Like plenty of other great people in my life, I met Ashley Wood on a run. It was a half-marathon in Hammanskraal. Through dusty streets & past ramshackle shacks we scurried. I tried my level best to catch a runner in the pink vest in front of me but he would not slacken his pace. His speed never varied as he strided effortlessly in front of me with his long legs. Then at the 15km mark, his pace slackened off for the first time. Now was my opportunity. I kept on pushing until I drew level with him and then slowed to his pace.
The affable smiling man in the pink running vest introduced himself to me. He was Ashley Wood, a novice runner who only had very few races under this belt. I was immediately enamoured with my new companion as we chatted animatedly.
What I did also ascertain was that Ashley lived no more than two kilometres from my house, in the same street actually. With him was his running companion, also a Florida member, Geoff Gilfillan, who he proudly introduced as his personal undertaker.
As I rapidly learnt, Ashley was an iconoclast. Not content with acceptable societal norms and wisdom, he had an alternative view on life. Not that he possessed a venal or lawless streak, but his viewpoints on how one should approach life was different from the norm.
But what he told me would affect my life dramatically for the next twenty years. He informed me that he had entered the Johnny Kambouras 1000km Challenge where one had to complete the unbelievable total of a minimum of 1000km between consecutive Comrades. I was flabbergasted. That was impossible, 1000km of races per annum. As this was the first year of the challenge, he twisted my arm to complete the Challenge. I did only 990kms that year. If I had run another 10kms, I would have completed all the Challenges since its inception. So Janine can blame Ashley as being culpable for my fixation for 20 years on the Challenge.
After meeting Ashley at a few more races, we quickly set up a lift club comprising Ashley, myself and Geoff with Ashley doing the lion’s share of the driving.
Most people do not believe that they have a moral responsibility to assist those less fortunate than themselves, but Ashley did. In this way, he tended to accumulate the waifs and strays of society. These persons who due to the financial constraints were unable to afford to attend races, Ashley would fetch and carry and assist them in whatever way possible.
Two examples spring to mind; one an indigent Afrikaans speaking bus driver, Willem, and a coloured youth from work. Both were given the opportunity to participate in road running due to Ashley’s largesse.
Despite not being a fan of the long distance races such as Comrades, Ashley entered his first six day race at Ruimsig Stadium. Ashley was in his element. With his mind constantly calculating splits and speeds, he never tired as his body kept on going. In the following years when no organisers were available, Ashley agreed to become the Organiser thereof.
Being such a warm hearted person, he attracted his share of acolytes and I was amongst them. Not that I agreed with all his viewpoints especially those relating to his technophobia where he and I were at odds. I also did not agree with him that my children should not attend university. But those part of his quirks.
Ashley, Geoff and I were inseparable as we ran every race on the fixture list within 200kms even on a Wednesday night. We ran not only every race, but the longest of both races over the weekend. As a minimum this meant that one often ran a marathon and a half-marathon back to back.
Then his enthusiasm for the monotony and the high weekly distances waned. Ashley would not be running back-to-back half marathons anymore and especially not the far-away Wednesday night races.
Not that he stopped running, but he just reduced the number to one a week with the occasional additional race if it was special.
Then one Wednesday night we all went down to Sasolburg for a 21km night race. Instead of his steady unrelenting stride, Ashley could not get into a rhythm. He was rapidly left behind as the rest of us surged ahead. As we all finished in a sub two hours, we all waited anxiously for Ashley to appear. Eventually he did. But Ashley was a broken man. He complained of pains in his arm but heavily discounted the symptoms as all runners are wont to do.
That Saturday we were all going our own separate ways; Ashley, Doreen, his wife & Kathy Perchtold were going to the Pilansberg to go game-viewing while Ashley was running. Instead Geoff and I did the Iscor 21km race at the Iscor Head Offices in Eeufees Road Pretoria.
After arriving home, I received a distressful call from Kathy that Ashley had suffered a heart attack after completing the race and had been rushed through to hospital in Rustenburg. My heart sank. How was that possible? With Ashley not having an ounce of fat and being fitter than 95% of the general population what had gone wrong?
I phoned Kathy back. She was evasive in her replies but I pressed the point: what was the prognosis. After much prevarication she stated that he would not survive.
I was in shock!
Geoff Gilfillan was called upon to arrange the funeral which was in a chapel near the present day University of Johannesburg. As a close friend, I was under an obligation to make a eulogy but could not bring myself to do so, so Geoff read it for me instead.
Through his contacts, Geoff did manage to attend the autopsy and the prognosis was clearly evident: blocked arteries.
Ashley had a formidable memory for facts – the more trivial the more memorable as far as Ashley was concerned – and could relate any of these facts to our travails as we both struggled to complete the race in some sort of dignity. I lost many a game of Trivial Pursuit due to his phenomenal memory.
What attracted people to Ashley was this quick wit and quirky sense of humour. It was this trait which assisted Ashley through the tough patches in the long races. With his mind in overdrive, he would bombard one with these inanities and quips much to everyone’s delight.
Ashley always made one feel important. That trait, together with an ironic sense of humour, attracted people to him.
My children, who were still in their mid-teens when Ashley passed away, summed him up the best. When told that they could not attend his funeral, they both stated that they wanted to and their reasoning was irrefutable, “Because he was our friend too.”
That observation encapsulates the man and his values. Even the children were treated with respect and made to feel welcome.
Such was Ashley’s bonhomie and hospitableness.
Other Articles on Running:
My Comrades Marathon: An Abiding Memory
My Comrades Debut and Swansong, all in one Race
My Running Redux
The Journey from Searing Back-Pain in late 2013 to Running Races again in Respectable Times
Poisoned Chalice or Fool’s Errand?
Report back the Dawn to Dusk 80km Running Race in August 2013
My Mid-Life Crisis: How did I attempt to regain my lost youth?
What did it take me to get over my mid-life crisis in my early forties?
Ashley Wood – In Memoriam
IoT: What impact will it have on Road Running?
The possibilities of the latest technology – the Internet of Things – are ruminated upon
A Drab and Unremarkable Race with Pretensions: Gauteng Sports Challenge
Gauteng requires a big city marathon on the scale of the London Marathon but the Gauteng Sports Challenge doesn’t fit the bill
A Running Experience: A Hill too Far
On this day, the Loskop 50km ultra marathon running race had one hill too many, Faraday’s Hill. It was to be my nemesis.
The First Time
Andre Hydenryck – In Memoriam