The Comrades Marathon is a race of approximately 90km. Participating in it is an introduction to another way of being; it teaches humility and teamwork, respect and admiration for fellow competitors, courage in adversity, understanding and empathy. Above all, it creates a community of Comrades united in their joint and individual challenges. Completing the grueling event is a life-changing experience. Winning a gold medal (being a top 10 finisher) is the stuff of dreams. Being the runner-up is the preserve of a select few. Winning Comrades is the holy grail of long distance running.
Bob de la Motte participated, won gold, and was runner-up three times. A mere 125 seconds, after five-and-a-half hours of grueling road running, was all that separated him from a Comrades Marathon victory in 1986.
When Bob asked me to write a foreword to Runaway Comrade, not only was I honoured to have the opportunity to contribute to his work, but his unexpected request evoked a multitude of images I have of this most unusual man – an astute, bold, decisive person with great foresight, always looking for new challenges. Our paths crossed in two important dimensions of Bob’s career. Bob was a partner at KPMG and in 1985 assumed responsibility for the audit of Penrose Holdings, a financial printing company listed on The Johannesburg Stock Exchange. I was the Managing Director of Penrose and still deeply involved in the Comrades Marathon. Between the Penrose business and Comrades, Bob and I had much to discuss and share.
Bob’s best chance of a Comrades win was in the 1986 down race. A fierce contest was anticipated. Two years previously Fordyce had beaten him by 3min. 41sec. in a record-breaking 5:27.18. As expected, the race developed into a three-man affair with De la Motte leading Hoseah Tjale and Fordyce after halfway. Former winner Tommy Malone and I were eager spectators. With 14km to go, Fordyce edged past Tjale and closed in on De la Motte, and in a most audacious act that was to become Bruce’s “kiss of death” trademark, Fordyce and Bob shook hands with Bruce following up with a left arm bear hug, despite Bob’s significant height advantage, as national television and press cameras zoomed in. This most extraordinary act at the most crucial point of this hotly contested event perhaps reflects the dominance that Fordyce exerted over his opponents.
However Bob was no ordinary opponent, retorting: “Look Bruce, this race is not over yet, and whoever loses will have to buy lunch.” Just being there at this climactic moment gave me time to reflect – I’d been there both as victor and vanquished. It’s a runner’s worst nightmare, but to his credit, Bob set the pace for another 8km before Bruce’s final spurt up 45th Cutting gave him a 500m win and a record of 5.24.07 to Bob’s 5.26.12 – also inside the record. A remarkable effort by both runners.
No other runner presented a greater challenge to the Comrades King in his nine-year reign than did Bob. Perhaps it was just as well for Bruce that Bob left South Africa in 1987. Or did Bob go because he could not face being beaten again? No, Bob left for deeper and more troubling reasons. The 1980s represented some of apartheid’s darkest days. True to his decisive, adventurous nature, he and his family emigrated to Perth. He graphically describes his resentment of the apartheid system, the unjust treatment of black South Africans and his personal experiences. Many South African families faced the same tough choices that Bob faced but were entrapped by economic and political oppression. They had no choice but to stay.
In 1963 I personally experienced the ridiculous situation of the first mixed trials held in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Two runners were to be selected to compete in an international marathon in Athens yet the trials had to be run as two separate races – one for black runners and one for white runners, staged one hour apart, over the identical course. The white race was classified as the SA championship – the black runners were relegated to their own Bantu championship. Politicisation of sport was an anathema to me.
Bob’s adventurous spirit helped him settle into Australia professionally and recreationally. In his professional career he gained invaluable experience in investment banking and capital markets which brought him a measure of financial success, allowing him to retire at 55. In 2014 at the age of 60 he ran a 3:06 Boston Marathon and continues to pursue his adventurous lifestyle.
Runaway Comrade is a provocative, spirited and essential read. It’s about running but more importantly it’s about politics and its victims. It will touch all who read it. But be warned: it may leave you ashamed and angry, despite the thread of hope for equality that the Comrades Marathon so boldly offers.
Jackie Mekler – Comrades Marathon Green number 9
Five times winner
Ten gold medals