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'Start like a coward and finish like a hero': Bruce Fordyce's Comrades pearls of wisdom

Aspasia Karras chats to Bruce Fordyce, nine time winner of the Comrades Marathon

04 June 2023 - 00:03
By Aspasia Karras
Bruce Fordyce won his first Comrades on Republic Day in 1981, wearing a black armband in protest at the 20th anniversary of the declaration of a republic. His name and that of the race have been inseparable ever since.
Image: MASI LOSI Bruce Fordyce won his first Comrades on Republic Day in 1981, wearing a black armband in protest at the 20th anniversary of the declaration of a republic. His name and that of the race have been inseparable ever since.

Bruce Fordyce has the kind of instant recognition factor most celebrities would kill for.

He wears it with grace and a pretty straightforward menshciness. His baby-faced, self-deprecating charm belies what can only be a fierce competitive streak that everyone in the nation is pretty much aware of.

You don’t win the Comrades nine times, making records that only got broken decades later, without a streak like that (he also won the London-Brighton ultra three times). And to do it repeatedly and in such style must mean he has one hell of a backbone to boot.

What he doesn’t have is cartilage in his knees. I imagine it seeped out somewhere around Polly Shorts. But he is still running.

He tells me his doctors can’t believe he isn’t in pain. Me neither, but the Tyrone Harriers, where he makes almost daily guest appearances, and the Park Run loyals can confirm he is still hitting the pavements.

Now 67, Bruce tells me he runs the Park Run, of which he is the South African CEO, all out — and everything else at talking pace. Whatever that means for Bruce Fordyce. Plus he can’t imagine a life without running. “My family would have to put me down — I would be so irritable.”

We meet in Rosebank at the new Italian joint Fugazzi — a gloriously designed fiesta of a restaurant that feels as effervescent as it would be to dine in an actual Aperol Spritz.

Sourdough pizza and fresh handmade pasta on the menu indicate that I was making a runner’s joke when I proposed it. Carb-loading is like the ancient artefact of athletic nutrition — this is how things used to be with the runners — pasta parties the night before the marathon. Imagine.

That sort of crazy thing is now anathema. I ask him if he is friends with professor Tim Noakes? I can happily report that the author of The Lore of Running and the lore of running are indeed as one on this point.

He orders protein — lots of it — and sings the praises of Tim’s volte face on the carb question as a clear indication that he is a great man of science prepared to acknowledge he was wrong.

The 20,000 athletes who are running the celebratory repeat down run Comrades next week are tapering. They are preserving their energy so that they can undertake this monstrous feat of endurance and cross the finish line.

I am writing another book — this one is how to win
Bruce Fordyce

What, I wonder, is the advice he most often gives? “Start like a coward and finish like a hero,” he says emphatically.

He has also penned a very thorough book, Winged Messenger: Run Your First Comrades, and laughs impishly when he says he has a captive audience for sales — every year there are thousands of newbies who want to follow in his hallowed footsteps.

“I am writing another one — this one is how to win.”

As it happens he is a diarist of note. He basically wrote down every training run he took in the build-up to his first Comrades, and every single one since.

He was his own Strava app before all the technology, keeping comprehensive data that he could use to determine what to change and what not to.   Once he hit the winning streak — he stuck with his programme. Which makes a lot of sense but is also counterintuitive.

“Often people think they must double their training and that will improve the outcome.”

Not according to Bruce and he has the personal record to prove it. You can now sign up for his personalised training programme — and he assures me he can get any runner there. Well maybe not there there, but certainly over the finish line in the time they hoped for.

A peripatetic childhood as his father took up British army postings in various far-flung reaches of the world probably imbued his spirit with the kind of resilience you need to get on with things, like the last 10km of the world’s oldest ultramarathon race.

His first real engagement with running was tied up with the events of June 16.

“I felt so powerless, it’s all in my diaries — I had seen the race on television and had done some running at school, and I needed some control of my own destiny, plus my girlfriend had broken up with me.” He laughs.

So he started running every day around on the fields at Wits University, where he later became president of the student representative council.

The image of Bruce running the Comrades in 1981 with a black armband, getting booed and pelted with vegetable matter, is emblazoned on our collective conscience. It was the first time he won.

He once met Queen Elizabeth, who encouraged him to pass on his secrets to make the young “jolly fit”. What makes a great runner, she asked: “You have to be like me — strong legs, great heart, great lungs and no brain cells,” he replied. 

I am inclined to believe the “great heart” part, particularly when he talks about the salutary effects of the Park Run on communities around the country.

He sounds as proud of the fact that he is about to run his 500th Park Run as he is of all the marvels he achieved at his peak.

“I just believe that people must move, I am an archaeologist by training, it’s in our make-up.”