02 Apr, 2013

Go Biggs… or go home

Go Biggs… or go home

In a remarkable running career, Dan Biggs claimed four Comrades gold medals between 1981 and 1986, and capped that with numerous podium positions in both the Duzi canoe race as well as the old Transvaal Ironman competition, making him one of the most versatile and talented athletes of his day. “My running strength really paid off in canoeing races when the water was low. In the 1981 Duzi, I ran for three hours and only paddled for 15 minutes! It made for interesting races between the runners and paddlers.”



Born in 1959 in Ixopo, Natal, Dan was the youngest of five kids. At school, he didn’t like having to wait to be picked up by his mother when his older siblings finished later, so he ran home instead, and from that his love of running grew. His athletic career took off in 1978, the year after he completed his national service, when he began studying at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. There he was coached by John Baxter, who he credits for giving him the self-belief to compete with the best. Dan won the Natal Marathon Champs in September 1980 in a PB 2:22:36, and the following January finished second in the Duzi after a titanic struggle with Graeme Pope-Ellis, ran an excellent 3:20 to finish sixth in the Two Oceans in April, and then decided to run Comrades.


However, that year saw the Comrades organisers incorporate the 20th Anniversary Republic Day Festival into the Comrades programme, which prompted about 30 students from universities around the country to wear black armbands in protest, including Bruce Fordyce and Dan. “For us, the Comrades symbolised a celebration of the human spirit, so why involve it with the Republic's most infamous ‘achievement,’ Apartheid? Our black armbands did not go down well with many people – for the first kilometre a tall Afrikaner swore at me and became even more rabid when I told him to sod off! All the abuse I received along the route just made me more determined to do well.” That determination carried Dan to fifth position in 5:54:08 “It felt great to have had such a good first Comrades and done my bit for the struggle at the same time.”



In 1982 Dan teamed up with his Springbok canoeist brother Tim to win the Duzi pairs, then went into Comrades hoping to do the double, but unfortunately picked up an injury six weeks before the race and finished way off the pace. The following year he finished second at both Duzi and Ironman, and 14th at Comrades, and then in 1984 he repeated his two second places and got back amongst the Comrades golds, finishing fifth in 5:47:11. In 1985 he claimed third, third and sixth respectively, with a 5:57:55 Comrades finish.


“In 1986 I sacrificed the Duzi and Ironman so that I could concentrate on the Comrades, because I desperately wanted to win it, but I probably peaked about six weeks before the race, and then I picked up a bad cold three days before the race. I was nevertheless determined to give it my best shot. At 60km I was running with Bruce and Hosea Tjale, lying joint second as we chased Bob de la Motte, but my stomach started to feel dodgy. So when I saw a portaloo under a bridge, I decided to answer the call of nature while I had the opportunity to do so in a dignified fashion! When I came out of the loo, Bruce and Hosea were about 300m down the road and on the day I was not good enough to catch them, eventually finishing eighth in 5:45. While it was my best average pace of all my Comrades at 3:50 per kilometre, I was devastated! But later I realised that I had done my best possible build-up to the race and had fought hard on the day.”



Dan went on run six more Comrades, the last in 2001, but says that when his competitive running days ended, so too did his motivation to race. Today he works as a landscaper in Cape Town and is father to two artistically and musically talented children, Sarah (21) and Josh (18). “I loved the heat of battle and always raced to win. That’s why I did not make a good transition to social runner in later years, as running somewhere in the middle of the pack simply did not do it for me. I still run most days on Table Mountain, which I find excellent therapeutic soul food.”