Sonja Laxton looks back over 50 years of running
Because of apartheid she missed out on taking part in at least five Olympic Games
The year 1948 was significant, in both the global music industry and the SA athletics scene. In June Peter Goldmark invented the first LP (long-playing) record. On August 6 Sonja Laxton (née Van Zyl) was born and went on to live a long-playing life in running.
Laxton turned 75 last Sunday and can look over her shoulder to a competitive career that has lasted more than half a century. Having lived in Port Elizabeth, Durban and Johannesburg, she is now celebrating her golden years with husband Ian at Helderberg Village in Somerset West.
“I always just loved running, from school days, and was very competitive whether it be in schoolwork or running, and it became a way of life. Fortunately in road running there are age groups so you can both break records and test yourself until 70 years and after. I’m even competitive in housework,” she chuckles.
At her peak prowess SA was under the yoke of apartheid and international sporting sanctions and she missed out on taking part in at least five Olympic Games.
“Sure, it was sad, although I still managed to compete in a few international events, but I must say, there were so, so many good athletes right here in SA and so many more track and field meetings compared to these years. My biggest personal disappointment was in 1976 when I was chosen for an international event and we had our kit, and so on, and the door was slammed shut two weeks before we left.”
She had to take her frustration out in some manner and it was the local Durban cross-country scene that felt her pain. “A few days later I went and ran a cross-country race, ran in the men’s event and was 13th overall and Durban Athletics Club’s [DAC] first runner overall.”
But, as she says, the SA track scene was so much more vibrant compared to these days.
“The competition was incredibly tough and the sport was really well supported. I can remember top middle-distance athlete Johan Fourie trying to see how many sub-four-minute miles he could run. I had a lecturing post in Durban at the time but it wasn’t unusual to compete in three track meetings around the country in any given week. There was no professionalism then and everyone fitted sport in around work.”
I don’t think the shoes back then were what they are now ... I remember them costing around R5 and even the road-running shoes had very little cushioning but we made do with what we had. I ...don’t wear the latest fancy ones.”Sonja Laxton
Despite her longevity, Laxton has had her fair share of setbacks, such as many Achilles tendon niggles, a pulled calf muscle and a lingering hamstring injury that took months to heal.
“I don’t think the shoes back then were what they are now,” she says, with typical understatement. “I used to wear Tiger shoes for cross-country and remember them costing around R5 and even the road-running shoes had very little cushioning but we made do with what we had. I was lucky to be sponsored by Adidas for much of my career but don’t wear the latest fancy ones.”
A big setback late in her career came 10 years ago in November when she was taken out by a car while training one morning.
“That was bad and I ended up with five steel plates in my arms and ankles and was only able to start walking/gym after about five weeks.”
But as ever she was goal-driven and just wanted to compete again. “The Spar women’s series 10km in Port Elizabeth was in May 2014 and I set that as a target. I was 65 at the time and managed to run just over 57 min but wow, what a feeling just to be back racing again.”
The Spar series has always been close to her heart and shortly before packing up in Johannesburg and relocating to the Cape in 2019 she notched up her 100th Spar 10km. “That felt like such a goal to me.”
She could go on for hours about her career highlights, she says, but a few still stand out. “One of them was in 1973 when I broke 4:20 for the women’s 1,500m and was the first SA woman to do that.
“And two years before that I beat Bea Marais over the same distance at SA champs in a time of 4:29.8 which broke the SA record at the time.”
The year 1980 was also a significant one. “I ran my first marathon, in Johannesburg, and my time of 2:46:33 beat Clare Taylor’s SA record at the time and then I was lucky enough to go and run the New York Marathon [11th woman in 2:43:48]. Just to run in the same race as greats like Norway’s Grete Waitz was amazing — even if race director Fred Lebow entered me under the Zimbabwean flag so that I could run.”
Laxton has a meticulous record of her training runs and races and to this day has an entire cupboard dedicated to more than 40 log books.
Somewhere in my head there’s a little voice telling me that I’ve run more than a thousand road races, but only about 24 of them marathons.Sonja Laxton
But even she battles to recall how many races she’s run. “In track it must have been thousands because at school I was a sprinter so would often run five races in an evening. Cross-country would have been a bit fewer because there weren’t as many races but still many, because I raced cross-country between 1964 and 2007... that’s 43 years.
“And somewhere in my head there’s a little voice telling me that I’ve run more than a thousand road races, but only about 24 of them marathons. My biggest ever week of training mileage was 151km.”
But she was never a scientific type of runner and overly calculating. “Even my watch, although able to give me kilometre splits and so on, is hardly upmarket. These days you don’t get much change from R5,000 for a good watch and then you need a PhD to learn to use it,” she grins.
There are many people who stand out in her memories. “Obviously my parents always encouraged me and Bea [Marais] was a lovely person and introduced me to coach Jan Barnard who helped me realise my potential and then, once I joined Wanderers Athletics Club, Stewart Banner had a huge impact on me.
“Of course, [husband] Ian has always been behind me and then on the track Sarina Cronjé was a great rival who became a great friend.”
The Laxtons came to the Cape right as the Covid-19 pandemic hit. It probably played a part in Sonja’s subtle change of lifestyle.
“You just reach a stage when you’ve had enough of the actual competing. In Somerset West I didn’t have any training partners but my social life has more than compensated for that.
“We’ve made so many friends at Helderberg Village and these days I don’t have to refuse lunch and afternoon tea invitations! And I have no guilt! I do my morning run of about 45-50 min in the village and if I don’t get to run in the afternoons so be it.
“Basically I just want to stay fit for as long as I can ... because it keeps your weight down and the more weight I’m keeping off the more I can eat!”
Talking of social life, she’s off to another memorable athletics get-together on August 11. Banner celebrates his 90th birthday and you can bet there’ll be enough athletics tales there to fill a whole bunch of long-playing records.
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