Photo – planetrugby.com
Perhaps the most astonishing revelation of the glorious and superhuman Springbok rugby world cup triumph a couple of weeks ago was that they were able to win three massive, and exhausting games in a row. (Albeit each by one agonising point.)
Eben Etzebeth is purported to have said “Why win by two points or more? It will look like we tried too hard.”
To have beaten France (29-28), then England (16-15) and finally the All Blacks (12-11) in just three weeks must be the running equivalent of achieving personal best times (pbs) in three consecutive weekends at Comrades, Two Oceans, and the Cape Town Marathon. It simply wasn’t possible, and we all expected the Springboks to slip up at some stage, and yet they did not slip up.
But as Nelson Mandela said “It always seems impossible until it is done”
The closest running equivalent that springs to mind is the mind-boggling week of racing that Finland’s Lasse Viren produced at the Montreal Olympics in July 1976. In just seven days he won the gold medals at 10000 metres and 5000 metres, after some gruelling qualifying heats, and, for good measure Viren finished 5th in the marathon.
Of course, I am comparing apples to oranges and the demands and parameters of both sports are very different, but the principles are the same. It should not be possible to produce a massive peak performance again and again, and again.
The physical effort alone is just too exhausting to contemplate. How did our rugby players absorb so much physical trauma and pummeling and yet come back for more punishment? How does one run a major ultramarathon and yet line up a few days later ready for another?
Possibly more debilitating than the physical demands of such a feat are the mental and psychological efforts required. How do you stir the passion again in a few days.? How do you rekindle the fire?
Of course, it helped the Springboks that they could rely on a team squad. They could rotate the players. They could use their bench. It also helps that there is also significant “down time “in a game of rugby when there is no play in progress. This down time helps players catch their breath and recover physically and mentally.
This is just not possible for marathon runners. And with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek imagine Gerda Steyn deciding to call Adele Broodryk off the bench to run the last 20 kilometres of the Comrades Marathon for her. (A new course record would be assured) Tete Dijane, Bongmusa Mthenbu and Edward Mothibi would not create a particularly terrifying bomb squad. I think the World cup rugby ball weighs more than they do. I can envisage breakdowns of play in marathons where runners stood around resting, hands on hips while referees consulted TMO officials, or someone spending an age lining up a penalty. Halftime, too, would be an interesting concept for marathoners.
Imagine everyone trooping off the road into dressing rooms at Drummond village after the “referee had blown the “half time” whistle. There would be time to sit down, drink a juice, and have a rub. There would also be time for a lecture from the coach on the tactics required for the journey from Drummond to the top of Polly Shortts.
The Springboks also understood that after qualifying from their pool group, their marathon journey was a three-step odyssey to the William Webb Ellis trophy. Their race was not over until the final referee’s whistle was blown. Before the final each game ending whistle, was just a temporary pause in their journey. The Springbok’s odyssey was a Comrades Marathon broken down into three equal parts. After the game against France they had climbed Fields Hill, after that against England they had summitted Inchanga and that nail-biting final was the equivalent of conquering Polly Shortts . Each was a steppingstone to victory.
Comrades’ runners should learn from those Springbok heroes.
The steppingstone approach is indeed the tactic runners should employ to conquer the 2024 up run. There are distance markers in the Comrades marathon, but they are sadistically placed in reverse order. What does “73 kilometres to go” mean. It Just means it is far, very, very far to the finish in Pietermaritzburg. Runners need to break the race down into chewable chunks, into significant landmarks, not kilometre boards. This is particularly true for nervous novices who are facing their first Comrades challenge.
I ran every one of my Comrades using the one third, next third, last third approach. My rival and friend Alan Robb (a 4 times Comrades champion) told me he employed roughly the same approach. He broke the race into three 25-kilometre training runs with a furious last 15 kilometres sprint to the finish ( I think he was joking about the final sprint. Though possibly not in 1978 when he simply tore through the final kilometres to shatter the down run record and win the race by 20 minutes)
Comrades runners cannot employ a squad system or use clever substitution or bomb squad, but they can employ the Springboks tactics of rolling three major tasks into one great triumph.
I suspect that those runners who are successful on June 9th next year will have employed Springbok tactics even if they will be unaware of the fact.
I’m also delighted to introduce you to FordyceFusion, which offers personal guidance for your running journey.
So, if you are considering taking that first step, or if you are an existing runner looking for a more fulfilling running experience, please click here for more.
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
The must-have books for everyone who wants to run - or win - ultra-marathons.
"My new eBooks are not an update of my old bestseller, but a new duo full of old wisdom. And some new ideas."
ONLY AVAILABLE HERE, AT BRUCEFORDYCE.COM