Attention! From Colonel to Coach

Attention! From Colonel to Coach

John Hamlett is one of the country’s top running coaches. He has received numerous accolades as a runner and even more as a coach. Paul was lucky enough to catch up with John to find out more about the man.

John greets me with a warm smile and a face filled with sincerity. We take our seats at the local  Weisenhoff and John kicks off with genuine modesty, “Why do you want to do a story on me? There must be hundreds of interesting runners!” I assure him that there are thousands of aspiring athletes, both social and professional, who would value his opinion and advice; he does not disappoint. He recalls many great stories with passion and gusto, stories of personal competitions and training others.

While this ex-military man discusses preparation and strategy with the seriousness of an army general, he talks of the joy of winning and the success of his athletes with the vigour of a proud father.
Over the last 33 years, John has lived the sport with the na?ve ambition of a 15-year old, enjoying the negotiations and steely preparation required for the modern business that is road running.

John rubs his hands together and reminisces about his youth. “As a ‘lighty’, I played every sport at school. You name it, I tried it. When I was 15, I came home and told my dad that I wanted to run a marathon”.
John’s dad rolled his eyes and thought ‘here we go again’.

He questioned John’s commitment to running, as he tended to skip from one sporting phase to another. John’s father explained the seriousness of road running and the sacrifices required, but John was  adamant – he wanted to run.

His dad struck a deal with him. He drove him just over 42km from their house, claiming that if John made it home in less than four hours, he would go and buy the equipment necessary for John to participate in marathon running. Totally unaware of the preparation required, John loaded up on oranges and orange juice prior to the run (because that’s what they gave him at football, so he assumed it was what was best for him).

“There I was in Bapsfontein, way too many oranges in my system, cheap tennis takkies, my football shorts and PE vest. Needless to say, I failed hopelessly.” He was “moeg, finished and my feet had the worst blisters”, but he managed to convince his dad to give him another chance.

Four days later, John re-ran the 42km distance in under four hours. His father was now convinced that John had the potential to be a good runner. Two weeks later, they were off to do the Pietersburg Marathon.

“I was buzzing. Surrounded by experienced runners I felt really out of place in my tennis takkies, but I was listening and learning from these guys!” enthuses John. That Saturday morning, John was prepared with the right fluids (Coca Cola and water) and the right shoes (Puma trainers his father had bought him the day before). John continues, “I finished 8th, 3:04 and as they say the rest is history!”

As a coach, John stresses the many attributes that contribute towards being a successful runner, such as discipline, determination, commitment and talent. However, he likes his athletes to start with a dream.

“You need a goal! I like my athletes to get carried away, put themselves out there and say what they want to achieve, where they want their running to take them. Once they can visualize their goals, we work backwards from there!” When asked to list his top fi ve athletes, John grins, “You’re going to get me in trouble here! I am incredibly proud of all of my athletes but there are those who stand out because of their achievements and those who have exceeded their limitations.”

John admits to having a resentful respect for the Russian athletes, as they have become the men to beat on the local marathon circuit. “They are professional, committed and good athletes!” stresses John. “For many years they were merely ‘the Russians’ to me, these foreigners that we had to beat on the road.” John’s opinion changed following a trip to Russia in 2003 as a guest of Dimitri Grishen. The trip left him with insight into the life of the Russian athletes, their social backgrounds, their ethics and their moral make-up. John describes a visit to a town in Russia called Schusdal, a training camp where the athletes would fish for their dinner through a hole in the ice on a frozen river. The town had no electricity. They were invited to a dinner at an acquaintance of Dimitri’s, at a solitary log cabin in the middle of nowhere. “This guy had laid out the biggest spread for us, meat, veggies, bread and drink. We were ready for a huge feast, but before we started, Dimitri called me to one side and asked that we not eat all the food on offer. I asked him why; I thought we would insult the man if we didn’t eat everything. Dimitri explained to me that this food was all that the guy had for the winter and that if we ate it all, he would die of starvation as the closest town was over 140km away! He was prepared to do that for us – he was going to risk starvation for us!”
About a week later, the South African contingent went to a training complex where several promising Russian athletes were training. There was an outside track covered in snow, but a solitary athlete had cleared a path and was running on the track. John asked why the man was not running inside and was told that the athlete had chosen to run outside, as he was determined to win an Olympic track gold. John asked what the athlete would do if he did not win a gold medal, which earned him a look of piercing disdain from the coach. Not achieving gold was not an option. As it turned out, the man took an 800m gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. This story illustrates the Russian commitment to success and their determination to achieve their dreams!

But this is true of South African sportspeople too. First place is everything, as John explains in his recollection of the 2001 Comrades Marathon. “The elation and hype surrounding Andrew’s Comrades win in 2001 was insane.  The patriotism, the joy and the celebrity lifestyle that he endured were incredible. We could not go anywhere in KwaZulu Natal without being surrounded by fans within minutes.”

He recalls the fi nal few kilometres of the 2001 Comrades with the passion of a Springbok fan revisiting the ’95 drop goal and tells how he cringed when a traffi c offi cer told Andrew that the ‘Russian’ was catching him. “That cop nearly ruined my entire strategy. The wrong advice at that stage could have seen Andrew crumble or push too soon. Fortunately, he looked back at me and I tapped my watch; that was my sign to let him know that the race was in the bag and that he should push for the record. That gave Andrew the confidence to stick to his rhythm and even up the tempo.”

John describes his experience towards the end of the race and the feeling of euphoria that ran through the crowd. “I ran into the stadium trying to get to the finish line in time to meet Andrew. As he entered the stadium and the word spread that a South African was going to win, the place erupted! It was impossible to get through! I saw old men crying with pride; it was awesome!” continues John. “After the race, Andrew wanted to get away from the crowds. We went to a quiet beach on the north coast, but within 15 minutes we were swamped; we couldn’t go anywhere! That night back at the hotel, Andrew said he had been waiting for this moment. He reminded me of an instruction I had given him years before – the night after a successful race: go and lie in a bath, close your eyes and say, “This is my day!” Have confidence that you have done your best and beaten the others fair and square – a moment between you and your God.”

Leonid, who is running in our team this year (Nedbank), without a doubt. Last year he ran the perfect race.


1. Lucas Nonyana
2. Hermans Mogkadi
3. Johan Oosthuizen
4. White Modisenyane
5. Gift Kelehe (brother of Andrew Kelehe)

Alan Robb

Alan Robb, Comrades Golden Boy

Say the name ‘Alan Robb’ to anyone in road running circles and the response will undoubtedly be one of the utmost respect and awe. 99% of responses will be a resounding, “the guy is a legend!”

Modern Athlete took this Living Legend to lunch recently, not only to find out what he is up to now but also to get him to tell us some of the secrets from his incredible 38-year career that could give modern athletes an advantage.

Alan is remarkably unassuming, a quiet man whose passion for participation shouts the loudest. Currently, he is running and preparing for yet another Comrades, his 36th. With the addition of both canoeing and mountain biking, it is clear that this man simply loves a challenge and has a built-in determination to conquer courses regardless of their landscape.
Over the period of his career, Alan beat many records and set many others, achieving several personal goals. With the mileage on his clock, he probably wouldn’t qualify for finance if he were a vehicle, but would fall under the vintage category as a genuine classic.

Once he has ordered his calamari, this Rocky’s veteran sits back and, with very little encouragement, takes me through his career. He is after all the leading gold medallist at the Comrades Marathon with a total of 12, something anyone would want to talk about. The incredible thing about this achievement is that he won the medals over a span of 17 years, the first in 1974 and last in 1991.

The highlight for him was winning the 1978 Comrades. “I was the first guy to crack 5:30. It was a great feeling. Back then, the Comrades was the pinnacle for road runners; it really was the Holy Grail in which every long-distance road runner aspired to be successful. There was a healthy rivalry!”

So who does this master claim is his biggest challenger throughout his career? “To be honest, I mainly raced myself and the course. There were many battles on the way, but most notably I would have to say Bruce (Fordyce). He was just starting as I was winding down, so we didn’t compete as often as I would have liked. The ’82 Comrades against Bruce was a good race!” remembers Alan. It is interesting to note that there is one record Alan will always hold over Bruce, as they are both now in the twilight of their careers. Fordyce is one short in the gold medal race; he has 11.

It seems as though personal pride was the pay packet back ‘in the day’. Even though you couldn’t pay your bond with it, it sure was a big motivator. Is Alan resentful that his generation seemed to miss out on the money associated with modern road running? “Not at all”, he stresses, however he is quick to mention that, “The guy who finished second in Two Oceans got R75K. In 1976, I finished second and I got a tog bag!” Alan’s big cash payday was R300 for a local marathon. For interest’s sake, we did the comparison of what Alan would have won in today’s prize pool for his 12 Top Ten finishes at  Comrades. It looks like Mr Robb would have earned some change and then some!

Moving away from the topic of Comrades, I found out a little bit about the man behind the red socks. Everyone knows about Alan’s famous red socks, but where did they come from? Well, he was in a hurry to get to a race one day and couldn’t find any white socks, so he raided his dad’s drawer and came up with a red pair. His mates chirped him on the road that day and in true Robb style, he decided to keep wearing them.

His passion for sport shone through from when he was young. He attended Highlands North High School and was predominantly a swimmer. He only really began to show an interest in running in the army and ended up running for the defence force. His first competitive race was in January 1974. It was a 32km from the Johannesburg City Hall to Krugersdorp and, maybe not surprisingly, he won it in a course record time of 1:49.

On the family side, Alan’s wife Merle, his pillar of support, has been with him for 30 years. He has also made many good friends on the road over the years and speaks fondly of Danie Oosthuizen and Charlie Chase from his days at Germiston Callies. Ken Kerr, Dave Pritchard and regular weekend running partner Pete Hurry are amongst those who have left an impression.

When questioned whether he has a race plan, he casually replies, “Not really. I’ll just go out to win and run my own race. Once you are the favourite for a race, most other runners sit with you to see what you are going to do, which allows you to then control the pace.” His favourite race was the old Milo Korkie from Pretoria to Johannesburg, which he won five times, breaking the record. He refers to the race as ’slow poison‘ indicating to us that this man can take pain better than most!

There are very few athletes with his longevity, experience and success in the sport, so we asked him if there is anything that he knows today that he would have liked to know 38 years ago. His answer is an emphatic, “No, just go out and run, speak to a lot of people and get different ideas; try them and see what suits you best.”

In Alan’s opinion, the sport has not changed much over the years. “Well, maybe the training has changed, but let’s be honest, man has been running for centuries. It’s not that complex. The way I see it is that besides the leading groups, the times are actually getting slower and the average age of the leading groups is older,” explains Alan. “At the Old Eds 8km time trial in my day, the top 20 all ran under 27 minutes. Today, most top 20 times are just under 30 minutes. It is a great sport and should not be messed with too much, from the professionals to the novices. There is a great atmosphere on the road and once the bug bites, you can never leave it!”

On nutrition, Alan says he enjoys a good steak, egg and chips before a race. “In the early days, there were no additional supplements on the road. You had Coke and water and you ran!” He didn’t really have much of a recovery period after the Comrades either. He would move straight into the cross-country season, 12km events from May to August with the Callies team and then back on the road by 4 September for the annual Gold Reef Marathon from Johannesburg to Brakpan. Alan would do three to four quality sessions a week, which included track speed work, hill repeats at the Top Star drive-in and regular time trials. He would then add a 25km run on Saturdays and anywhere between 30km to 70km on a Sunday. These days, he says there are only regular 12km runs around the country club.

Like most South African sportsmen of his generation, his biggest regret is not having had the opportunity to compete at an international level more often. He remembers running on the ‘wrong side of the road’ in UK events, most notably the London to Brighton. “We had some great runners back then and could have cleaned up overseas,” laments Alan. These experiences, however, have not dampened the joy with which he looks back at his years of running. “I have been extremely fortunate. I have been fairly good at something I love and while I have had injuries, there has been nothing that has kept me out of action for too long. I have enjoyed the experience and made a lot of friends on the road. I have had a career-long sponsorship from ASICS – those guys were and still are fantastic towards me!”

A good runner needs good-quality equipment and Alan swears by his ASICS trainers. “They are making some great footwear and they tailor-make shoes for any kind of runner. Despite all the advances of technology, I fondly remember my old ‘Tigers’ as a 25-year old. They were the perfect shoes, uncomplicated and comfortable!”

So what does the future hold for a man with Alan Robb’s record? What is there left to achieve? In my opinion, with 35 Comrades runs and well over 300 000km on the clock, he could be forgiven for wanting to hang up his takkies and call it a day. But Alan is aiming for silver number 18 at Comrades this year. He has bet a friend that he can still run silver. He reckons it’s touch-and-go at the moment. One thing is for sure, he will give it his best shot! He recently put himself to the test over 8km. He says it’s been about 15 years since he last did a time trial, and though his time of 33:45 is a far cry from his PB of 24:15, it’s not bad for a 55-year old (even though he mentions he had spit, snot and sweat coming out of everywhere). “I will continue to take it one year at a time and see how I feel; there are no plans to stop running. If I can stay injury free, I would like to do 40 Comrades.”

Leonid chasing a 3rd win

Leonid chasing a 3rd win

Whether an ardent long distance runner, a fan or a distant observer, most people agree that Leonid Shvetsov is a Comrades legend and, depending on whom you speak to, the verdict varies from ‘the guy is the complete athletic specimen’ to ‘he is a freak’.

Regardless of your standpoint, the facts surrounding Leonid Shvetsov do not lie. He has the up and down records firmly under his belt and anyone with any aspirations of winning the 2009 Comrades will be using Shvetsov as their marker.

Predicting the winner of a Comrades Marathon is never done with much certainty, due to the nature of long distance running and the beast of a course. However very few wise bets will drift from the name of Leonid Shvetsov this year. Modern Athlete spoke to the man about his chances this year, his experiences, his motivation and his special affinity with the Comrades Marathon. After finishing second to South Africa’s Andrew Kelehe in 2001, most would have borne the psychological scars of the defeat for years, but not Leonid. He remembers the race with a feeling verging on fondness, as it was there that he learnt some valuable lessons. “I entered ‘new territory’,” he recalls, “I felt really good overall, but suffered badly from a lot of downhills. I started cramping 15 to 18km from the finish line, which allowed Andrew to break away from me. Good experience! It paid me back in 2007.”

It is this ‘never say die’ and ‘always see the silver lining’ attitude that distinguishes him from the norm. One would assume that on his return to Russia, he would have isolated himself for a few years of intense Rocky-like training, so that he could come back and obliterate the Comrades fi eld. However, the converse it true. According to Shvetsov, “I worked as usual; no major deviation from my typical pre-marathon preparation.”
So what does ‘training as usual’ entail for Leonid Shvetsov? Two speed sessions and a long run per week. The rest of the days are easy, depending on how I feel. Generally, between 190 to 200. I do not run more than 210km per week,” stresses Leonid. For him, training is not just physical, it is also in the mind. He told us he trains not only his legs, but his head too and claims that he came back to the next Comrades mentally stronger than before. The perception of Eastern Europeans as intensely focused on winning and socially isolated from other nations is a stereotype that many sports-related movies have helped to perpetuate. However, the mere mention of the Comrades Marathon ignites a sparkle in Leonid’s eyes. His achievements at the event are ones that he is extremely proud of and the marathon itself is, in his opinion, the premier ultra-distance marathon of the world. When we asked him, “Why Comrades?” Leonid responded emphatically, “In my opinion, it is the most prestigious ultra-race in the world; by far the largest, not only in prizes, participants and spectators. There really is a special aura about it.”

Leonid was born in Saratov, Russia on 28 March, 1969 and as a young boy, he dabbled in various sports, from swimming to volleyball. At the age of 10, he decided to take to the track. “I soon realized that speed and a jumping technique were two attributes that I did not possess, so the shorter distances and the hurdles were discarded and I focused on the 1 500m and 5 000m races from the age of 15.”

He also participated in the 3 000m steeple-chase. His PB in this event is 8:43:70 and at the age of 19, he scooped a fifth place in the 1988 World Junior Champs. At 22, he tried marathons for the first time and since then has run over 40 marathons (three times at 2:09, three at 2:10, four at 2:11 and approximately 35 at sub 2:20).

Injuries, so commonplace to most athletes, have also threatened to hurt Leonid’s career. He has had two very serious knee injuries, one of which took place just before Comrades in 2002. He has also had back and median thigh injuries, related to a lot of hard road running, but despite these injuries, his resolve to compete and desire to win are firm.

Leonid is incredibly focused and his steely determination is evident. So, who helped instill this trait in him? Who is Leonid’s most significant mentor? “My first and only coach used to read us a lot of books about Soviet and world sports stars, their lives and training, such as Vladimir Kuts (two-time Olympic Champion in the 5 000m and 10 000m in the Melbourne Olympics) and Lasse Vir?n (same distances, but with four gold medals in two Olympics – Munich and Montreal).”

Besides ripping up global marathon records, what else excites this exceptional athlete? Leonid has a keen passion for reading and a long-standing affinity for classic cars. He is also a committed family man. Of his father, a mathematics and mechanics professor and his mother, an oil and gas engineer, he says, “They still live nearby me and I see them whenever possible.” When his schedule allows, he also loves spending time with wife Olga (26) and three children: Artem, aged 6, Arina, aged 2 and Makar, born January 27th this year.

The big question surrounding Comrades 2009 is ‘can Leonid make it three in a row?’ When speaking to him, one gets a sense that this difficult race is just another day at the office for Leonid. “I will run my own race and stay focused.” What may seem to be arrogance or disrespect towards the other runners on the field, is actually simple dedication and a promise to himself to run the race to the best of his ability. He stresses that he acknowledges anyone in the leading pack and states that he has no preconceived plans or person-specific tactics. “I always race myself, first and foremost,” insists Leonid. “When it comes to Comrades, I always run to win, so yes, I want three in a row.”

The evening before Comrades, he will be sitting down to a pre-race meal of pasta and vegetables. On the morning of the race, it will be oatmeal and cookies. His routine is very basic and although we tried to unveil a mystical secret – some sort of hidden power or a training regime that would expose how Leonid is capable of achieving his superhuman feat, for example – all we can reveal is a man who is extremely focused, a man with the determination to accept nothing less than the best from himself and a man with a rock solid belief in his own ability. We did push him for some advice for the mere mortals taking part in this year’s Comrades: “If you want to run a satisfying Comrades, run YOUR OWN race.” It is that simple folks! While most of the country is hoping that a surprise local athlete will win the final stretch come Comrades day, don’t be surprised if we are once again left in awe of this Russian super-athlete.

Hear the Jaguars roar!

Trail Toes

The new shoe is
named after Spyridon Louis, the Greek shepherd who won the marathon in the first
modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, run mostly on gravel roads and basic trails.
Like the Olympic champion, these shoes are built for the rough, with the most
aggressive tread yet seen on a Vibram FiveFingers model.


The shoe comes in two versions, the Spyridon and
Spyridon LS, with identical outsoles, but the LS upper has a quick-fit
speed-lacing system instead of a Velcro strap fastener, and the upper is
thicker, with leather overlays that provide a bit more structure to the fit. I
tested the LS, and found that it provides the same ‘barefoot’ minimalist feel
of other FiveFingers models, thus also promoting forefoot running, but the
lugged outsole gripped the gravel roads and trails much better than the road
models I previously tested. The square-shaped cleats are raised in different directions
to provide traction on loose surfaces, and I found they really stuck!


More importantly for me, with my admittedly baby-soft
feet, was the support provided by the moulded nylon mesh ‘rock block’ insert in
the arch. I stood on a few tree roots and stones during my run, and while I
still felt them, I came out of it in much better shape than I thought I would, without
the flexibility of the shoe being reduced.


In past
tests, I found it hard to get my feet into the versions with a one-piece
stretch upper, because the tops of my feet are slightly raised, so I had to opt
for a laced version that I could open up a bit. The Spyridon, being a trail
shoe, also has a one-piece upper to keep grit out, but I could still get my
feet in fairly easily thanks to the speed-lace fastener that allowed just
enough play. Even better, when I put on a pair of Injinji toe-socks – with the
same five-toe design as the Vibram shoes – my feet just glided into the shoes,
and I really enjoyed the smoother ride, given that my feet are not used to
running without socks.

from leading retailers nationwide – check out the store locator on Recommended selling prices: R1499 for the
Spyridon, R1599 for the Spyridon LS. Men’s and women’s sizes available. Injinji
Socks range from R99 – R180 depending on the style.