A marathon times two Running: S. Africa reveres winners of its 55-mile Comrades race.

June 17, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Bruce Fordyce lives in a fine house in one of Johannesburg's oldest suburban neighborhoods. The garden is filled with flowers and a frisky golden retriever. The interior is stylishly decorated. There's a swimming pool out back.

He can afford this lifestyle for one reason -- in the 1980s, he could run the 55 miles between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg faster than any other South African.

In any other country, this would make Fordyce an oddity, up there with flagpole sitters or plate spinners or those who jump rope for three days to get into the "Guinness Book of World Records."

In South Africa, it made him a superstar. His face is one of the most recognizable in all of South African sport. And, because road running always has been popular with all South Africans, his appeal transcends the racial barriers that have divided even sports in this country's troubled history.

When Fordyce traveled the hilly roads between those two cities in the province of Natal, he was running the Comrades Marathon, a race first run in 1921, organized by a veteran of World War I as a tribute to his fellow soldiers.

For its first several decades, it attracted but a handful of participants. One year, it goes down from Pietermaritzburg to the port of Durban. The next year, it goes up. With more than 2,000 feet in elevation separating the two cities, this is a significant change.

By the time Fordyce first lined up in Pietermaritzburg in 1978, the running boom had reached South Africa. The Comrades had its first field of more than 2,000. Fordyce finished 14th.

In 1979, he was third. In 1980, he was second. In 1981, he won the first of nine races (no one else has won more than five). That year, entrants had risen to more than 4,500. In today's race, more than 13,000 people will shuffle off from Durban at 6 a.m.

They will be watched by a huge national audience who will stay by their television sets all day, not only to see who will win, but also to watch the human drama in the struggle to make it across the finish line before the 11-hour cutoff for receiving one of the coveted Comrades medals.

Fordyce credits television with much of his popularity. TV came to South Africa only in 1976. Delayed highlights of the Comrades were shown for the first few years.

"1983 was the first year they showed the race live," Fordyce says. "They picked it up at halfway after showing a half-hour on the first half of the race. I had a great run that year. I was flying."

For the rest of the decade, watching Fordyce's bouncing mane of blond hair moving through the field toward victory became a yearly ritual.

Fordyce started running while a student at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand. Active in anti-apartheid activities when riots hit the black township of Soweto in June 1976, Fordyce found himself so disturbed by the situation that he needed a release. He found it in running.

His obvious talent brought him to the attention of the school's running club, which put him on the road to Comrades. Like the Boston Marathon for a previous generation of American runners, the Comrades is the ultimate destination for virtually anyone who ties on a pair of shoes and heads out for a jog in South Africa.

Its development into a phenomenon was partly due to this country's isolation from the international sporting scene. The race evolved like some odd animal on the Galapagos, virtually untouched by outside influences.

Fordyce, who opposed the apartheid policies that caused the international sanctions, benefited from that isolation.

His best marathon time of 2 hours, 17 minutes hardly would have attracted the attention of a sponsor. But his ability to run 55 miles in under 5 1/2 hours means that, even at 40, well beyond his prime, he is still in demand.

Fordyce's fans are convinced that he has one more win in there somewhere. But Fordyce knows better. His plan is to do well in the over-40 category today.

"I'm making the transition from being a competitive runner to a lifetime runner," he says.

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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