Mention the Comrades Marathon, the world-famous 90-kilometre run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and one name still springs to mind: Bruce Fordyce, the “Comrades King”, and one of the all-time greats of ultra-marathon running.
Fordyce won South Africa’s gruelling ultra-marathon an incredible eight times in succession, and nine times overall, to make the race his own throughout the 1980s.
At a time when some runners were contenders on the Comrades “up run” (Durban to Pietermaritzburg) and others contenders on the “down run” (Pietermaritzburg to Durban), Fordyce broke the record in both directions.
Long-standing down run record
In 2007, his record for the down run of 5:24:07, which had stood for 21 years, was finally broken by Russia’s Leonid Shvetsov. Fordyce’s record was established in the amateur age; it took a man who finished thirteenth in the Athens Olympic Marathon to break it, over two decades later.
The sight of the slight, blonde-haired runner pulling away from the field in the second half of the race had much to do with the boom in popularity that the Comrades enjoyed during Fordyce’s decade.
It also played a big role in turning the Comrades into a race for professional as well as amateur runners, capable of attracting a considerable number of competitors from abroad, including some of the world’s best ultra-marathoners.
Fordyce proved that he could compete internationally too, winning the London to Brighton Marathon three times in succession, in the process setting a world 50-mile record.
Forty-third, third, second …
Fordyce first entered the Comrades Marathon as a university student in 1977, placing forty-third out of the 1 678 runners in the field that day. It was the middle year of three consecutive victories for Alan Robb.
Two years later, in 1979, Piet Vorster won the up run, but Fordyce was now well in the picture, moving into the top three for the first time, less than a minute behind second-placed Johnny Halberstadt.
In 1980, Alan Robb was again number one, but Fordyce had risen to second place, primed to challenge for the title the following year – though he nearly didn’t enter.
Critic of apartheid
An outspoken critic of apartheid, Fordyce and a number of other athletes decided to boycott the 1981 event when organisers announced that they would associate it with the 20th anniversary of the Republic of South Africa.
Ultimately, though, Fordyce ran, wearing a black armband to signal his protest – and destroyed the opposition, crossing the line in a sensational 5:37:28, nearly 10 minutes clear of second-placed Johnny Halberstadt.
In the same year, Fordyce won the 55-mile (88.5-kilometre) London to Brighton Marathon, then regarded as the world’s premier ultra-marathon, in a time of 5:12.32.
Fordyce’s win kept up a rich South African tradition of competing in, and winning, the English ultra. Previous winners included a number of men synonymous with the Comrades – greats of the event such as Arthur Newton, Jackie Meckler and Wally Hayward.
In the Comrades down run in 1982, Fordyce dominated again, taking victory in 05:34:22, well clear of Alan Robb’s 05:41:26. He also completed the Comrades-London to Brighton double, winning it for the second year in succession.
Capturing the imagination
With Fordyce to the fore, the Comrades captured the imagination of the South African public. Race entries skyrocketed, and it became a popular pursuit to line the road and cheer the runners on the public holiday when the race was held.
The sight of the slightly built blond-haired student, upping the pace through the second half of the race, dropping rivals like flies while giving them a word or two of encouragement as he passed them, thrilled the public. A national hero had been born.
In 1980, the Comrades field had been just under 4 000 strong. By the end of the decade, with Fordyce entrenched in the public’s imagination, the number of race finishers had grown to over 10 000.
It was one-way traffic in 1983, with Fordyce racing away from the field to take the up run in an astonishing 5:30:12. Runner-up Gordon Shaw finished more than 15 minutes later.
Fordyce won the London to Brighton Marathon for the third time in a row in 1983, in the course of which he set a world record for 50 miles (80.45 kilometres), cementing his reputation as the finest ultra-marathon athlete in the world.
In 1984, Fordyce notched up his fourth Comrades on the trot, completing the Pietermaritzburg to Durban down run in a splendid 5:27:18.
In the same year he set a United States all-comers record in the 50 mile, clocking a ridiculous 4:50:51 in Chicago.
In 1985 it was the Bruce Fordyce show again as he fought off a brave challenge from Hoseah Tjale to capture a fifth Comrades title in 5:37.01.
In 1986, Fordyce, chased by Rand Athletics Club teammate Bob De La Motte, cracked the down run record, turning in a time of 5:24:07. Credit, too, to De La Motte, who clocked 5:26:12.
In 1987, De La Motte and Hoseah Tjale were left chasing Fordyce into Pietermaritzburg as he won the up run in 5:37:01.
In 1988, for the first time, the Comrades had more than 10 000 finishers, but the race result didn’t differ. Fordyce claimed his eighth in a row, in an up run record of 5:27:42. Runner-up Mark Page finished more than 10 minutes behind him.
The following year, Fordyce sat out the race, and Sam Tshabalala became the first black winner of the event, in 5:35:01, some way off the standards Fordyce had established for the down run.
Fordyce was back in 1990, once more producing a comfortable victory, his 5:40:25 almost five minutes faster than second-placed Hoseah Tjale.
The year 1991 signalled the end of an era as Fordyce was beaten for the first time in over a decade, with Nick Bester taking the line honours.
That was the last of Fordyce’s Comrades victories. Not only had he completely dominated the decade of the 1980s, but also, largely thanks to him, the field had grown from under 4 000 finishers in 1980 to 10 273 when he won the event for the last time.
Bruce Fordyce today
Nowadays, Fordyce is often seen at endurance events such as the Comrades and the 120-kilometre Dusi Canoe Marathon, participating to raise money for charity.
He has written a book, “The Marathon Runners’ Handbook”, and had a book written about him, John Cameron-Dow’s “Bruce Fordyce: Comrades King”, and has become a sought-after motivational speaker.
He has also used the profile he established as a sporting hero to give back to South Africans in his role as CEO of The Sports Trust, an independent body established in 1995 to fund sports development in the country.
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