I miss my old student flat in Braamfontein. It was perched high on a ramshackle block shockingly misnamed “Highway Mansions”. There was an old mattress on the floor, surrounded by piles of worn running shoes which were scattered alongside a bookcase holding some important running literature. This reading material included well-thumbed copies of Jim Fixx “The Complete Book of Running”, Ron Daws “The Self- made Olympian” and Morris Alexander’s “History of Comrades”. Runners World magazines still published only with black and white photos also filled the top shelf of bookcase, and all these were propped up by a cast of the skull of the Australopithecine Mrs. Ples. The bottom shelf held my precious Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Jethro Tull and Johnny Clegg LP records. On the walls of my flat, fastened with yellowing sticky tape hung a skew Roger Dean poster of a Yes album and alongside it a tatty foolscap piece of paper with the message to myself written by myself
“You WILL be first into Kingsmead stadium”
I really miss the simplicity of those times but most importantly I miss the achievements of those times.
In the quest to run the best possible Comrades marathon we runners will try anything that sounds like it’s a good idea. We ‘re always looking for that extra edge and will try anything that seems to have promise. So, in the 40 years or so that I’ve been involved with the Comrades salt tablets, the Saltin Diet, weight work, carbo loading, and now even fat loading have grabbed our imaginations.
Now the latest craze seems to be the need to travel somewhere to train in a different environment in order to find that extra edge. In some quarters this is known as visiting a training camp. In others it’s just known as taking a running holiday. These trips away invariably involve running in beautiful, inspiring surroundings often at altitude. The Drakensberg, Dullstroom, Potchefstroom, and Lesotho are just some holiday training destinations that spring to mind. And the of course there are the deluxe, seriously committed trips to famous destinations in Kenya and other East African countries. (Let me stress from the outset that I know that many successful Comrades runners, especially gold medallists, have enjoyed immense success from these trips I’m just posing the argument that sometimes runners don’t always have to complicate their lives to achieve their goals. Certainly, any elite athlete living at low altitude should consider moving to a high altitude base several weeks prior to race day to reap the benefits of training in thinner air. Those that don’t are simply giving too much away to their opposition.)
I have always been a firm believer in keeping it simple, and living and training at home works wonderfully well. The perils of changing one’s training base include;
- Homesickness. It can drain your motivation when you’re missing your family, your friends and your pet cat.
- Strange food and a strange environment can take some getting used to.
- Boredom and the very dangerous tendency to over-train and risk injury and illness. “Ïm bored. Ok let’s go for a run” But I’ve already run twice today? But I’m bored so let’s run.”
- Training as a group at these venues sounds like a great idea but it can lead to racing and to runners testing themselves against each other day after day. There’s something deeply depressing about being given a running hiding by someone you normally beat, and we can’t all be “on our A game” every day.
No I’m afraid when confronted by a massive task such as months of very hard training for a race such as the Comrades marathon I’m a fan of home cooking and of staying firmly with the familiar.
Thinking back to the old student flat I lived in; ( Did I mention the fridge and its contents ? No perhaps I better not dwell too long on the old pizza, wine bottle, and sour milk) it was the perfect environment in which to train. I could call on mates to share the training load like on those long Sunday endurance runs. But I had my own company when I chose. How I remember with satisfaction the Wednesday evening 20 km runs from the Sweat Shop in Melle street which I secretly turned into a 30km by running up and down the city blocks of Braamfontein when everyone had waved goodbye and no one was looking. It was the best place ever. There were restaurants close by and an infamous student pub in which long into the night we team mates celebrated many a Saturday afternoon cross country team victory. I can chuckle now remembering those arm-in arm staggers back to our flats as we serenaded the night raucously singing The Banana Boat song;
“Hey mister tally man, tally me banana.
Daylight come and me wan’’ go home.”
Early the next morning we would meet to run a 30 or 40 kilometre training run. Too often in the pursuit of excellence and the desire to train as hard as we can we forget that we are human beings, not robots, and that as human beings we need to socialise with others.
Nope I’ve trained all over the world, at altitude, in the heat and humidity, in arctic conditions, and with groups of elite runners. But I know no-one can change my mind. Home is the best place to turn dreams into reality. I was so convinced that my home environment was helping to breed success that when I did eventually upgrade and bought my own house I moved just one suburb away. And later when I had to move again I shifted sideways to another close suburb. I was afraid that if I moved too far away I would lose the benefits of the hills on Jan Smuts avenue (Big Jannie and Little Jannie) that I would no longer run up the Westcliff stairs, or that my bi weekly climb up Brixton hill would be missing from my armoury.
I was so fanatical about my home environment and its benefits that I bottled my own Johannesburg water and took it, and my familiar pillow to the Comrades each year so that I wouldn’t upset my stomach and my sleep in a strange hotel room.
Many years ago, after I had achieved a certain amount of marathon notoriety I remember Tim Noakes gently lecturing me about the amount of travelling I was doing at the time. I was enjoying giving talks and making appearances, handing out prizes at races and addressing ladies’ clubs, and yes, I was enjoying the odd handsome fee.
Tim scolded me;
“Bruce”, he warned,” You’re taking yourself out of your home environment too often. Your travel is tiring you. There are too many functions, late nights and parties. You know what makes you successful. Stay at home and train, and rest and lead the simple life that brings success.”
Of course Tim was right (And hasn’t he been right about so much else recently)
There are just 115 sleeps left until the Comrades and as many of those sleeps as possible should be spent at home.
“East or West, home is best.”
With thanks to The Citizen newspaper, South Africa.
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