In 1972 a team of English runners from the famous athletics club, Tipton Harriers, in Staffordshire, arrived in Durban intent on sweeping all before them in that year’s Comrades marathon. They immediately caused a sensation when it was learnt that they were relying on a new revolutionary new carbohydrate loading regime called the Saltin diet to boost their chances, and that they had held striptease shows back at home to help raise funds for their trip. Back then in conservative “verkramp” South Africa this was scandalous behaviour.
Their four team members included two renowned ultra-running stars, John Malpass and John Bentley who, between them, had won several major races. Under the mistaken impression that they would have to bring their own seconds to assist them during the race they brought, young inexperienced runner, Mick Orton as chief second and travelling reserve. When informed that their hosts had supplied seconds, the Tipton Harriers team members told Mick Orton that he might as well run. The rest is history. Orton ran and duly won the 1972 Comrades. The newspapers reported that he “powered his way up Polly Shortts “and for good measure he smashed the course record held by three time winner, Dave Bagshaw
In a glorious day for English sport the touring English rugby team trounced the Springboks at Ellis Park that same afternoon.
The following year the Tipton Harriers sent Mick Orton back to South Africa to defend his title and to try and claim the down run record. This time Orton approached the race like a professional, and a hardened veteran. He trained harder than ever before, and he recorded prodigious distances in training. He boasted that he had run some 200-mile (320 kilometres) weeks in training. Like so many runners Orton believed that if he doubled his training mileage, he would achieve sensational results. He would surely win, defend his title and break the course record.
But Orton proved the adage “Heavy is the Head That Wears the Crown” and he slumped to a 5th place finish. Orton had simply overdone it.
Similarly in 1990, Sam Tshabalala responded to the pressure of trying to defend his 1989 Comrades title by massively increasing his training load. Earlier that year I had prevailed over Sam by 20 seconds in a charity 8-kilometre race. I had run a gentle 5kms on the morning before the race. He confided in me that that morning he had run a tough 40 km. Sam also simply overdid it. He was a broken runner on Comrades race day. He could only manage 13th place.
Wisely Sam analysed his mistakes in 1990. He realised that he had run himself into the ground in his preparations. In his quest to win again he rediscovered his roots and revisited the more realistic Comrades training plan that had brought him victory in 1989. He crushed me by 3 minutes at the Buffs marathon that year and looked good for a second win in 1991 when a terrible car accident injured him so badly that his chances of ever winning again were ended.
I too fell into the “double your mileage” trap following my first win in 1981. Fortunately, an injury prevented me from destroying myself and I was delighted and shocked to win the race on injury reduced training. I learnt my lesson, and with a few minor adjustments I embraced my old successful training programme. With this approach I continued to find success. Nowhere was this better illustrated than when sticking to the same tried and tested programme I produced two identical finishing time, (5:37:01 in 1985 and 1987).
The problem is that we runners are not afraid of hard work. In fact, we embrace hard work. Many runners believe that success goes to the runner who trains the hardest, but success goes to the runner who trains the cleverest. A major part of training successfully is to realise that if you have stumbled upon a succesful programme don’t change it. In other words if it aint broke don’t fix it .
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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