“F**k you, Nobby Clark,” Bernie Liebman’s gruff voice seems to echo across the decades as I feel a slight twinge in my ankle while running Covid-19 lockdown laps of my garden. I’ve lost count of the number of laps I’ve run but my shoes are wearing a giant brown tattoo on a carpet of green lawn, and my ankle is protesting at the number of tight turns I’m making.
I’ve been in a daze, almost a trance as I circle past the tap, around the plane tree, inside Gandalf the cat who has grown bored of trying to ankle tap me and is now dozing in the sunlight in a silky grey heap of fur. Suddenly my mind leaps back over the years and it is the winter of 1979 and our Saturday morning Comrades marathon training group is running along the cold dark Sandton streets when Bernie Liebman shouts again “ yes, f**k you Nobby Clark. “
Now Nobby Clark isn’t even running with us that morning but irascible Bernie is cursing him because Bernie’s groin is hurting and a week ago Nobby took him on a run through the winter dry dead crisp brown highveld grass in an era when no one had heard of trail running and Bernie protested because he despises off-road running but Nobby insisted and Bernie stumbled on a termite mound and tore something in his groin and now his groin is reminding him that he should have ignored Nobby and listened to his inner warning voices, but he didn’t.
Bernie is a grumpy bloke at the best of times and is particularly grumpy if he and his gorgeous wife Daphne have had a huge Friday evening with friends and he’s nursing a force 10 hangover and we have dragged him from his bed. (He once ran 3 kilometres with us before realising that he had put his shoes on the wrong feet. Yes, three kilometres passed before he realised his toes were cramping because his right foot was wearing a left shoe and vice versa.
Bernie endeared himself forever with our group when he went to work one morning wearing a pair of Daphne’s trimmed off pantyhose. Let me quickly explain that in those days running shorts had no inners and so under our shorts we wore our favourite underpants, jock straps, or athletic supporters. However, Bernie discovered that Daphne’s discarded silk pantyhose, cut and trimmed at upper thigh height and worn backwards, made perfect inners. Bernie is a lawyer and one morning, running late for work, he skipped his shower, leapt into his suit and left for work. At the office everyone was assembled for a compulsory full company medical. The medical was all fairly routine until the it got to the part where everyone had to strip to their underwear to be weighed and to be examined for hernias and other worrying lumps. Bernie found himself standing almost naked, clad only in Daphne’s old back- to- front pantyhose, while the company partners wearing their mundane boxer shorts and “y” fronts stood staring in horrified disbelief.
So that is Bernie Liebman for you, a much- loved and central character of our running group in those days. He was also an excellent running coach and a sounding board full of wise advice. In 1980 when everyone was fawning over me and congratulating me for finishing second to Alan Robb in that year’s Comrades marathon, Bernie was the only one who was brutally honest. “ Well you f****d that one up mate , didn’t you” he lectured me. “
You should have won that one. Now you’ve got a year to think about every mistake you made and here’s some advice.”
Bernie and Daphne live in Australia now and we’ve all grown older and considerably slower, but I miss those early morning winter days when we ran 10 English miles from Bernie’s house in May. Our fingers ached from the cold ( yes, this was before global warming!) and our stomachs ached from laughing with Bernie; but our spirits were warm and excited because the Comrades marathon was just a month or so away.
But now my heart aches for 27000 Comrades runners. Because it’s the month of May and they should be training, running in their hundreds along dark streets driven by warm and excited spirits. Sadly, a fever very different from Comrades fever, has forced us into lockdown and Comrades is postponed, and Comrades runners everywhere are hopelessly lost with no real direction, bobbing around in a sea of uncertainty like so much flotsam and jetsam.
What can Comrades runners do to steady the ship? They absolutely must use this time productively. They should not waste a minute. No matter the severity of lockdown there are important steps that can be taken. No one can train properly at the moment, but everyone can start to prepare for a postponed Comrades marathon. They should embrace this time and use it as productively as possible. How about using this time to get rid of those niggles, those irritating aches and pains ? Get rid of the Nobby Clark in your life. I’m sure Bernie Liebman ’s groin injury would have responded favourably to a few weeks of lockdown had the virus attacked us in 1979. I’m using this time to ease out a dozen little aches and pains and niggles, and of course my protesting right ankle. Most of us have visited physiotherapists, chiropractors and podiatrists many times. We may not have their digital ultrasound, pulse machines and other fancy equipment but we do know what to do. I can grit my teeth and cross- friction my sore quadriceps. I can strap an ice-pack to my ankle, put my feet upon a pillow and watch sporting highlights on my telly. (I never tire of watching Cheslin Kolbe’s try against England in the rugby world cup final, even after the 25th viewing. ) We can all do plenty of those exercises the physio gave us to help with our rehabilitation; those ones we kept up for the first two days but then got bored and felt foolish. Those exercises where we try to push over a solid brick wall or tug on a green rubber band with our injured foot. Now we have the time to do them every day. And we don’t have to worry about looking foolish. After several weeks of lockdown isolation everyone looks foolish and no one cares. My neighbour appears to be growing dreadlocks and he hasn’t changed his stained tracksuit in days.
We’ve all got lashings of free time and most of us have been binge viewing Netflix series and even reading the odd book. Well John Cameron-Dow’s history “ Comrades marathon” should be compulsory reading for all Comrades runners. It may be a little dry at times and full of facts and split times and endless names, but it is the best available history of the race and well worth a read. As we finish each chapter of John’s history we can learn about Hardy Ballington, Robert Mtshali, Edith Cavanagh and Max Trimborn. We can become appreciative of the traditions of the race and we can learn more about the race’s famous landmarks, 45th Cutting, Inchanga, Polly Shortts, Camperdown, The Wall of Honour and Arthur’s Seat. Inspired, we can become determined to write our own paragraph in the rich history of the race. This is no ordinary road race. This is the Comrades marathon the challenge of which sums us up as a nation; tough, exceptional, brave, unique and excitingly different. Learning more about the race can inspire so many to want to be a part of it.
The late and greatly missed Ian Emery once approached me with a cocky smile after he had finished 4th in the 1985 Comrades marathon ( How we all miss Ian’s cheeky smile and his laughing greeting. “ Hey, hey, hey, guys what’s happening?”)
His had been a storming race that May morning and he had had a flying finish picking up several places in the last few kilometres. He may well have run the fastest time that day from the top of Polly Shortts to the finish. “Next year I’m going to beat you Bruce,” he challenged. “Well I’m sure you might Ian,” I replied, “but you know I’ll fight you all the way and since next year is a down run perhaps we will treat the spectators to a finish as spectacular as that of the 1967 Comrades.”
“What happened in 1967? “ Ian replied, and I knew I had him. To me It was hugely significant that Ian didn’t know that the 1967 race resulted in the narrowest winning margin in the race’s history and that that day Manie Kuhn beat Tommie Malone by one second in the last stride of the race. If Ian didn’t know that then he just wasn’t as passionate about the race as I was. That meant he hadn’t spent time reading about it, dreaming about it even gossiping about it. It probably meant that he didn’t have that fire burning in his belly, that fierce determination to win at all costs. It meant he hadn’t stared at the magnificent solid silver winners’ trophy and imagined his name engraved on it alongside all the other winners.
And that meant that he also probably didn’t know that when running into Drummond on the down run you should run wide on the curve of the road even though logic urges you to run to the inside of the bend. You run wide because the tar is rough and stony on the inside of that particular bend and your feet can very easily develop hot spot blisters right there. Along with thousands of other runners Ian would probably not have heard of Huntley’s Hill.
John Cameron-Dow was one of the old-timers who introduced me to Huntley’s Hill. This almost anonymous climb, with a sharp curving bend at its summit, passes a nondescript shopping centre on a stretch of boring highway with about 15 kilometres to run on the down run. I believe it is a critical vantage point for anyone racing for a gold medal in the Comrades marathon. It has cunningly strategic views of the road in both directions and plenty of easy parking and space for seconds to get drinks and information to their runner. In 2018 I stood as a spectator at Huntley’s Hill and was able to pass Ann Ashworth a drink and reassure her that if she just kept going the race was hers. There was no one else in sight. ( It wasn’t a gentle reassurance actually, as I remember jumping and yelling and punching the air. But the message was clear.)
Music has always been a part of my running and just as the Bond movies have their theme songs I have music that can transport me back to a time, and a race and that at the time inspired me to dig deeper when things were getting tough. Van Morrison’s “into the Mystic” will forever remind me of the 1983 Comrades, and Elgar’s Enigma variation “Nimrod” takes me back to the 1982 London to Brighton race. It is playing as I write and the hairs on my arms have risen and my throat has tightened as I recall seeing the English Channel glinting in the sunlight for the first time and realising that I might win. Pachelbel’s Canon in D has the same effect. Running up Polly Shortts in the 1987 Comrades Tears for Fears’ “Woman in chains” leapt into my brain. I remember humming it slowly to myself between breaths and the great barrier seemed to slip past slightly easier than usual. I can’t think of a better time to source a theme tune for the next Comrades than now. I won’t even be running and I’m searching for my lockdown Comrades anthem.
Lockdown means it’s strategy and planning time. It is time to write down a training schedule. I compare a training schedule to those exam swotting schedules we used to prepare when we were at school. They were diligently plotted on foolscap paper with different colour pens so that it was clear and obvious that on Saturday swotting would commence with an hour’s “Geog” followed by an hour’s break for a deeply meaningful chat on the telephone to the girlfriend, then would follow another gruelling hour of “Hist” and another break to phone my best mate and raid mum’s fridge. Indeed had I been as diligent with my different colour pens in the actual “Geog” exam itself, I might well have earned a better mark.
So now we can select the end of September or October as a possible postponed exam/race day and using lots of red, blue and black ink and some paper we can plan all those long runs, hill sessions, rest days and qualifying races. Not only does this give us something useful and meaningful to do in these boring times, but as all the motivational experts remind us there is nothing more reinforcing and more powerful than committing oneself to a goal by both saying it and writing it down. You stare at that those little pages covered in red and black and blue writing and lines and they are staring right back at you reminding you that the break is over and it’s time to get off the phone to your girlfriend and start the journey to the postponed Comrades marathon.
And finally if you can stop binge- watching Netflix latest series for a minute or viewing South Africa’s greatest rugby triumphs it might be quite useful and inspiring to source some videos of past Comrades marathons races. There is something almost positively hypnotic about watching 12 hours of courageous runners of all abilities tackling the great race. I cannot recommend highly enough the video material of the exciting Comrades races of the 1980s. That truly is riveting viewing.
As I look up from writing I see that that it is a beautiful winter’s morning here in Johannesburg. We are in lockdown and there will be no Comrades marathon in June. I am reminded that It was over 40 years ago on a similar morning in May that Bernie Liebman cursed Nobby Clark and made us all chuckle and now that era has resurfaced in my mind and it is resonating with it’s message reminding me that it will all be aright, and that there will be more Comrades marathons, and that this difficult time will pass and I exclaim loudly “thank you Bernie Liebman and thank you especially, Nobby Cark.”
The new dates for my Comrades Route Tour and After Party will be announced once we have a new Comrades Marathon date.
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