UltraRunning Interview: Comrades and World Champion Bruce Fordyce
At the 2005 Comrades Marathon 89 Km, the world’s biggest and most famous ultramarathon, Mark Bloomfield had the opportunity to talk with Bruce Fordyce, a nine-time champion, as well as the world
record-holder at 50 miles.
Mark: Good to see you again and thanks for taking time from your busy schedule to do this interview with me forUltraRunning.
Bruce: It is a pleasure to be interviewed by the first Comrades Ambassador to the U.S. I am really pleased that the Comrades Marathon Association has appointed you to tell the Comrades story in the U.S.
and to encourage more Americans to run Comrades.
Mark: Not only did you teach me to finish with dignity but when I ran my first “up” race, you tried to intimidate me by suggesting that with 80 km completed, I could meet my destiny if I would run up Polly Shorts,
a horribly steep hill. I did and cursed that dead farmer, Polly Short, and you. Did you know that in the U.S. you’ve been described as the Bill Rodgers, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods combined in South Africa?
Why are you called the Comrades King and a South African icon? What ultra records do you hold?
Bruce: That American characterization made my day. I only wish I had the financial success of those fellows; others will have to figure out who I am. All I can tell you is I’m a proud South African; I love sports,
especially running. I’m excited to be part of building a new post-apartheid country. I guess I’ve been called the “Comrades King” because I’ve won the race nine times, more times than anyone else. I set several
records: two on the Comrades “down” run, with my best in 5:24:07 in ’86 and three Comrades “up” records. I was the first runner ever to break five and a half hours on the “up” run. I set the world record for 50 miles
(4:50:21) when I ran the London to Brighton race in 1983. (The total distance is actually 54 miles.) I also have the world’s second-fastest time of 4:50:51 set at the 1984 AMJA U.S. 50-mile championships in Chicago
on an out-and-back course. This is a U.S. all-comers records and also a world best time for a course that starts and finishes at the same spot. For a couple of years the 6:25 I ran at the 100 km in Stellenbosch, South
Africa in 1989 was also a world record on the road. My Comrades “down” record in 1986 and my 50-mile world record at London to Brighton in 1983 still stand.
Mark: The reality is that you are one of the world’s finest-ever ultrarunners. As a well-known athlete, you stood up against apartheid when it was dangerous to do so. You’re a qualified archeologist, keen
ornithologist, ardent philatelist, connoisseur of fine wines, gifted raconteur, and one of South Africa’s priceless assets. Why is Comrades a special race for South Africans? Why it should be for Americans?
Bruce: It is special for South Africans because it is one of our unique athletic events. It is part of our folklore. I first thought of running Comrades when I was eight years old. Any South African can run and
finish Comrades. Many dream about doing so, and many run Comrades once in their lifetime. It is a national treasure. Nelson Mandela presented awards to the runners on several occasions. There were
some 14,000 runners in this year’s Comrades, perhaps a million people out on the road watching the runners, 100,000 people in the stadium at the finish, and maybe as many as three million people watching
the race on television on a continuous 12-hour broadcast. A 23-year-old South African male won the race. A Russian physician from Siberia with a two-year-old was the first woman to finish, along with you and
me and all but 1,500 runners who started at 5:30 in the morning. Remember it was the Americans who started the running boom in the 1970s with (Frank) Shorter and Bill Rodgers. American runners usually
stop at the marathon distance. Comrades offers them a next step up. If you’ve done New York, Chicago, maybe Boston, you might like to try an ultra. If you do one ultra in your life, it should be Comrades.
Mark: Tell me a little about the participation of women and non-whites in Comrades and your statement against apartheid at Comrades.
Bruce: Until 1975, only white males could officially run Comrades. Non-whites and women had run unofficially for many years before. In 1935, Robert Mtshali became the first black man to “unofficially”
complete the Comrades Marathon. This year, on the 80th anniversary of Comrades, the Robert Mitshali bronze memorial was enshrined at the entrances of the Comrades Museum, along with a new
“forgotten Comrades” exhibition to tell the story of the men and women who ran the race unofficially prior to 1975 when it was opened to both sexes and every race. In 1981, the government decided to
incorporate Comrades as an integral part of the 20th anniversary of the Republic of South Africa and apartheid. I was at the University at that time and I and many of my friends who were Comrades runners
were upset. I cherished the ideas and traditions of the Comrades Marathon, but at the same time had serous objections to apartheid. I decided to wear a black armband in protest. At the start, I was greeted
by boos and catcalls and pelted by tomatoes thrown by a fellow runner. I was also warned to be careful what drinks to take because the secret service tried to spike my drinks to stop me from winning
Comrades. This run ended up being my first Comrades win. Wearing the black armband to protest apartheid was and is one of the proudest moments in my life.
Mark: What is your advice for road runners? How does your body withstand all that punishment?
Bruce: Pick your parents carefully. Genes have a lot to do with your ability to run long races. The one thing to remember is that the body does not wear out if you use it, if you run. Your body wears out
if you don’t use it, but run with care. I don’t agree that you only have so many miles in you to run. Train carefully, well, do not overtrain, and be sure to allow enough time for recovery. I run a lot of marathons
from January until Comrades in June, but do only one marathon in the fall.
Mark: What sort of running do you do now?
Bruce: I now run for fun, aiming to break nine hours each year at Comrades and 5:30 at Two Oceans, our other famous South African ultra, a 56-km race from the Atlantic Ocean side of Cape Town to the
Indian Ocean on the other side. I run four or five marathons a year and a lot of shorter distance runs, all for health and fun. Other distance events in which I participate are the annual Cape Cycle Tour every
March. That’s 105 km on a bicycle and has 40,000 entrants. I also paddle the Dusi canoe race which is a three-day paddling and running race from the source of the Umsindusi River in Pietermaritzburg to
the finish at the Indian Ocean in Durban.
Mark: What is your perspective on ultrarunning in the U.S.? What are your thoughts about the popularity of trail ultras in the U.S., as opposed to very few road races?
Bruce: Trail racing seems to dominate in the U.S. There are very few trail races here. I like them both. I was a pacer, “seconder,” at the 1985 Western States 100 Mile and it was a thrill to be a small part of
that remarkable race. Jim King won that year.
Mark: What are you doing now, occupationally?
Bruce: For many years, I was the CEO of the Sports Trusts, which does sports development work in the poorer disadvantaged areas of South Africa. I now am The Sports Trust’s roving ambassador. I have
my own company, which is involved in arranging for sponsorship of races. I do a lot of public speaking. I am working on a television reality show. Our first show will be filmed on the September 10 race in
the Drakensberg Mountains. I’m still running and will until the end of my life, but primarily for fun and to stay healthy.
Mark: What is your best or favorite ultra? What is your most memorable Comrades?
Bruce: As a Comrades runner, born, bread and in my bones, I have to say my Comrades “down” run in ’86.
Mark: Who was your toughest competitor?
Bruce: It was Alan Robb. Alan, a great friend and great competitor for many years, is justifiably ranked with the Comrades greats. Alan made his first appearance at Comrades with a third place finish in
1974 and then a fifth place in ’75. Alan then won his first Comrades in ’76, followed by wins in ’77 and ’78. I was 43rd in ’77, 14th in ’78, third in ’79 and second in ’80. The 1981 Comrades was my first
win; Alan was not competitive that year because he was ill. The 1980 and 1982 Comrades saw great battles between Alan and me. In 1980, I was second to Alan and in 1982, he was second to me.
Alan has four Comrades wins and several gold and silver medals. We’re the best of friends even though he is a fanatic Liverpool football club supporter and I am passionate about its bitter enemy,
Mark: Did the “pressure” of being the Comrades King and a national celebrity for so many years every wear on you? Some of your friends have told me you really are a shy fellow and I know quite humble.
Bruce: The pressure was never too unbearable. Maybe, just before the race.
Mark: Are you surprised no one has bettered your 50-mile record in the years since you set it? What are your recollections of that Chicago race?
Bruce: Wonderful hospitality from my Chicago guests. I stayed at the Ambassador Hotel at the same time as the Democratic Convention. Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee,
was staying there too. When I walked into the hotel in a tatty jersey looking thin and anemic like all marathoners, her bodyguards saw me, and probably thought I was a drug-addicted assassin,
then quickly realized I was just a geek.
Mark: What are the most important things an “average “ultrarunner can do to improve performance?
Bruce: Run faster not longer! When I went to Chicago for the U.S. 50-mile championship, I thought I was better prepared than my American competitors because I had focused more on running fast
than longer, which of course is not to say that long runs should be ignored.
Bruce: Since you’ve been grilling me for some time now, let me ask a question. Again, congratulations on becoming the first Comrades Ambassador to the U.S. Let me know how I can be of help. What
do you have in mind for the U.S. Comrades efforts?
Mark: You know we Americans have been part of Comrades. You probably remember the surprise we gave you when Alberto Salazar came to the Comrades Marathon in 1994. When asked about his
goal, he simply said, “I’m going to win it.” Since he had never run an ultra, you didn’t give him much of a chance, but he won the race. We also are very proud of Cheryl Winn, an American, and one of
the earliest official women winners of Comrades in 1982 and the very successful but too humble acting CEO of this year’s 80th Comrades. This year there were 42 American Comrades runners. Our goal
is to double the number next year. The Comrades Marathon Association, Cheryl and her staff could not be more encouraging and supportive. South African Comrades veterans from elite runners to average
ones have offered support in terms of coaching and offering homes for Americans to stay in. I have been in touch with a South African tourist agency which specializes in sports. We have the support of South
Africa’s Ambassador to the U.S., Barbara Masekela, who co-hosted with me Comrades debut in Washington, D.C. And, in the very brief time we’ve been active, I have found numerous American Comrades
veterans who want to help publicize the race in the communities and recruit runners for next year’s Comrades. And, don’t forget, somehow we are going to somehow bring the “Comrades King,” none other
than Bruce Fordyce, to the U.S. My home is the Comrades headquarters in Washington, D.C. Who knows, we may even pull off another Alberto Salazar in the years ahead.
Mark Bloomfield has run ultramarathons and marathons around the world, including the Comrades “down” in 2003 and 2005 and the “up” in 2004. As part of the Comrades 80th anniversary in 2005, Mark
was selected as Comrades first ambassador to the United States to underscore the international importance of the race and to encourage more Americans to run Comrades. Mark’s running columns can
be found onwww.runnersguide.co.za . To learn more about the U.S. Comrades program and running the race in 2006, contact Mark at [email protected].