The Circle of Running Life

Perhaps I can be accused of having a starry-eyed love affair with road running, the mistress in my life. It is not dissimilar from the love of a soul mate, the love of one’s very being, that passion which evolves over the years until one attains that pinnacle of that love. In the case of road running, this peak is the Around the World Challenge [RTW Challenge].

Why is this so?

Main picture: Eleven of the thirteen finishers of the Around the World Challenge as at June 2017. Back row: Des Robbins, Paul Selby, Dean McCleland, Peter Darroll. Middle row: Lesley Vermeulen, Ric Marini, Sue Darroll, Frik di Preez. Front row: Kosie van Vuuren, Neels Vermeulen

The Odyssey

Where does one commence this journey? For some it is the P.T. class at school where one is urged to sprint around the field. For the first time one feels the lungs aching as they gasp for air. Then comes the exhilaration and the adrenaline rush. Those displaying some aptitude will be earmarked for the sprints with the dross consigned to the Cross Country events. So it was with me. Do not despair for both streams are on a convergent path ultimately bound together.

For most participants, matric will be the end of that odyssey. For the minority, they will be tempted back either through a challenge as I was, overweight or simply to improve one’s fitness. This event usually occurs in one’s thirties when the cumulative effects of a misguided youth and lack of exercise are conflated into a pre mid-life crisis.

Unlike the challenge involving some mega-distance such as running a marathon, like mine was, or the Comrades, it is usually a run around the block, a Time Trial, or the latest fad, the Park Run which is the so-called gateway drug. Whatever the reason, once one commences the journey, for most it like a series of incremental steps or distances. As if to atone for one’s dietary or other maladies, the urge to propel oneself to achieve both greater fleetness of foot and ever increasing distances, becomes the challenge.

Lesley Vermeulen – the first women to complete 30 Loskop 50kms ultras

As the metronome of my life ticks away, so does one’s running career. In less than a dozen years, one’s initial optimism as regards one’s abilities has been found to be profoundly misplaced and wanting. A realisation dawns with an uncomfortable conclusion that one’s body cannot be pushed harder. Even more disconcerting is that one’s former love affair with road running might just have been an infatuation. For some this dalliance will take the form of an affair with cycling, paddling or, heaven forbid, the couch. For those that discover it, the 1000km challenge is the answer to one’s prayers. No longer is every race a sprint from the gun to the finishing line. Rather it morphs into a journey through the byways of the land with like minded wanderers regaling one another with stories of life.

How long it takes to complete RTW

Nevertheless, the foundation of this is activity can be just as intense in another way; not in speed but in distance. Distance becomes the object. One’s body must adapt from speed to mega distance. Initially one is once again enthralled with the challenge, defying the bounds of one’s body.  Much like all mistresses, the mystery and intrigue fades with time into the tedium of endless runs, mostly without elation and meaning. The flames of one’s passion are being doused with a lack of a challenge.

Lesley Vermeulen receiving her RTW trophy

It is now that circle of running life enters into terminal phase: the Around the World Challenge.

How did it arise?

The genesis of the RTW Challenge is prosaic. It arose in the mind of a dedicated runner by the name of Paul Selby. Some 27 years ago, the dream that Paul was incubating was how to reward the mediocre runner, the back marker whilst simultaneously motivating them to keep hitting the road week after week, year in and year out. His solution was to devise a challenge. Instead of rewarding speed, it would incentivise distance. Thus was born the 1000km Challenge. At that stage in his life, the love of his life was a petite Jenny Kambouris. Jenny had recently lost her husband, Johnny, who was also an ardent runner, and her 19-year-old daughter, in a car accident.  Thus the Johnny Kambouris 1000km Challenge was born.

Paul Selby

Left: Paul Selby, the originator of the RTW concept and the first finisher

Much like all mistresses, it was a hard taskmaster. After the initial shine had worn off the infatuation, the daily grind of the relationship, together with despondency and lethargy set in. Ever mindful of the success of his project, Paul Selby, was searching for some tweak to the reinvigorate the challenge. It was Paul’s running partner, Eugene Lourens, who proposed a hairy audacious goal: Run Around the World. What else would inspire runners who had fatigued legs and distance addled minds.

 

 

Paul Selby completing the 1000km ten day race at Ruimsig in Roodepoort. My friend, Ashley Wood, now sadly deceased, completed over 400kms in 6 days.

The Challenge was on again. Purpose to running was restored.

So far thirteen people have completed the Around the World Challenge. Apart from the satisfaction of completing a challenge which initially was far beyond their comprehension and ability, what factors motivate these competitors to maintain their dedication?

Dean McCleland and friends on the home straight at Saheti School in Bedfordview with Laurie Shellard & Arnold Paikin carrying the banner. Also with me are Gerald Hartmann, Nigel Asprey and Vanessa Bowman.

The overriding factor is camaraderie. No longer is it speed or even one-upmanship, but the ability to interact meaningfully with people from all walks of life. From lawyers to artisans, the challenge has them all. In their other lives, these runners would not even associate with some of these individuals, yet in the challenge we are all equals. What equalises all the runners is their humility in having to endure the physical pain and possessing the self-same mental strength to continue. That separates them from the rest of humanity.

A vignette will illustrate the commitment and dedication to this journey. The lunch and prize giving for the 2016/2017 challenge was held on Sunday 31st July 2017. Unbeknown to the organisers, there was a 10-day circuit race in progress over the weekend. Two of the runners were in line for prizes yet both would attend the prize giving in the posh Protea Hotel in their running clothes. Thereafter both, Carol Nepgen and Ric Marini, return to the circuit and resume the race.

What dedication!

Running is an unforgiving mistress, one that requires constant reassurance. More than that, it requires a life-long commitment. Maybe one cannot attain the same speeds as a youth, but what better sport is there that in the twilight of one’s life, one is still able to achieve monumental goals.

Personally I completed my Around the World goal in February 2015 at the Pick ‘n Pay 21km race. I have now run in excess of 44,000kms in road races and am still going strong. My personal goal is to achieve 50,000kms but I have heard rumblings that a yet so far unannounced audacious goal will be set for those of us who have completed 40,075kms. What it is, nobody knows. But the organisers must take into account that most of us are now in our 60s. Too audacious and it is pointless as most can no longer expect their bodies to endure the relentless mileage any more.

If it is a stretch but achievable, count me in.

Addendums

Just in case you thought that my 1808kms in races last year was stupendous, reproduced below is Brian Collings’ article on completing 5023kms in road races in 2000. If you think that this is madness, what about Brian’s feat of completing 6789kms in a subsequent year. Like many other ultra mileage runners, most have quit before achieving the RTW either due to complaints from their bodies or dire threats from their spouse or both. Or maybe sheer boredom sets in or the cost of running six day races overseas which seals their fate. For whatever reason, Brian has never completed the RTW. Breaking this mould is Ric Marini, whose body might register complaints periodically but he seems to weather the storm successfully. If you think that Brian’s achievement us stupendous, consider Ric’s total distance is one year. It was 8814 kms!!!!

My 5000-Kilometer Challenge

By Brian Collings 

I had no ambition to run high mileage when I started the 2000/2001 Challenge. In fact the year started badly for me. My entry for the Longest Day in July was rejected because they reached the maximum number of entries earlier than usual; I developed flu symptoms the day before the Washie 100 Miler in July and although I finished Washie I was off the road for three weeks before the flu cleared up; and at the first race after my recovery I was involved in a bumper bashing.

 

Brian Collings

Even though I was not going for mileage somehow it started accumulating. I ran the Tuffer Puffer 100 Miler in August because it was new and I fancied the challenge. I ran the Midlands 100 Miler the following week after a last minute decision to enter. The Naval Hill 100 Kilometer the next week has become an annual tradition. I had to run the Mpumalanga 100 Miler three weeks later because I had never run it before. The Cape Town 100 Miler two weeks later is another annual tradition. I could not miss the Amatola 100 Kilometer Trail Run in October because it’s the best race in the country. The Mpumalanga Six Day Race in December was also new and I had to support Wally and Debbie. 

By the end of 2000 I had just over 2000 kilometers and somehow I was leading the Challenge. When I started to plan my running schedule for 2001 I realized there was a good chance I could break the record for the Challenge. Nobody seemed to know exactly what the record was but the consensus was that it was about 4420 kilometers. If I aimed for 4500 kilometers I was sure to break it. 

I had already decided to run the Randburg Six Day Race at the beginning of April and I was considering running the New York Six Day Race at the end of April. Based on my experience at previous Six Day Races I knew I could run 450 kilometers at each race. Adding up my planned kilometers would give me about 4600 kilometers. More than enough to break the record. 

Then the “what if” games started. If I pushed hard, I estimated I could run just over 4800 kilometers. This figure burned through my head. It was so close to 5000 kilometers. Ronnie Gerber from FIT 2000 finally helped me to make up mind. He asked me what my goal was for the challenge – “four what?” he asked. “It doesn’t start with four” I replied without thinking. I had made the commitment now I had to find the mileage. 

By stretching my budget and travelling a lot I would be able to get close to 5000 kilometers. If I ran another 50 kilometers at the two Six Day Races I would be over 5000 kilometers. It was frightening. I had to run further than I had ever run before and the slightest problem like an injury or a cancelled race or a puncture could destroy everything. 

From that point on I ran EVERYTHING. From the beginning of January until Comrades I ran 71 races of which 36 were marathons or ultras. I ran up to six races a week. I ran every race on my schedule plus one or two more I found along the way. I completed 450 kilometers at the Randburg Six Day Race and 503 kilometers in New York only three weeks later. 

Although I had twinges in odd places I remained remarkably injury free except for my heels, which hurt for the whole six months. By the end of the New York Six Day Race they hurt so much I was battling to walk. The Jock of The Bushveld Ultra the week after the Six Day Race was really tough and I was wrecked after the race. I had to run the Cavanagh Marathon in Estcourt the day after the Jock. They are both 54 kilometers and have the same 6:30 cutoff but the Cavanagh has a much tougher route. I remember driving to the Cavanagh and wondering how I was going to make it. I had to walk most of the up hills – and there were a lot of up hills – and I had to hang in for what seemed like forever but somehow I finished before the gun. 

Comrades was the last big hurdle. I had to finish Comrades to break 5000 kilometers. I took the first half easy – probably too easy. My halfway time was 5:26:18, which meant I had to run the second half almost as fast as the first half. It was a long second half but I made it in 10:52:12. I finished the challenge with 5041.4 kilometers. Not only did I make 5000 kilometers but I also passed 5023 kilometers, which is equal to the combined distances required for bronze plus silver plus gold. 

I was amazed while I was working towards my goal at the support I got from other runners. I ran races all over the country from Cape Town to Pietersburg and I always had runners prepared to travel with me and to accommodate me. It seemed like half the world knew what I was trying to do and they wanted to show me their support. Total strangers would walk up to me at races in faraway places and ask how I was progressing. I know of at least one runner who entered the Challenge just so that he could come and see me at prize giving. To all of you who supported and encouraged me THANK YOU.

Paul Selby’s achievement

Paul completed his RTW distance on 6th November 2005. It took him 15 years and 6 months to achieve it at an average 2585kms per year. For Paul, 40,075kms was merely an intermediary challenge towards a 20-year goal in order to complete 50 000kms in the 20 years of the 1000km Challenge. Paul went through 40075 during the New York Marathon which he only realised later.

 

Paul Selby

Paul’s claim to fame is not so much that he was the first South African runner to achieve the RTW goal, but that he ran Comrades back to back. What this meant is that Paul would run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg overnight in 11 hours. After an hour’s break, he would then line up in Pietermaritzburg and complete the Comrades officially by running to Durban. I can still clearly recall bumping into Paul and his running mate at Botha’s Hill after having completed +- 60kms. It took a number of attempts at conversation before Paul realised that I was talking to him. The reply was disjointed. Then his cellphone ran. It was East Coast Radio. They were enquiring about his progress. Through sheer exhaustion and tiredness, Paul’s reply was a jumble of unintelligible words interspersed with “I’m fine” more to reassurance himself than to answer the caller.

Initially no formal recognition was awarded for the achievement until 2008 when Paul’s achievement was acknowledged together with Kosie van Vuuren and Hanspeter Stebler who had achieved it in 2007 and 2006 respectively.

The others in order of their achievement

 

No. 2: Hanspeter Stebler – No information available as he is in Switzerland

 

 

 

No 12: Barry Schwartz – no information available


3 Comments

  1. A big THANK YOU Dean for the article/blog. Well written. Whilst reading my brain kept on popping words up, quite similar to: “Wow! Wow! Wow!”

    Currently there is moisture brimming over my eye-lids due to the realization that I actually ‘know’ many of these faces/names and at some stage I have actually shared a few kilometers with them on various races. Some reminiscing thoughts: Ronny Gerber and I drove down together to Pietermaritzburg to do a ‘Longest Day’, many moons ago. Brian Collings collecting/picking up ‘forks’ from the road. George Coertzen, commentating and ‘driving’ the Florida club ‘buss’ with ‘ding-ding’ on many-many races, etc.

    Agapé greetings.
    Elbert.

    Reply

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