The Heroes Of SA Running
Olympic medallist Elana Meyer and Comrades king Bruce Fordyce are South African running icons. In their own words, they describe the SA sporting legends who shaped their careers, and the up-and-coming local talent that inspires them now. – By Mike Finch & Lisa Abdellah
Blanche Moila, 60
Multiple SA champion, running legend
Blanche Moila made history in 1984, when she became the first black female athlete to be awarded Springbok colours. While I don’t know the full extent of her life story, she undoubtedly faced more challenges than the average person.
Blanche is a little older than me, but I’ve competed against her many times – the first time was probably at an SA Cross-Country Championship in the 80s, because I only ran cross-country at school level.
As a young athlete, I was exposed to all sorts of different personalities – some athletes chose not to speak to their competitors at all. But even though Blanche was a fierce competitor (she held provincial records in the 1 000m, 1 500m, 5 000m, 10 000m, 16km and 21.1km races), she was always friendly and polite off the track. If she were a man, I’d call her a gentleman.
(Though how she could run wearing her trademark turban, I just don’t know! I always wore my hair in a practical, shorter style, as did most runners at the time.)
There are women who retire after track and don’t continue to serve the sport – but not Blanche. She still participates in the Comrades, and will run this year’s Cape Town Marathon.
Her real power comes from having passed on what she’s learned from running. Blanche inspires, mentors and supports young girls. She is an inspirational speaker, who uses public platforms to influence women.
She talks about the challenges she faced, and how she overcame difficult circumstances to become a great sportswoman. Blanche’s story shows us that running isn’t a smooth road; it has lots of bumps, in the form of failures. But you often learn the most from life’s setbacks.
NOLENE CONRAD, 32
2016 SA 10 000m champion, Olympic hopeful
Nolene Conrad is currently one of South Africa’s best runners: she has won numerous national championship titles, and last year she achieved the top South African performance at the World Half Marathon Championships. And she has big dreams – to step up to the marathon and compete in the Olympics.
Nolene was born in Blue Downs, on the Cape Flats. As a child she suffered from severe asthma, which on a couple of occasions brought her close to death. Doctors recommended exercise to help alleviate her symptoms.
On their advice Nolene took up running, and at first she finished close to last at everything she entered. But she stuck with it; and within a short space of time, she began to win.
She was offered a bursary, and worked after school to raise enough money to follow her dream. She believed it would create opportunities in the long term.
Her father didn’t see it that way. He expected Nolene to start earning an income, to support her family – at the time, both her parents were unemployed – and when she went against his will, he kicked her out of the house.
Before I met her, I had watched from a distance as the career of this tough-as-nails young girl unfolded. She was invited to the Endurocad camp in 2013, and it was there I got to know her better.
Nolene is committed to running, and she is also loved. She has a knack for bringing everyone together; and as a result has become a mentor for the younger girls at the Endurocad SA Endurance Academy, where she now works, and a good friend to her peers.
In the end, Nolene bought a house for her parents to live in. So running isn’t just for her own benefit; because ultimately, she used it to give back to her family, and to others.
Zola Pieterse (nÉe Budd), 51
Former world cross-country champion, multiple SA champion, Comrades finisher
Zola Pieterse and I were both born in 1966, and I raced against her often. Even as a 14-year-old she was running world-class times. Zola applied for British citizenship to bypass the international sporting boycott of South Africa, so that she could compete in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Her application and arrival were controversial, because she had acquired a passport under preferential circumstances.
At the time, Zola was only 18 – and she’s also an introvert, so it must’ve been exceptionally difficult for her. But she didn’t leave the sport just because things got tough.
Her two-time win at the World Cross-Country Championships, in 1985 and 1986 respectively, was perhaps her greatest performance. Then she returned to South Africa, where she qualified for the Olympics in Barcelona.
During my first decade competing against her, all I saw of her was her butt! At that stage Zola was a world-class athlete, and realistically, I never had a chance. But at every single race, I focused on bettering my own performance in an attempt to close the gap.
Until recently Zola competed in the Comrades too. Even though she’s now competing in a different age category, people just expect her to come out on top.
Sarina Cronjé (née Mostert), 62
Multiple SA track champion
Sarina Cronjé is in her 60s now, and the mother of Johan Cronjé (the current South African record-holder in the 1 500m). But when I started running, she was Sarina Mostert: the best athlete in the country. Before Zola’s time, Sarina was winning championships in the 1 500 (4.08) and 3 000m (8.48).
I grew up on a farm, and I read that Sarina grew up in a similar environment, in the Free State. She conditioned her ankles by training on fields that were uneven underfoot, because they had been freshly raked for planting new crops.
I first met Sarina when I was 14. My overall perception of her was that she was a senior, beautiful, feminine athlete. I, on the other hand – I was boyish, and I always had my own ‘unique’ running style. She probably barely even registered I was in the race.
Sarina was an elegant runner – the whole package. Like Blanche, she was also known for being compassionate off the track. I know her son, and you can see where he comes from.
The young girls at the Endurocad SA Endurance Academy
(originally from Vorentoe High School, Johannesburg)
Coach Hans Saestad runs the KPMG-Vorentoe Running Academy, based at Vorentoe High School in Joburg. The school recruits talented young middle-distance runners from humble backgrounds in Limpopo and Mpumalanga, and pays for their school fees, food, medical expenses, training camps, travel expenses, and transport to their homes.
The girls have made a bold commitment: to give up time with their families, in order to attend boarding school and use athletics as a conduit to a better life. They train hard, and not always with the support and blessing of their families. And Vorentoe is an Afrikaans school, so the girls have to adapt to an unfamiliar language and culture.
Not only do these girls aspire to be fast runners; they want to be successful in life in general. When you consider the sacrifices they have made to get there, they’re nothing short of inspiring.
I would love to see them at the next Olympics. Talent like that can compete at the highest level, and the girls will inspire other young women to make brave decisions. They are vital for the future of South African running.
Wayde van Niekerk, 24
400m world record-holder, world and Olympic champion
To be honest, as a cynical South African I never really believed we could produce a champion who would better Michael Johnson’s world 400m record. We’re a country of ultra runners. Not only has Wayde broken the 400m world record, but also the 300m world record.
I’m a plodder compared to a guy like Wayde, and when I look at him running… it’s amazing. He just never seems to get tired – those last five strides seem as powerful as the first five.
The exciting thing is that he makes us believe that there are other Waydes out there, waiting to be discovered.
I’m involved with an athletics foundation at Tuks, and we work to give disadvantaged athletes a chance to shine. We really want to find guys like Wayde, because I believe he’s the tip of the iceberg.
Piet Vorster, 66
Former Comrades champion, four-time Comrades gold medallist
Piet is one of my all-time heroes. I remember the 1978 Comrades, where I finished 14th and Piet finished fourth. A year later he won the race and I finished third. He was my hero.
A lot of people have forgotten about Piet. But he proved that even an ordinary runner could win a race like the Comrades. He will probably forgive me for saying that he wasn’t super-fast, like some of the other winners. But he trained really hard.
Just think about it: when Piet started running Comrades, he was one of those guys who run a relatively slow first outing. His first two Comrades he finished in 8:45 (1971) and 9:17 (1972).
But when he won in 1979, he beat me, Alan Robb and Johnny Halberstadt (who was a brilliant marathoner at the time), and broke the record.
He was also an inspiring and popular character. Mick Winn (then chairman of the Comrades Marathon Association) would never hug any of us, because he was always so sauve and debonair and didn’t want to get all the snot and sweat on his smart jacket. But he hugged Piet.
Piet ended up with 14 medals; and although he’s suffering ill health at the moment, he’s still one of most underrated Comrades winners.
Shaun Meiklejohn, 56
Comrades winner 1995, 29 medals (10 gold, 19 silver)
You could say that Shaun and I are very similar. In fact, when he started making waves, people thought he was me – they used to mistake us for each other because of our flowing blonde locks. And because we were balding at the same rate!
It’s amazing to think that Shaun has run 29 Comrades marathons, and never done worse than a silver. Every one of those medals has been either gold or silver.
He also has an astonishing number of Two Oceans silver medals – 17, to be exact – and they’re even harder to get than a silver at Comrades.
He’s just one of those guys who’s quiet, and operates below the radar. A real unsung hero.
Alan Robb, 63
Four-time Comrades champion, 42 Comrades medals
When I beat Alan to win my first Comrades in 1982, it was my hardest Comrades ever. He had won the race four times, and had never lost a ‘Down’ run. I think the ‘Down’ run suited his style of running – that pitter-patter shuffle – perfectly.
Before that, I remember inviting Alan to be a guest speaker at our Wits running function in the 70s, and I just sat there staring at him. He was a legend to all of us. Of course, the cross he has to bear is that he’s a Liverpool supporter!
When I first started getting competitive at Comrades, there was no doubt that we were rivals. But he was at his peak before I started reaching mine, so our careers never really intercepted.
But in 1980 Alan won, and I was second. I was too scared to try and chase him. He had too much of a lead, and I guess I was intimated by his reputation too.
Alan and I are very different people. I’m the loudmouth, and Alan is shy and just gets on with the job. This year we both watched the race at Drummond – and realised, as we watched the runners go past, that it was the first time we’d both been together at Drummond and not racing each other.
Alan is due to have heart bypass surgery this year, but his record at Comrades is astonishing: 42 medals – and that includes 12 golds and 16 silvers.
Ludwick Mamabolo, 40
Comrades champion 2012, 7-time gold medallist
Ludwick is my modern-day hero. He is unbelievably consistent at Comrades. Just look at his record of runs: since 2010, he’s run the race seven times, and never finished out of the golds. Even more remarkably, he hasn’t finished outside the top five in the last five races he’s completed.
Ludwick is a big personality, and when I saw him running through Drummond this year, he was all smiles and happy, even though he was racing at the sharp end of the field. He shouted “Hi Bruce!” as he went past, and it really looked like he was enjoying it out there.
I think Ludwick has got the training formula for Comrades just right. He knows what he has to do to be competitive, while other coaches out there are hammering their athletes into the ground.
You see so many of the top runners already training heavily in December. It’s way too early. Whereas guys like Ludwick understand when to start the serious training, so they’re not vrot by race day.
9-time Comrades gold medallist
‘Horse’ and I raced a lot together. He was a lovely guy; and the sad thing is, he turned his back on running after his Comrades days. He won every major ultra in South Africa except for Comrades; yet he finished second twice, and third twice, and got nine golds in all.
He was seriously talented, and a very tough competitor.