Casting my mind back over nearly half a century of running I realise that I have very few regrets, very few moments where I think “if only”
Yes “if only I had run a little faster and been a little bolder in the 1980 Comrades marathon, I might have won the race”
But Alan Robb deserved to win that year, and I was a very young runner, and was delighted with my second-place finish that morning. And, besides, a year later I won.
And yes, if I had attacked the last few kilometres of the 1983 Comrades just a little harder I might have become the first runner to break 5 ½ hours for the up run (I ran 5:30:12) but then I would not have had time to savour the win, to freeze that special moment, to wave at supporters, and even to pause briefly to shake my second’s hand.
So, no real regrets.
Except perhaps for one.
I wish I had had a coach. In the 70s and 80s when I was running at my best coaches were a strange concept and were few and far between. Coaches were the specialty of the elite. Of course, there were famous coaches, Percy Cerutty, and his famous athlete, Herb Elliot, Arthur Lydiard (Peter Snell), Peter Coe (Sebastian Coe) are a few names that spring to mind. But these coaches and athletes were the gods of running. Their faces were only ever seen on the covers of running magazines.
We lesser athletes wouldn’t have even known where to find a coach even if we had considered the idea. We relied on great old tried and tested teachers. Time and personal experience were two of these teachers. The gnarled old running veterans another. We relied on them to guide and teach us. In exchange for a beer or two in the running club pub the veterans would tell us which races to run, what pace to run, what to drink, how to carbo load, how to taper. On rare occasions they even ran with us in races to share their expertise on the road.
But in the end our coaching was really a matter of personal trial and error. We learnt from our mistakes, and we treasured and remembered our successes. In my case trial and error helped me stumble on a near perfect training programme for the Comrades Marathon. In the ensuing years I kept it largely the same, just tinkering with it from time to time. A frustrating injury taught me so much. I was seriously injured early in my training build-up for the Comrades. I felt I had lost vital ground and yet I had an outstanding run in the race and was very strong in the closing stages. I learnt that we often start intense training too early and too fast. I also learnt that timing is critical in both learning how to peak for a race and to produce an optimal performance.
Perhaps my greatest coach in those days was my personal training diary. In that diary I recorded details of every run and race I ran. As my diary filled with the passing of running seasons it became a valuable source of reference, a textbook and a silent coach.
Yet I am now convinced I would have fared so much better with a proper “real life” coach. My running career would have been less “trial and error” and more guided and focused.
Now that I do some coaching of my own, I understand the role better. I understand that the coach sets the runner his or her tasks, creates the homework, and explains the process while striving to bring the athlete to perfection on race day. The process includes both short term immediate goals and long-term ambitions. It’s a tricky role. It’s a partnership and it is quite an intimate relationship. Coach and athlete share dreams, hopes, despair and joy. I will never forget the sight of Ann Ashworth leaping into the arms of her coach, John Hamlett as she won the 2018 Comrades marathon. Nothing illustrated the bond between coach and athlete better than that moment. The coach must be firm when necessary but also gentle when required. The coach needs to carefully explain the journey and how it will lead to the required result. At times the coach must be a tactician, adjusting race goals for weather conditions, for expected competition and for hot weather hilly courses. Finally, the coach cannot act like a sergeant – major. Everything must be done in consultation and by consensus. If there is disagreement the runner must have the final decision.
A great coach also knows how much attention each runner requires. Some runners need constant attention, others very little.
Coach Harold Wilson once said of his Olympic champion athlete, Steve Ovett.
“A granny could coach Steve. He is so talented if you just tell him to run, he is going to earn an Olympic medal. My role as his coach is to ensure that that medal is a gold medal.”
Here in South Africa, there are a host of excellent coaches with proven track records.
Most will charge for their services, some quite heftily. Some running club coaches will offer their advice for no charge but then it may be difficult to get that special individual attention.
Over 40 years after I first started running, I have come to understand that the coach is a vital part of every runner’s armoury.
With hindsight I understand that with the aid of a coach I would have found those 13 seconds in 1983 but most importantly I would have found a lifetime friend with whom to share mutual success and memories of a great adventure. I look on with envy as the current generation of runners excel with the guidance of their coaches and I hope to contribute by offering my coaching services as well.
Together with Iain and Frank I have created personalised coaching programmes for runners of all abilities and distances. More information on the website Fordyce Fusion We have athletes from both South Africa and the rest of the world.
Bruce Fordyce Comrades Route Tour and Comrades After Party
Tickets are now available to join my “Bruce Fordyce Comrades bus route tour” and the “Bruce Fordyce Comrades after party”.
Join the Bruce Fordyce Comrades Route Tour on 9th June 2023! Tickets available here!
Join the Bruce Fordyce Comrades After Party on 12th June 2023! Tickets available here!
Join the Bruce Fordyce Comrades After Party on 10th June 2024! Tickets available here!
WINGED MESSENGERCopies of my book "Winged Messenger" are available for sale here - BUY WINGED MESSENGER
THE FORDYCE DIARIES
THE 86 AND 88 COMRADES MARATHONS
CONQUERING THE UP AND TACKLING A DOWN RUN
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