The Rainbow Nation has produced some of the very best long-distance runners the world has ever seen. Our own Comrades Marathon, taking place on 9 June this year, is the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world, and its principle of celebrating “mankind’s spirit over adversity” has made it one of the most popular and loved races of its kind.
The Two Oceans Marathon, dubbed “the world’s most beautiful marathon”, is set to take place for the 50th time on 20 April this year.
Let’s take a look back at some of the legends of South African long-distance running.
1. Zola Pieterse (née Budd)
Her accidental collision with American Mary Decker during the final of the 3,000m at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles caused a controversy that lasted years, but Zola Pieterse’s career is much more illustrious than one incident.
She broke the 5,000m world record when she was just 17, and won the World Cross Country Championships in 1985 and 1986. Her mile best of 4:17.57 in 1985 still stands as the British record today.
Throughout her career, Budd has completed a number of marathon events, including two Comrades Marathons, with her most recent marathon victory being the Run Hard Columbia Marathon in 2015, which she finished in a winning time of 3:05:27. Budd currently resides in the United States.
2. Hendrick Ramaala
Hendrick Ramaala’s list of achievements include winning the New York Marathon and the Mumbai Marathon (both in 2004), winning the Great North and South Runs (both in 2006), two silver medals at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, and a win in the Cape Town Marathon half marathon in 2005.
A seasoned competitor who has, despite never having a coach, been on the international long-distance running scene since 1995, Ramaala has now shifted his focus to helping aspiring athletes achieve their own running aspirations with the Hendrick Ramaala Sports Foundation.
3. Shaun Meiklejohn
Shaun Meiklejohn ran his first Comrades in 1982, after he started running with some with some student friends, and in 1995, he won the Comrades Marathon with a winning time of 5:34:02.
Meiklejohn has been a model of consistency in the past three decades, finishing his 30th Comrades last year. He has collected 10 Comrades gold medals and 20 silver medals – in fact, Meiklejohn has never finished the ultramarathon slower than the sub-seven hour finish required to get silver.
4. Blanche Moila
In 1984, Blanche Moila became the first black female athlete to be awarded Springbok colours, and this cross-country icon finished her 15th Comrades Marathon last year.
Her list of achievements includes provincial records in the 1,000m, 1,500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, 16km and 21.1km. Moila is an advocate for women in sport and serves on the interim board of Athletics South Africa. In 2001, she received the Presidential Sports Award for Lifetime Sports Achievement and in 2002, Moila was named the Shoprite Checkers Woman of the Year.
5. Bruce Fordyce
No list of South African long-distance legends is complete without mentioning Bruce Fordyce. Fordyce will forever be known as the Comrades King, and it’s not for naught: Fordyce won his first Comrades in 1981 (he ran his first Comrades in 1977, placing 43rd, and steadily climbed the ranks to finish 14th, third and second in 1978, 1979 and 1980, respectively) and would go on winning the ultramarathon every consecutive year until 1988 – a record that is unprecedented. After sitting out on the 1989 Comrades, Fordyce won it again in 1990, making for a record 9 Comrades wins. Fordyce has completed the Comrades an unbelievable 30 times, and is the first and only South African to have done so. His records in the “up” (Durban to Pietermaritzburg) and “down” (Pietermaritzburg to Durban) runs would both stand for more than 20 years before being broken.
On the international stage, Fordyce also won the London to Brighton ultramarathon three years in a row, from 1981 to 1983, setting a record time over 50 miles in 1983. This record still stands today.
Fordyce was instrumental in bringing the parkrun to South Africa. This event has resulted in 2,156 clubs popping up all over the country since its inception here in 2011, and sees amateur and professional runners gather for a 5-kilometre run every Saturday morning at 08:00.