Together they have run nearly 350 marathons and 48 Comrades. One of them was part of a group of only 12 runners on the starting line of the very first Jackie Gibson Marathon in 1946. The other has logged nearly 90 000km in his 33 years of running. Amazingly, both of them are still running today. Allan Ferguson (88) and Des Robins (80) are two of the most well-known ‘mature’ runners on our roads.
I was fortunate enough to meet these two gentlemen. They are absolute characters in the true sense. Both were dressed to the nines for our meeting, Mr Fergie in his smart black blazer and Des in his favourite Comrades Green Number Club golf shirt. Listening to them speak about running makes you want to put your running shoes on and not only run but excel at it. Their passion for running and life is admirable.
They joined Modern Athlete for a trip down memory lane.
The little black book in his hands initially looks like any other notebook, but when Mr Fergie, as he is affectionately known by his friends and family, opens the book, a mind blowing history of running unfolds. He has logged each and every race he has ever run since the very first one more than sixty years ago. When he starts chatting about all the different races, it’s hard to keep up. His list includes, 50 Jackie Gibson Marathons, 32 Springs Striders (32km), 40 Milo Korkie Ultras (56km) and 60 Naval Hill 10km races, to name a few. The Naval Hill race has even been named after Mr Fergie; it is now officially called the Coca-Cola Allan Ferguson Round Naval Hill 4/10km. About 40 runners from Johannesburg Harriers Athletics Club (JHAC), of which Mr Fergie has been part all his life, recently ran with him when he completed his 60th consecutive Naval Hill race in Bloemfontein.
Mr Fergie has been running since his 20s and after his retirement, he travelled for a couple of months all over South Africa, running all the races he always wanted to. He has run 36 Comrades and in 1995, at the age of 73, he was the oldest competitor to finish the race that day in a time of 10:16, something a whole lot of 30-year-olds battle to do.
Mr Fergie’s contemporary, Des, is just as passionate about running and still plans to run the Comrades next year at the age of 80. If he succeeds, he will become the oldest competitor ever to finish this gruelling race. In 1989, at the age of 79, Wally Hayward finished the Comrades in a time of 10:58.
Des has an impressive resum? of his own. Though the logbook with all the races he has run was stolen from his car a while ago, he still remembers clearly what he has achieved. He has run a total of 89 ultras. The races that stand out include, City to City Marathon (28 runs), Two Oceans 56km (11 runs), RAC Tough One (26 runs) and Springs Striders (27 runs). Together, these two men are living legends; young at heart and still just as much in love with running today as all those years ago.
HOW DID YOU START RUNNING?
Mr Fergie: I played rugby in the former Rhodesia. When we came to South Africa, I wanted to continue but the rugby players here were so big. I thought, “Bugger this Ferguson. They will kill you.” Then I met Arthur Hampton, a bloke I worked with. He introduced me to running.
Des: I have been running for 33 years, I only started at the late age of 47, because all my life I mainly played tennis and golf. My son, Corrie, wanted to run a race called the TV Race and asked me to join him. When we got to the race, I met up with some old friends. In the months that followed, we started running together. They eventually stopped and I just carried on.
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT THE FIRST RACE YOU RAN?
Mr Fergie: The JHAC hosted the first Jackie Gibson Marathon in 1946. It was the first marathon after the war. We were 18 runners on the starting line and I came sixth in a time of 2:59. Wally Hayward won the race that day.
Des: The TV race I ran with my son was held in 1977 and it was broadcast on TV; many people ran it just for that reason. The route was three laps of 8km.
THE NAVAL HILL RACE IS ONE OF THE OLDEST ROAD RUNNING EVENTS IN THE COUNTRY. YOU HAVE RUN ALL 60. WHAT WAS THE FIRST ONE LIKE?
Mr Fergie: Before the start of the race, all the athletes gathered in a small room. The announcer called the names of the competitors one by one. You then ran past spectators down stairs to the start. We were about 20 competitors then. This year, there were more than 300 runners and after the run, I got a clock and a pen from the organisers.
WHAT WAS COMRADES LIKE IN EARLIER YEARS?
Mr Fergie: When you arrived at Comrades, you looked for your name and number on a huge board. You ticked it off and that was registration done! You were ready to run. There were no such a thing as exhibitions and goodie bags. And don’t think there were any water tables on the route. You drank water where you could find some, be it a garden or at a shop. Some competitors were lucky enough to have seconds helping them, but that did not always work well. I remember running up Inchanga when I saw my second for the first time in the whole race. He was riding on his scooter calling out, “Hey Fergie, I’m here!” And all I could say was, “Where the bloody hell have you been? I am 50km into the race and now you want to give me water!”
Des: Cars always got stuck behind each other because of seconding. The last time seconds were allowed was in 1980. I remember: a lot of competitors stopped halfway into the Comrades and had a big meal before carrying on running. In the old days, there were no physiotherapy stations like now. I think it was much harder to run Comrades then than now.
WHICH SHOES DID YOU RUN IN?
Mr Fergie and Des: Takkies!
Mr Fergie: For 27 years, I ran in Bata takkies. I even remember one guy running the Comrades in rugby boots.
WHO WERE YOUR GREATEST COMPETITORS?
Mr Fergie: Wally Hayward of course. I came second to Wally so many times. That man was built like a bronze god. Those bloody calves of his were enormous. I would run behind this guy and think ‘how does one compete against someone like this?’ Then there was a guy called Johan Coleman, an Afrikaans guy. My friend Arthur Hampton always told me how Johan was sitting next to the road buggered, but as soon as he saw Arthur passing, he would get up and suddenly start sprinting.
WHAT TYPE OF TRAINING PROGRAMME DID YOU FOLLOW THOSE DAYS?
Mr Fergie: I worked in Germiston and ran to work and back every day; it was about 20km. Later, I increased my distance. One of my longest training runs was a 60km run all the way to Vereeniging and back. I started the run with a bottle full of coke and ran all the way on my own. As I went along, I filled up my bottle with water from gardens and garages. The year (1973) I increased my distance, I ran my best Comrades (6:57). I believed in doing a lot of distance, so did Wally. He told me that on a Sunday he would start running at four in the morning and only finish at four in the afternoon.
Des: In those days, there weren’t specialised training methods and runners had to work a lot harder.
WHAT WERE THE ENTRY FEES, THE NUMBERS AT RACES AND MEDALS LIKE?
Mr Fergie: Comrades was never about the numbers. It was just another race. I remember one Comrades with only about 30 runners. In those days, the first six runners got a gold medal. I have three gold medals; in 1948, I came sixth, in 1949, I came third and in 1952, I was fourth (He also has 12 silver and 21 bronze Comrades medals).
Des: It was a couple of rands to enter races and at the finish we got cloth badges. There was no prize money. Medals only came along in the early 80s. I used to sew all my badges onto a tracksuit but it got lost and I started collecting and framing them. Today, they are all displayed on a big wall in my house (Des has 12 Comrades bronze medals).
WHICH WAS THE HARDEST, BUT NICEST RACE YOU HAVE EVER RUN?
Mr Fergie: Jock of the Bushveld (in Mpumalanga) was one of the nicest runs. It was the poor man’s Two Oceans.
Des: The old Milo Korkie (from Pretoria to Johannesburg) was definitely the hardest run. It was 56km and there was a six hour cut off.
WHAT ARE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR RUNNING CAREER?
Mr Fergie: I ran the Comrades Marathon with my two sons, Graham (56) and Derek (54). My two grandsons, Allan Ziervogel and Gavin Yves, also ran with me on two separate occasions (In 1993, Mr Fergie ran with his grandson, Gavin and his son Derek. They finished in a time of 9:23. He also ran the race with Graham, Derek and his grandson, Allan. The Ferguson family created history. It was the first time three generations had run the Comrades together. He and his two sons have a massive total of 84 Comrades medals. Derek has 22 Comrades medals and Graham has 26 medals. It would be interesting to see if there is another family out there where all are still alive and have accumulated as many medals).
Des: Running my tenth Comrades with my son was special. I am also proud of my best Comrades time of 9:36.
WHAT ARE SOME RACE TIMES YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
Mr Fergie: I ran a sub-three hour marathon when I was already over 60!
Des: My best time for a marathon, which is 3:23.
DOES YOUR FAMILY SUPPORT YOUR RUNNING CAREER?
Mr Fergie: My wife, Marion, passed away in 1999, but she was always there. I don’t know if I could have run so much if it wasn’t for her. These days, my sons take me to races with them.
Des: My wife, Shirley, has supported me all my life, through rain and shine. She used to go with me to every race, but because she battles with problem feet now, she can’t always make it these days. Running is a very healthy sport. Your family always knows where you are. It’s not like golf where you stay long after the last hole! You run from five to six in the morning and you’re done. Running is much healthier than golf.
WHAT TRAINING DO YOU DO THESE DAYS?
Mr Fergie: I run at least 5km every day. Sometimes I build up to 10km, depending on which races are coming up. I stay in an old age home and run on the grounds. I run a figure of eight route which is 1.2km long. I repeat it four times (Mr Fergie organised a race at the old age home a while ago and about 120 people took part; some were even pushed around the course in their wheelchairs! At the start of the race, Chariots of Fire played and there was even a little Polly’s Shorts on the route. He has also started a gym at the home and tries to do all his exercise on the grounds, mainly because it is safer. He got robbed about four years ago. Robbers pushed him down and stole his shoes while he was out running).
Des: I exercise every morning for half an hour. I do sit ups, push ups and exercises with light weights. On Thursday evenings, I run my club’s (Fit 2000) 4km time trial in Bedfordview and on weekends, I run 10km and 21km races in Pretoria and Johannesburg. If I want to run Comrades next year, I will soon have to start increasing my mileage!
(Both men say they have never had serious injuries, but these days they battle with breathing when running. It takes them a while before they manage to control their breathing).
DO YOU FOLLOW A HEALTHY EATING PLAN?
Mr Fergie: I only have a cup of coffee before a race and generally I try to eat healthy. I don’t drink alcohol. I used to drink a lot of beer in my day but ten years ago I said, “No more liquor for you old man. It’s not doing you any good.”
Des: I have a bowl of cereal before I run and try to stay away from junk food the other times. Every night I still enjoy my coke and whiskey.
WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE TO NEW RUNNERS?
Mr Fergie: Build up slowly and get your mind used to distance. Don’t overdo it.
Des: The biggest mistake new runners make is trying to run every race faster than the previous one; when it doesn’t happen, they are disappointed. You have to know yourself and your abilities.
We decided to get Mr Fergie and Des together to do the one thing they love most – run! And so it happened. On a cool September morning, they met at the Clearwater Florida Flat One Race in Roodepoort on the West Rand. It was apparent how much these two men are loved on the road. On the way to the starting line of the 5km, Des was stopped by the ladies and got a big hug and kiss while Mr Fergie was recognised and greeted by more people than I can even remember. When the gun went off, they were on their way, passing a lot of people half their age. After the race, Des even told how he helped a lady push a pram up the hill! Fergie was very impressed with their time, 42 minutes! “I wanted to run 45 minutes but this old bugger pushed me,” he said. After the race, Mr Fergie sat down on the grass in the sun, patiently waiting for his two sons to finish the 10km and 21km races. Des was off to a coffee shop to socialise with friends, one of the perks of
running, he says.
Isn’t it great how remarkable and timeless our sport can be? Here are two gents who are the essence of Modern Athletes and they are in their 80s. I am sure all our readers will join me in saluting you for your achievements and we hope that we can stay on the road as long as you have. Well done gents, keep on running!