1986 - 1989

1986 - 1989: Fordyce Achieves the impossible

2nd screen

 

OUR GOLDEN HERO - BRUCE FORDYCE

 

In 1986 the field topped 11 400 entrants, the race had truly entered a golden age, the morning in Maritzburg was crisp, the usual cacophony of sound assailed the senses, and the traditions were being followed. Now days there was a new tradition, that of the playing of the Vangellis theme  "Chariots of Fire". It is indeed a moving experience to stand in a throng of fellow runners, talking, joking and knowing that you are a part of the greatest race in the world. There is voluntary seeding, and those hoping to finish before lunch, or indeed before afternoon tea have the right to push their way forward. It is a voluntary system, and most respect that.

Bruce Fordyce was the firm favorite for a win, but he was not to have it all his own way. Bob de La Motte was back, and much of the pre race hype in the press centered on these two. By this time Fordyce had dedicated himself entirely to the race. He had become a total professional, and winning the Comrades Marathon was his focus. "No one will win the Comrades Marathon again unless they give it their full time attention" declared Fordyce. This drew howells from quarters of the public. Bob de la Motte by contrast was an accountant and had to fit his training into his busy work schedule. There were reports of the two being enemies, but in the end, it was all hype, another feature of the modern Comrades Marathon.

The race turned out to be yet another absorbing struggle and it was De la Motte who took on the champ. By the time the runners were through the half-way point, De la Motte was second and Fordyce was little less than a minute behind in 6th position. By the time the runners crested Botha's Hill, the leader board showed De la Motte in the lead, with four places between him and Fordyce.

The Durban side of Cowies Hill is a traditional place where the race produces high drama. For it is here that Fordyce closes the gap on De la Motte, and looking every bit the champion, draws away from Tjale. If ever there was any doubt about their friendship, as was stirred up in the press, the two club mates put their arms around one another's shoulders, share their drinks, and get down to the serious side of the race as they reel off  3:35 mins per kilometer pace for the next six kilometres. This had not escaped the cognoscenti of the race and the calculators were out and were working.

The 1986 course was shorter than usual, 88.77 kilometres, running at this speed, it would translate into another record breaking run. Fordyce must have sensed that, for with 9 kilometres to go, at 45th Cutting, he pushed on ahead and sped off to the standing ovation at Kingsmead Stadium he had become accustomed to. As he raced across the line, the clock read 5:24:07. This was Fordyce's finest hour, the complete Comrades runner, had gone one better, now he stood in a class of his own. Six wins was something never achieved before. In a rare show of emotion from a generally reserved Fordyce, he throws up his arms in triumph and then runs back down the track punching the air to show his excitement.

De la Motte is a brave runner up and finishes in 5:26:12, also breaking the previous record. One should pause here and reflect on what a courageous race it must have been for the big accountant. To have broken the record, and yet to only have come second must have been hard to take.

Fordyce gives a glimpse of his racing tactic when after the event he writes : "Through Pinetown I tucked in behind Hosea, with Bob a few seconds ahead. It would not have been hard to close the gap but I wanted him to bear the maximum amount of pressure for the longest amount of time." Fordyce was not only the master of pace but also knew how to apply the psychological pressure as well.

Bob de la Motte on reflecting on the race afterwards said ; " I wanted to win the race as much as Bruce did, but his athletic genius is just mind boggling. When you look back at the race, my time was the second fastest in the history of the Comrades and I ran about three minutes faster in the second half, but still I could not beat Bruce."

By the time the runners lined up for the 1987 "Up" run, the speculation was Fordyce would go one better and notch up an unprecedented seventh win. Bob de la Motte was an entrant as was Hosea Tjale. Hopes for the first black win rested on him. Certainly after his third place the previous year, he was well placed to produce an up-set.

Entry numbers were slightly down on the previous year, but at the close, there were almost 11 000 receipts processed.

For many watching the 1987 "Up" race it seemed that the challenge of Hosea Tjale was serious. At Drummond, the small athlete in his orange vest of Johannesburg Harriers made his move and with the awkward style that has become his trade mark started to make an impression on the race. With 30 kilometres to go, Tjale was more than four minutes ahead of the maestro, and was running well, and to all intents and purposes, into the history books.

But Fordyce was not yet finished, slowly but surely he set about closing the gap, and at Polly shorts caught the gangly runner. He drew up next to him, patted him on the back and shook his hand. That gesture was now known as the "Kiss of death", Fordyce now made off to Jan Smuts Stadium, and his seventh win

Again after the race, Fordyce revealed some of his winning formula. ; Hosea raced too much, two standard marathons, Korkie and Two Oceans all in one year. Even though Tjale was way out front, I knew this would catch up with him" Fordyce had become a Comrades specialist. Of his ability to run hills, Fordyce conquers the mighty hill by specific hill training. He would train on a testing hill "Sweethoogte" in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Every day I say to myself ;"just jog up Polly Shorts."

The 63rd Comrades Marathon was a special event, and although many were speculating on the possibility of an eighth win for Fordyce, it was not that that made the race different. A different medal was struck for the race that was slightly bigger than usual and different in design. This was to commemorate and to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the City of Pietermaritzburg. The Comrades Marathon had its roots in the town, so it was fitting that such a gesture be made. A separate medal and a separate logo for that year, perhaps the finest year in the history of the race.

This was not all, to mark the occasion, the direction of the race would not alternate and the race, like 1987 it would be an "Up" run, so as to finish in Pietermaritzburg. Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of this, truly a gala, but nostalgic year, was the entry of the great Wally Hayward. At the age of 79, he would be the oldest in a field that topped 12 000 entrants.

In that year eight blind runners, members of Jardene Joggers were to tackle the epic race. Jardene Joggers was an organisation formed in memory of the intrepid blind runner of a by-gone era. Ian Jardene. And now they, accompanied by their sighted pilots would make their mark on the race. For these runners the race is a way to find, if not physical healing, a spiritual one, for neither the distance nor the time is altered for these brave souls, they prefer to remain fairly anonymous, and to be treated in the normal way.

Much of the pre-race speculation centered on Fordyce and his possible eighth win. Scant attention was paid to a novice entrant in that race mark page. Page was from the same club as Fordyce, and had some interesting credentials. He boasted a 2:17 marathon, held several gold medals from the two Oceans, and to all intents and purposes, had all the make-up of a winner.

At the halfway stage, the "Fordyce Bus" was about three minutes adrift of the leader, and had Mark Page, Johnny Halberstadt and Nick Bestir on board. Hosea Tjale was still further back . Inchanga came and went and on the Pietermaritzburg side of that mighty climb, Mark Page made his decisive move.

Fordyce let him go, knowing that Page applied those tactics in other races, and by the time the leaders swept through Camperdown, Page was out in front with Fordyce over a minute behind. Nick Bester, running his third Comrades, and Halberstadt were clearly off the bus by now.

Bruce Fordyce, in his book  - Run the Comrades - describes what happened next: " As we approached the unknown hills outside Camperdown, I decided to run them as comfortably as possible. I cautioned myself to make no conscious effort to chase Mark. Without deliberately chasing him, I wanted to see how well he was running the hills and, more importantly, how well I was running them." The answer soon came, the gap shrunk from 1:20 to 45 seconds. "I knew I had him. By the time we reached the Richmond Turnoff I was running a few paces behind Mark. I was full of aggression. I cocked my hand like a gun, pointed it at Mark, and blew him away…"

Much to Fordyce's surprise, Page fought back, and stayed with the little maestro. Clearly this was a very special novice making a very brave move. Fordyce surged again, and again Page responded, over a three kilometer stretch they were timed at 3:20, 3:16 and 3:16 to the kilometer.

Finally just before Polly Shorts, Fordyce broke away and drove on hard to the finish. "I am often asked what motivates me to keep running hard at the end of a race like the Comrades, and at times like that I know that the overwhelming emotion and motivating force is fear. The fear of losing, the fear of failure, he fear of letting myself and others down."

When Fordyce broke the tape he also broke the record, yet again 5:27:42. Even by his account and indeed in his book this was his finest run. If ever a person in South Africa that epitomized the best of all our intentions, it was this man, the Golden boy of Comrades.

Further back there was another legend, Wally Hayward, carving his own unique piece of history in that epic 1988 run. Perhaps hailed as the greatest moment in Comrades history, Hayward finished in 9:44:15. To put this achievement into perspective is difficult, but a few days before his 80th birthday finished ahead of 47% of the field to claim the Founders Trophy. The speculation may well rage for decades, but to decide on who is the greatest of them all would take a brave person to make a pronouncement.

The last race of the decade attracted an unprecedented, 13573 entrants and 12164 registered to take the honors at the start line. Looking back, what can one really say? The Comrades marathon has truly shaped into a national pat time. Setting aside the brave heroes who run the race, it must be said that the pioneering spirit of Mick Winn, Mervin Williams,  John Godlington, Barry Varity and Bullet Alexander, to name but a few must be commended. Where indeed would this race be if were not for the organisational skills of these brave souls?

In many ways the 1989 race would prove to be a water shed. It was the most wide open race of the decade. Fordyce, surprisingly announced that he would sit this one out. This brought forward many interesting prospects and permutations, Hosea Tjale had served his apprenticeship well, and was due a win. Mark Page was a danger man, but when it came down to the runners on paper, it must have been Bhekizizwe "Willie" Mtolo, that was the clear favorite. Willie boasted a 2:08 marathon time and was the reigning marathon champion. We was the fastest man that had ever entered the race and had a medal to his credit already.

The start-line festivities were duly dispensed with, and the cock-crowing, banner wielding field moved off towards Durban. Predictably, the rabbits charged out while the more seasoned campaighners waited and watched.

Shortly after Cato Ridge, it was the fair-haired Sean Meiklejohn, oft mistaken for Fordyce, wearing similar dark-glasses and running with a similar style, that made the break. By the time the leaders reached Drummond, it was Meiklejohn, followed by Cornet Matomane and Sam Tshabalala.

Hillcrest, Meiklejohn running comfortably, was followed by Tshabalala and Frenchman Bellocq. Behind them Mtolo waited, so did Page. The race was becoming an absorbing afair. When would Mtolo make the break? Would he make the break?

Kloof had the answer to that, Mtolo broke from Page and overtook Bellocq. Up front Mickeljohn was still the leader with tsabalala gamely following. The drama of the 1989 race began when Miekeljohn’s brave effort came to naught when he was overhauled by tsabalala in Pinetown. Now reduced to a walk, Miekeljohn was overtaken by a fluid striding Mtolo. It took the marathon champ 4hrs 56mins to catch the persistant leader, tsabalala, but at last Willie Mtolo took the lead and looked every bit the champion.

One thing for sure, no one really tipped Sam Tshabalala for a win, and in an exciting race, the 31 year-old Sasolburg laborer, showed the necessary guts and determination of a true Comrades champion. There was a ding-dong battle for the lead over the last few kilometers, and many thought it was over when Mtolo hove into sight and took the lead. But with the Durban skyline in view with little more than six kilometres to go, Aesops fable of the tortoise and the hare was put to the test. The Tortoise, in the shape of Tsabalala, overhauled a badly cramping Mtolo and ran into the history books. The time was relatively slow 5:35:51.

But that did not matter, Sam Tsabalala will always go down in history as the first

black man ever to have won the Comrades. Mtolo fought on gamely and came in a creditable second. Hosea Tjale, a clear favorite going into the race finished a disappointing tenth, and Mark Page, the runner who bravely took on Fordyce in 1988, failed to finish, dropping out at the bottom of Fields Hill.

Wally Hayward made a courageous attempt to emulate his fine run last year, but a sick looking Hayward struggled to the finish at almost the eleventh hour. Hayward clearly was in trouble, but he bravely finished the race.

The Women’s race in the 1980’s

The big field in 1980 was huge by comparison, 48 lined up and this was more than the entire field of races held three or four decades earlier. One of the youngest and one of the speediest women entrants was Cape Town’s Isavel Roche-Kelly. She boasted a sub-three hour marathon. Also at the start was Jan Mallen, last year’s defending champion and the redoubtable trio of Lettie van Zyl, Elizabeth Cavanagh and Mavis Hutchison.

With such a big field, there was much speculation as to whether the race would produce for the first time a women to beat the magical seven-and-a-half-hour barrier and in so doing, would win a silver medal. The day’s events would answer that question.

In the end, the veterans were outclassed by a new breed of woman runner and the answer was in the affirmative, Improved winning times were becoming a feature of the women’s race, and to rapturous applause, the petite UCT student Isavel Roche-Kelly led the charge and finished in 7:18. The first woman ever to beat the seven-and-a-half-hour cut. As with the arrival of the legendary Arthur Newton at the winning post in 1923, she seemed to catch the organisers on the wrong foot, for it was some minutes before they welcomed her.

The next to finish was the popular Pirates runner Cheryl Jorgensen. She was only four minutes behind the winner and the second in the history of the race to claim a silver medal. Cheryl was in the lead, and with only ten kilometers to go, Isavel, waited, pounced and powered passed her.

The 1981 race proved to be a 1-2-3 repeat affair with Isavel Roche-Kelly taking top honours with Jorgensen in second place and Rallie Smit again claiming third spot. The difference though was that the winner finished in 6:44:35. In overall 76th position. A time fast enough to have beaten a number of Comrades winners of previous years.  So fast was the run that she smashed the previous up race by a staggering 1hr38. Clearly Roche-Kelly was a rare talent. In the end she confided that this would be her last Comrades. As she hoped to concentrate on the marathon distance. “I’ve done all I wanted to do here,” she said.

In 1982 Cheryl Jorgensen, a double silver medallist was the undisputed favorite, and at the start she was confident of the ultimate Comrades dream. On that morning, 109 women lined up to the starter's gun. By the day’s end 103 would finish. For the 30 year old Pirates runner, it was a dream come true, and being the only silver medallist on the day, won in a time of 7:04:59, claiming 229th place overall. She finished well in front of Lise Warren, second placed in 7:52:26

By the close of entries in 1983, 177 women had entered, Isavel Roche Kelly confirmed she was not to run, Jorgensen, the defending champion was recovering from a kidney complaint and was not in top shape, while the 21-year-old novice Lindsay Weight was running well in current races, but was keeping a low profile.

Lindsay Weight, running in the colours of Natal University confirmed later that she made the fatal mistake of the novice and went out too quickly. Carried away by the excitement and the cheering crowds, she overtook seasoned veteran Jorgensen six kilometers into the race and soon found herself heading the leader board.

By the time the runners reached Botha’s hill the order of things were Weight. Warren, Wilson and then Jorgensen.  In the end the day did belong to Weight, and in a time of 7:12, she carried off the Comrades Bowl and for the first time a gold medallion which henceforth would be awarded to the first woman home. Five women – the most by far – earned silver for beating 7 1/2 hours, two of them Cheryl Jorgensen and Moira Hornby in the dying seconds.

With the number of women runners ballooning each year the organisers decided in 1984 to introduce a new competition, that for the first women’s team. The standard of running attained by the women competitors had of late improved dramatically, and fierce battles for the Comrades Bowl and the team race were expected. There were no outright favorites but Ralie Smit from the Transvaal was considered a likely winner, but in the Cape and Natal, Lindsay Weight, the reigning champion was favoured. Weight, now living in Cape Town was trying to keep a low profile.

The battle that year was fierce and Ralie Smit and Lindsay Weight locked horns fairly early on in the race. At first Ralie Smit, on the Maritzburg side of Inchanga seemed to have the measure of the champ, but on the run in to Drummond, Weight turned things around and took the lead.

Weight clearly was running the race on her own terms, and when she went the 50-mile mark in six hours, it was an unofficial women’s world best time. Weight did have a few bad patches that day but despite that, she finished in 6:46 and was the first woman to break the seven hour barrier, clearly a new landmark had been reached, for she came 176th out of over 7000 finishers.  Next came Pricilla Carlisle 7:15 winning her first ever silver medal.

1985 the Diamond Jubilee year would see an absorbing race. Yes Lindsay Weight, twice a champion was on the look out for a hat trick, and with three wins, the added incentive of an earnestly desired “evergreen number”. But Weight was not going to have an easy time of it, for Helen Lucre was to prove a tricky customer. Lucre had broken the Korki Marathon record earlier in the year, add to that a Two Oceans record. Although no Comrades novice, Lucre had achieved times of 8:50 and 8:47 this was a long way off Weight’s times of 7:12 and 6:46. Never the less, an interesting tactical race was expected.

Sadly, the charming and happy Isavel Roche-Kelly, only 24, whose name will always be associated with women Comrades runners, was tragically killed the previous July in a cycling accident in her native Northern Ireland.

The leading ladies were having a fair amount of trouble on Fields Hill. For now there was a lot of jostling and bumping, especially at the watering points. Determined to be picked up by the television cameras, large crowds of male runners were latching on to the women and allowing them, now more expert, to pace out for a sure silver medal. At this stage it was a cat and mouse affair between Weight, the defending champion, Lucre and a smiling Ralie Smit cruising along comfortably in their wake.

Helen Lucre was the first to scale Inchanga followed by Weight. In the end the race went to the Hillcrest runner, Lucre in 6:53. Strong and well muscled, the fair haired runner commented afterward “I feel fine. I had a very nice run. I had a few worried moments up to half way because Lindsay always looked better than I did.”

Weight, if disappointed had once again clocked up an impressive time. (7:01) ‘It wasn’t a good day, I’m just so glad to finish. I won’t attempt it again. My congratulations to Helen”

In 1985, the first ever Comrades marathon woman won her ever-green number for ten finishers. This was Daphne Ledlie (no. 2257). This 52-year-old belle from Springs arrived when the tide of runners was at its flood, but was never-the-less singled out for special applause. “I took up running to avoid wallowing in self-pity after serious illness thirteen years ago”.

The 1986 results show 427 women finishers, small in relative terms (4%) of total finishers, it is big when considers the small beginnings just over a decade ago. The friendly yet intense rivalry between Lindsay Weight and Helen Lucre was carried over into the 1986 down run.

By the time the leaders went through Cato Ridge Weight had three minutes on Lucre, but seemed to be struggling. On Harrison flats, Lucre took the ailing UCT runner and at a relatively slow pace made her way up Inchanga. First through Drummond, Helen went on to win the race in 6:55 with Ralie Smit coming home in a fine 7:07.

Lindsay Weight finished well back in the field in a time of 8:15.”I had a complete blow-up; it was the culmination of four years of overtraining. “

In 1987 the pre-race interest in the women’s race was intense. Helen Lucre was the defending champion and was hoping for a hat-trick and to secure her number in perpetuity. Lindsay Weight was back after her disappointing run in the previous year and was looking for a similar honor. The smart money was on Lucre who had proven herself to be a tough customer.

The race was a hard fought tactical race for the entire first half. In the end, Weight had to yield to the tough Kiwi runner as Lucre powered her way to claim her hat-trick in a time of 6:48:42. Lindsay had a better run this year and finished second in a creditable time of 6:58:44. Commenting afterwards Lucre said “ I’ve been battling with an injury, and I think the enforced lay-off really helped over the last 20 kilometers. “

In the Up run of 1988, Lucre was looking all but unstoppable for a fourth win. There was among the entry forms a 1987 novice Frith van der Merwe. Her time as a new comer was 7:22 and this earned her 6th place. The press gave a hint of an exciting tussle between this young, inexperienced yet talented 23-year-old from Benoni and the more experienced stalwarts Helen Lucre and Lindsay Weight.

Sadly the big duel failed to materialise as the slim figure of van der Merwe tore away and smashed Isavel Roche-Kelly’s long standing record by a staggering 11 minutes. In a time of 6:32:56, Frith – the school teacher taught a lesson on women’s running and set new standards in ultra distance running. Clearly here was a rare talent. To put a perspective on this, it was in 1936 that running great Hardy Ballington set a new for the Up run. Frith would have beaten him by almost 15 minutes on that day.

The last race of the decade in 1989 must go down in history as a watershed year for women’s running in the Natal classic. First and foremost, this was a year that Frith van der Merwe achieved the unthinkable and ran the down in an astounding 5:54:43. This was good enough for 15th place overall. There were some bruised male egos at the finish that day, but the crowed gave the petite Frith a rousing Durban welcome, as she smashed Weight’s record by almost an hour.

Was there any resentment from the male big guns as she flew past them? Not at all recalls van der Merwe. As she passed Johnny Halberstad, he called out, “ come on Frith, you can do it”.

Secondly, the trend of women runners was on the increase, and in 1989 over 800 entered the race with 668 finishers. This represented over 6% of the field. Clearly the women of Comrades are a force to be reckoned with.

Looking back on the eve of the last race of the decade, it was with a sense of pride. The race had come a long way since 1921. The Comrades Marathon was a media event, the feats of our golden boy, fordyce seemed to epitomise the hopes for ourselves as a nation. The stunning and emphatic win of Frith Van Der Merwe underscored the athletic abilities of women runners, and at the close of the decade there was, at last, a black winner of the race.

Was a black winner as important as it was made out to be? Taken in the context of the time, it certainly was. The country at the time was in political turmoil, political parties were still banned. The most influential leader of the people, Nelson Mandela was still in prison. For the great majority of the people there was an oppressive darkness, so when the diminutive figure of Sam Tshablala strode towards the finiish line on republic Day 1989.

HALL OF FAME

RESULTS

Men's Race

Year

First

Time

Second

Time

Third

Time

Medals

1980 - Down Run

A.G. Robb

5hr38

B.N.S. Fordyce

5hr40

M.C. Ball

5hr40

3979

1981 - Up Run

B.N.S. Fordyce

5hr37*

J.P. Halberstadt

5hr46

A.M. Abbott

5hr52

3665

1982 - Down Run

B.N.S. Fordyce

5hr34

A.G. Robb

5hr41

G.A. Fraser

5hr41

4618

1983 - Up Run

B.N.S. Fordyce

5hr30*

G.W. Shaw

5hr45

G.A. Fraser

5hr46

5375

1984 - Down Run

B.N.S. Fordyce

5hr27*

R.A. de la Motte

5hr30

J.C. Reyneke

5hr34

7158

1985 - Up Run

B.N.S. Fordyce

5hr37

H. Tjale

5hr42

D.R. Tiviers

5hr53

8194

1986 - Down Run

B.N.S. Fordyce

5hr24*

R.A. de la Motte

5hr26

H. Tjale

5hr29

9653

1987 - Up Run

B.N.S. Fordyce

5hr37

R.A. de la Motte

5hr43

H. Tjale

5hr44

8378

1988 - Up Run

B.N.S. Fordyce

5hr27*

M. Page

5hr38

N.G. Bester

5hr39

10357

1989 - Down Run

S. Tshabalala

5hr35

B. Mtolo

5hr39

J.M. Bellocq (France)

5hr42

10505

* = Record

Holder of record at end of the decade

Down                    Bruce Fordyce              5hr24min07sec             1986

Up                        Bruce Fordyce              5hr27min42sec             1988

RESULTS

Women's Race

Year

First

Time

Second

Time

Third

Time

1980 - Down Run

I. Roche-Kelly

7hr18*

C.L. Jorgensen

7hr22

R. Smit 

7hr50

1981 - Up Run

I. Roche-Kelly

6hr44*

C.L. Jorgensen

7hr21

R. Smit

7hr46

1982 - Down Run

C.L. Jorgensen

7hr04

L.W. Warren

7hr52

R. Smit

8hr01

1983 - Up Run

L.M. Weight

7hr12

J.A. Wilson

7hr23

G.H. Ingram

7hr27

1984 - Down Run

L.M. Weight

6hr46*

P.A. Carlisle

7hr15

G.H. Ingram

7hr15

1985 - Up Run

H.C. Lucre

6hr53

L.M. Weight

7hr01

P.A. Carlisle

7hr24

1986 - Down Run

H.C. Lucre

6hr55

R.Smit

7hr07

L. Greeff

7hr14

1987 - Up Run

H.C. Lucre

6hr48

L.M. Weight

6hr58

R.Smit

7hr01

1988 - Up Run

F, Van Der Merwe

6hr32*

L. Greeff

7hr04

H.C. Lucre

7hr07

1989 - Down Run

F, Van Der Merwe

5hr54*

V. Bleazard

6hr56

N. Harrison

7hr00

* = Record

Holder of record at end of the decade

Down                    Frith Van Der Merwe          5hr54min43sec             1989

Up                        Frith Van Der Merwe          6hr32min56sec             1988

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