How To Win The Comrades

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By Bruce Fordyce

I once had a short conversation with Her Majesty the Queen. The occasion was a reception at the British High Commission in Pretoria and it was held on March 23, 1995. Having discovered that I ran marathons, the Queen was at pains to urge me not to take my long distance running secrets to the grave (clearly I was looking a bit worn out that evening as runners sometimes can and she probably feared for my impending mortality). She was insistent that I share my experience with youngsters.

Apparently Her Majesty had earlier been at a children’s sports function in Soweto and helping children was a great concern to her. I was about to tell her that I intended keeping no secrets when she suddenly remarked: “I hope you will forgive me Mr. Fordyce but I always believed marathon runners had to be big and strong and tough and you appear to be anything but.”

“No, your Majesty,” I replied, “they have to be just like me. Skinny, anaemic looking, with strong legs, good heart and lungs and no brain cells.”

I am proud to say I made the Queen laugh and we left it at that.

The Queen’s entourage led her off to meet people far more important than a runner, such as wealthy Captain’s of Industry and porky politicians, and I was left trembling with nerves and desperately looking for a gin and tonic.

Ingredients of a Long Distance Runner

But what are the ingredients of a good, long-distance runner and more particularly what is required to win a race like the Comrades marathon?

I wasn’t being entirely frivolous when I gave the Queen my answer. To win the Comrades marathon a runner must first, and most importantly, choose his or her parents with great care.

No amount of training, dedication or hard work can replace the most important asset, choosing the correct genes. These genes must produce someone who has a good V02 max and strong legs. Over the years I have become convinced that the real secret lies in strong legs and most particularly powerful calf muscles.

This view is in direct contrast to that of Dr. Ross Tucker who has written in Runner’s World that the truly great long-distance runners have very skinny calf muscles. He is, of course refering to the great East African runners whose calf muscles look like two pigeon’s eggs perched on top of a skinny pole. But if we look at Comrades gold medallists such as Andrew Kelehe, Alan Robb, Hoseah Tjale and Leonid Shvetsov, then powerful calf muscles are the dominant feature. Of course, the great Wally Hayward was the calf muscle king. His calves were like great rump steaks, so large and riddled with finger thick veins that they looked like they had their own separate circulatory systems.

Comrades Race Day
Bruyce Fordyce Ultra Running

On race day, however, a potential Comrades winner competes against a bunch of runners who selected the same type of parents as he. So hard work becomes essential. Rather like making a fine wine, the process cannot be hurried.

About 160 to 220km a week in training for five or six years – with lots of hillwork, speedwork, long runs and races thrown in – seems to be roughly the correct blend. Indications that you are ready to win the Comrades include the ability to sprint five times up Sweethooghte hill in Johannesburg at an average 1:18.

I like a runner who can break 14 minutes 30 seconds for 5000 metres, 30 minutes for 10km and 2:20 for the marathon.

Develop a winning attitude!

After I had finished third and second in the 1979 and 1980 Comrades respectively, Gordon Howie (owner of the Runner Group of specialist running shops) gave me the best advice I have ever received. “Get used to winning Bruce,” he said. “Become accustomed to the fear, pressure and loneliness of leading. Run time trails, fun runs, anything. But get used to being in front.”

He was right.

Winning is another country. Far away and very foreign. It isn’t fun (except for the bit when you break the tape).

Winning hurts a lot and a potential Comrades winner has to become familiar with the feeling and embrace it.

Know the race backwards

Learn all there is about the race. Know the course like a geographer and the history like a Professor of History. Ask yourself now: Who was the first runner to break the six-hour barrier on the “up” run.* If you don’t know the answer you will not win the Comrades.

You can’ t win if the passion doesn’t run in your veins and the passion drives you to read about it, talk about it, even gossip about it. Taper agressively for the race and follow the Saltin diet (if you don’t know what the Saltin diet is the passion definitely doesn’t run in your veins).

Watch videos of the race, and choose a theme song to inspire you (Chariots of Fire doesn’t count). In 1981 I chose Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and in ’82 Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

Become scared and alone and shrivelled up with fright the day before the race, particularly as the watery winter sun sets on the last night before the race.

Lie awake with a beehive in your stomach the night before while grabbing patches of bad sleep and then wake cheerful, full of jokes and feeling calm and resolute and ready to die if necessary.

Training for the race

Understand that training for the race is a science. Success does NOT go to the runner who trains the hardest but to the runner who trains the cleverest and knows the process like a scientist. But if the training is a science, the race itself is an art.

Winners paint their own canvas by employing the artist’s touch and feel to surge at one moment, or cower in the pack at another.

Strive for excellence

Finally, understand that if the lure of the prize money is your chief spur then you have very little chance of winning. Once, when I complained to cricketer Vince Van der Bijl that we put in so much work for so little financial reward, he admonished me with the words: “Strive for excellence Bruce, and the rewards will follow.” He was so right. And the least important of those rewards has been financial.

*It was Jackie Mekler and he did it in 1960.

Bruce Fordyce won the Comrades Marathon from 1981 to 1988 and then again in 1990.

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4 Responses to How To Win The Comrades

  1. matodzi tshidzumba March 12, 2014 at 8:04 pm #

    Well said by comrade Bruce and I am very inspired. its a pitty I don’t have good genes.

    • Sandanathi March 13, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

      Same here, I did not chose my parents very well. I went for the looks gene instead of runners gene.

  2. Roald le Roux March 14, 2014 at 3:13 pm #

    I chose my parents well……however the required genes were not on the list of ingredients. Bruce’s sharp sense of sincerity mixed with humour reveal the stark reality, that even if you have the required genes, the only difference between this Comrades legend, and the likes, finishing in around 5 hours 30 minutes, at which point I pass through Drummond, are their genes and talent. But for that, whoever plans to attempt this race at any level, needs to sleep, eat, drink, dream and breath Comrades with a passion, to chase the goal you have set before you, and not look back or waver one day from running hour upon hour upon hour for months, weeks and days on end. Your thirst to complete this race must be unquenchable, with an ability to face and overcome the same mountain time after a time on race day. Thanx for your insight yet humbleness, Bruce, and for the major source of inspiration you have been to me personally, since my first Comrades in 1984. Wishing you all the best.

  3. Rob June 9, 2014 at 7:26 pm #

    Awesome article! Heaps or humour and heaps of wisdom me thinks. Thx

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