Bill Savages’ great grandniece set for first Comrades Marathon
04 November 2016
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Brad Brown: You’re listening to Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now. I always say it, that every single runner that takes on the Comrades Marathon has a story and it’s only when you start digging into those stories that you realise how interconnected everyone’s stories actually are.
I think that’s what I love about this race and the stories and the folklore that surround it. We head to United States now, to Boston in Massachusetts and we’re joined by Abby Steele, Abby welcome onto Old Mutual Live. Thanks for chatting to us today.
Abby Steele: Hi Brad, thanks for having me.
BB: Abby you have an American accent? I’m not sure if you’ve got South African sort of connections. I’m sure you do but have you lived in the States pretty much your whole life? Tell me a little bit about you as Abby Steele.
AS: Hi, I have lived in the States since I was a child. My parents are South African and I only got American citizenship in college, so that was when I was 19. So I did go to school in South Africa. I went to Roedean in Johannesburg. Then I came here sort of after primary school. The American children did not understand the South African accent so I had to get good at it quite quickly.
But my mother definitely still travels back to South Africa all the time because all of our family is still there. Only my dad’s brother also immigrated to the States. Other than that we have a lot of family in South Africa and it is sad to be far away so we do like to go back as much as we can.
The complexities of training for Comrades in America
BB: Well you’re training for your first Comrades Marathon in 2016, you’re a novice and not long to go now. How are you feeling about the work you’ve done up till now and the final sort of run into race day?
AS: I’m in Boston and it’s winter and there’s only so much training that you can do in the winter in Boston. So I knew that I had to temper my expectations. Usually in the summer I will try to run a lot of miles. I’ll get up to 85 miles a week in the summer.
In the winter I only really go up to about 65 miles. This winter has been the warmest winter on record. We haven’t had much snowfall, so I’ve been running really well. I’ve been sticking to my training plan and I feel pretty good about doing Comrades. People seem to think that I’ll be able to finish based on what I’ve told them about my training and what they know about the race so hopefully that’s true.
Being related to Bill Savage
BB: Fantastic, well let’s delve into a little bit about your connection to the race and sort of how things do tie together. Back in 1932 and 1948, the winner of the Comrades Marathon was a guy by the name of Bill Savage and you’re his grandniece.
AS: I think great grandniece because he’s my great, great uncle.
BB: All right.
AS: A long time ago.
BB: It is a long time ago and you said to me before we started recording that you almost feel obliged to have to run Comrades because of the family history. I take it he’s not the only one who’s run the Comrades. Yes, he’s won it, he’s probably the most famous of the family members that have run it. But who else in the family has run Comrades and how many have they run, Abby?
AS: Willie Savage used to train with his brother, so I think that he ran it and at least two of his brothers also ran it with him several times. From that my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, that was his uncle, his mother’s brother. He grew up, my grandfather grew up cycling. He loved cycling and that was his favourite thing to do. He cycled for Natal for a while.
He used to cycle from Durban to Johannesburg and back again and he only got into running a little bit later on. He did say that when he was out cycling he would see his uncle out there running and he was sort of interested in what he was doing. As kind of another activity that maybe he could get into.
So later on I guess my grandfather didn’t run his first Comrades until he was in his thirties and he said that the reason that he decided to run Comrades was because he was inspired by his uncle. But it was also such a big thing in South Africa and there were so many of his friends who wanted to do it.
He said there was a lot of friendly competition so he was really motivated by the competition. So my grandfather ran his first Comrades, I think in the sixties in 1966. Then he went on to run 13 times and get a green number. So he was really addicted to the race and he loved it.
Then my father ran his first Comrades in the 1970’s when he was 21 so I guess for him it was like right away something he had always wanted to do and he went on to run seven Comrades. I think he would have run more had we not moved to the US. But my dad’s brother also ran with him one year and then also my dad’s cousin has run 21 times so there’s quite a lot of Comrades.
BB: See there’s a lot of medals in the family.
BB: You coming for number one, I know it’s very early to ask you this question. But is it just going to be one or is it a case like most new Comrades runners go you know what, we want to do a Down run and an Up run so maybe we’ll do two and reassess from there? Have you thought that far ahead?
AS: Oh, definitely. I think when you do one Comrades you’re sort of in for two. So I have thought about coming back to do the Up run. I have to say it’s a little bit dictated by the weather. Last year in Boston we had a historic winter. It was awful, there was so much snowfall, and it was really difficult to run. If that happens again it’s going to be difficult to do the Up. But I do hope to do the up some time and try and plan for next year but we’ll see.
When was the Comrades seed sown?
BB: How long have you been considering doing this? Tell me a little bit about the thought pattern and the thought that went into this. Also then the decision to actually pull the trigger and go you know what, I’m doing it, I’m going to run this thing.
AS: So I grew up with mostly watching my dad run and my dad, he always ran with his dog. His Staffordshire Terrier was so enthusiastic about running. He was just completely addicted to it that as a child it was hard not to notice that there was something exciting going on.
So they trained together for Comrades and they did quite a lot of long miles. I think I always admired that but also when you have parents who are very active you never consider not being active. So to me now when I get up and run in the morning that’s very easy for me to do.
I can’t imagine not doing it, but there are a lot of people, particularly in America where I think it’s a bit of a less active culture than South Africa. Where people are very impressed by getting up in the morning and doing exercise. It’s not something that they want to do.
So when I was young I started running in school. I did not, I went to a small girl’s school so we didn’t have a track team but I ran cross country. I did distance running from the outside and my dad when we moved to Boston, he started running the Boston Marathon and he’s got a bit of a streak going. I think he’s done it about ten years in a row.
My dad is also a surgeon so he works really long hours and it’s quite difficult for him to train but he makes sure to get his training in. He gets up early every morning, runs really long on the weekends and it was always somewhat of a priority to keep fit and to race. So I always wanted to run the Boston Marathon.
That was the first thing that I wanted to do so when I turned 19 when I went to college I came back to Boston. I went to college in New York and then I came back to Boston and ran my first Boston and it was so exciting. The crowds were incredible and I really, I loved it.
This is in 2008 and I told my dad’s cousin, the one who’s run 21 Comrades how fantastic the crowds were at Boston and how much fun it was and how I really loved it. He told me oh, well Comrades is so much better than that, there’s great crowds there. If you love Boston then you’ll really love Comrades and I couldn’t imagine not doing Comrades every year.
So from that I thought well maybe that’s something that I could look into, so I did. So when I was in college and I was about 22 I was sort of looking into training plans. How I would try and do it and it does seem like such an insurmountable distance that it’s hard to imagine. But after a few years I’d run a few marathons, I feel very confident in creating a marathon training plan for myself at this point.
I know how to race the marathon and I’m sort of ready for a new challenge. Last year was the first year that I thought I would run Comrades and then our winter was so terrible. I just, I couldn’t get the miles in and I didn’t want to go into my first Comrades with a shaky start. So then this year was so much better and I felt like this is the opportunity, I have to take this chance.
How do Americans react when they hear about Comrades?
BB: Abby let’s talk about the psyche of where you’re at and you talk about America maybe not being the most active of societies but there is a big marathon running culture in America. You mentioned the Boston Marathon. I mean that’s like iconic and you’re lucky to have it on your doorstep. But there are some huge city marathons in the States and I think particularly of the New York Marathon, I think of the Chicago Marathon.
So to run a marathon in the US, I mean people look at you and go you’re a good runner. Like you’re taking this thing seriously but to now to go and have to run two marathons back to back plus a little 5km trial. It is a huge mental shift. You tell people you know in the States you’re running Comrades and this is what it is, 56 miles or almost 90km, what’s their reaction to you?
AS: Yeah, I mean they’re quite shocked. I don’t think they can imagine running that kind of distance and 56 miles is not something that’s mainstream, it’s not a distance that’s spoken about in the US. There’s obviously people who run 100 milers but I don’t think that the general population is aware of that. To be sure in the US there are groups of very active people.
There’s tons of running clubs but I think in South Africa there’s just, almost everybody is. In America there are some people who are just really not interested in exercise and they can sort of avoid the whole running scene. Some people are not even really interested in the Boston Marathon but they definitely have not heard of running 56 miles. I’m not aware that, that’s even something that people do so yeah, they’re quite shocked.
BB: How chuffed is your dad that you’re running Comrades in 2016?
What do the family make of your attempt?
AS: Oh I think he’s pretty excited. Yeah, he seems to think it’s like a family tradition and it’s a pretty daunting one but he’s excited.
BB: I’m sure he is. As far as goals go, I mean you’re obviously a pretty good runner and have you really thought about what you’re aiming for? Is it a case of you know what I want to go there, make sure I have a comfortable run and just finish and survive this thing, we can worry about time goals at another opportunity?
AS: I think that’s probably the outlook that you have to have as a novice. To me it’s very difficult to come up with a time goal because in a marathon you can say okay I’m just going to go for, the course limit is 6 hours. I’ll just try and run that and then I’ll definitely finish.
But to me in Comrades if you say I’m going to try and run 12 hours well then that’s a whole other challenge. Because 12 hours is a really long time to run. So I’m hoping to not be out there for that long because that does seem difficult in and of itself. So maybe if I could go under 11 hours that will be really great for a first Comrades I think.
BB: Is your dad and uncle of the old school sort of way of thinking that anything over 11 hours isn’t a real finish, you get a plastic medal. That you have to like the old days, had to go under 11 for it to count officially?
AS: I was aware of that but they haven’t mentioned that to me.
BB: I’m sure it’ll come but that’s my dad. According to my dad I’ve only ever finished one Comrades because I’ve only got one bronze, the rest are Vick Clapham. So I’m sure that is going to come, Abby, I’ve got no doubt but I want to wish you all the best.
It’s been great catching up and I loved just sort of shooting the breeze and just chatting Comrades and I know for you it’s probably difficult too. Because there aren’t too many people in Boston who are coming to Comrades that you can bounce sort of things about the race off of.
AS: Yes well, in my rambling club there are a few guys who have done but we have a little South African group within the club so I do have some people who I can ask questions. They know quite a lot about the race and that’s been really helpful.
BB: Fantastic, well Abby best of luck in the final sort of few weeks run in to race though, we look forward to seeing you in South Africa. Please do pop by the expo. We’re going to be broadcasting live from the Old Mutual stand in the three days in the build-up to the race. We’d love to chat to you again and just find out how you’re feeling in the last sort of few hours before the race actually starts so please do pop by.
AS: Okay great, thank you so much, good to talk to you.