The mind is as important as muscle when tackling Comrades, says Fordyce
Experts say the right training is essential, as is the right mind-set
The Comrades Marathon on Sunday is a downhill run and for the first time will finish at the iconic Moses Mabhida Stadium.
Not all the 20,000 runners who start the race will make the final kilometres along Masabalala Yengwa Avenue to cross the finish line.
And it is not only the front runners who will finish the marathon because they have more than the right training regimen. Experts call marathon running a "massive physical challenge" for the body. The classic distance is 42.19km, but the Comrades marathon distance is 89km.
The experts also say almost anyone in good physical condition can complete a marathon. Most add a caveat: the right training is essential, as is the right mind-set.
Comrades king Bruce Fordyce agrees that marathon running is physical as well as mental. He rightly enjoys a reputation as SA’s greatest ultramarathon athlete.
He has won the Comrades nine times (eight of them consecutively) and has run it 30 times. Fordyce also has three London-to-Brighton marathon wins under his belt. He is the current world record holder over 50 miles (80.5km) and a former world record holder over 100km.
He says modern human beings are descendants of some of the best long-distance running creatures on the planet — ancient hunter gatherers. The problem is that many of us have "just forgotten to run".
RUNNING IS MY LIFE. IT’S THE GLUE THAT HOLDS MY LIFE TOGETHER. IT GIVES ME STRUCTURE AND DISCIPLINE.
However, Fordyce says even the world’s fastest and most gifted runners need mental toughness and determination when the body starts to protest at 30km in a marathon or at 65km in the Comrades.
"The mind will drive runners up Cowies Hill in this year’s Comrades when their legs are cramping and they are exhausted," he says.
The right mental training for marathons means different things to different people. Some athletes swear by sports psychologists, who teach them tips and techniques that include visualisation and "getting the mental language right".
They learn to think positively, rein in the internal critical "voice" and "let go" of negative thoughts.
UK performance coach Andy Barton, who has worked with Olympians and Premier League footballers, told The Guardian newspaper that some runners tend to look down at the ground when they run, which is "unhelpful". It makes them "talk to themselves more and feel more pain", he said.
He advises runners to "look up" and use their peripheral vision. That helps them go into a kind of light trance — the "zone state" in which they will feel less pain — or, as Barton prefers to call it, less "discomfort".
Fordyce has never sought any form of psychological help or performance coaching. Instead, his sources of inspiration have included music, sunsets and sunrises.
During his competitive days, he would watch film clips of his running heroes and heroines in action, particularly those from SA, Kenya and Ethiopia. To attempt to do better than his best, Fordyce looked to other inspirational runners.
Among those was the man he credits with producing the single greatest athletic performance of all time: Wally Hayward in the 1988 Comrades. The athlete was three weeks shy of his 80th birthday when he ran nine hours and 45 minutes in the up Comrades. That was "truly lump-in-the-throat material", Fordyce says.
Fordyce no longer runs Comrades but he can’t stop running because it comes as naturally to him as breathing.
"Running is my life," he says. "It’s the glue that holds my life together. It gives me structure and discipline."
A severe knee injury almost stopped him running recently. If it hadn’t healed, his family said they would have had to put him down. "If I couldn’t run, I would be too miserable to live with."
Fordyce has learnt to enjoy running more as a journey rather than a winning destination. He considers it an honour to have run beside Zola Budd Pieterse on her first Comrades run (and his 30th) in 2012.
"I can’t think of a finer running partner for that special moment," he says. Time wasn’t in the forefront of his mind during that Comrades run but Fordyce and Budd didn’t merely jog the distance.
Every runner loathes the word "jogger", Fordyce says.
Nonrunners invented the word to describe an activity they don’t understand and of which they are usually quite envious. "We are all runners no matter the speed we run. We don’t jog," he says.
There’s no real magic or psychological mystery to getting the mind right when running marathons. "Just have fun," Fordyce says. And if you aren’t having fun, then ask yourself why you are running and what is your motivation.
"Of course, running gets tough at times, and painful," he says. "But conquering the barriers of fatigue and pain can be one of the most satisfying achievements we can experience," Fordyce says.
After all, as the old saying goes: "Tough runs don’t last; tough runners do."
Fordyce has a different mission in mind these days. In a drive to bring running and walking to more South Africans, he brought parkrun to the country in November 2011. It is an extraordinary phenomenon of weekly, 5km time-trial-styled walks or runs "free, for everyone, forever".
Paul Sinton-Hewitt founded parkrun at Bushy Park, Teddington in 2004 in the UK, based on his belief that no one should have to pay to go running in their community regularly, safely and for fun.
From there, it spread across the world.
Fordyce is succeeding in spreading running and exercise as fun. Since the first parkrun he started in Johannesburg’s Delta Park, it has grown from 26 participants to a membership of close to 850,000 at 142 different venues around Southern Africa.
All those people seem to have "got their minds right", Fordyce says.
Many people have gone on to experience more fun in marathons and ultra-marathons, he says.