A legend runs his 40th race

2013-06-01 00:00

IN 1974, a 20-year-old athlete with a unique shuffling style ran his first Comrades. He displayed maturity beyond his years to finish third to Derek Preiss and claim the Hardy Ballington Trophy for the first novice home.

While not too many people paid attention to him, this runner would become one of the Comrades legends, winning the race four times and racking up an impressive 12 gold medals, which is still a record for one athlete today. He also raised the bar for future winners of the race by being the first runner to break the five-and-a-half hour barrier.

Alan Gordon Robb had announced his arrival, and tomorrow he joins the throng for his 40th Comrades, having never missed a year since his debut. It’s a phenomenal achievement, one he attributes to his late wife, Merle, who died suddenly days before last year’s race.

“Merle loved sport and was my motivation for Comrades every year. She loved the event and if it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I would be anywhere near 40 runs,” said Robb.

Robb has seen the race change from the days of personal seconds and fields of around 200 to today’s international event, one recognised and respected around the world.

“I arrived for that first race with the intention of finishing,” he said. “I knew nothing about the course and took it on, as mates of mine reckoned I would do well thanks to some decent results in other marathons.

“There were no seconding tables and I had my 15-year-old sister, a friend and a cousin following me in a bakkie, armed with Coke for any emergencies.”

After finishing fifth in 1975, Robb bagged a hat-trick of wins from 1976 to 1978, becoming only the third man after Arthur Newton (1922 to 1925) and Dave Bagshaw (1969 to 1971) to achieve the feat. His 1978 run lives on in the annals of the race as one of the greatest of all time. He became the first runner to break the five-and-a-half-hour mark, finishing in 5:29:13.

“I was going for a hat-trick of wins that year and trained hard. I was fit and the race went perfectly. I never set out to break five-and-a-half hours and it was only when I reached Pinetown I realised that I could do it. That run is definitely my Comrades highlight,” said Robb.

“In 1976, I had a highlight that at the time was not funny. I think I must be the only Comrades leader to take a wrong turn. I came to a split in the road near Westville and there was no marshal. Not knowing the area, I picked a road that was the wrong one. However, it soon met with the route again and all I did was add a few hundred metres to the total distance.”

Robb had a chance to join the elite bunch of five-time Comrades winners. He was the hot favourite for a fourth consecutive win in 1979, but it was one of those days when he felt flat from the start and could not get going. He finished fifth to surprise winner Piet Vorster, but returned for his fourth and final win in 1980.

With his recognisable shuffle, which Robb said is just the way he runs, three of his four wins were down runs. “I have always been fast on the downhills, which I think suited my style. I wasn’t great on the hills and had to put in plenty of work there,” he said.

As Bruce Fordyce began his dominance of the race, Robb had one final dash for his fifth win. No surprises — it was the down run in 1982 in what has become one of the race’s great showdowns.

“It was a great dice with Bruce. We broke away from the field and he took me on at my own game,” said Robb. “We were going hell for leather down Fields Hill, where he gradually broke away from me. It took something out of me and I went through a bad patch, falling back to fifth before mustering the strength to finish second.”

A Comrades great himself, Robb rates Wally Hayward as the greatest of them all, with Fordyce a close second.

“Newton, Mekler and Ballington — they were all great in their era. They ran in basic shoes. It was quite a low-key event in those days, and lifestyle and nutrition was different.” This coming from a man who has never done gym work or had any special diets for his 39 runs to date. “Good old chocolates, chips, Coke and a beer does it for me,” he said.

In his heyday, Robb knocked up to 3 000 km in training for the race, with speedwork and hills thrown in. “These days, I enjoy trail running, plus mountain biking and canoeing. It beats pounding the same old tar all the time, and there are no crowds and traffic,” he said.

This year, Robb’s training has been somewhat upside-down without Merle and he expects about a 9:30 finish, starting in C batch. He will be wearing his customary red socks and Liverpool cap, still certain that maybe next year will be the turn of the Merseyside giants to win the league.

“I still enjoy Comrades. It’s the greatest ultra in the world and Merle always said that Comrades for me was my Christmas Day.”

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