Gearing up for the 40th finish

2014-05-29 00:00

LAST year’s Comrades Marathon should have been one of celebration and pride for David Williams (62), but it was a day he would rather put on the back burner of his memory, locked away and never to be visited again.

He was all set for his 40th finish, thereby joining an elite band of runners with four wreaths around their number. Having done 39 runs, it was scheduled to be just another day on the road for him, but just over 12 hours later, he had already made up his mind to return this year to put the record straight.

“I never made it, plain and simple. I plodded on through to the finish, but was about two-and-a-half kilometres from the end when the cut-off gun was fired,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a tough nut to crack when I was officially the last athlete through the top of Polly Shortts. I was in trouble and so it came to pass.”

As a regular Vic Clapham medal finisher, crossing the line in the last hour of the race, Williams knows his margin for error is minimal, but there were other factors that saw him fall short of the mark. “Conditions on the day were tough. It was humid, with a strong Berg wind that met runners head on as they crested Inchanga. Many runners I spoke to afterwards said they were more than an hour over their predicted finishing time,” he said.

“Also, the usual soft drink provider for the race had been changed and that did me no favours. In the past, I had also been hesitant to drink the water in the sachets as I found I suffered from stomach cramps which I put down to a chemical used in the water. In the hot and dusty conditions, with normal tap water hard to come by, I dehydrated badly without realising it.”

If that wasn’t enough to put a damper on Williams’s day, he discovered his car had been broken into. “My wife was using it to second me and having stopped at one spot, returned to find it had been tampered with,” said Williams. “Then my son, who knew he would have plenty of time during the day to delve into his schoolbooks, had his school bag stolen.”

There was a happy ending for his son when a spectator found the bag on the ground next to his car. “It had the Clifton College badge on and through contacting the school, we were able to hook up and sort things out. I think a calculator was stolen.”

But, in true Comrades spirit, nothing has deterred Williams in his quest and he is in high spirits ahead of Sunday’s journey. “At the end of the day, it’s just sport really and what happens, happens. You have your good and bad days and true character is shown when you put the disappointments aside and get up again to have another go,” he said.

Williams took on his first Comrades as a 21-year-old in 1973, a down-run. He finished in just over nine hours and bar missing the 1974 race for a reason he cannot remember, has never missed a run. A Maritzburg College boy, the running bug took hold of him when he wasn’t too keen on playing rugby.

“I ran cross-country at school and always seemed to come last. Be that as it may, I was never really tired afterwards and began to think I could perhaps run further,” he said. “My resolve to stick to running was strengthened when, because of my height, I was made to play lock on the rugby front, but those hard, dry fields and getting shoved around in the scrum soon curtailed those days.”

His army days kept Williams fit and when he started working for the then Durban Municipality after his days as a soldier, some of his workmates cajoled him into having a serious look at Comrades.

“We started running in our lunch breaks, after work and at races on the weekends. I was never competitive, but I did start getting better, so much so that one of my running partners, John Ward, reckoned I could get a silver medal at Comrades.”

So convinced was Ward he drew up a schedule for Williams and, on his third run in 1976, he cracked his one and only silver medal, clocking 7:22. “I followed what he had compiled closely and it worked out. It nearly went wrong as I was eight minutes behind where I should have been when I reached Westville and I told my seconds to just put water on my head and I galloped off.”

Williams knows that taking on Comrades requires effort and the obvious solution as a married man is to get a balance between running and family time. “It’s hectic at times. After a long weekend run, I just want to get home and chill, but that doesn’t always work out. It’s part of the sacrifices needed to be made.”

Living in Durban North, Williams is motivated by the Regents Harriers, a group of run-of-the-mill runners and walkers who meet daily, except Mondays, to run up to 10 km. Williams runs on Tuesdays and Fridays at 5.15 am, while on other days, hill training and other disciplines are followed, enabling people to develop their running prowess in the hope of conquering Comrades in time.

“We are a sociable group, we don’t pay fees and it’s a great cross section of people. There’s no pressure and it makes training much easier. This is one of the prime reasons I keep going year after year,” he said.

In the end though, Williams is just an ordinary runner who keeps himself busy by taking on an extra-long run once a year.

“I am a lazy runner so prefer the down-run. I am also one of the fortunate few who have never suffered any major injuries through all my running years and I just keep things plain and simple,” he said.

“I have never been a technical guy and marvel at what comes out year after year to boggle the mind of a runner new to Comrades.”

On race day, Williams will have his family seconding him with his basic needs. “I have a few simple supplements to keep my energy up and, for some reason, I always like a Chelsea bun. They know what to give me and I will keep on going, even if I have another tough day,” he said. “Physically, I’m okay. It’s just my speed that’s gone.”

With that in mind, Williams, who says he likes to get on the road and punish his body, will be at the start on Sunday just keen to spend his day on the road. After 39 runs, it’s just another day at the office for him and he will take it all in his stride.

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