Of course I am not referring to the President for Life north of South Africa. Somebody less well-known but for me as a youngster he was “famous.” On three occasions he was runner-up to Bruce Fordyce on the South African version of the rite of passage, the purgatory of the Comrades Marathon. His name is Bob de la Motte. For people of my generation, the Comrades Marathon held a fascination unlike any other sport as South Africa was besotted and enthralled in equal measure by this long distance odyssey. For one day a year, all South Africans would be glued to their TV sets as the runners battled it out over 90 kilometres of the most arduous road race in the world.
Having never met Bob de la Motte how can my Opinion Piece be entitled Bob and I? Having recently read his autobiography – The Runaway Comrade – which is partly biographical and partly a social commentary of the milieu in which South Africa existed at the time, I was struck by so many similarities in our upbringing and life experiences.
Main picture: Bob de la Motte being congratulated by Bruce Fordyce, his nemesis. In any other era, Bob de la Motte’s finishing times would have accorded him a win. What Bob did was to force the indominitable Fordyce to greater feats.
Let me make it clear that while we may have led parallel lives in the same era – becoming Chartered Accountants, being an auditor, running marathons and being drafted unwillingly into the Army – the parallel lines were never close together. Whereas I made it to Audit Senior by 28, Bob was an Audit Partner for KMPG in East London. Even though I ran marathons, I barely made the cut-off of 4h30 whereas Bob went from strength to strength to ultimately achieve a marathon PB of 2:20. So it goes on. Bob even wrote his first Board Exam in 1977 which was the same year in which I wrote mine. The only difference was that he passed while I was amongst the 66% who failed.
The greatest difference was Bob de la Motte’s decision in 1986 to emigrate. Even though I had taken the conscious decision in circa 1979 to switch political allegiances from the United Party – a blander English speaking version of the racist Nationalist Party – to the Progressive Party, I was not as politically aware as what Bob was. Without imagining all the consequences of what would occur when black rule materialised, at a visceral level I had accepted that the iniquities of Apartheid were unsustainable especially as regards voting rights.
As I turned the pages of Bob’s autobiography, I was again immersed in a world which I had largely forgotten, a world which is the very antithesis of the new South Africa. Most of these events, especially where those pertaining to the pettiness of Apartheid were concerned, had real life consequences for my fellow black South Africans.
Many of these incidents are mere footnotes of history but they represent the mosaic of hatred which seethed in the black population. One such incident, long forgotten by most including myself, was the possible preventable death of a fellow runner Kenny Jacobs. Kenny was seriously injured in some sort of accident. However the first ambulance to arrive was reserved for Whites. As such they were prevented from assisting Kenny. By the time that a “black” ambulance arrived, Kenny could not be saved. Whether he would have survived if he had been transported in a white ambulance to a white hospital is debatable but it was the mere fact that an injured person’s treatment depended upon one’s skin colour which made Apartheid so reprehensible.
It is this egregious treatment some 20, 30 and even 40 years ago which makes the unthinking tweet by Dianne Kohler Barnard so insensitive to the black community. By alleging that PW Botha was a better President than Zuma implies that one accepts the inhumane treatment of Kenny Jacobs. Ironically nationalist leaders such a PW Botha railed against the British treatment of the Afrikaner in South Africa yet they willfully mistreated the black population in South Africa even more shabbily and shamelessly.
The issue of emigrating was a constant topic of conversation especially after the revolt in Soweto on 16th June 1976. Either through naivety – things would get better approach – family ties or a deep commitment to South Africa, I never took that decision. Being of 1820 Settler stock, the McCleland’s have deep roots in South Africa and thoughts of abandoning South Africa was never an option. However 80% of my matric class mates have by now taken the chicken run as well as large swaths of my family. They are now resident throughout the world – San Diego, California, Australia, New Zealand and even Switzerland.
As far as running goes, this was the era in which most athletes were amateurs except Bruce Fordyce. That meant for Bob running 200kms per week in training in addition to a 12 hour job as Audit Partner. This attitude prevailed purely because of the love of the sport and more importantly the lack of other opportunities – this was the era of the sports boycotts – and the ease of training. One could literally train whenever and wherever one was. And so it was with Bob.
Of Bob’s three attempts at winning the Comrades, the 1986 attempt was the most riveting. It was during this race that the (in)famous handshake of Bruce Fordyce with 8kms to go occurred. The meaning intended was obvious: you are history and I will thrash you. The gesture engendered a feeling of failure in the recipient.
Apart from this, the sport was not only about being fit but also the generosity of spirit. There was no malice. Rather a rare sense of camaraderie prevailed as most of the competitors trained together. The names of Bob’s running partners are well known in running circles. Most of them – if they are still running – are no longer the young skinny runners they once were. Instead they will now jog along like the rest of us content to merely finish the race.
Bob may never have won the Comrades but affirmation of his greatness are his majestic wins in both the Korkie Ultra and the Stock Exchange Marathon. This alone will not place him necessarily at the level of the pantheon of the Comrades greats such as Fordyce, a Meckler or a Hayward but certainly amongst the top batch. Inasmuch as he did not win the Comrades, he can still take solace from the fact that the winning time in many years is worse than his best time of 5:26
In Australia he also displayed his ability by winning a number of marathons.
For me the last 100 pages dealing with his life and experiences in Australia were of less interest and I suggest that most can gladly skip it. Essentially Bob left the auditing profession and became an investment banker earning mega bucks in the process. This allowed him to retire at 55 and to indulgence in his dream – partaking in triathlons and bike races around the world.
The one attribute that all the Comrades Greats had in common was a highly inflated VO2Max. In Bob’s case it was 25% above the norm. What I found in my youth was that I was able to run 10kms in under 45 minutes yet I battled to complete a marathon in the Comrades cut-off time. Instead of my performance slowly degrading with distance, like with the top runners, mine was precipitous. Advice aplenty abounded, some not eagerly accepted especially when it was proffered by the sanctimonious know-it-all. Fellow runners advised me that I started too fast, started too slowly, didn’t carbo-load correctly, carbo-loaded too much. Nothing worked. All of their suggestions proffered were attempted to no avail.
In exasperation I had my lungs tested. The two hour batch of tests revealed that my VO2Max was below average and would impair my long distance running ability. That and my level of sweating. An additional column was duly added to my running log: Weight lost on run. By recording a 5 kilogram loss between leaving home and returning home, it implied that in reality I had lost 6kgs and possibly even 7 kgs during the race. The result was that I was often light headed during a long race. This shortcoming would even result in my passing out during a race on two occasions.
Bob also demolishes an apocryphal notion which was prevalent at the time which stated that blacks were not good long distance runners. This notion was born from the fact that black runners were handily capable of winning marathons or even ultras at the time but yet the white runners dominated the Comrades.
This perplexing situation is explained by Bob as the difference in their objective. The overwhelming majority of white participants had a full-time job where prize money was not a consideration whereas for the black runner it was a huge incentive. In their quest to earn prize money, they raced all the marathons and ultras before Comrades. None adhered to Fordyce’s maxim that one should not race a marathon before Comrades. Furthermore with no prize money on offer by the Comrades, there was no financial incentive to win let alone compete.
With the introduction of prize money, black runners now claim most of the top 20 places.
In a large measure I accept his line of reasoning but like all issues, the causes are not as clear-cut. The era during which the Comrades was iconic was also the epoch when running was the sport of the natural sportsmen as opposed to the average person. The pool of talented sportsmen who readily adopted running as their sport in order to attempt the Comrades was huge. Now that pool is spread amongst a multiplicity of other sports.
I still vividly recall some of the tight cut-offs 25 years ago:
- 3 hours for a 32 km race at UPE in Port Elizabeth
- 2 hours for a 21km race in Humansdorp
- 2 hours & 30 minutes for the tough Randburg Harriers 21km race
- 50 minutes for a 10km night race in Bellville
By finishing in 1:55 for a 21km race in Humansdorp, I was castigated by the Organisers because I was preventing everybody from going home!
The lifeblood of the running fraternity were long Sunday runs with the slowest bus being the 5 minute per kay “derelict bus” for injured or recuperating members. Even the 15km run from Dick’s house on Wednesday morning maintained a 4 mpk pace. Ordinary people like Mike Wilmot, with 36 consecutive Comrades finishes, would run a 40km training run every Sunday.
What has happened to this level of dedication? Even with a demanding job, Bob managed to run in excess of 5000kms per annum. As he states, there were no “junk miles” i.e. miles to fill the log book. Instead it was hill repeats with Fordyce up Sweethoogte or fartlek on a 30km training run; anything but a run-of-the-mill 35km jog.
It was this that allowed Bob to complete a sub 5:30 Comrades and still manage to have sex afterwards.
Running has changed in other ways too especially over the past 5 years. Instead of informal race segregation with the fast blacks in front and the slow whites behind, the non-sporting black population has adopted running as their own. This tendency has drawn the mediocre and untalented black runners into the sport.
What is most different from the old days is the attitude. Most runners view running as a once a week exercise event with no fixed training or long distance commitment in mind. This attitude prevails across all racial groups with a very small minority being “dedicated” runners.
On reading this book, I could relate to Bob’s experiences as if I had personally known him. For me it was a reminder of a long lost world of hopefulness and camaraderie conflated with the meanness, arrogance & pettiness of Apartheid, was diametrically opposed and the antithesis of the spirit of the Comrades.
The good conflated with evil
The serenity of the suburbs conflated with the griminess, poverty and anger in the townships.
The white despair for the future conflated with black hopes of a future nirvana.
South Africa has inherited neither. The Blacks did not obtain their Shangri-La but neither did the Whites obtain a Socialist one-party state.
Instead they jointly negotiated a liberal constitution with rights aplenty.
What they have not learned is that rights granted does not imply negating others rights and possibly more importantly that rights are worthless unless they are enforceable
Funny that ………………………..
But it took an Aussie by the name of Bob de le Motte to make me evaluate from where South Africa has come and how far the road still stretches out in front of us.
Perhaps that was due to the fact that I could relate to him also being a white ex-South African who agonised over the future direction of the country and was equally infuriated by the verkrampte racist attitudes and policies of the Nationalist government.
In short, the road to Nation Building is more akin to that of a Comrades Race – a long slow gut-wrenching slog – than a quick 10 km jog around the block.
Do we have the determination to confront our societal demons or will we succumb to racial distrust, ineptitude and corruption?
Only time will tell.
For that South Africa requires another Mandela.
Yet none is in the wings.
Source: The Runaway Comrade by Bob de la Motte
Comment by Bob on “that” handshake:
The 1986 Comrades handshake was initiated by me, not Bruce. I have posted a copy of the SABC TV clip on my Twitter account @RunawayComrade … notwithstanding all the balderdash and speculation about “Bruce’s” smart psychological handshake, it was mine. Look at the recording. He was confused as to why I wished to shake hands … and my message was …”good luck, the loser pays for lunch” …Sadly sports psychologists cite this event totally inaccurately and without basis. In fact it has become Comrades folklore without any substance whatsoever. Some while after the handshake he then gave me an unfathomable bearhug just to show the press truck (merely meters in front of us) that we were friends! He did battle to reach my shoulders
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