Illustration by Daniel Yagman
“The reason you beat me in the ‘Comrades Marathon’, Bruce”, Hoseah Tjale once remarked, “Is that I start cramping with 10 kilometres to go in the race and you start cramping with 5 kilometres to go. While I’m fighting cramps in those critical few kilometres, you run away from me.”
Hoseah (“Hoss”) Tjale, for those who don’t know, was one of South Africa’s marathon and ultra-distance runners’ stars in the 1980s and early 1990s. With his seemingly awkward loping running style and his trade-mark floppy hat he left an indelible mark on the running scene in those days. Boasting an impressive marathon p.b. of 2:18, Hoseah won most of South Africa’s major ultras at that time; Two Oceans, City to City 50km, Korkie 56km (Twice) and, for good measure, the London to Brighton marathon in 1985. (In that race he famously stopped under Brighton’s historic arched viaduct thinking it was the finish line, until a spectator yelled at him to keep on running because the actual finish line lay a couple of kilometres further down the road on the Brighton beach front.) Only the Comrades marathon title eluded him. Despite 9 gold medals and 6 results inside the top 4 finishers he just couldn’t manage to win our great race. Having run many hard-fought kilometres alongside Hoss in Comrades I can vouch for how doggedly he fought. Perhaps he was correct. I would slip away up the road while he was assailed by cramps.
Certainly, his observation about his cramping handicap was no feeble excuse. On more than one occasion I saw him grit his teeth and grab his hamstrings while running alongside me, and his “poleaxed – rigid -cramping-backwards -tumble” on the finish line of the 1983 Comrades is immortalised in the film footage of that race.
It seems that Hoseah is not alone in his past battles against cramps. The dreaded cramps seem to be a common foe and a major concern for many hundreds of runners, particularly for Comrades runners. Every year the television broadcast eloquently records runners clutching their hamstrings, “pushing over lamp posts” and begging random spectators to massage their stricken legs. It is a heart-breaking sight as every cramping athlete represents a Comrades dream evaporating.
There are as many theories about the causes of cramps as there are runners.
- Poorly trained, unfit and inadequately prepared runners are obvious victims of cramps.
- Hot, dry weather and dehydration increase the risks of cramps (I am reminded of the dreaded 2013 Berg Wind – Comrades Marathon race where hundreds of runners were cramping from early on in the race.)
- Many runners believe a shortage of minerals such as magnesium, potassium and sodium can lead to cramping.
- And finally, there appears to be a genetic component to cramping. Hoseah hinted at that factor when he confided in me.
So, what’s to be done about this problem.
- First try not to stop, do not push over a lamp post or beg a spectator for a massage. I’ve found that stopping is an open invitation for a massive attack of rigor mortis.
- We can train harder and longer. Those long slow weekend runs help our muscles adapt to many hours of running.
- Sponging the troublesome muscles with cold water can help. I definitely don’t recommend Alexei Volgin’s ad hoc acupuncture during the latter stages of the 1999 Comrades Marathon down run. He tore the pins from his racing number and stabbed his muscles with those pins to try and ease his cramping muscles.
- Changing our running style while still moving always helps. We can try striding out or shortening our stride. We can imitate ‘Daffy Duck’ for a few paces, running with our feet splayed outwards, or we can try becoming ‘Percy Pigeon’ running with our toes pointing inwards. This may look ridiculous, and can elicit sniggers from the spectators but it is effective.
- Finally remember the genetic component at which Hoseah hinted. Choose your parents carefully.!!
It’s a blessing that I’m writing this article now and not back in the 1980s because I would have hated Hoseah Tjale to have Daffy-Ducked his way past me on his way up Polly Shortts en route to a Comrades win!
I had the good fortune to catch up with ‘Hoss” after many years, at last year’s Comrades marathon where he was fittingly a guest of honour. He looked well and had put on a little weight (Haven’t we all) He told me he still jogs a little but doesn’t run any races. At the end of our chat. He gave me a warm hug and laughed “Those cramps Bruce.! If only….
This blog is published by kind permission of The Citizen Newspaper.
Join the “Bruce Fordyce Comrades Route Tour” and the “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!
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