Nearly 20 years have passed since
she won the Comrades Marathon in 1993, but not much has changed for Tilda
Tearle. With her slight figure and trademark ponytail blonde hair, Tilda is
still a regular face at road running events in KwaZulu-Natal, her home province. Most
noticeable in all of Tilda’s achievements over the last 20 years was her attitude
towards running long distances, and this was her supreme asset. Today she still
runs for the pure love of it. Running is her daily prescription, and hers
remains a face that inspires young runners to keep going.
photograph of Tilda Tearle through the decades, she has been pictured running
with her iconic blonde ponytails or plaits – a big-race routine. “It is such a
habit that I feel uncomfortable if I tie my hair up any other way,” she
explains. She has other habits, too, like running with her trusted hankie –
without it, she feels completely lost. On a training run before a competitive
race, she wears her intended race socks and if it’s not a good run, she won’t
run in them come race day. She’ll keep trying out different pairs of socks to
find the perfect match. Everything has to be tried and tested! And before a big
race, Tilda has a cup of filter coffee, saying that she would feel distressed
worked for her. Running the Comrades 26 times, Tilda has captured three gold
medals, but it should be pointed out that only the top three or five women got
gold in those days, and she actually finished in the top 10 for 10 consecutive
years from 1986 to 1995. Her progress up the Comrades rankings in the
90s was highlighted by her cautious pacing, leaving her legs strong for the
last stretch. That saw her place fourth in 1990, followed by
third in 1991 and second in 1992, and she started the 1993 race as the
“I just had
to come first in 1993. I remember the day quite well. I had a virtually
problem-free run. I didn’t take the lead until Cowies Hill, with 16km to go. Up
to there I had been coming second, but had paced myself conservatively so had
what I needed to run hard from there,” Tilda explains. Clutching a rose in her hand,
Tilda crossed the finish line in a time of 6:55:07, more than five minutes
ahead of Rae Bisschoff.
Tilda remembers Durban’s local support and feels that
spectator support is crucial to keep you going. She also remembers her husband
Clive, who was also running the Comrades in 1993, stopping in Kloof just to
watch her cross the finish line on a roadside television before he carried on to
finish later on.
A day after the Comrades win, a photograph
of Tilda and Clive appeared on the front page of the Daily News. But it was no ordinary running photograph showing Tilda’s
ponytails, nor her elation at the finish line. “The photographer had phoned and
asked if he could come and take a few pictures at our home. He decided to do
the picture as something a bit different,” she explains. So Tilda and Clive
were pictured together in a bubble bath – a memory that still sticks with many.
“To this day, people say ‘I remember you in the bubble bath’.”
running in 1983 and ran her first Comrades a year later. “There
was a guy in the office where I worked who was running Comrades in 1983. He was
always on about it! I then said to him that I would start running and run it
the following year. He was quite sceptical about it, but after a few months he
realised that he had competition,” says Tilda. He took her to join Savages Athletic
Club in Durban,
and she has been a member ever since. A year later, Tilda beat her office colleague
by a full hour-and-a-half in the 1984 Comrades.
Since then, Tilda has had an
enduring love-affair with the world’s biggest ultra-marathon and enjoys the solidarity
and friendships formed through the sport. ”I believe it is a privilege to run
Comrades. The race is also a great leveller. It can make grown men cry!” she
says. Tilda will be running her 27th Comrades this year and wants to
make it to 30.
Due to injury in 1997 and 1998,
Tilda couldn’t compete in any running events, which was problematic for her
lifestyle, “It was difficult. I enjoy running and can honestly say that I enjoy
training for Comrades. I run many races leading up to Comrades and love the
camaraderie amongst runners. I run nearly every day of my life. It is my daily
In her heyday, Tilda was running
5000km a year. Now, she runs around 3000km a year and takes races as they come.
“I have probably run once around the world! I am not really competitive
anymore. There are a few runners I like to beat, but just for the fun of it.
Luckily I have been blessed with a pair of legs that are still going well after
all these years,” she says.
While the Comrades has been her main
focus, Tilda also came second in the Two Oceans Marathon in 1993, ran her best
marathon time of 2:48 at the old Ford Marathon in Durban, has always enjoyed
the Hillcrest Marathon, as recently discovered a new love for trail races,
notably at the Umhlanga Festival. She says she started running trail runs
organised by Buzz Bolton last year and loves the ‘toughness’ they give a runner.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed crossing rivers, running in the bush and on the
beach. It is challenging but makes a nice change from tar roads,” she says.
To run marathon after marathon,
you need an expert’s advice and the will of a champion. For Tilda, fitness
throughout the years was never an issue training-wise. It was all about
preparation to get used to the distance. “Before, I will run a few 21km races
to give me a bit of speed. I may run a 32km training run and then on the day of
the 42km, I try and run two even halves,” she says.
And to all those who want to
in and year out? “Treat Comrades with respect. Train properly. Do lots
of long runs and on the day start slowly. If you don’t have a health problem or
are not too overweight, then you can run. Maybe not Comrades at first, aim for
something shorter. You may surprise yourself.”
Tilda and Clive live in Berea, Durban,
and will celebrate their 33rd anniversary this year. They enjoy
travelling, running together and going out for dinners. For the past 11 years,
Tilda has worked as a personal assistant for an advocate and has never been a
full-time athlete. Aside from her passion for running, Tilda is focusing on her
fitness in swimming her 15th Midmar Mile this year.. She also enjoys
reading, watching foreign films and oil painting.
“I always say ‘running is an
adult playground.’ I am not really competitive anymore and was happy to sew the
‘50’ age tags onto my running vest. I now have an excuse to run slower, no
questions asked. And the group I run with at Regent Harriers in Durban North call
ourselves the TAFTA Express” she explains, jokingly named after the welfare
organisation The Association For The Aged. Despite Tilda’s age, her love of
running has not wilted and her enthusiasm for the sport remains.