An uncertain step – Marc Mundell
01 January 1970
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Brad Brown: Welcome back onto yet another edition of Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now. A slightly different angle to running today on the podcast, more of a race walking look at things. I’ve got newfound respect for our next guest and race walkers in general after a little experience I had in April. But we’ll talk more about that in a short while. It’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the show Marc Mundell. Marc, welcome, nice to catch up again.
Marc Mundell: Yeah Brad, it’s fantastic to have a chance to chat and to chat race walking, my passion and look forward to seeing how we can educate more of the population about the sport.
BB: Marc, it’s quite funny you talk about an education process. I think a lot of runners look at race walkers and they think why are you walking, why aren’t you running. But it’s a whole sport within itself and the speeds that you guys move at are pretty impressive, particularly at the top end of the field. How did you get into race walking as opposed to running competitively?
MM: Brad, I definitely followed in my father’s footsteps, Oliver Mundell. He was a post-isolation race walker competing for South Africa. I managed to follow him into walking and competitive race walking. Also competed in the same distance that he did, the 50km race walk.
Whether they say, like father like son and following in your dad’s footsteps, I can tick all those boxes. That’s where I got involved. It’s just been a passion for me to represent my country and to compete to the best of my ability and walking was that avenue for me.
Nothing like representing your country.
BB: It’s amazing, you talk about representing your country, you’ve done it on numerous occasions. You’re an Olympian, you went to London 2012 where you broke the African record. There’s an Olympics on the horizon now and we’ll talk about that and just the uncertainty around it. It’s pretty frustrating, I’m sure, from an athlete’s perspective. But what does it mean to you, to be able to put on that green and gold and go out there and represent South Africa?
MM: Brad, for me, and the thinking about it for a lot in the recent months as I’m coming to the end of my career. It’s been such an honour and a privilege to put on the green and gold and to represent SA. As I take time to reflect on so many of the people that are my dad’s generation, my coach’s, my previous coach’s generation; that never had that luxury of having the opportunity to represent SA. Due to apartheid, due to our sporting isolation.
Every chance that I get, it’s such a privilege and such an honour. I think so many people tend to take that for granted and don’t have the respect for the people that didn’t have that chance. Then they tend to get so disillusioned by part of the administrative challenges. So for me, it’ s just such a privilege to put on the nation attire and to represent SA. Whether it be at an African Championships, a World Championships or ultimately the Olympic Games.
BB: You say ultimately the Olympic Games, they don’t come around that often and as an athlete. You’re lucky to go to one, you’re even more lucky to go to two. There’s athletes that have been to multiple. You’ve got the chance to represent SA in Rio 2016, you’ve done the qualifying times.
The frustration of not knowing if you are going
But it’s still really up in the air and it must be properly frustrating Marc. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to not really know. You’ve put in hard work over the last four years. We’re sitting not long now to the Games and it’s still sort of up in the air whether or not it’s going to happen.
MM: There are two imposters there Brad. For me there’s the one that says you’ve met all the criteria, it’s a formality that you will go. Barring injury or terrible ill health. Then there’s the other one that says, there’s no reason why you have to go, it’s just because you’ve met a set of criteria.
Remember, highlighting the 2012 selection criteria they had in place and the one word that always stuck out to me was the word ‘considered’. That just clearly said to me, considered for selection if you’ve met the criteria. If you don’t meet the criteria, categorically no.
If you do meet the criteria, you’re considered for selection. That was a different experience for me and it just always keeps me grounded. The Comrades phrase, ‘it will humble you’ and that’s what this is all about, preparing and a bit of uncertainty.
BB: Marc, it’s interesting that you say that, considered. As an athlete it must be pretty frustrating and especially in a sport where you know, this is the world record, as an example, that you’re chasing. It’s a line that’s drawn in the sand, that’s what it is.
Those qualifying criteria, again, it’s a line that’s drawn in the sand. That’s within your control, you can train towards it. If you don’t reach that, the only person that’s essentially to blame is you. But in a situation like this where you’ve dreamt, as a little boy, of representing your country at the Olympics; there is a line drawn in the sand of what that qualifying criteria is.
But then once you’ve done that and if I recall correctly, you’ve done four already in the build up to Rio Olympic Games, so you’ve essentially qualified or met that criteria four times. But it’s still in someone else’s hand, that must be very frustrating.
MM: And that’s where I think, yes, call it what it is. It’s incredibly frustrating for me as an athlete with the uncertainty. The not knowing if I must go on a training camp, should I stay at home? I don’t want to spend all the money on going to a training camp in San Moritz which is where I’ve booked to go and that the team hasn’t been announced.
Then feel like a complete idiot, well, nobody told you to go on a training camp, nobody told you to go and prepare with the best athletes in the world for the Olympics. Because for a 50km, that’s when the key work is done, eight weeks out, six weeks out. When you’re doing altitude volume training as it stands at the moment, I’m in that predicament. I’ve booked my training camp to go to San Moritz from 1-29 July and the team only gets announced on the 14th of July.
There’s nothing one can do, if you do go to the training camp and you’re not selected.Tthen well, nobody told you to go on the training camp. But if you don’t go on the training camp and you wait until the team is announced, the chance of getting accommodation is so unlikely and affording things.
Then secondly, they turn around and say, like they did after London, well, there was no medal, why didn’t you deliver a medal. It’s a bit of an imposter and that’s where I think, personally, a lot of the younger athletes get really disheartened and disillusioned with the challenges they encounter first up. Because one creates this idea or idealistic plan in your mind of what will happen once you’ve qualified and how it will be plain sailing. It really does test one’s mental fortitude and athlete resolve.
BB: It’s such a difficult one and I’m glad I’m not an elite athlete. I’m glad I’m not a sports administrator because it’s tough, again. It’s that whole chicken and egg thing, what comes first. Do you need the training to get the medals or do you need the medals, it’s tough?
Is Comrades on the future agenda?
Let’s talk about some happy things Marc, you’ve had an incredible career, you mentioned the Comrades slogan a short while ago. You also mentioned that you’re coming towards the end of your competitive racing career at the top end, at this Olympic level. Have you got ambitions to maybe one day go and walk the Comrades?
MM: Brad, to follow in dad’s footsteps again, I’ve got to walk faster than he did. He managed a 9:28 back in his heyday. So that’s definitely a challenge for me, just to be able to trump him sometime. I’d definitely like to run it once and walk it once.
I was chatting to Caroline Wostmann on Sunday, or Saturday, we were on the watt bike together post-Comrades. I said to her, with her walking technique, I can definitely work on that and improve her technique. So that when she does walk in Comrades, at least then she’s walking more economically and more efficiently. Maybe there’s a future for me in coaching from that side. But definitely, a keen plan to race it one day and to give it my very best. So that’s something to look forward to in the years to come.
BB: It’s interesting you bring up Caroline’s name as well because I wanted to touch on that. Caroline, the guys at the back of the pack, like me, we’ve run/walked that thing forever. But someone like Caroline, last year particularly with that run/walk strategy that she employed, it almost thrusted into the forefront; that you can still put in a good performance with scheduled walk breaks, so to speak, as a runner. But they are deliberate and they’re at a certain pace.
Is it feasible for most to walk the entire Comrades?
Do you think we’re going to see more? We see it, we get emails all the time, people asking, is it possible to walk the entire Comrades? Do you think we’re going to see more and more people trying to attempt it? Just as walkers, as opposed to the running, with a bit of walking?
MM: I definitely think it’s a good avenue for people to consider because it changes the musculature. It helps with the impact and predominantly from race walking you develop really strong hamstrings. So, the opportunity is there for the pounding particularly and changing it.
If you look back into Comrades archives, one of the previous gold medallists, Lexie Volgan if I’m not mistaken, comes from a Russian race walking background. A competitive international race walker, so she’d made that progression and changed up to the running. I if imagine she did some of his training in years gone by he might have also alternated between running and walking.
But even in my training and my preparation for competition currently, I still do a lot of alternating with running and walking. Just so that I use the running to recover some of the muscles, just as I’m on the bike. Just the whole time changing the muscles that are being neutralised and damaged in training sessions.
BB: I mentioned at the start that I’ve got newfound respect for what you do and your fellow race walkers. I did Ironman South Africa in April, went in with quite a serious back injury and did no run training in the build-up to that race. So I knew from the start that I was going to walk the marathon.
I think a lot of runners look at walkers and they go ag, they’re walking, how hard can it be. I’m telling you now, I thought it was going to be a doddle to walk a marathon. There is no such thing as an easy marathon, it doesn’t matter if you’re running or walking it. I have never suffered like I suffered on that marathon. Marc, so hats off, I’ve got huge respect and that was walking the whole thing, massive respect mate. I think what you guys do is amazing.
Walking at a serious speed
MM: And just to put in perspective that we go through, I generally go through my 40km mark in the 50km, because I have the time checks and roundabout 3:08, between 3:07 and 3:10, at the 40km mark. Which projects to effectively a 3:20, give or take, for a marathon. That’s what we’re going through it, at my level and that’s in the 50km.
Whereas most of the walkers, the other two males who have just qualified for the Olympics, Wayne Snyman and Lebogang Shange, they’ve both walked 80 minutes for a 20km, which is low 4 minutes a K for the entire 20km. So that’s the level they’re racing at for the entire 20km and that’s where we’re at.
The leading ladies are walking under 5 minutes a K for her 20km, probably closer to 4:48 actually. That’s just a new generation of athletes that are coming through in the walking circles and realistically blazing new trails. We chatted close to 2012 about the fact that there was only me going to the Olympics and the first male since 1960.
What’s so exciting for me is that now four years down the line, there are four walkers who have all qualified. That have all got this opportunity to represent SA. Two men in the 20km, a lady in the 20km and a male in the 50km. Hopefully in 2020 we’ll have a full house of nine athletes representing SA which would be unheard of.
BB: Marc, I love that and I’m having a bit of a quiet chuckle to myself where you’re talking about those splits projecting a 3:20 marathon. I didn’t even go through halfway in my marathon walking it at Ironman in 3:20. So just to put that into a bit of perspective.
You mentioned about blazing a trail and I actually wanted to ask you that, it’s quite funny if you look at South African athletics at the moment. If you look at the sprinters in the 100’s, 200’s, 400’s, there’s lots of, if you equate it to a plant essentially, there’s lots of new buds. There’s lots of growth in that end of the sport.
You mentioned race walking and I’m glad you brought it up because I think it’s an important point, as you rightly said. Four years ago you were man alone and that was it. But there is a new breed of South African race walkers coming through and it bodes very well for the South African future of the sport.
MM: And talking about that, I genuinely believe that Lebogang Shange is a medal contender at the Olympics. You’ve seen him get a 11th place at the World Championships in Beijing last year. This year he’s been really competitive, early part of the season and with a bit of focus and preparation for Rio. Things going his way, I really do believe that he could be a medallist, which would be an incredible feat for South African race walking and for South African athletics. But the country at large, to collect a medal.
I just hope everything is being done by the powers that be to arrange for training camps and to assist him to prepare optimally in the build-up to the Rio Olympics. I really feel that he is right up there with a good shot at a podium position.
BB: Marc Mundell, as always, it’s a pleasure chatting to you. I love chatting the sport of race walking with you. I think what you’ve done for the sport needs to be highlighted because I think you’re part of that growth and the new wave of walkers coming through, so congratulations on that. I’m keeping everything held and crossed and sending positive vibes that you do get that Rio 2016 call-up. I think it would be well deserved and a great send-off on what’s been a wonderful career for you, for South Africa. You’ve been a great servant to the sport, thank you so much for your time today.
MM: Thank you Brad, as always, wonderful show.