WINNING WITH A SMILE

If you think you train hard for the Comrades Marathon, think again

Five-times Comrades winner Jackie Mekler, centre, with CMA chairperson Cheryl Winn and former chairperson Mick Winn.

Most of us who’ve run the 90km Comrades Marathon think that we trained really hard for the event.

Guess what?

None of our perceptions of hard training come within a whisker of the training regimen followed by five-times Comrades winner Jackie Mekler.

Jackie, with whom I worked for more than two years to bring his biography Running Alone to the market, thought nothing of putting in a 300km training week comprising 11 to 12 training sessions.

Preparing for Comrades, Jackie would complete a five to six-hour training run on a Sunday morning, rest for a few hours after returning home, then go out in the afternoon for a 16km speed session.

‘Running a speed session after my long run on a Sunday prepared me for racing hard over the final few kilometres of Comrades,’ said five-time Comrades winner Jackie.

He regularly ran to work on a circular route, leaving home in the Transvaal winter dressed in running shorts, a vest and the ubiquitous ‘tackies’ that were the only footwear available for long-distance runners of his era.

His quote in the final chapter of his book under the heading My Motivations sums up Jackie’s unique approach: ‘The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well…’

Jackie’s heartfelt words resonated with me years after I’d run my last Comrades.

Memories of my struggles on the long road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg lingered with me. And like a fisherman whose recollections of a successful catch grow from a fish the size of a minnow to a shad that could feed the multitudes, so the magnitude of my battle to conquer Comrades in an acceptable time escalated to gargantuan proportions.

I was reminded of my faulty memory and my indiscrete ramblings recounting that corroded memory by an experience that severely dented my ego a few years before I started working with Jackie on his biography.   

After achieving my modest Comrades goal, I decided it was time to put a bit back into helping others tackling the Ultimate Human Race. Wendy and I volunteered to man seconding points for our leading club runners in their attempt to win the Gunga Din trophy. The trophy is awarded to a club based on the combined finishing times of their first four runners being the fastest of any other four club runners in the race.

A week after we arrived back home after a harrowing 10-hour drive, I sat down to pen the piece below. You’ll notice that I was sharing my painful memories of my many hours on the road during my Comrades attempts. You may also notice that in playing what some might call the sympathy card, I’d failed dismally to abide by one of a communicator’s cardinal rules: know your audience.

Here’s the piece, presented with no hint of embarrassment:

The place was pumping.

All manner of vehicles with inland registration plates were pouring into the forecourt at a rest stop outside Harrismith after the pull from the coast through the Drakensburg Mountains.

Most vehicles carried Comrades Marathon athletes and their families heading home to South Africa’s economic hub 600km inland, breaking their return journeys at the halfway point to top up with much-needed fuel and food.

It was easy to spot the Comrades runners: they walked with a sort of gingerly stroll, a patent attempt at bravado but without the lithe step to carry it off. 

Despite the chilly breeze sneaking through every unguarded crease in their clothing, they were able to walk only slowly and stiff-legged towards the warmth of the ablutions, emerging a little later to enter the food court in search of their families and a table.

Everyone had a story to tell about their experience of the epic 90km road race. It had been bliss; pure hell, increasing pain after the 60km mark. This one tickled Father Time to scrape home with a silver medal, that one was helped over the line by other runners whom he had never met and who had melted into the crowd soon after crossing the finishing line.

Someone else ran the entire course in a club ‘bus’ set up to cover the debilitating ‘down’ from Pietermaritzburg to the coast between 10 and 11 hours and 55 minutes – five minutes before the cutoff.  There was no end to the variation in experiences that often develop into family folklore for the 20 000+ athletes who gather in front of the city hall in Pietermartizburg every alternate June for the ‘down’ run.

Fewer than 30 runners in that vast field have any chance of winning. The remainder run for the pure challenge, the single-minded determination to finish a road race that has assumed legendary status among long-distance athletes in South Africa and abroad. Many return year after year, using the Comrades as the fulcrum of their running careers, the annual challenge that keeps them from becoming habitual loafers.

The growing queue of people was waiting for a table in the restaurant, hoping for a nourishing meal and a cup of something hot. People began searching for empty seats at tables already occupied.

Wendy and I had left Durban a little earlier than most, arriving at Harrismith just ahead of the mob. Unlike the athletes in the queue, our Comrades days had come and gone and our muscles sent no messages of distress to our brains.

A couple in their early 30s arrived at our table and asked if we minded sharing. ‘Not at all’, we said. The man looked like he was carrying a bit of weight but his attractive companion, her face beautifully made up and her jewellery giving off that indefinable aura of class, was poised and supple.

Road running is an international language and although we didn’t introduce ourselves, it wasn’t long before we began chatting about Comrades and the effects of the race on athletes and their families.

I noticed that the man did most of the talking, his accent placing him as a European from one of the more exotic parts of the continent.

I gave them the full benefit of years of running to achieve my 10 Comrades, telling them how much I valued the bronze medals I’d managed to garner and the months of arduous training I’d had to endure to finally achieve my permanent number. I told them how tough it was training at altitude and how cold the winters were.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘South Africans grow up tough and then they find out that they need to be even tougher just to finish the Comrades Marathon. It’s a difficult race with a relatively high percentage of DNFs (did not finish) runners.’

I paused to take a sip of my coffee.

‘Do you people run,’ Wendy asked.

“Well, I was a track athlete until I injured myself at university but she is a runner.’ He pointed towards his companion with his fork.

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘did she run Comrades?’

‘Yes, she did.’

‘And how did she go?’

‘She won.’

PS: To buy a copy of Running Alone in hard copy or eBook format, email Quickfox Publishing. Here’s what Bruce Fordyce, winner of nine Comrades Marathons, says: ‘Jackie’s story is an absolute must for every serious marathon runner.

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4 Responses

  1. AaaaaaaaH Blake, it does happen. Not recognizing a winner and being quietly embarrassed. It happened to me when I was broadcasting and commentating sport. But I’ll relate her a different story. I was a guest with my wife at a function where Brian Mitchell, just retired (you know his great record), was a VIP guest. We sat together and chatted, almost as friends because I had interviewed him for radio programs. I introduced him to my wife and she said. “Hello. Brian Mitchell, from where? She knew naught of the pugilistic sport. I began to cringe and Brian said “From boxing” and that was the beginning of a lovely evening.
    Thanks for this article. I’ll bet that you have many more stories.

    1. So many little tales to tell Peter, as you so rightly mention. Yes, they need the usual bits of embellishment to meet the necessary criteria. I hope our readers find them a bit amusing or entertaining. I’d love to read your anecdotal pieces, of which you will have many. I worked at the SABC in Durban as a sound guy before moving on to the local newsroom. I’ve left those hallowed halls in peace with my scribbling. But a few interesting experiences may be worth dusting off.

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