having been there, I certainly watched as much of it as I could from 10,000kms away!

I didn’t plan that the two anniversaries (attending my 60th and the 50th anniversary of my first run) would both fall in 2018 and it was only a few years ago that I realised that they do.

Anyway I hadn’t got it out of my system after the 50 years and 2009 I was back at Comrades and have been every year since and as long as I am able to do so will continue attending.  My next target is the 2021 Comrades. 100 years since the first Comrades when Bill Rowan trotted into Durban to win in 8 hours 59 minutes. That’s only 3 years away so all being well I should make that!

My next target after that is 2025. The 100th race.  I was privileged to have run the 50th one and to have notched up my personal best time so to be at the 100th whilst only as a spectator is an important goal. 

COMRADES 1975

I have been involved in many facets of Comrades. I started as a spectator and then a second in the days before refreshment stations when runners had their own personal seconds. I’ve also served on the Comrades organising committee in what was one of the most rewarding of experiences.

BARRY VARTY GREEN NUMBERI spent 18 years on the road reporting on the race “live” into news and sports bulletins for 702 Talk Radio and for many of those same years on arrival at the finish juggled my phone and a microphone as I also handled the stadium announcing as part of that team. It was also during that time that I was asked to handle the prizegiving one year and had the honour of meeting Madiba.  Something I will never forget.

IMG_20160306_100853I brought many great runners home from that announcers’ tower at the finish and if you were to ask me to single out one or two special moments I would have to say the day in 1989 when Frith van der Merwe ran 5:54 to finish 15th overall and set a woman’s time that I think is going to take a huge effort to beat and Bruce Fordyce’s 9th win in 1990.

I doubt that we’ll ever see 9 wins from a runner again, certainly not in what’s left of my lifetime.  I’m not certain that people fully understand what a feat it is to win Comrades once let alone 9 of them. Ask all those great runners who have failed to win whilst trying to do so and there is a long list I could rattle off of really top class distance runners who tried to win but couldn’t.

I’ve often been asked what the attraction of Comrades is that has drawn me back over and over for 60 years and I really don’t know what it is.  I can easily explain the years when I ran.  I can also easily explain the years when I was working as a journalist or stadium announcer but there are many who would say that the remaining years defy logic and I would be hard pressed to argue that. In fact I would have a bit of a problem arguing why I travel to Durban year after year to attend Comrades as a spectator.

Why I sit at the side of the road on race day cheering on a bunch of runners, most of whom I don’t know and those I do know are so busy fighting their enemy “time” that they don’t want to stop and talk anyway.

I don’t know why I go year after year to Expo to look at the same exhibitors offering almost the same things and why I shake my head along with some of the other “old timers” when we see obvious novices desperate to make sure they finish, prepared to try any product on offer that they think will get them to the finish on race day when all they really need to do is to get out there and run to the finish.

I can’t answer any of those questions and I wouldn’t even attempt to do so. It is one of those mysterious things that one is simply not able to answer.  One of those things that one can try to arrive at some sort of logical answer and still not find one, so long ago I realised that there is no point in trying and that I should simply accept that when I stood at the side of the road as a 9 year old boy in 1956 and watched Comrades for the first time that something magical happened.

There’s no debate that over those 60 years I have met some of the most amazing people, some of whom have become lifelong friends but there’s more to it than just that.  There was something so much more that did so much to shape my destiny and the direction of my life in so many wonderful ways.

That being the case, why try to find an explanation?

February 2018

CAMILLE HERRON

The name Camille Herron wasn’t all that well known in South African Comrades Marathon or road running circles before Comrades 2017 but it certainly is now.  Comrades day 2017 and the American runner led the women’s race from start to finish to come home in 6:27 and to become only the third American winner of Comrades in the history of the race.

It’s not only her performance on Comrades day that has brought her to the attention of South African runners but also what she has done since then with many shaking their heads in disbelief that anyone can do what she has done in so short a period.

No sooner had she won Comrades and she was back in action again when most Comrades runners were still in recovery time but let’s hear it from the lady herself.  I contacted her and she was more than happy to “chat” about her remarkable achievements in just seven months.

DJ:      2017 has been an amazing year for you with a couple of world records, a couple of US records and of course the Comrades Marathon title under your belt and I don’t think there can be too many people who can claim to have done that in the same year – in fact in the second half of the same year but what for you has been the highlight of your year?

CH:     Nothing I have done so far or could do in the future can top the thrill and honour of winning Comrades! It’s the ultimate race to win- to become only the 3rd American win it makes me feel very grateful and humbled by what my body can do! I actually had a hard time getting motivated to train again after Comrades—what do you do after reaching your #1 life goal?! I had to start writing down the rest of my goals. What’s followed since then is the realization that there is more to achieve beyond winning Comrades, although nothing can quite match it.

 

DJ:      Comrades has been a long term plan for you and in you said somewhere that started thinking about Comrades as long ago as 1995. Tell me how that all started for you and how sitting far away in the United States you came to learn about this race over almost 90km in South Africa?

CH:     Yes, I’m very fortunate that my first running book my Dad got me in Jr. High (1995) was Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes. My young brain couldn’t fully comprehend all the science in the book, but I loved reading the stories about the Comrades Marathon and the heroes of the race like Bruce Fordyce and Arthur Newton. It was hard for me to wrap my head around running that far. It was the only ultra I had heard of until recently. I knew I wanted to run it some day, but I couldn’t have imagined I’d have the talent to win it!

 

DJ:      The Two Oceans also featured somewhere in your introduction to South Africa.  Was that before your first visit to Comrades and how did that come about and has that been successful?

CH:     I first heard about Two Oceans from the elite coordinator for the NYC Marathon, David Monti, back in 2011. I had been racing back-to-back marathons with short recovery time between the races. He planted the seed for me to consider stepping up to ultras and look at Two Oceans. It ended up being my first ultra in 2013. I under-performed a bit by finishing 10th (moved up in place because of a Russian caught doping). I didn’t know how hard to push myself stepping up in distance. Everyone was talking about Comrades while I was over there, so I first tried it in 2014.

 

DJ:      You had a couple of visits to Comrades before it eventually all came together for you with the 2017 race and without any competition to worry about you seemed to have a fairly comfortable race from start to finish.  Was it a comfortable race or did it just look that way?

CH:     When I stepped it up to 100K in 2015, I was in a league of my own when I won the World title in 7:08 and came back 6 weeks later to break Ann Trason’s World Record for 50 miles on a hilly course in the rain/wind (5:38). I wanted to come back to Comrades and give the Course Records a shot. However, since then I’ve had some freak accidents tearing both hammies. Then in mid-March I accidentally tore my MCL at a trail race. I thought my dream was dashed once again! I had to take 2 weeks off and then had 8 weeks to train for Comrades- we made every day count.

I got back to 80% health and fitness. Judging by the heart-rate based pace (80% of HR max) I was going at 2 weeks before the race I knew I had a shot to contend for the win. I was very confident I could focus on this effort, run my own race, and be up front. I ran within myself on the first major climb and was anticipating trying to drop the pace once the course flattened after 40K. Between the exceptional heat and my hammy getting tight it made it tough to increase the pace to go after the course record. Having a large gap, I knew I could take my time at the aid stations to rehydrate (including enjoying some beer!). I continued to focus on pushing at 80% effort. I never felt exceptionally fatigued- it was mainly my tight hammy that weighed on my mind. Once I crested the Polly Shortt’s Hill, I knew I was going to win! It was exciting!!!

Crossing the line to win Comrades 2017

DJ:      Getting back to what you’ve done since Comrades.  What you have done is something that is pretty much unknown to the average Comrades or South African runner.

Four weeks after Comrades it was the Western States 100 and whilst that didn’t go according to plan you were still there.  Then a few months later and you were back and you broke the Women’s world 100 mile record at the Tunnel Hill 100 miler finishing ahead of all the men in that race and you took over an hour off the previous women’s world record.

Then another month later we find you in Arizona for Desert Solstice at the beginning of December and there on a 400 metre track you broke the US 50 mile record, the world 12 hour track record and the US 100km track record at the same event. 

That is an amazing performance. How much did that take out of you?

CH:     For me and probably most South Africans the year sort of revolves around Comrades as the ultimate goal! However, there are more races and goals to go after the rest of the year! I have to credit Ann Trason and many others who showed the way and pushed the limits of how quickly we can recover and how far and fast we can go. She won Comrade and Western States twice in the same yr. I had already pushed my own limits this way as a marathoner. To be doing it now in ultras is a fun test! Comrades is still a far ways off right now, so I still have a lot of time to re-focus on building towards it again. I’m well-trained and I don’t think the longer races take as much out of me as the shorter, faster races that ~tear up your muscles. It also gets easier to recover the more you race. I haven’t felt as beat up after Desert Solstice as I felt after the Tunnel Hill 100. I certainly won’t race this much or as extreme leading up to Comrades! I think the longer races and trail races build physical and mental strength. I can progress towards speed and being more recovered leading up to June.

 

DJ:      As you know I follow you on Twitter and after the Desert Solstice was all over you tweeted that after you broke the 100km record you felt a “bear on your back” and had to force yourself to go on for the 12 hour world record but you did.  Where did that strength come from?

CH:     For Desert Solstice I have to credit my husband for giving me a pep talk to get back out there! I have a strong mental will to reach my goals—getting that long-standing 12 hr World Record held by Ann Trason was something I felt I had to do. Once I got going again I was on a mission! I get mental strength from my training and thinking about all the things I’ve overcome as a runner and in life. Even watching the TV coverage of Comrades and hearing the commentators doubt that I could keep it up leading from the start, there was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to win. I was very confident in the effort I was giving and knowing what I’m capable of—this self belief holds true for any race. Being able to persevere and push through the low points has always been something I’m good at. Both of my parents were great athletes. I believe I got it from them to stay calm and composed under pressure, being both a basketball player and stage performance (dance, piano, band). I used to push myself at basketball in extreme heat until I’d black out- hearing stories from Dad this is what I thought I had to do to get better! I’d eat something and then come back out to play. It’s the culmination of these life experiences that helps me mentally and physically break through, stay positive, and continue to find mental inspiration.

DJ:      Are you not concerned that you are perhaps doing too much and that you are asking too much of your body and yourself?

CH:     I’ve had enough serious injuries to know that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed! I have to make it happen now while I still have my health and speed to do it. I’ve had a very long career already as a prolific marathoner and racer to know my limits and also how to recover quickly. I’m healthier when I’m training and racing consistently. I’m 35 now and I only have a small window to continue to chase the ultra speed records. I’m actually not racing as much as I used to (even if it appears I am racing a lot!). I’m focusing now on being at my best and more rested for the bigger and brighter goals like winning Comrades and continuing to break World Records. People like Ann Trason show us you can pursue even more epic feats, like winning Comrades and Western States in the same year.

 

DJ:      We know you’re coming back to Comrades 2018 and you’ve hinted that you are looking at the record and if that happens you would be only the fourth woman to go under 6 hours on the Down Run.  What are your plans between now and the 10th of June 2018 – Comrades day?

Will you be doing any more racing before then or will you be concentrating on building up to Comrades and at the same time recovering from a very tough second half of 2017?

CH:     I’m really feeling great right now and want to continue to keep the momentum going. Staying healthy is our #1 priority, so I work diligently with my healthcare team! I’d love to give the 24 hr World Record a shot this winter. I also need to qualify for Western States at a trail race. Otherwise in April-June I will be focused on preparing for Comrades and being sharp and rested to go after the win and course record. Ann Trason is one of the few women to have broken 6 hrs, so to be surpassing her records from 50-100 miles gives me the confidence I can do it!

 

DJ:      Finally. Tell me about the beer. Everybody asks about the beer you drink whilst you are running and I think you had two during Comrades and I have had people saying to me that perhaps they should try it.  Does it help you or is it just a refreshing drink on the road because you enjoy it?

CH:     When you’re running a gruelling, long race like Comrades I think it helps to have something you enjoy eating or drinking at some point later in the race! I figured out the beer thing by accident at a trail race over a yr ago—it helped me overcome a bonking point in the race. We now have incorporated it into part of my race plan—at least for me it helps settle my stomach and give some mental clarity (in moderation of course!). I look forward to it every time. I enjoyed Jack Black’s Brewers Lager at Comrades.

 

Perhaps you now know a little more about the lady who won Comrades 2017 and since she and I had this little “chat” she has made her intentions for 2018 clear and over the first weekend of the year she won the Bandera 100km and Trail Run in Texas, one of the toughest trail runs and one of the oldest.

Camille we look forward to seeing you back in June!

 

January 2018

CHERYL WINN – A UNIQUE COMRADES ACHIEVEMENT

I’ve known Cheryl Winn a very long time and I’m honoured to know the person who has achieved what no other person in Comrades history has achieved.

Cheryl was elected as Comrades Marathon Association Chairperson at the AGM on the 21st of November and with that happening has become the only person ever to have won the race and then gone on to become the Chairperson of either the organising committee of the race as it was in days gone by or Chairperson of the Board of the CMA as it is now.

That, I’m sure you’ll agree, is an amazing achievement.

cheryl winn head & shoulders

I first met Cheryl in 1982 when she was on the Committee of what was then TRRA (Transvaal Road Running Assoc) and she and I went along together to speak to Chris Gibbons at Radio 702 about the establishment of a road running diary on radio once a week on Radio 702 where runners could go for the latest information on a Friday morning on what was going to be happening that weekend in and around the Johannesburg area.

DJ:      Cheryl, that was 702’s introduction to road running and my introduction to radio that neither 702 nor I knew would last something like 25 years with 702 becoming a major player in the road running world in South Africa and a very big thank you for the role you played in that and very few people know that you were involved in that and I’m not even certain you know just how big a role you played in bringing that about.

CW:    It does seem like a hundred years ago and brings back so many fond memories.  Running changed the entire course of my life, introduced me to my husband, numerous lifelong friends, interests and experiences across boundaries I might otherwise never have ventured to cross.  For me it has at all times been a labour of love and I can only profess that my involvement in athletics has given me so much more than I could ever return in two lifetimes. I sincerely regard this latest development at Comrades, not as an achievement, but a humble responsibility I have been entrusted with by my colleagues to lead softly, contribute and pass on the knowledge and experience I have accumulated over many years.

 

DJ:      Fantastic, but let’s go way back and where for you, did your relationship with road running start?  By the time you and I met – and that’s over 35 years ago now – you had already won Comrades in 1982 in what was – I think – the longest Comrades in history and you had two second places in the two years before that but when did you start running?

Did your running start in this country or before you left the United States, your home country and how did it start and at what age and distances?

CW:    In the early 1970’s while at university in the USA, I used to jog with my girlfriends around the campus lake, but that was mainly because the female residences were on one side of the lake and the guys’ residences on the other.  I can’t really say that it was in any manner related to serious athletic endeavour.

Some seven years later, after having married, moved to South Africa and given birth to two sons, I began regular jogging and then running in about in 1977 under the influence of a good family friend Dr Ivan Cohen (who later founded Run/Walk for Life).  I soon hooked up with a loose group of (exclusively male) runners affiliated to Pirates, Wits, Varsity Kudus and Rocky Road Runners, all of whom were focused on one specific goal  – the Comrades Marathon – which for me began a love affair with the race.  At that stage I didn’t know a single other woman runner.

 

DJ:      I can understand the love affair with Comrades – it’s happened to many of us, and certainly to me – but how many did you end up running in total?

CW:    I completed 6 Comrades between the years 1978 and 1984.  1 bronze & 5 silver medals.

1978 4th 9:09

1979 DNF

1980 2nd

1981 2nd

1982 1st

1983 4th

1984 5th

 

DJ:      And when was the realisation that you had the ability to win this thing?

CW:    After finishing my 1st Comrades (1978) in 9:09 on relatively little and extremely unscientific training, the so-called “gurus” in my running group convinced me I could break 7:30, which was unheard of for a woman at the time.  I began training in earnest for the 1979 Comrades Up Run, with the goal of winning and becoming the first woman to earn a silver medal.

Unfortunately I got side-tracked along the way, running and racing at just about every opportunity.  I suppose it was inevitable that I soon picked up a serious achilles tendon injury while running the Boston Marathon.  I eventually started the 1979 Comrades Up Run, but was forced to withdraw at the first opportunity to catch a lift with my second which was at Hillcrest, less than 30km into the race.    

The following year 1980, I achieved my goal of earning a silver medal in a time 0f 7:22, unfortunately 3 minutes behind a young student from Cape Town named Isavel Roche-Kelly who became the first woman in history to break 7:30.  The next year Isavel and I finished in the same order, still the only two women to earn silver, and in 1982 which was the longest race ever, I finally won.  I suppose an interesting trivial statistic is that I earned the 2nd, 4th & 5th silver medals awarded to women.

CHERYL WINNING

DJ:      Do you think it was as difficult back in your running days to fit in all your jobs of being Mom, wife, runner and Comrades winner because you hear a lot of women runners complaining today that they don’t have time.  Do you think things have become tougher for the modern runner, particularly the women runners in 2017 than it was in 1982?

CW:    I think that just about every aspect of life has become complicated and more hectic than it was 30 years ago.  Of course, it was a bit of a juggle at the time, being a mom to two young boys, a wife, and a competitive runner, as well as holding down a full-time job with NIKE and already serving on my club committee and Transvaal Road Running.  But I do think that in general life proceeded at a much slower pace back then. We were young, energetic, and we got on with it.  On the other hand, it has always been my experience that if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.

CHERYL GETS TROPHY

 

DJ:      After your win, was that it?  Did you then retire from active participation in road running and racing and if so what caused that?

CW:    No. After winning in 1982, I did carry on running competitively for a further 3 years, during which time I simultaneously became progressively more and more involved in athletics administration.  In 1986 I gave birth to my 3rd son and the original intention was to return to competitive running, but it just never happened.  By then I was employed fulltime as general secretary of the SA Road Running Association, which required a lot of travelling, I had two strapping teenagers, and a baby and something had to give.  Family commitments obviously came first, so it became an easy decision to relinquish the stress of competition and serious training in favour of the joy and satisfaction I received through my job with SARRA in being part of enabling others to achieve.

 

DJ:      You’ve been involved in admin of road running a very long time.  What drew you to that?

CW:    I suppose it was just another type of challenge, which I found more rewarding because it was less self-focussed.  I enjoyed being part of a vibrant community of passionate, hard-working, dedicated people motivated and inspired by the achievements of others.  I have grown so much as a person through the relationships I have made through running.  It has been both a humbling and exhilarating journey to witness some phenomenal individual  athletic achievements, watch the sport of distance running develop and prosper, participate in the staging of  world class events – numerous SA Championships, the Johannesburg & Soweto Marathons, and of course the greatest of them all – Comrades.  Most of all during my time with SARRA and later ASA, as well as with Comrades, wherever I have travelled I have met the most amazing heroes at grassroots level giving their time and energy to the sport. 

 

DJ:      That said, it must be extremely frustrating at times with all the changes you’ve seen and been through over the years. You’ve seen bodies like TRRA (the Transvaal Road Running Assoc) and SARRA (the South African Road Running Association) go and these were bodies that did a huge amount for road running and there must be times when you’ve wanted to throw in the towel but you didn’t and you’re still there.

Is this a case of you’d rather be on the inside looking out where you can do more than you can on the outside looking in where you perhaps can’t?  If that is the case it must take enormous passion and drive.  What keeps you going?

CW:    I have always been a great believer and dedicated disciple of transformation in sport, so the answer is no, I have never experienced bitterness or regret that the old bodies had to be sacrificed to the cause of unity.  There might have been just a little frustration at times, equally directed at both old and new orders – those who needlessly and selfishly resisted change, as well as those who exploited it for their own misguided purposes.  I believe the not-so-secret ingredients of true leadership are humility, empathy, trust and respect and there are no shortcuts to true transformation – it demands integrity and sacrifice.

 

DJ:      Have you had a break during the time I’ve known you in 1982 or have you been involved every year in the admin side of things since you started?

CW:    The only real break I have had in athletics administration since first serving as Pirates Road Runners Secretary, then Chairperson in the late 1970’s, through involvement in Transvaal Road Running, then South African Road Running, Comrades Marathon and Athletics South Africa was a period between 2007 – 2013.  In 2013 CMA experienced some transformational challenges and I was persuaded to come back.

 

DJ:      I know you’ve been involved in many different aspects of the admin side of things from the secretarial to media to where you are now as newly appointed Chair of Comrades.  What has given you the most satisfaction to date, excluding the Chairperson position which is brand new.

CW:    First and foremost, it has been the lifelong friendships and the collaborative, incredible, mutually respectful and collegial relationships I have experienced at all levels.  I have been blessed to have worked with literally hundreds of passionate, selfless, diligent, presidents, chairmen, secretaries, administrators, organisers, officials, coaches and enthusiastic volunteers all over South Africa and it has enriched my life and my personal character immensely. 

The second most satisfaction I have experienced is to have borne personal witness to some of the most outstanding and record-breaking athletic achievements, such as:

1984 – to have witnessed Ernest Seleke becoming the first South African to break the 2:10 barrier for the marathon in Port Elizabeth in 2:09:41.

1986 – just two years later to have witnessed Zithulele Sinqe and Willie Mtolo shatter Seleke’s record running 2:08:04 and 2:08:10 respectively (also in Port Elizabeth) which at the time placed them in the top 10 all-time fastest marathons in the world.

1987 – the SA half marathon championships in East London in my mind goes down as one of the greatest achievements in South African sporting history when Matthews Temane pipped Zithulele Sinqe by 1 meter to shatter the world half marathon record in a time of 60:11, with Sinqe credited with the same time.  Being there that day was the most electric sporting experience of my life.

Over the years there have been numerous other outstanding performances I have witnessed – such as Frith van der Merwe’s phenomenal Comrades 5:54:43 in 1989, Elana Meyer’s 46:57 15km African record in Cape Town 1991, Sam Tshabalala beating my good friend Willie Mtolo to become the first black winner of the Comrades Marathon also in 1989 and watching my other good friend from my earliest days of running, Bruce Fordyce, claim his 9th Comrades title.  

And then, there are the ordinary runners – to this day, I never get through a whole Comrades Marathon day without being moved to tears by their sheer bravery, determination, passion, perseverance, joy and how much the race means to them.

 

DJ:      And the most stress?

CW:    To be honest, it is in my nature to strive to focus on the positive, but if I have to give an answer as to most stress I would have to say definitely the effects, the consequences and to this day the legacy of apartheid.

It broke my heart at the time to see athletes of the calibre of Temane, Sinqe, Mtolo, Xolile Yawa and others denied the international acclaim and recognition they rightfully deserved.  It still breaks my heart that there is talent out there that goes undiscovered, while some of us bicker over the design of a t-shirt. 

It breaks my heart that our modern-day Comrades winners do not enjoy the recognition and associated benefits that Comrades winners did 20 and 30 years ago.

And most of all it breaks my heart that a whole “class” of runners may be being left behind because of lack of access to technology.  These are the sort of issues that I dwell on when I can’t sleep at night. These, plus the huge cultural chasms we struggle to breach amid lack of trust, empathy and respect for one another.

 

DJ:      A bit of a fun question that I have asked many people who used to run “way back” is, If it were possible for you to run just one more Comrades in the modern era as it is now with 18,000 runners, would you like to be able to do so?

CW:    I would certainly love to experience being on the start line, where the atmosphere is electric and the air is full of anticipation and possibility, and the camaraderie out on the road.  However, I’m not so sure I would like to find myself at the bottom of Polly Shortts on an Up Run.  I am too old for this.

 

DJ:      You have a pretty good knowledge of Comrades.  I have a thing in the men’s race I call my Super Comrades so now would be a good time to have the same thing for the women’s race as it’s been going 42 years.  If it were possible to take all the women winners and line them up together in one Super Comrades who would be your top 5. If I remember correctly I think we’ve now had 25 different women’s winners.  You can put them in any order and you are welcome to include yourself if you wish.

CW:    To my mind there are an obvious top 4 –

  1. Frith van der Merwe
  2. Elena Nurgalieva
  3. Ann Trason
  4. Maria Bak.
  5. is a difficult call. Eleanor Greenwood and Caroline Wostmann both have had amazing one-offs, which they haven’t yet replicated.  I suppose the other half of the twins – Olesya has to fit in there somewhere with 2 wins and 10 top 10 finishes, but I’m going to be patriotic and go with Farwa Mentoor for 10 top 10 finishes in a row between 2002 and 2011, during most of which she also finished as the 1st South African.  During that period she was the only South African who was competitive against the Russians.

 

DJ:      Interesting that you leave out the third of the only three women to have broken six hours! 

Do you ever get out and do any sort of running these days?  Even the odd parkrun?

CW:    I have had two operations on my left foot and have developed a chronic lung disease, so no I am not able to run at all.  I do however exercise daily – either gym, brisk walking, or both.  Incidentally, I don’t think enough credit has gone to Bruce Fordyce for his introduction of the Park Runs which have instigated a 2nd road running boom in this country.

 

DJ:      I certainly agree with that comment about Bruce.

Finally, how much longer are we going to see you involved in Comrades or are you getting close to calling it a day after your term in the chair is up – or do you have more that you still have to offer after that?

CW:    I really am reaching the end of the road and have faithfully promised my family that this is my last term on the CMA Board, however I would like to remain involved with the CMA Official Charities, which is an aspect which is particularly close to my heart.

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Our newly elected CMA Chairperson Cheryl Winn, the only person in Comrades history to have won the race and then gone on to hold the position of the chairperson.  She has served this race and road running in South Africa in the most amazing ways over many years.

I think we’ll still see her around for a lot more years – but hey- that’s just my view!

 

November 2017