Youngest to 25 Comrades Marathon finishes – can Johan do it?
04 November 2016
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Brad Brown: Welcome onto this edition of Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now. Don’t forget to check out worldofendurance.co.za, if you’re looking for a fantastic online community where you can connect with your running buddies. The website to get to is worldofendurance.co.za.
I love Comrades stories and over the years I’ve been lucky enough to travel the country and share some amazing Comrades stories over the years. One of the stories that I love sharing is the story of Phil Masteron-Smith and if you followed the Unogwaja Challenge, you’d know a little bit about him. But Phil Masterton-Smith is the youngest winner of the Comrades Marathon and that record will never, ever be broken because the Comrades entry age has changed. The minimum age, it used to be 18, it’s now gone up to 20.
Our next guest is sitting in a very similar situation. He’s got the opportunity to break a record that chances are, unless that rule gets changed, will never ever be broken. It’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the show today Dr Johan van Dyk, welcome, nice to touch base.
Johan van Dyk: Thank you very much, it’s really a pleasure talking to you and thanks for the opportunity to share these lovely running stories with you.
BB: I love it Johan and we’re going to go back into a bit of your running history. But just off the bat, the record you’re going for is you’re aiming to be the youngest person to have run 25 Comrades Marathon, to finish 25 Comrades Marathons.
JVD: That’s right, and I also did it back to back, so this year is really a big year for me to finish this 25th run.
Starting Comrades journey at a young age
BB: No pressure Johan. I love it! Johan, how old were you when you ran your first one? You were below the now current 20 weren’t you?
JVD: I started at 18 and at the year of 18, I did not finish the Comrades. After that I just said to myself, I will be back. After that, from the age of 19 I’ve just been running every year and I’m back year after year.
BB: That’s amazing, I didn’t actually realise that you had a failed attempt first up, you could have had that record already by quite a margin.
JVD: That’s right and I think that was experience. I was 18, I didn’t know what was happening and I bailed at Pinetown with 20km to go and still finished 4 hours’ time left to finish.
BB: Man, that must now, knowing what you know about Comrades, that must irritate the living daylights out of you.
JVD: Oh ja, every year when I pass Pinetown on the Down run, I realise, that could have been another medal.
BB: I love it, hindsight, it’s an exact science, isn’t it?
JVD: It is, definitely.
What made you decide to do Comrades so young?
BB: Johan, what made you run Comrades at that age? Back in those days, were you in the army and was it a case of to get time off you ran Comrades, how did your journey start?
JVD: I was actually at school, a short distance sprinter athlete. When I started then at University of Potchefstroom, the competition at short distance was just so tight and I love running. Then I started with short distances, 8km, 10km and within 6 months I decided I’m going to enter Comrades, which I think that was also maybe a bit quick that year. But thinking back now, maybe it was the right thing and that’s how I started with long distance running.
BB: There’s often a lot of talk around what should the age be and you’re a medical doctor, so you’ve got a bit of knowledge from that point of view. Do you think that the age now, 20 is the right age? Do you think those two years from 18-20 do make a difference, are Comrades doing the right thing?
JVD: I’m not a medical doctor, I’m actually academic, chemical. But answering your question from that point of view, I was lucky that I never had injuries. Every year I trained, some years harder than other years, but never went into a phase where I said I had to rest for a couple of weeks or months due to injuries.
If you want to run Comrades – don’t wait
My view is really, when you want to run Comrades, do it. This year, or last year, Dawie Roodt and I ran Comrades together. When he asked me a few years back, what’s the right age to run Comrades and Dawie is already in his 50’s. I said, you never wait, you start immediately and a year later Dawie also finished Comrades with me.
BB: I love that and I think that is sound advice. Often people try and discourage people from running a race like Comrades. Yes, it is a huge physical challenge, but I don’t think, and I agree with you Johan, I don’t think there is a right or wrong time to run Comrades.
If you think you want to run Comrades, I think people should just go ahead, do the work, there’s no doubt about it, you need to do the work. But timing, you never know what’s going to happen next year or the year after, just do it now, I’m sure you’d agree with that.
JVD: It’s thinking and running clever. Some years I had a long Comrades, 10 and a half hours, almost 11 hours. But that was years that I did not train that much and then I’m not pushing very hard during the Comrades, which helped. If you go out and you push yourself, then it’s when trouble starts, injuries and pain.
BB: 25 Comrades, it’s number 25, hopefully finish in 2016, consecutively. What’s been the secret to your success from a longevity point of view? Everyone who has run for a period of time, at some stage in their life, does struggle with niggles. I’m sure you have to at some stage.
What’s been the key to you being able to do that consecutively now for essentially 26 years because your first one, even though it was a failed attempt, you did the work in the build up to it. How have you managed to stay injury free over that particular time, that hasn’t kept you out for long periods?
A family secret to longevity
JVD: Not training too much, don’t over train, that’s one of my secrets. Don’t go out and sprint every race. Some races you just need to enjoy. I also said, walk as quickly as possible in a race. Don’t run until halfway and then decide you want to walk. Then you’re already too tired to walk, even walking at a brisk pace. Another thing, my wife is also running Comrades and we train together, that’s a good motivation. She’s going for her 17th Comrades this year.
BB: That’s incredible Johan, between the two of you, that’s a whole lot of medals, where do you keep the medals?
JVD: Actually right above me now while talking to you, all our Comrades medals are hanging right above us and the other medals we store. Because we’re running quite a lot of races, but Comrades is special and that is always in my study.
BB: I was going to say, with over 40 Comrades between the two of you, you must have a double garage full of other medals from other races you’ve done. Johan, looking at guys who have done lots of Comrades and I think of the likes of Alan Robb who has done many, someone like Louis Massyn who is in the 40’s and those are consecutive as well. Do you feel pressure now?
You’ve done 24, you’re going for 25, it’s going to be an amazing record when you do finish this year, but do you feel pressure? You’re still young and you look at those guys and go, you know what, I could possibly break that record, are you looking that far ahead?
JVD: Yes, I am, I know Louis Massyn very well and he was one of the runners that I went down to Two Oceans with him in the early days. Ran a couple of races with him and yes, I am going to look forward to keeping up the momentum. Having said that, if the health and there’s no injuries, I hope to be back every year at Comrades.
BB: Johan, Comrades is obviously such a big part of your life, I’m sure you can’t imagine your life without it. It’s probably the one weekend, every single year, that you know exactly where you’re going to be, the rest of your life sort of revolves around Comrades.
JVD: And it is so frustrating if you miss the race or you plan something and you need to go for business, but Comrades is one race where I plan my business around Comrades. That weekend I will always be in South Africa and I will always enter Comrades.
Best tip for Comrades Novices
BB: Let’s talk some advice for the novices, you mentioned knowing what you know now and that first failed attempt. There’s lots of novices in the build up to Comrades now who are second guessing the amount of training that they’ve done. They’re second guessing whether they’re ready or not. What advice could you impart on those novices? You’re obviously someone who knows what they’re doing, you’ve done a number of them, help them out.
JVD: I’m not a fast runner at all. My Comrades times vary between 8:25 and last year with Dawie 11:50, but it is running up to 60. If you can train and run and prepare to run up to 60km, the last part of Comrades is all in the mind. Then you just need to peep forward, even if you walk, after that, it’s a new environment.
My advice for a normal runner that must finish Comrades, make sure that you can run comfortably up to 60km. After that, don’t get distracted by the buses next to you, by people, by the pommies that want to pick you up, then it’s just going forward. If you can do up to 60km in a reasonable time, then there’s really enough time and momentum going forward.
BB: Johan, I agree with you 100% and I always say that the crowds on Comrades, particularly the Down run as well. The Down run I find is a lot better from a crowd perspective because there’s lots of crowd supporting that second half.
But I reckon if you took someone who is absolutely unfit and say to them, you’re going to come and run the Comrades Marathon, just that crowd support will get someone to 30km. They’re going to be absolutely broken, but they’ll be able to get through 30km.
Be mentally prepared for the closing stages
BB: That’s exactly what you’re saying, is make sure that you’re ready for 60km and then the crowd support and just the vibe and energy will carry you the other 30km on the day.
JVD: Prepare your head for the last part, even if you have to walk for a couple of km. Going through all the momentum, all the people and crowds, all the shouting next to the road, they will help you.
BB: I think that’s fantastic advice. Johan, how has your training gone this year, are you on track, are you feeling comfortable?
JVD: Yes, we’re running, every week we try to do about 40-50km. Some people will say it’s a little bit too little to go into Comrades, but we have the history behind our legs. So what we normally do, in the weeks now prior to Comrades, we try to stick to a 50km per week, sometimes a marathon, sometimes 2×21’s. But we’re on track and no injuries and we’re running well.
BB: I love it and the good news is, I speak under correction, but the last time I checked, once you hit 25, after that, you don’t pay for entry anymore, so you’re on a free ride after this.
JVD: I hope they pay me afterwards!
BB: Johan, who do you run for, if people want to look out for you on the road and wish you luck on race day?
JVD: I’m running for RAC, the last 10 years I’m running for RAC, before that it was Potchefstroom University and Vaal Athletic Club and Sasol Athletic Club.
BB: Awesome, best of luck, I hope you have the best Comrades 2016 ever, I hope it’s your best run and that record is going to be yours. When Comrades race day comes, what will that record stand at, the youngest to 25 Comrades, what will the exact age be?
JVD: 43 years 10 months and 10 days.
BB: And we’ll leave it at that. Dr Johan van Dyk, thank you so much for joining us here on Old Mutual Live, best of luck and we’ll see you down at Comrades in Durban at the expo. Then at the start and finish, along the route in KZN, thanks for your time today.
JVD: Thank you very much, I appreciate the interview.