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Success lies in right training

Submitted by on Saturday, 15 November 2008No Comment
Success lies in right training

The king of Comrades, Bruce Fordyce, shares his winning secret with DAVE GEMMELL, but he would be disappointed if he were remembered only for his exploits in SA’s premier ultramarathon.

After initially boycotting the 1981 Comrades; you then ran the race with a black armband. When you look back do you feel you could have done more?

My contribution against apartheid was pathetic. We all should have done more. Compare my contribution to someone like David Webster; he was investigating South African defence force involvement in destabilising Mozambique. That is huge – that is why he was killed, I was just involved in getting running shoes for detainees.

When he was killed did it make you concerned for your own safety?

No. I’ll tell you why. What happened with the detainees was they knew they were going to be released, firstly because they were not being tortured anymore, secondly their food improved and those of them into exercise were allowed to run, so I organised running shoes for them. When you do that you are not going to get shot – so my contribution wasn’t anything like some people’s.

When I mentioned to a colleague I was interviewing you she said, ‘Oh the Comrades man.’ Does it bother you that you are defined by the fact, that all those years ago, you won the Comrades?

I don’t mind at all. But I would be disappointed if by the end of my life I haven’t done anything else, then I would be let down. Of course I have already done other things, but I have realised that whatever else I do won’t have the same profile – but just Comrades? Yes I would be unhappy.

In your memory have the nine races you won blurred into each other?

Oh I remember them alright. I can even remember the social ones. I’ve now run 26. If you ask me what happened in 2006, I might have to just pause a minute, but then I could tell you who I ran with and how it went. They are all indelibly etched on my mind. It’s a long day and long preparation. But funnily enough, I have done 8 London Marathons and they tend to blur into each other.

How did you contend with boredom while you were on the road for just over 5 hours during the 9 races you won?

I always liken it to writing a very hard exam. You are focussing on everything, concentrating on what is happening; ‘How’s my breathing? Ok that’s the 50km marker. How’s my pace? My time?’ All that sort of thing. So the first part actually goes quite quickly. And then you are hanging in to the end, because it’s worse to drop out. In 1980 before the Comrades, Johnny Halberstadt said, ‘I can’t say I’m going to win, but if anyone beats me they will have to have the race of their lives.’ He bailed at Kloof. In the Wits Student (newspaper) it said ‘Well done to everyone who finished the Comrades, even the ones who crawled over the line, because you all had the race of your lives – you all beat Halberstadt.’

You had an air of invincibility when you were at your peak. It was almost a given that you would win. But did you feel invincible when you started those races?

No. But what I did know, because I had a very good training program, which I just replicated each year – I obviously tweaked it a bit, but it was basically the same every year, was how fast I could run the race. I never changed it too much. I mean we have had a few South African winners in the men in recent years – but they can’t repeat. And one of the reasons is they quadruple their training. But if you win – you have obviously got it right. Don’t change it! But the guys double their mileage and the following year, instead of first, they come in the hundreds and they scratch their heads and can’t work it out. I had a very good training program, I knew worked. So I never could say, ‘I know I’m going to win’, but I could say, ‘I know I am going to run around five and a half hours’.

Your fastest time is 5:24:07 hours. What is your slowest time?

I think it was this year; 10.07 hours. My mate who I ran with, spent a lot of time throwing up and sitting on the crash barrier staring at the tar; but on my own I would have done about 9 and a half hours.

Just to compare to a shorter distance, what was your fastest time for a 10km or 8km time-trial?

I did 10km in 29 min something. But I did the Pretoria old Boys 8km time trial in 24.20 min. I used to do each 8km segment of Comrades in less than 30 min.

Astonishing. You’ve also done the 120-kilometre Dusi Canoe Marathon a few times; tell me about that.

Yes I have done 9 of them and only in doubles (2 man canoe). In fact every year I have had brilliant partners. Last time I did it with Martin Dreyer who has won it and my first one I did with Neil Evans, who has also won it. I’ve got to do another one because I want to get the ten. But is a bit unfair on the good guys to have me as a partner…

In 1976 your sister Oonagh, was Rag Queen at Wits and for a time you were just known as Oonagh’s brother.

Yes. At Wits I was most famous for being my sister’s brother. Oonagh was the most beautiful Rag queen. She is still legendary; right now she is one of the final three for a huge modelling contract in the UK, for cosmetics for women over fifty. She lives in London.

In 2007 you were presented with an honorary Doctorate by Wits University; how has that changed your life?

Yes – me and Johnny Clegg in the same year! That was a highlight. I asked Wits if I can call myself Doctor Fordyce and they said, ‘Technically you can, but the academics will frown on it because you don’t have a PhD in any subject’. But they said, ‘You have our full permission to use Doctor if it will get you an upgrade on an aeroplane, or if it will get you a table in a full restaurant’. But I’m always aware that Nelson Mandela, despite having numerous honorary doctorates, has never called himself Dr Mandela.

You were one of the first athletes to do talks for money – how did that come about?

That started properly in 1984, and I’m still speaking; tomorrow I’m talking at a Golf Day in George. At this time of year I do two a week until December. Mind you I don’t earn what people like Jake White earn. But in 1983 Morné Du Plessis phoned me and asked me if I was giving talks. I was, but most of them were freebies. I spent my life trying to get out of them. He put together a group of himself, Clive Rice, Vince van der Byl and me; we standardised fees, which in those days were R450 a talk and we would fill in for anyone of the group who couldn’t make it. We soon realised we were actually quite crap. At that stage Mike Macfarlane, who was a teacher and presented courses, offered to coach us. He was amazing and for three days he honed our talks into proper speeches. I’ll always owe Mike for that. Our first engagement was at a hotel in Pretoria. One paying person arrived! The place was full, but they were all family and girlfriends. We almost gave it up after that, but Vince said keep going and three months later we were flying.

You have a reputation for being a party-animal, how did this fit in with your running?

I am a party-animal; when it is appropriate. Did I party yesterday, did I party today? No. There was no occasion. But you don’t always have to be Spartan. In fact I think it is quite important to have a break. That continual discipline; discipline; discipline is going to burn you out.

Tell me about the pantomime you put together for the Sport’s Trust.

When I was at the Sports Trust I wanted to raise money and at the same time raise the profile of the Sports Trust, so we would put on musicals with established sport’s stars in the leading roles. I mean Hansie Cronje was going to sing, ‘If I was a rich man’, but sadly ten days before our concert, he was killed in that plane crash. It would have brought the house down. Joost van der Westhuizen once did Rocky Horror for us and we also had people like John Robbie, Knallie Knoetze and Baby Jake in shows, it was huge fun.

A number of sports facilities have been built through the Sports Trust. Are you happy with the way things have progressed and how they have been used?

No, we made a few mistakes. There were certainly lessons to be learnt. We now don’t just dump a facility on a community unless they request it. Also we have put in controls as to how things will be run and looked after. We ended up becoming a travel agent, paying for all sorts of teams and their hangers on to travel overseas. So now we don’t do travel and we don’t do salaries. We pay for equipment but we don’t do a coach. I’m now an ambassador for them – I’m no longer full time.

You ran an ultra marathon in the Arctic Circle, how did that come about?

Some guy came out from Canada to run the Comrades. He called himself Arctic Joe. He had this race which was between two Eskimo villages and he invited me. It was run at midnight in July in bright sunshine, as the sun doesn’t set. It was minus 15° C. It wasn’t too bad while you were running, but when you stopped, you froze up. It is the only race I’ve run where, when you get to the end; there are all the banners, the flags at the finishing line and everything – but nobody there! They were all in the prefab hut watching out of the windows. As you get to the finish, 5 guys run out with stop watches and one guy has a blanket, and they bundle you into the hut until the next runner comes in.

You did another unusual race through war-torn Bosnia…

Yes that was through a South African guy who had joined the British army. He had trained for the Comrades, but then was sent to Bosnia. So he said, ‘Stuff it I’m going to still do Comrades, I’ve done all the training for it’. He measured out 90km between two villages and because he was a Captain, persuaded half his soldiers, to run with him. They decided to make it a fund raiser so it had a sense of purpose, so they thought they would get two celebrity runners to run with them and they got Steve Cram, former world record holder for the mile, and myself. They didn’t tell us it was 90km – they just said it was a fun run. It was only when we got there they told us. Steve said, ‘that’s too far for me I’m only going to do 10km’. But he did the whole thing and on the strength of that, he subsequently did two Comrades.

Were you nervous?

No. Just sad when they told us the stories of the atrocities and what was going on there. You simply can’t believe how awful it was. Every building was covered in bullet holes, there were burnt out blocks of flats, and when we ran we were protected by an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) called ‘Magic’. We kept having to ask ‘Magic’ if it was Ok to run. And if you wanted to pee, you had to do it behind a Landrover in the road, for fear of landmines in the fields. It sounds terrible, but you kind of expect to see it in Rwanda or somewhere, but not in Europe. I mean this was almost like being in Italy. What was going on there was macabre.

If you hadn’t been a runner what sport could you have excelled at?

I’m enthusiastic, but you probably don’t want me in your team. It would have to be an endurance based thing. The longer it is the better for me – my ‘vasbyt’ (persistence) angle is quite good. Although when I was at prep school I was playing soccer and the British Lions were visiting our school. Anyway I scored twice and one of the Lions, Keith Savage said, ‘That youngster is going to go far in football,’ and I didn’t!

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