Johnny - The Great All-Rounder

Johnny – The Great All-Rounder


He was known as one of the greatest all round distance runners South Africa has ever produced. Not only did he win most of the high profile road races in South Africa’s race calendar in the 70s and 80s, but he was also the holder of national titles in the marathon, half marathon and cross country events. Johnny Halberstadt was known for more than just his phenomenal running ability. He will always be remembered as the man who refused sport’s highest accolade, Springbok colours, because he felt so strongly about the plight of black athletes. Modern Athlete spoke to Johnny and got to know more about his life in Boulder, Colorado, one of the most beautiful running cities in the world.

Johnny Halberstadt is clearly a content man. Though he was on the phone to us, thousands of miles away, he described exactly, the spot he was standing, high up on a huge balcony overlooking open land with the majestic Rocky Mountains in the background. “You should see it here! It is beautiful,” says Johnny, who admits he is, after all these years, still in awe of the beauty of his adopted home. Johnny could not have chosen a better place to live. Around the world, Boulder is known as a running city and a haven for athletes focused on living a healthy, outdoor lifestyle. It is a place that has been Johnny’s home for the last 15 years.

The Halberstadt family immigrated to the States in 1994 where Johnny and long-time friend and former world marathon champion, Mark Plaatjes, started a successful business, the Boulder Running Company. Today, the two men are known as leading innovators in footwear technology and an integral part of the Boulder community.

The Boulder Running Company is a small chain of running stores in Colorado and prides itself on creating an atmosphere where walkers and runners of all shapes and sizes can buy athletic gear while being treated like elite athletes. If you walk into their store in Boulder on any Saturday, you will find the two buddies working in exactly the same way as their employees, even if it involves taking out the trash.

And this is probably one of the reasons why they are so successful; last year their company was awarded the Esprit Entrepreneur of the Year Award presented by the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, an award won because of the excellent level of service they deliver to customers and the community. And in 2006, they were named top running store in the USA (out of 740 stores) by the Running Network and Running Intelligence organisations. Today, the Boulder Running Company is an institution synonymous with the city. Boulder Running Company also sponsors several local road races and money raised goes to organisations such as the Orphans of Aids Trust Foundations in South Africa.

Johnny and Mark are not only business partners, but also best friends. “Mark is a wonderful guy and stays about 8km from me. He is in great shape and still runs 60km per week. We don’t run much together but he has a training group he coaches,” says Johnny. Mark, who has a Master’s degree in physical therapy from the University of Witwatersrand and a pre-med degree from the University of Georgia, also works as a physical therapist in his own private practice, situated above the store.

Mark, who could not compete in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games due to the international boycott of South Africa, finished sixth in the Boston Marathon in 1993. Just three weeks after gaining USA citizenship, he won the 1993 World Championship Marathon. “He is such a humble, incredible man and one of the most respected physical therapists in the country,” says Johnny.

The community of Boulder loves sport, but they differ from South Africans in their approach to sporting activities. “Most people here are not so obsessed with running good times. They participate with friends and family and often do it to raise money for causes like breast cancer awareness. The health benefit of sport is the foremost priority,” says Johnny. Most people in Boulder run because of the beautiful surroundings and many world class athletes train there. “It’s an awesome place; in the nearby mountains there are even bears and American mountain lions that you have to be careful of,” says Johnny. Other attractions include the year round sporting activities in Boulder. “All we need is the ocean and then we would have everything.”

In 1971, Johnny obtained a track scholarship to Oklahoma State University after some excellent performances on the track, road and in cross country events in South Africa. In this time, he earned a MBA and undergraduate degree in business and quickly made a name as an athlete. He was the 1972 NCAA (inter universities) 10 000m champion, setting a South African record of 28:50.4. Three weeks later in Oregon, he broke the South African 5 000m record, finishing in a time of 13:44. Johnny went ahead to place third in the Boston Marathon in a time of 2:22:23 and was a six time Big 8 Conference champion in track and cross country. He graduated in 1975 and returned to South Africa. Upon his return, he combined his running career with footwear innovation and product development, founding Heart and Sole specialist running stores.

Johnny is best remembered for hitting the wall during the 1979 Comrades. He was far in the lead when he dropped back, but then recovered enough to fight his way back into second place. Johnny will also be remembered for the 1979 marathon he ran in Durban, clocking the fastest marathon (2:12:19) at the time on the continent of Africa. He ran and won many of the standard distance big races in South Africa before moving to ultra distances in 1979. He won the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon in a time of 3:05:37, after an exciting battle with Vincent Rakabaele. Even with all the steep gradients, he went through the 50km mark in world record time. The Comrades Marathon is one race that has eluded Johnny; he placed second twice. In his first Comrades in 1979, he was second in a time of 5:50:30. In 1981, he followed it up by placing second again in a time of 5:46. “I would have loved to win that race, but I could just never master it. I could never get the formula right. Over that distance, guys like Bruce Fordyce and Alan Robb were just too good.”

Name a big local race and chances are Johnny has won it. In 1981, he clocked 3:11 at the Korkie Ultra Marathon (the winning time was usually around 3:20). He won the City-to-City race twice, the Jackie Gibson Marathon, the Johannesburg City Marathon and countless other races. He was just as good at shorter distances as marathons, running a sub-four minute mile. “I believe I did the best I could when I was running competitively. I often compare running with conducting. One needs to conduct the body’s muscles to work together in harmony. That is when you really perform. I still believe that we use too little of God’s talent given to us. It is important to make the most of what we are given,” says Johnny, who has seven Comrades medals and seven Two Oceans medals to his name.

In the 80s, Johnny made a crucial decision; to compete in a series of marathons and other road races in the USA, and it paid off. Johnny finished fourth in a time of 2:13:02 at the Nike OTC Marathon in Oregon while finishing third in 1982 in the Chicago Marathon, clocking 2:11:46, the fastest time of his career. But these races did not only bring glory to this runner, known by some as the little marathon man, because of his slight build. By competing in these races and accepting money, he lost the right to be a South African amateur and was subsequently banned from running in South Africa. It took three years of negotiating with authorities before the matter was settled and Johnny was reinstated as an amateur.

Johnny’s biggest ‘crime’ was taking the side of black athletes. After an impressive victory at the South African cross country championships in George in 1979, Johnny was awarded Springbok colours. He declined. His reason for declining was the bad treatment of Matthews (Loop en Val) Motshwarateu. Matthews was denied a South African passport after he was offered a scholarship to a university in the USA. The South African government had refused him a passport on the grounds that he was a citizen of Bophuthatswana, but a year earlier had awarded him Springbok colours for track and cross country. Johnny pointed out that if Matthews was good enough to be awarded Springbok colours (which only citizens can earn), then he was surely good enough to get a passport. Matthews was eventually given a travel document, but it inhibited his movement so much that he could never compete for his university outside of the USA. Suddenly, the unfair treatment of mixed athletes found a face, that of Johnny Halberstadt, who said he could never live with his conscience if he accepted a Springbok blazer. This move made him the black sheep of the South African Amateur Athletics Union.

 “Sometimes I wish I didn’t say certain things or said some things differently. But things happen for a reason. It tests us and makes us stronger,” says Johnny. However, he does not regret standing up for what he believes in. “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. Those were my personal convictions and no matter how tough and controversial they were, I knew my decision was right. I had to live with myself afterwards. When I look back today, things are very clear and what I did seems the obvious thing to have done. But at the time, it was not so obvious,” says Johnny.

He realises a lot of people thought he disrespected the sport by refusing Springbok colours and that he had a personal grudge against the South African Amateur Athletics Union. “My actions were not aimed directly at the union. It was more my way of saying if we really want to make it back into the international sporting arena we have to stand together as a nation. We are all humans.”

“There were so many!” Johnny names a few: Bernard Rose, Willie Farrell, Matthews Motshwarateu, Kevin Shaw, Vincent Rakabaele, Andrew Greyling and Alan Robb.

Johnny attributes his running success to his meticulous preparation, determination and willingness to always try and find possible problems in his running and training. “I learnt valuable lessons as a student in America. My experience taught me the importance of a post race get together where you sort out what went wrong in a race. From there you try and solve it to make sure it does not happen again.”

He feels he never really excelled at races over 60km. “Once you get over 60km, you are in a totally different world; anything can happen. You have to specialise in these types of distances if you really want to achieve at it. I don’t really think I ever got that right,” says Johnny. To him mental preparation is by far the most important thing in sport. “Enthusiasm, determination, excellence and trying to do the best you can are crucial. People often say, just do it. But I say; don’t just do it, do it right and in the best way you can the first time. Plan and execute, don’t just slap things together.”

He doesn’t run much these days; but occasionally jogs, something he refers to as his ‘meditation on the move.’ He will always love running because it is a way of expressing himself. “While I run, I think about what goes on in life and I try to get my life in order.” He doesn’t really miss much about competing at a high level as he knows he had his time of glory. “These days, I get a kick out of seeing great performances on all levels, be it in athletics or music. When someone does something well, it is beautiful to see.”

Johnny immigrated to the USA, seeing the opportunity to develop and market footwear patents. “In order to develop my business career further, the natural move was to immigrate. To me, the American experience has been about expanding my mind. When you are surrounded by people who are really good and motivated, it rubs off on you. When I trained with world class athletes, it gave me great self confidence.”
Johnny met his wife, Shona, in a steakhouse where she was a part-time waitress. He was dining with fellow athlete, Bernard Rose, when his eye fell on the beautiful Shona, an avid tennis player. The two were married in 1980 and have two kids, Jason (26) and Caitlin (24), both runners. “We are very close to nature here, but we miss our friends in SA.” They have a huge circle of friends in Boulder, especially in the church they attend. They don’t visit South Africa often as their closest family is in Swaziland.

All new runners should take things step by step and work on their strength. “We all have weaknesses and too many of us focus on this. Rather concentrate on your strengths. If you learn the most basic physiology of training, you will get the most out of what you do. One thing about running is that you get out what you put in. It’s like baking a cake; you have to follow the recipe in order to bake the best cake,” says Johnny.

He believes too many runners just go out each day and run endless amounts of kilometres without following any structure. “Think of it this way: if you want to become a great dancer, it doesn’t help just going out there every day and aimlessly moving around for hours. You have to work on efficiency and form. The same can be said about running. Be all that you can be. If you do something, do it to the best of your ability. And most of all, make sure you love what you are doing.”

   Then  Now
 Age  32-35 (Peak of career)  59 (He turns 60 in October)
 Weight   54kg  55kg
 Weekly Mileage  Close to 200km   Very little at present
 Residence   Bedfordview  Colorado, USA


 Mile  3:59.9
 8km  Sub 23:00 (in a downhill race)
 10km  28:50.4
 21.1km  1:03.35
 Marathon  2:11.46
 Ultra Marathon (56km)  3:05:37
 100km  6:47