Comrades King tells us how it’s done

He dominated the comrades throughout the 1980s, winning the ultra-marathon nine times between 1981 and 1990; he’s had a down run record of 05:24:07, set in 1986, which stood for 21 years before it was broken in 2007; he has also completed 30 Comrade marathons and has won the London to Brighton ultramarathon three years running from 1981 to 1983, and so much more.

Bruce Fordyce, South African marathon and ultramarathon athlete, is a legend in his own right as no other runner in history of the Comrades has achieved such a feat.

The laid back, humorous and humbled athlete, chats to Moneybags writer, Alina Hardcastle about his approach towards preparing and racing in the Comrades Marathon; and his latest business pursuit.

Where did your love and passion for running stem from?

This might sound strange but I’m not the best sportsman with a ball, bat or anything like that. Running is the simplest form of sport in many ways and I’ve always enjoyed it from my earliest days. From when I was very little I always found the longer the distance the better I did and the more I enjoyed it.

I’ve never been a good sprinter, so the longer the race or the run the better, and at a sane distance.

You have won the Comrades nine consecutive times from 1981 to 1990, how did you physically prepare for comrades?

Wow, that’s a whole book. Well, first of all you have to be genetically suited, so choose your parents carefully, in order to win the Comrades.

You can be as brave and as tough as you like but, if you’re not short, lean and strong, you aren’t going to win the Comrades, it’s just a fact.

You then you have to get the correct training programme. Once I started training seriously it took me five years to win the Comrades. I ran about 160 – 240km a week, and diet? Nah, in those days I ate anything.

Is there a specific running technique that you needed to learn?

No, no, you don’t mess around with your running style, you just run! If you have funny running style then you have a funny running style. You might need to learn some technique if you plan on being a hurdler or something like that, but no there is no technique. Running is not like other sports such as golf.

How did your physical preparation change for you over the years?

Well, now I’m just a social runner. I’m nowhere near to what I was running 20 years ago. I can’t even remember what that person was like. Your running evolves over the years depending on your age and your goals, if you are trying to win the Comrades it’s a huge undertaking but if you’re just planning on running a Comrades then it’s not so taxing.

Mental burnout is suggested to be one of the main reasons runners drop out of the Comrades, do you believe that this is true?

No. First of all a very small percentage of people drop out of the Comrades. Most of the people who start have done all the preparation and have qualified.  Above 80 to 90 percent of the people who start the race more or less finish because they are ready for it . The people who drop out are the ones who are generally struggling with an injury that they thought they could get away with.

The single greatest reason why people drop out of the Comrades has nothing to do with mental, it has everything to do with physical because they are exhausted and they can’t struggle on. They are getting dehydrated or dizzy.

Most people stop because of a physical thing and not because they aren’t mentally tough enough because to get there you have to run a marathon or two-or three-or four shorter marathons to get ready, so you already have that mind set and it’s already engrained in you.

Surely, all runners get to a point in the Comrades marathon where they start to questions themselves…

When they get to 70km, everybody says “what am I doing here? This is insane!” But as I said, 90 percent of them just carry on going because to drop out is far more humiliating and embarrassing to yourself than it is to struggle on.

And yes, to drop out means you’re no longer tired and you’re no longer sore but now you got to live with yourself.

The single biggest reason they carry on going [is because] they embarked on this journey months and months before and they aren’t about to mess it up now. They might not be running as fast as they hoped they would and it might be a disappointing time but they aren’t going to give up.

What are the most common mistakes runners make when running the Comrades or any ultra-marathon?

The biggest mistake they make is that they start running too hard, too soon. They start in October or November and they are completely exhausted and they tire themselves out. Proper Comrades training only starts at the end of February.

The second biggest mistake is just one of pace. The average runner doesn’t know how to pace themselves very well, so sometimes they set off too fast and then they end up getting into a lot of trouble, which doesn’t mean they’re not going to make it but they end up struggling, and it’s actually a tribute to Comrades runners because the problem they suffer from is over enthusiasm. That’s actually the worse thing to have for Comrades. You’ve got to be laid back, quite cool and pace yourself in everything even when you train and the way you run the race. If you go flying off with the gun you will be 90km overworked.

Did you find that the Comrades became easier year after year? Or did you discover a new challenge over time?

What was easier was that I didn’t have to do too much thinking about the way I trained because I stumbled on the correct training programme fairly early on and stuck to that, I tinkered it a little bit but I stuck to it.”

The only thing is that if you’re a past winner the pressure is very enormous; so I’m sure it was great fun for Caroline Wostmann, who won the Comrades last year, because she was a contender and not a favourite because her best place before that was sixth. Now this year she is going to feel the pressure because she is the defending champion and she ran beautifully last year, so now everyone has her down as their favourite. “

So, what is the Comrades king is getting up to these days?

I’m still running, I run one or two shorter marathons a year. I’m not running the Comrades this year since I’ve done 30, which doesn’t mean I’ve run my last one, I’m just giving it a break. My biggest pursuit is that I’m the CEO of a thing called “Parkrun” in South Africa which has become so enormous; it’s the biggest exercise outdoor activity craze that makes everything else look minute. It started four and half years ago with 26 people and one Parkrun and now there are 80 Parkruns and 400 000 registered runners.

What is Parkrun South Africa?

Parkrun organises 5km timed runs on a weekly basis, around the world. It’s easy, safe, and free and everyone, from walkers to those who plan to run the Olympics, can partake in it.

You can make use of the events page, and select the events you would be most interested in.

You can also review all the information about the course, runners’ past performances, volunteering and local news.

Lastly, what advice can you give to Comrades runners?

Try as much as possible to enjoy the day, it is tough and it is gruelling but don’t turn it into the most gruelling thing you have ever done in your life. Try and enjoy it, the whole experience is a wonderful adventure. In the space of one day you live a whole life, you live more than most people will ever live in their entire lives.

If you are interested in signing up and would like to learn more about Parkrun, click here