As the countdown to the Tata Mumbai Marathon 2019 begins, Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan catches up with the legendary ultra-marathoner Bruce Fordyce, an astounding 9 time champion of the Comrades.
Over a cosy chat, Bruce reveals the facets of one of the most gruelling races in the world and what made him do it.
Capt: What exactly is the Comrades all about?
Bruce: It is a run that was conceived in 1921 by Vic Clapham, a WW I veteran, to commemorate his South African colleagues killed during the war. Vic, the survivor of both the war and a 2,700 km march through the then German occupied East Africa, dedicated the event to their memory as a frontier of endurance.
Capt: Wow! That is almost a hundred years old. So how does the ‘comradeship’ work with the participants?
Bruce: That is the sad part. Many of the athletes I have run with and, in fact, most of the competitors, are sadly unaware of the legend behind the event. In fact, its constitution states its main objective as ‘celebrating mankind’s spirit over adversity’. At the end of each year’s race, the buglers play the ‘Last Post’. Unfortunately, very few seem to even recognize the tune, leave alone understand its significance as a tribute to the fallen.
Capt: That is quite sad. Still, do tell us about your experiences with the Comrades over the years.
Bruce: Well, I started as a kind of social runner in the first couple of years, but from the third year on, finding my timings improving, I got a bit more serious about it. And with my first win, there was no looking back. It can get pretty lonely; many a time there is no one near you, unlike the flatter marathons where runners bunch up together and then someone breaks out of the crowd. Here, there is no crowd, and me, especially as defending champion over the years, I had to keep looking for a contender to compete with.
Capt: This is an up and down race as I recall reading. What exactly is this?
Bruce: This has to do with running up and down from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and back. The route alternates every other year.
Capt: So which, in your opinion, is tougher? The up, or the down?
Bruce: Well, it’s obviously the same thing, but different runners look at them differently. You just don’t think about it and take it in your stride. Speaking for myself, I have fared better in the ‘up’ run, having won it 6 times against 3 of the ‘downs’.
Capt: What special preparation does the Comrades require, as opposed to normal marathons?
Bruce: It’s not much different actually. If you look at it, the Comrades is probably the oldest and the toughest ultramarathon in the world. I took each year as a project, planned the run and timings and, importantly, made sure I didn’t take too much stress in the first half.
Capt: I see that your wife Jill is accompanying you. Jill, do you normally do this? And do you run too?
Jill: Oh no. It’s not often that I accompany him. And I do run, but not to compete. Bruce does the serious running; I enjoy the 10Ks. We have travelled the world together though, and I try and make the best of my interests along the way.
Capt: And your experiences in India? With marathons and other interests?
Bruce: I see that India is becoming a big name in marathons and similar running events. I have come here several times. In fact, I brought a team down from South Africa way back in 2007; unfortunately, we did not give a great account of ourselves. But it’s great to be back and see the participation increase year after year.
Capt: Alright. Enough about running. What else do you look forward to in India? Jill, your turn now.
Jill: Oh I love this country. I would love to see a lot of wildlife, nature…
Capt: Wildlife? Hailing from Africa, the world’s safari destination?
Jill: Each country is diverse and that is what attracts me. I am also a history lover and India has so many exotic locations on offer.
Bruce: I have a deep interest in archaeology and history and India is so diverse in both. Any visit would be a bit vacant without these.
Capt: Bruce. Back to running and a final question for you. What would your message be for aspiring long distance runners?
Bruce: Long distance running is like making fine wine. It takes time, patience, and a lot of effort. You have to learn and get accustomed to the process. Yes, get used to running; running well and running controlled.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.