Rand Athletic Club

Rand Athletic Club


Rand Athletic Club (RAC) is the biggest and one of the oldest clubs in the country with a membership of close to 1 500 runners and walkers. It is a club known for its rich running tradition and its huge attendance at time trial evenings; about 500 runners gather at the clubhouse every Tuesday evening to partake in the TT. Over the years, many well-known faces and talented runners have been part of this club, which started way back in 1972.  

Three friends, Caspar Greeff, Ray Alborough and Fritz Madel, who all lived in Northcliff, Johannesburg, and ran together, founded RAC in 1972. Madel took the role of the club’s first chairman. In February 1973, the club constitution and colours were accepted and subscriptions were set at a mere R4 per year, with running licences costing just R1.50. Initially, the young club battled to take off but after some hard work from the club secretary, Tiaan van der Walt, and later Gavin Reynolds, matters improved and membership slowly started increasing. Little did they know at the time, that they would be creating a club that would become a constitution on our running roads in decades to come. Six RAC members completed the 1973 Comrades; at that stage the club had 37 members. At a meeting in February 1974, it was agreed that women could join the club ‘with rights equal to those of men.’ Pam Potter was the first female member, joining eight months later in November 1974. The club policy, which was set out at a meeting in December 1974, is still followed today: “To always be there for all runners and not concentrate on a few of the best athletes.”

Modern Athlete chatted to Dick Welch, current RAC chairman who joined the club in 1975 after he was transferred to Johannesburg from Mpumalanga. By then, there were about 60 members who formed different groups, running from different places. “Initially there was no clubhouse and the runners started their morning training runs from a lamppost in Northcliff. We got up to all kinds of mischief on the runs in those days. I will never forget the time each one of us got a turn to lead the run. If it was your turn, you could decide when to turn. At one stage everyone just kept on turning right. We must have gone around the same block about 25 times! Eventually someone turned left,” chuckled Dick.

He remembers runs where Fritz, one of the founding members, took a group of runners on a 16km route in Northcliff. One day, some of the guys measured it and found it was only 15km. “Fritz was mortified. His logbook had to be changed and he insisted the measuring wheel was wrong. These are the spirited guys who started the club and ran in those days. We had a lot of fun and giggles. We used to pick up members along the way. That’s how the club grew.” 

The club’s first race was on 3 February 1974, a 20km event that attracted 139 starters of which 137 runners finished. This was described as a ‘tough race’ by most entrants. The following year, in 1975, the club race was lengthened to 32km and the RAC Tough One was born with the start and finish at the Randburg Sports Complex. 15 red flags were required for the marshals and the winner received a cup and a gift voucher for R20.

The Tough One became a must-do event on the running calendar and from 1992 to 1994, it won the Race of the Year Trophy. In 1997, a 5km race was introduced to go with the 32km to accommodate shorter distance fun runners. The race now attracts fields in excess of 3 000 runners and one of the traditions created is the presentation of a special clock to all runners who have completed 20 Tough Ones. All we can say is that it is a very well-earned timepiece.

RAC now also host a 10km race in June. The race, which traditionally was run just before Comrades, recently changed to a later date. “Our numbers are pretty much the same. We get a lot of walkers but fewer Comrades guys,” says Dick. This RAC 10km race started by accident 20 years ago. The Sunday Times and Rotary Club sponsored a race, the Rotary Jog Day, but pulled out just before the event. When Dick heard about it, he volunteered to tell club members their usual club long run would start at Zoo Lake on that specific Sunday, and not at the club. “About 500 people pitched up. That was 20 years ago and ever since we have hosted the RAC 10km.”

Dick plans to organise a Gold Rush race next year, just as he did 20 years ago. “Barclays Bank donated ten Kruger Rands back in those days. We buried them and runners each got a prospect flag. They dashed 6km to the spruit and had to plant their flag in the ground. Runners with flags placed closest to the Kruger Rands won them. I would love to organise something similar next year.”

Initially, the facilities at the Randburg Sports Complex were used but as membership grew, the clubhouse got too small, especially on time trial evenings which had peaked at attendance of about 1 000 runners. In 1982, RAC moved to Old Parktonian Sports Club in Johannesburg and the clubhouse has been there ever since.

In December 1976, the Korhaan was accepted as the club emblem and by 1978, membership had grown to 333 members. Subscriptions were increased to R5 and Dick was appointed as chairman, a position he has held for the last 31 years. “A lot of people say I am like Robert Mugabe! They just can’t get rid of me,” laughs Dick.

Time trials are held every Tuesday evening at 17:45 in summer and winter. Average attendance these days is about 500 runners. There are many non-RAC members who are welcome and they often have young university graduates who have moved to the area or people from the neighbourhood who want to stay active, says Dick. Runners can choose between a 5km and 8km route and walkers can walk a 4km or 7km route. Sensibly, walkers start 1km ahead to avoid congestion.

The RAC time trial is a hilly route and 20 to 30 seconds slower than most other time trials. For years, it has been known for its competitiveness and older members like Bruce Fordyce often battled it out with guys like Mark Plaatjes.

Mark still holds the record of about 24 minutes.

The consistency of the weekly time trials has also helped to recruit a lot of new members. “Just the other night, one of the guys that has not run the route for a long time remarked how nothing has changed. People know where to find us and when we run.” After time trials, runners usually get together for a light meal and a few drinks which brings a nice social element to the club.

Sundays are reserved for long runs and always have been. In earlier days, Dick’s wife, Vreni, used to second runners. “One day she ended up with six bailers and three kids in the car and we knew it was time to get more people to help. We got more wives to second but then we made a fatal error, allowing the wives to run, and so we lost our seconds!” he laughs.

Today, RAC has seven set routes of about 25km run in rotation on Sundays. Runs starts at 6am in summer and 7am in winter. In the months leading up to Comrades, roughly 200 runners join the longer run. Currently, about 140 are running. “In winter, it dwindles down to only about 15, because after Comrades everyone is licking their wounds, taking it easy and bonding with families.”

Weekday training consists of different size and pace groups getting together at different places. “Most members join in a group close to their homes. Some run from Bryanston, Paulshof, Fourways or Craighall Park,” says Dick. He does not agree with the mindset that a big club is impersonal. “People will always pair up; be it a big or a small club. Our members are always there to help with entries and manning water tables when necessary.”

Every year before Comrades, RAC hosts a traditional 60km long run which attracts runners from different clubs. It is known for its good organisation and well planned refreshment stops. This year about 700 people ran.

In 1983, RAC membership exceeded 1 000 for the first time. Ten years later, in 1993, RAC celebrated its 21st birthday and membership stood at 3 074. The year 2000 saw another surge in membership with the Comrades cut off being extended to 12 hours. Many old runners reappeared and RAC recorded the largest Comrades entry: 823 (648 finishers). Today, the numbers have dwindled to about 1 500 members, says Dick, mainly due to about 11 new running clubs that were started up in a radius of 10km from RAC and a fair amount of members immigrating.

RAC members make up about 20% of the field at most road races. “My son has done some research on the running times of 35-year-olds compared to those of 40-year-olds. The older group outclassed the younger one and this can be put down to 40-year-olds having more time to train. At 40, you are often at a stage where you are on top of your career and the kids are no longer crying babies so you can make the early mornings.”

He stresses the importance of club structures. “I sometimes refer to the gym culture amongst runners; you pay your money, you do your thing and you only squeal when something is wrong. Otherwise nobody knows you. That is wrong. It is important for people to get involved in their clubs. The club structure provides input and keeps things together,” says Dick, who tries to meet at least one new person every time he goes running. “Folks on the road all have some kind of story to tell and they are all specifically different.”

The now familiar club colours are white vests and white/maroon shorts. The white shorts were a bone of contention for female runners in the early days and in 2001, women changed to maroon shorts.

Dick’s wife, Vreni, is synonymous with RAC. In 2001, she was awarded the Spirit of Comrades Trophy; the first non-runner to achieve this honour. Her passion for sport comes from her days as one of the country’s top tennis players in the early 60s. She also played provincial hockey and netball. Vreni used to run but after an injury and a case of blood poisoning, she decided to give up running. She kept her passion alive by initially helping at water tables and, in 1979, was elected as club secretary.

She has been club secretary for the past 28 years and has put her heart and soul into it. She is a well-known face at the timekeeping tables and she and Dick are also part of a team supplying the SABC with information from different parts of the Comrades route. As if this is not enough, she also organises overseas running trips for runners, booking seats, finding hotels and filling out entries for international races. She has just returned from Berlin where she accompanied a group of runners competing in the Berlin Marathon.

Bruce Fordyce was one of the more well-known RAC runners. He initially ran in the colours of Wits University before joining RAC, and though he won Comrades as a Wits runner, he was never part of a team winning the Gunga-Din Trophy. Bruce was an RAC member on and off for about ten years. He now runs for the recently formed Nedbank Running Club. “We often tease him and say when his bank balance drops below six figures, he will come back to RAC,” says Dick.

Sonja Laxton joined RAC in 1985 and is still a member today. In 1987, she did her club proud by being awarded triple Springbok colours in track, cross country and road running. At the world Half Marathon Championships in 1992, Sonja set a new world veteran record. Today, she still wins many races in her age category and is often a top contender in the Spar Ladies Race series.

With so many members over the years, the club has made many notable achievements; here are just a few:

Norma De Beer completed the 1977 Comrades and became the first RAC lady to run the event.

In 1979, Hosiah Tjale won the Checkers Marathon and in 1980, went ahead to win the first RAC Gold medal at Comrades, as well as winning the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon.

In 1982, Helga van Werweskerken broke the SA 1 000m track record.

Bob De La Motte, Tony Dearling, Trevor Metcalfe and Allan Day won the Gunga-Din team trophy (for Comrades) in 1984.

In 1985, Ephraim Sibisi won the Two Oceans.

In 1989, Fritz (founding member) ran his 30th Comrades.

Titus Mamabolo ran a 2:19 marathon at the age of 50 in 1991, and was awarded Springbok colours.

In 1992, Israel Morake won the Two Oceans Marathon.

Ina Sanders won gold at the 1998 Comrades and a year later, she won the ladies section at the London to Brighton Marathon.

A traditional Comrades Aches and Pains party is held every year at Dick and Vreni’s house in Craighall Park. “Usually, everyone whose surname starts with A-N brings salads and N-Z brings desserts,” says Dick. The club hosts a breakfast for members after specific races and every year on New Years morning, between 300 and 400 people get together to run a 12km/15km route from the RAC clubhouse.

“Our founding members were good athletes as well as nice people. This has, in turn, attracted nice people to the club and I believe that this is RAC’s greatest asset. A club will always flourish if it has the magic of a couple of hundred like-minded people as members. One has only to visit the club on Tuesday evenings and be part of the social after the time trial to know this is true.”

Modern Athlete would like to take time to salute RAC. The club is a true institution and another example of the great running fraternities that we have in our country. It is great to have so many passionate people prepared to contribute to creating solid club structure and great running environments for all to enjoy.

Keep it up RAC, we look forward to your next 37 years.

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