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04 May, 2016

Heroes' Welcome

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When Hilton Murray pushed Anita Engelbrecht over the finish line of the 2016 Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon, to a standing ovation, she not only made history as the first participant in a jogger to complete the race, but they also ran into the hearts of everybody following the race. However, few people know just how many hills they had to overcome to reach that finish. – BY SEAN FALCONER

 

Hilton Murray stands out from the crowd. A running veteran with 12 Comrades and 11 Two Oceans medals to his name, the exceptionally tall 49-year-old and his Pikkie the Penguin cap shot to fame in 2014 when he completed the 10-10 Challenge, running from Johannesburg to Pietermaritzburg in nine days, covering the Comrades race distance each day, and then ran the race itself on day 10, all to raise funds for charity.

Anita Engelbrecht also stands out from the crowd, but for different reasons. The 22-year-old student doing her final year of a B.Com Management Accounting degree at Stellenbosch University was born 12-weeks premature and suffered a lack of oxygen at birth, which resulted in brain damage that affected her motor skills and eventually left her confined to a wheelchair. “It was actually a miracle that I survived,” she says, but then jokingly adds, “I guess I just couldn’t wait to get out – my curiosity got the better of me!”

Hilton first met Anita when she was five years old. He had grown up in the same Free State town as her dad, Jannie, and they reconnected when Hilton and his wife Lizette moved to Bellville in the Cape 17 years ago. Lizette and Anita’s mom Liezel soon became best friends, and the families grew very close, but Hilton admits that he underestimated Anita at first. “Something I haven’t told anybody until this interview is that when I first saw Anita at age five, she looked like a two-year-old, and I actually thought she was both physically and mentally disabled, but she soon put me right. She scored straight A’s in Matric and has been passing all her university subjects cum laude, and it’s thanks to her I have learnt not to judge a book by its cover.”

 

Born to Run

The whole Engelbrecht family is involved in running. Liezel ran her first Comrades in 2009, with Hilton and Lizette, and Jannie promised that if she finished it, he would also run it in 2010. She made it with four minutes to spare, and he duly joined them. Anita’s younger brother Janu also runs, up to the half marathon distance. “I grew up in a household of people who ran, so I believe it was always meant to be that I would experience it for myself,” says Anita, “but for 20 years I was mostly waiting at the finish line. I even gave myself the title of Manager of the Engelbrecht Team.”

That all changed in September last year, when Hilton phoned and asked if she wanted to do the Moore Stephens 10km Night Race in Stellenbosch with him. “I wanted Anita to be part of our running as well, so I got a jogger from Graeme Keehn, who had been running for several years with a young black guy from the Somerset-West area. He told me he had built a new jogger, so would give me his old one – all I had to do was brace the cracked handle. He also told me to check the wheel alignment, but I forgot, so every step of that first race I had to correct the pull to the left!”

And so an understandably thrilled Anita completed her first official running event, but she giggles as she says she wasn’t entirely honest with Hilton. “I actually had a test the next morning, but when Hilton phoned, I said yes immediately, because I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. I never told him this until now, but I went to swot in the library the night after the race – and I still did well in that test.” Hilton just laughs and says “I wouldn’t have let her participate if I had known, because I studied accountancy and know how hard it is. But the first thing I said to her after we finished that 10km was that I thought we could go longer, maybe even as far as Two Oceans, or even Comrades. Her smile said it all.”

 

Going Longer

Just 11 days later they lined up in the Sanlam Cape Town City Marathon. “It was actually against the rules to run the marathon with a jogger, even though the website said wheelchair-friendly, but that was only supposed to be for the 10km event. So, the organisers said no, but after 10 minutes of deliberation they said yes. I wanted to do that marathon specifically because it is flat, and we ran comfortably with the five-hour bus.” Two more marathons followed, just to prove that they could do it, says Hilton. “I wanted to do a difficult route to see if I can manage hills in an ultra, because Anita weighs 43 kilograms, and with the jogger I am pushing 60 kilograms, so we went to run the Red Hill Marathon in January and finished about 25 minutes faster than Cape Town. Then at Peninsula the plan was to start at the front and do under four hours, but we got chased to the back by the race referees, because of safety concerns. That meant we wasted about 20 minutes, because we couldn’t pass anybody in the first four kays, but we still finished in 4:06.”

And so Hilton turned his attention to the ultras. “Having done three marathons, I thought we would get in easily for Two Oceans, but first I applied to Comrades, because I thought if they said yes, Oceans would as well. I wanted to follow the right procedure, so I applied via the Chaeli Foundation, but the CMA said no, although they did say their committee would look into it further, so we still got Anita a substitution entry just in case.” (At the time of going to print, Hilton and Anita had liteally just been told by the CMA that she and fellow wheelchair participant Chaeli Mycroft would be allowed to participate, subject to finer details still being worked out.)

“We also got Anita a substitution entry for Two Oceans, and a week before the race I wrote to the organisers to tell them of our plans. Two days later we got an official no, as it was against the race rules to run with a jogger, but we decided we were not going to just give up, and while negotiations were still underway, I published my request letter on Facebook. Honestly, there was no intention to play dirty, but the reaction from the public went ballistic, causing a publicity storm for the organisers. They eventually said yes after meeting with the City of Cape Town and finding solutions to the challenges our application posed, and on the Thursday, Two Oceans General Manager Carol Vosloo phoned Liezel to say we could run, but that we had to start 10 minutes before the main field, with our own referee and two policemen on motorbikes as escort. We were over the moon about that, because it meant starting with a clear road!”

 

The Big Day

So Hilton and Anita duly lined up for the Two Oceans, with Liezel, Lizette and Jannie as support in a car to meet them at various points. Just before they set off, Carol came over to wish them all the best. “She gave us each a hug and had a pic taken with us, so it was a real hand of friendship extended after a difficult week, and we really appreciated it,” says Anita. “It rained just before we started, so the road was deserted as we did the first three kilometres absolutely alone, with just the motorbikes – Hilton still joked that we must be running on the wrong day – but then the runners started passing us and most said something encouraging, as did the spectators later, and many knew our names thanks to Facebook.”

Anita’s face absolutely lights up as she describes running along Chapmans Peak: “I’ve done it three times in a buggy towed by a bike in the Cape Town Cycle Tour, but it is so much better on the run, because it’s slow enough to really enjoy the view.” Hilton, on the other hand, was finding the going a bit hard. “I started cramping on Chappies, not because of the weight of the jogger, but because I had not eaten properly the week leading up to the race, so I took out my salami and pink Steri Stumpies and stopped three times on Chappies for a snack break, but I didn’t tell Anita about my cramping.”

The long climb to Constantia Nek saw Hilton struggle even more. “I had to stop regularly to rest, and other runners kept offering to help, but I told them I need to do this myself to prove we can do it at Comrades. Fortunately, the support team met us at the crest of the hill and gave me a cold beer while Liezel checked on Anita. I put that beer away in less than 10 seconds, because I was in quite a state, but a kay further on I was fine. Just shows you the power of the mind.”

From there they had a smooth run home, passing many runners, and Anita said it actually went by too quickly. “The last 10 kays flew by and I was already getting sad that it was almost finished, so I joked that Hilton should just go past UCT and keep running to Bellville, because we were going so smoothly. But then we reached the finish, and it was just phenomenal!” Hilton adds, “I can’t actually remember the physical aspect of the last kilometre, because I was running on pure emotion. We had the SABC cameras on us and Harold Berman announced that we were coming in, and the crowd reaction was unbelievable!”

 

Hero Status

They crossed the line in 6:23 and the runners all around them started congratulating them. It then took them ages to move across the field to the Bellville club gazebo, because everybody wanted to say well done. Later that same day when photos of Hilton and Anita began appearing on Facebook, the reaction from the running community was incredible. “I am so happy that our run generated good publicity for disabled people, and I sent a message to Carol to say thank you. She replied to say she was glad I enjoyed my race,” says Anita. “What I really appreciate is that from saying no to saying yes, they really went the extra mile to allow us to run, so I want to thank them very much again.” Hilton adds that he is just as thankful, but also feels he needs to apologise for the way the approval was obtained. “I acknowledge that we put the Two Oceans organisers on the spot at short notice, and I want to publicly apologise for that. I stepped on a lot of toes, but I really had assumed they would just say yes...”

So what’s next for this dynamic duo, besides hopefully Comrades? Hilton gets a gleam in the eye as he admits he is already thinking about trying a triathlon, and hopefully building up to a Full Ironman with her… “But I have to learn to swim properly first! Also, I hate cold water, because I am so skinny – and where I grew up in the Free State, the water is never warm!” At this, Anita’s eyes light up even more... So, does she want to do Ironman? “Yes, definitely, without a doubt. I will register as a pro athlete if I have to! I believe that you should not be defined by your circumstances. Too many people get fixated on a disability, but I believe there is no such thing – some of us are just differently-abled.”

Sean Falconer

Sean Falconer

Editor |

Sean is Editor of Modern Athlete Magazine and is based in Stellenbosch. He manages the Maties Women's Soccer Team, runs himself and does regular race commentary on weekends. The Busy Body.