Where are the legends?
Marathon running is one of the most emotionally and physically draining sports around. It takes determination, will-power, guile and natural ability to compete in one of these races, let alone finish first.
Bruce Fordyce epitomises the above qualities and it shows in the record books. The nine-time Comrades Marathon winner – a record held to this day, proves that mind over matter is very much a key to success, and not just something which your mother may have preached to you in your youth.
Fordyce is an inspiration to all South Africans and many abroad, with his exploits both on home soil and overseas, a testament to the fact that discipline and a competitive edge can take you to new heights… and beyond.
Fordyce’s love for running has seen him continue to compete at different events around the world (including his beloved Comrades), further solidifying the point that the mind has an uncanny ability to help us rise to any challenge which we are faced with.
YEI caught up with the now 56-year-old and chatted to him about his dominating Comrades adventure toward the back end of the last century, his record-breaking feats around the globe, what it takes to be a success and what he currently does to keep himself busy.
You are the record holder for the most Comrades victories. Can you tell us just how difficult it was to achieve that feat?
Obviously it was very hard. In retrospect, I realise that. What I did, though, was take it year by year. I was never going for a record number of victories until I did my sixth. Each year, I focused on winning another Comrades, and then it just started adding up. It was always difficult being the defending champ, but I had a very solid training programme. I was self-coached, so I knew what worked for me and every year I knew what sort of shape I would be in. This did not necessarily mean I was going to win, but I knew I would run within five or ten minutes of a certain time.
Why do you think nobody has managed to break your record to date?
Well… because it is very hard. One of the most common mistakes that winners make is to forget that they have a winning formula. The following year, instead of following that formula, they try to double their mileage and because of the pressure, do something weird. The hardest year to defend is the following year, when that winner is trying to win for a second time. Once you have won the second time, you can get it right. If you look at Stephen Muzhingi (Zimbabwean runner who won in 2009, 2010, 2011) – he won the first time, the second time, and the third time. He didn’t win this year, but he still came in fourth or fifth place, and ran pretty well.
You won the ‘London to Brighton Ultramarathon’ three years running from 1981 to 1983. Those victories came about at the same time as your Comrades wins. How would you compare the two races?
They are very different and very similar. The London to Brighton is only for elite runners, so it has a small field of a couple of hundred at the most, as opposed to 20,000. It is roughly the same distance and it has some very big hills towards the end. However, it doesn’t have any of the charisma or vibe of the Comrades. It is an elite race, run by a small elite group of runners, who do ultras in the UK. It is quite an old race, with quite a history. It does have its own traditions like the Comrades and there is a close bond between the two races in that winners of the Brighton have won the Comrades and vice versa. So it is rather like a brother-sister race.
What other records do you hold which some people may not know about?
I have a world record from Brighton, for 50 miles. The Brighton is actually longer than 50 miles, it is actually 53 or 54 miles, but they take your time when you go through the 50-mile mark. So I have a world record there which has stood since 1983. I have a United States all-comers record because I ran a 50-miler there, which was fractionally slower than my Brighton time, but it is still a record in the States. Purists say that it is actually the world record because the US race was an ‘out and back race’ – which means you finish where you started. That makes it much more even and accurate. So those are two other records which I hold.
What exactly does it take to become a marathon runner?
The right psychological build-up. You are saying ‘marathon’ runner but you are not saying ‘elite marathon’ runner. There are a lot of people who are not very fast and are not very good at running marathons, but they run lots of marathons because they have got a strong head. The most important thing is to have a very strong head and to enjoy things which involve endurance, having your spirit overcome your body, so to speak. If you are going to be an elite marathon runner, then you need to be small, light and have a very good heart and lungs.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Probably the nine Comrades, but maybe also getting a State President’s Award from Nelson Mandela! I was actually with Zola Budd this morning doing a shoot, and she thinks my 14.27 for 5,000 meters is more impressive (laughs) – which is only about two minutes behind Haile Gebrselassie and the guys.
You are a very well educated man (Bruce has an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from Wits), something which many sports personalities cannot claim to be. How has your education helped in combination with your sports talents?
I think it has helped phenomenally! In fact, I think it is more important than the talent. It gives you such a huge advantage in being able to get sponsorships, relate to the public, give talks and speeches, write about it, and read about the sport. You can get some very talented people who lose their advantage because they can’t speak well or can’t write, so they can’t present themselves well.
Are you still active in the marathon running scene today and how has your training changed?
I ran my 30th Comrades this year and I ran the Boston marathon. I did New York in November and I ran Two Oceans. I am running Dublin in October and I am going full out all the time. I have cut back hugely in my training because I can’t run at that level anymore – I would get injured. I am still a sponsored athlete and I can win races in the over-50 section. In the Masters section I am still winning races – not a lot, but I do from time to time.
Other than the marathon running scene, what are you currently doing with yourself?
I do a lot of motivational speaking. I spoke recently at the launch of a sports programme in Gauteng. I do a lot of writing, generally about running. I have also started a South African initiative called ‘Parkrun’. It is a new phenomenon which is sweeping the world. It was started by a South African friend of mine in the UK. It is free five kilometer timed runs every Saturday in parks. He started off with 10 runners and he has 300,000 at the moment. So I am the South African wing of his idea. This huge new phenomenon is going to sweep South Africa as well. (For more information about Fordyce’s initiative visit www.parkrun.com)
What advice would you give to people who are looking to get into marathon running or are just keen to keep fit?
The hardest thing to do is to start, so to begin with – make it very easy. Make your early runs or early training very easy. When it is easy like that, you are able to maintain it. What happens with beginners is when they make it too hard and unpleasant, and they don’t really enjoy it, the first time there is a freezing cold day, they stop and they never continue. So the key thing is to make it ridiculously easy to begin with.
By: Andrew Hallett
Picture: courtesy of Facebook