It seems ridiculous: 43 years to Green…
but it happened haphazardly, without green as a goal until I got to eight. It
is more about failure than perseverance: 40-plus years of trying would imply an
obsession, but it was a lack of appreciation of Comrades that added the years,
coupled with chronic injury and some bad luck.
My first attempt at the Comrades was
in 1968, based on cross-country training. I dropped out at Drummond with sore
knees. The next year Charlie Chase introduced the Wits runners to proper
Comrades training, so I was able to finish in ’69, but in a disappointing 8:24.
The mental challenge of Comrades continued to bug me, though, and I developed
an attitude that if I was not enjoying myself, then I should go home.
In ’70 I dropped out with hurt
feelings when clubmate Dave Levick left me for dust over the big hills. In ’71,
I won the Matopos 33 Miler and was set to run a good Comrades, but developed a
foot injury, later diagnosed as a stress fracture. In ’72 I had a reasonable
run, but the stress fracture returned to haunt me for seven years. So in ’73 I
had the great privilege of seconding Dave Levick to his brilliant come-from-behind
win. Finally, I started to understand distance running and started to study it
in a more academic way.
By the late 70’s I was ready to start racing again and ran a string of
good sub-2:40s marathons and the Korkie ultra in 3:27. I entered again in ’79,
but ‘flu (caught from five-time Comrades winner Jackie Mekler at a dinner
party!) stopped me getting to the start line.
Aged 32, I decided to give the 1980 Comrades a full go and my training
peaked at 240km per week. Training with the elite RAC group meant long distance
at high speed and I went into Comrades with 2400km under my belt and little
sleeves sewn into my vest so I could put ice in to keep me cool. I went through
halfway in 2:57, 60km in under four hours, with the long gentle downs – my
forte – still to come. At Hillcrest, I fell over with hypothermia… the ice had
worked too well!
In ’84 my brother, Ant, started to
run, and there followed five years of the most enjoyable running. As we both
got fitter, we competed first in half marathons and then marathons, and
ultimately Comrades. In the early Comrades I beat him, but then he reeled off
6:24, 6:12 and 6:07 to win the Vets’ category. His 6:24 plus my 6:34 in ‘86 are
still, to my knowledge, the fastest times by two brothers on the same day. (Don’t
ask about sisters.)
In ’87 I made a rather half-hearted
attempt, dropping out at Camperdown unfit and unmotivated. The following year,
’88, so angry was I at my pathetic performance the year before and being a shiny
new Veteran, I resolved to put everything right, but I thought I had ‘flu and
only started because I was there, only intending to run slowly to Westville. I
ended up having one of my best races, with a 40-minute negative split for 7:22.
I have been an advocate of negative splits ever since.
Then followed a 12-year period of
running shoe-induced injuries, but thanks to the hype around the Millennium
race and with orthotics that countered the bad effect of the shoes, I had the
most enjoyable run in 2000. However, my heart was not really in it because of
the injuries, but I kept trying, entering again in 2003, but was kept out by
Fortuitously, the lack of commitment
led to my discovery of the dangers of running shoes. Not wanting to splash out
the money on new shoes, I started running in an old pair of cross-country shoes
in 2006. The leg injuries faded, but injuries to the pelvic girdle, causing all
manner of aches and pains, made my 2007 race an absolute hell, but by now, for
the first time, as ‘green’ became a possible dream, I finished my ninth in a PW
10:48. After 40 years, I had finally learnt what it meant to persevere!
In 2008, my debut Grandmaster year,
I thought I had a chance to once again be competitive, but I was flattened by
the worst injury of my career, a glute spasm that could only be cured by
hip-replacement surgery, according to the sports scientists. For two years I
hardly ran, but when I did it was in the lightweight cross-country racers and I
had ditched the orthotics. Come January 2010 I was ready to go, only to
discover that entries had closed in November. I read Born to Run and realised that my injuries were disappearing, and by
January 2011 I was a full forefoot striker and even the chronic hip pain had
So in 2011,
wearing a tatty old pair of shoes with 3000km in them, and I lined up with my
son Simon, cheerfully undertrained. As I stood there in that crowd, my usual
talkative self was suddenly conscious that this was probably the last time I
would stand in that sea of cosmopolitan humanity, reeking of expectation. We
bumped into Jackie Mekler, who wished us well in his low-key way. I could have
cried right there.
It turned out to be a long painful
day… I never really got into a comfortable stride, but not finishing was simply
not an option. By three kays to go, I knew it was safe and I was happy to walk
and enjoy the crowds, which I had not really done earlier, so scared was I of
not making it. To enter the stadium and to hear many friends calling our names,
the beating on the boards, the surreal late evening light supplemented by the
blue-green floodlights. To cross that line with Simon next to me… for father
and son, it was an immensely special day and a suitable closing to a 43-year
love-hate relationship with Mother Comrades.
Simon Gear is currently running 9
marathons in 9 weeks in 9 provinces, which he thinks will be an SA first, to
drum up support for the Greathearts Comrades initiative to get 200 runners
raising money for the Starfish Foundation at Comrades 2012. He started with his
first marathon on 28 January. Look out for a report back on this in a future