I have an entry in one of my running diaries from January 1987. It reads: “Johnson Crane marathon; 2:47. Hard training run, Bob and Rob upped pace in the last two km. Did not go with them … thought they’re crazy!”
You see, that was really what it was. A hard training run. Probably too hard for me. But Bob de la Motte, Comrades runner up and would-be king killer, was on a mission to finish every long run faster than he started it. We crazy marathon runners call it negative splits. Halfway at 21km in 84 minutes, then prance home in 82.
But here’s the thing: I remember the day like yesterday. I remember Bob and the grey-haired fox, Dr Rob Dowdeswell, stepping it up and running away from me with no effort and my brain (and if I wanted to be really honest, my legs) told me to let them go. I can still see them in my mind’s eye. Two runners clad in the all-white of our club, Rand Athletic, striding away to the finish in the Benoni stadium.
That’s 27 years ago. I remember thinking maybe this is the year that Bob will dethrone Comrades King Bruce Fordyce.
I was in a strange position. Some of my journalist friends had warned me: “Don’t get too close to these guys. You have a job to do and you have to be unbiased.” I was a full-time reporter for the SABC sports news team and a freelance writer for the SA Runner magazine.
But these were my training partners. Tuesday night track with Fordyce. Wednesday night with the Sweat Shop crowd including Bob and Bruce: 22kms at sub-3min. 45sec. per km ending with an almighty surge up Jan Smuts Avenue hill. “Big Jan” as we use to call it, with a great measure of respect. Then hill repeats on the 405m long “Sweethoogte” (Sweat hill) on a Thursday with Bruce and a 16km run with Bob on the hills of Northcliff on a Saturday morning. Long group runs on a Sunday. We all understood the unspoken agenda: Bob’s steady rise through South Africa’s ranks of elite ultramarathoners in 1984 created speculation within the running cognoscenti that he was capable of winning the Comrades Marathon. Bob knew it. And Bruce knew it, too. Since 1981 Bruce had been unchallenged in the Comrades. Yet I really cannot ever recall any real or perceived tension between blonde Fordyce and tall Bob. Yes, there were camps, but it was never obvious and it never spilt over into anything else.
Our training runs revolved around a massive amount of social banter, continuous surges, little accelerations and a sprinkling of testosterone. That was what made us one of the most sought after training groups in South Africa. We had all comers there. From Mark Plaatjes with his 2:08 marathon to yours truly with a paltry 2:29. I was the third or fourth slowest standard marathon runner in the group. I had no business running with these guys … but, heck, they made me faster than I thought I could ever be.
It was the heyday of South African road running. We only had each other to compete against. I once ran 1:54 for the Springs Striders 32km race in my old hometown and could not crack the top 40. The winning time was sub-1:40, at altitude. Now you run sub-two hours and you’re in the top 10. The standard was out of this world.
But there was another standard that a lot of us chose to ignore. Or did not do enough about. Or did nothing about. The living standards of our fellow runners. The black runners. We were still enveloped in the deeply entrenched racist days of old South Africa. The days when blacks and whites were not allowed to buy liquor at the same counter. Whites could vote. Blacks could not. The Rainbow Nation was a full 15 years away, and Nelson Mandela still had more than a dozen years to spend in a jail cell. For heaven’s sake, the first black runners had only been allowed to run with whites a few years earlier. The playing fields, literally and figuratively, were not the same. These men, some of them the fastest on the planet, were racing against white men who ate better, slept better and did not have to win paltry prize money in world-class times to put a meal on their table. It was a part-time thing for most of us, with the exception of Bruce who made his incredibly marketable persona, fine intellect and superb athletic ability his meal ticket. He became the first full-time professional Comrades Marathon athlete, unashamedly so, despite Comrades not offering any prize money. No black runner could afford to do likewise.
The list of world-class black athletes was endless. Vincent Rakabaele, Gibeon Moshaba, Ben Cheou, Stephens Morake, Matthews Temane, Matthews Motshwarateu (the first man in the world to break 28 minutes for 10km on the road), Jan Tau and many more. These runners all needed to win weekly road races or at least finish in the top three to provide for their families. Yes, Temane and a few others were workers on South Africa’s gold mines, but that did not mean that it was a free ticket to ride. Work still had to be done.
This is really who this book is for. For those forgotten ultramarathon men: men such as Hoseah Tjale and Thulani (Ephraim) Sibisi. These men were given names by their white employers that were easier to pronounce than their birth names. I only got to know what Ephraim’s real name was in the mid-90s.
I look back though on those days with wonder and awe in my heart. I had an incredible blessing. They talk about a ringside seat. Well, I had one better. I was right in there. Running with these great runners and getting daily updates and feedback on who was hot and who was not. It gave me the opportunity to realise a lifetime ambition … to anchor the Comrades Marathon broadcast live on television.
It was indeed as Bob has recorded it. On the 31 May, every year without fail, the whole of South Africa came to an abrupt halt. Everyone watched Comrades. I mean everyone. Shops would be closed. Some people stayed in bed all day, watching, riveted. In 1983 I worked as a reporter at the Springs Advertiser newspaper and even though we were on deadline, I took in a rickety black and white portable TV set on which the signal kept on doing what Fordyce did. Disappear. The whole office was spellbound.
In 1984 Bob’s 5:30 run, pushing Fordyce all the way to a new down record, was a display of magnificence and of athletic excellence. It was the start of his Comrades challenge.
It was often a tough internal debate: do I want Bruce to continue on his unprecedented winning streak or do I want the tall bean counter with his direct stare and penchant for honesty to win? They were both friends and training partners. Once you’ve run together as much as we did, you shared a brotherhood. An intimacy and level of mutual respect that very few men develop. It was a tightknit group. I never really made up my mind you know. Yet with this book, Bob is doing something that our group and, no doubt, many other running groups aspired to do: acknowledge the forgotten ones.
Bob has finally told us his nakedly honest story. He shares his extraordinary running experiences during the turbulent 1980s when South Africa was simmering on the brink of civil war. He explains his anguish at leaving South Africa and the challenges of the Chicken Run to Australia, his continued athletic performances, squeezed in between his demanding career and domestic priorities. He still managed world- class performances in Ironman and grueling cycling and mountain biking events. He also shares his joy at reconnecting with South Africa after the 1994 general election including his boyhood dream of summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro. His regular visits to a newly democratic South Africa over the past two decades afford him an objective observation of political cycles within South Africa and some inevitable crystal ball gazing about the future of the Comrades Marathon. Over the past 28 years only four Comrades winners have managed to run faster than his 5:26 duel with Fordyce in 1986. He tells his self-effacing story with candor, compassion and great wit.
As I wrote to Bob in an e-mail after reading his manuscript:
“Maybe I am just becoming an old fart, but I have just read your story and tears are actually streaming down my face. I can hardly see the key board. You see, my tears started off as laughter at our stupidity/drive/ commitment/sense of fun and chasing personal windmills up and down “Big Jan.” Then my tears came for men such as Hoss, and Ephie and Israel Morake. I cry for them and I cry for me … that I did not have the sense to do more when I could have. Luckily in life, we do get second chances and as long as there is breath and a will ... one can try again. Right the ship, so to speak.”
My favourite writer, running philosopher Dr George Sheehan, put it this way: “So, you see, it is not my future that determines my present, it is my present that determines the future.”
Bob, you always were a champion, now more so than ever.
Arnold Geerdts – Comrades Marathon Green number 1120
Arnold Geerdts has seen the Comrades Marathon from a very unique perspective. He has anchored the marathon 12-hour live television broadcast, seconded, commentated, written about the race, announced at the finish line and run it 11 times.