I really miss the old Pieter Korkie 56 km marathon. Named after the late, great Pieter Korkie, the race was the second oldest ultramarathon in South Africa and, for many years, was second in importance only to the Comrades Marathon.
The list of past winners of the Korkie reads like the who’s who of South African ultra- runners. Sadly, the race no longer exists but, in its day, it was an absolute gem of a race. For Gautengers, it was a vital stepping-stone on the journey to the Comrades Marathon. Run between Pretoria and Germiston, it was known as the “slow poison race” as runners climbed gradually and relentlessly between the two cities.
Most importantly, however, for many years the Korkie served as the kick-off signal for the start of proper Comrades training. After the Korkie, it was always time to get serious about the Comrades.
I can remember running it every year at the beginning of March, allowing myself a couple of easy recovery days, having a pre-winter anti-flu injection, and then plunging headlong into weeks of hard training for the Comrades Marathon.
Of course, this was not a Comrades training regime starting from a zero base. No one could run a race like the Korkie without a solid foundation of many weeks of training. So, yes, I ran the Korkie with many months of running in my legs. But that running had been light and fun. There was no real sense of purpose. Once the Korkie was completed, however, the work and preparation for the Comrades really began in earnest.
The tough 56 kilometres of the Korkie reminded every runner who participated that there was still plenty of work to be completed by June. After all, we still had to find an extra 30 kilometres to be able to run the 90 kilometres of the Comrades Marathon.
Though the Pieter Korkie no longer exists, runners don’t need the great race to remind them that it is now time to get serious. The marathon season is in full swing, the first ultras of the season are attracting entries and, in some cases, are already fully subscribed.
Up here in the Highveld, the pretty pink and white cosmos flowers have started to bloom. Comrades old-timers have always joked that the cosmos flowers are the harbingers of the Comrades. (I still recall that, as we ran the Korkie, many of us would pause briefly to pick cosmos from the side of the road and fix them to our hats and peak caps. It was always a last, fun gesture before things became very serious.
I have always argued that training for a race is a science, while racing is an art. For Comrades runners, the science begins in March and should continue through April and May, leaving time to sharpen up, then taper to race day.
What has happened in the months before is largely irrelevant. Impressive times and mega-training mileage in the South African summer months are unimportant and have no bearing on the results at the Comrades in June.
I honed and perfected my approach to training for the Comrades Marathon back in 1979, when a slight injury severely hampered my training in January and February of that year. Coincidentally, at the same time I attended a running talk given by the legendary Dave Levick, in which he spoke about his despair at an injury in early 1973 that cost him weeks of precious training.
Both of us thought we were severely under-prepared and that any hope of a good result had vanished. Well, I finished a surprised and delighted third that year. And Dave? Well, Dave won his Comrades in 1973, with a storming second-half.
I then spent the next decade following almost exactly the same training pattern. For the 6 months before the Korkie race, I ran about 80 -120 kilometres a week. I had fun. I raced shorter distances. I even donned spikes occasionally and ventured onto the track.
Immediately after the Korkie I ran pure distance, anything from 160 to 220 kilometres a week. I kept this up for about 10 weeks. In early May, I cut my weekly mileage back drastically and focused on speedwork, sharpening up with track and hill sessions, and short-distance races.
My plan and training programme worked beautifully for over a decade and, though I would never have dared to be so arrogant as to predict victory at every occasion, I would line up on race day confident that my training would deliver a result of around 5½ hours. (If you'd like a more specific account of my training regime, you'll find it in my ebooks.)
Those who know their coaching methods and famous coaches well will be able to identify that my training approach to the Comrades marathon is pure 'Lydiard'. I simply trained the way the famous Arthur Lydiard trained his athletes in the 1960s. He was correct then, and I believe he is still correct now.
It is no coincidence that I met the great New Zealander at a prize-giving function after the 1979 City to City 50 km race (another former classic race that no longer exists). I found Lydiard to be a gruff, straight-talking Kiwi whose ideas made perfect sense.
Arthur Lydiard is considered by many to be the greatest running coach ever known. I concur. Most famous for coaching the track star Peter Snell and influencing other legendary New Zealanders like Halberg, Magee, Quax, Dixon and Walker, Lydiard made his track runners run several weeks of long, slow, distance mileage before sharpening them up. This regime enabled them to be in peak form just before major championships. Snell, who was an Olympic 800/1500 metres runner, even completed a marathon in training, and regularly ran over 32 kilometres while preparing for the track.
At that prize-giving function, I sought Arthur Lydiard out as quickly and politely as I could. I’m sure I irritated the great coach with my persistent questions. However, I still remember the advice he gave me and the others who were gathered around him. His influence was immense. His words were to help guide me for over a decade and they still guide those to whom I offer advice.
And so now it is time. It is early March. Comrades runners need to pretend they have all just run the Korkie 56 km race. It is time to become Lydiard devotees. The hard work is about to begin.
To learn about the Comrades Down Run course, join me on my Route Tour on the Friday before the Comrades is run.
Or, if you prefer to share war stories after the event, our Comrades After Party is ideal for that!
THE '86 AND '88
CONQUERING THE UP
TACKLING A DOWN RUN
The must-have eBooks for everyone who wants to run - or win - ultra-marathons.
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