Love affair with the great race

2014-05-28 00:00

HE put his foot over the start line of the Comrades Marathon for the first time in 1961 as an 18-year-old and on Sunday, attempts to complete the down run to earn his 46th medal.

Dave Rogers (71) proudly holds the record for the most Comrades medals and, had it not been for two or three bad runs where he just missed the final gun or pulled out along the way due to being too far behind the clock, he would surely have reached a half century of Comrades finishes.

Nonetheless, Rogers can be proud of his achievement and, without sounding too clichéd, such an accolade could not belong to a nicer bloke.

A whole afternoon could be spent with him in his pub at his home in Hillcrest listening to his stories of the great race through the years, such is his connection with and fondness for the race.

“I played first division and provincial hockey and decided to have a go at Comrades just to see how I went. It was a mess around really, to see if I could finish within the time and prove I could footslog between PMB and Durban,” he said.

He finished his first run in 10:13:05, good enough for a silver medal back then. One of his memories from that run is taking a swim at Tollgate Bridge, before running down Berea Road to the finish, which was at the Beach Pavilion.

“There were nice-looking water features at the bridge back then and I vowed that when I arrived at the top of Berea Road and looked down on Durban, I would cool off in one of the ponds,” said Rogers.

“I duly did this but was soon yelling for someone to pull me out as I began stiffening up. At least I finished.”

That was the start of Rogers’s still active love affair with the great race.

“Having done one, then the talk started from fellow runners around me. It still goes on today — if you’ve done a down run, you have to do an up run; surely you can better your time; after five runs you may as well push on and get your permanent green number; you have to run both directions in your green number — and so the years roll by and the medals start piling up,” he said.

In time, balancing running with hockey became its own challenge and he had to make a choice.

“I gave up provincial hockey and chose running, thereby beginning a love-hate relationship with the sport and particularly Comrades,” said Rogers.

“The love part is just enjoying running, the exercise, new friends and camaraderie. The hate comes along when you decide to do Comrades and the work starts. Then it’s putting in the mileage, getting up early and making what becomes a massive commitment.”

Rogers is a firm believer that conquering Comrades is all about overcoming a psychological barrier and once that has been dealt with, it becomes a magical experience and journey.

“For many runners, just the thought of taking on nearly 90 km destroys them, long before race day arrives,” he said. “They get so caught up in hearing everyone else’s war stories on what could go wrong, the excruciating pain and all the negative talk, they do more harm than good in their preparation, trying to cover so many bases and arriving at the start nothing short of being a nervous wreck.

“They need to prepare adequately, listen to their bodies and do what is comfortable for them.”

As a veteran of 45 finishes, Rogers has a point. He has three gold medals to his name, earned at the height of his powers in 1974 (7th), 1975 (6th) and 1976 (3rd). In those days, there was no state-of-the-art technology or too many so-called proven scientific facts to hamper his mindset as race day approached.

“It was just pure hard work to progress from an average finisher to a front runner. Every opportunity to run and log extra miles was taken and I sometimes ran twice a day, either to or from work, with a time trial thrown in,” he said.

“It was all about endurance and with a bunch of fellow runners, we would put in up to 800 to 900 kilometres a month over four to five months, getting used to distance and building up to a comfortable pace which the body got used to.

“Then, come Comrades race day, we were in good shape to tackle what lay ahead. It was nothing new to us or our bodies.”

There was no special energy drink either for Rogers and he survived on Sprite or Coke and water with a touch of salt thrown in. “We survived on what we knew worked for us. At times, people were horrified at how little we drank on the run, but it worked for me.”

With so much running under his belt, it’s natural for Rogers’s body to lodge a complaint somewhere along the line and in 2003, he took note of a dodgy hip.

“I saw a top-class bloke who did a hip resurfacing procedure for me as opposed to a hip replacement. It was like going from a mini to a Rolls Royce and I have knocked up seven Comrades and about 40 000 km with no hassle,” he said.

Asked whether he preferred the up or down run, Rogers gave an answer that made perfect sense. “When you are strong and have done the right training, the up run is easier and better. But, like me, when you become an old jalopy, it becomes far easier to go downhill,” he said.

Having run with and witnessed some of the Comrades greats through the years, Rogers is adamant who he considers his best of the lot.

“For me, it remains Derek Preiss, winner in 1974/75 and still the only runner to win Comrades and Two Oceans in the same year,” he said. “He was phenomenal. He was young (21 when he won in 1974), strong and had legs like pistons. Physically he was awesome but mentally, he had big match temperament while running but could not handle the pressure out of running.

“It was a pity as he no doubt could have won more Comrades and been a true great, but what he did achieve will live with me forever.”

Rogers recounted an incident that indicates how good Preiss really was. “We trained a lot together and we had done a 65 km run one Saturday morning and I was finished. No sooner had I arrived home when Derek phones and says we have a cross country commitment that afternoon,” said Rogers.

“Off I go, the last thing I want as I am still sore and tender, to do the 12 km. Lo and behold, I am in about seventh place when Derek pops up on the sideline to cheer me on to score points for our club, Westville. He had won the race and said he felt a little tired but okay.”

Manie Kuhn, winner in 1967 and Dave Bagshaw, three-time winner (1969-71) also get the nod from Rogers who points out that in that era, there was no professionalism, with runners holding down a job and finding their own time to train.

“It’s been a tremendous ride with some way to go still. My wife Wendy has been with me through all my Comrades runs and so has my family in latter years, and for the moment, I can remember how many years we have been married as that is how many Comrades medals I hope to have by Sunday night — 46,” said Rogers.

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