You may look at a Comrades Marathon finish time of 6h10 and think to yourself, “that runner clearly comes from good genes”. Well that may play a part, but this runner achieved that phenomenal success through hard work and sheer determination.
Paul Gerrard is an incredible runner from Johannesburg who went from being grossly overweight to one of the fastest runners you’re likely to meet. We asked him what it took to get there.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m 37 years old and married with a son of almost 3 years old. I work for an IT consulting company where I am a project delivery manager.
I was very lucky to learn about the joys of running when I was in primary school when my father was a casual runner. It all started when my two sisters and I would go running around the block with him before he would go off for his longer run. He ran comrades once and I loved watching it year after year. In high school I took part in cross country and athletics and, for very little training, did pretty well. However, after school I did almost no running for over a decade after I decided that fast food and beer was what I wanted. My dream of completing comrades was a distant memory.
What made you start running?
In January 2012, I hit 90kgs. I’m only 166cm tall so I was well into the obese range. I was wearing a size 36-inch pants going on to 38. I remember struggling to climb out of the swimming pool and that’s when I knew that I had to do something. So, I started to improve my eating habits and jogging. While running around Delta park, I noticed a group of runners and soon learnt that they were doing “Park Run”. This was the first I’d heard of it and the following week I joined them. It was the 10th Parkrun in South Africa. I ran a 30:19 and was dry heaving by the end of the 5 kilometers. Right then I knew that I needed to be back to break 30 minutes. I was hooked. From there I started to eat healthy, train more regularly and I was back at that Park Run every week to try and improve my time. The weight starting to drop off was just the cherry on top. I’ve lost over 30kgs since then.
What sort of training went into getting a 6h10 finish at the Comrades?
I ran about 3500kms between January and June. There were many weeks of over 200km. I find the deeper I get into training, the cleaner I eat. When running high mileage you do need to eat a lot of food, especially protein. I was having a couple of Iso Whey Protein shakes a day as they can get absorbed very quickly to aid with recovery.
How do you manage to fit in a heavy running schedule with a family and full-time job?
It isn’t easy and does take some sacrifices. Some weeks I need to do over 20 hours of running and I’m very lucky to have a wife that is supportive of my training. I’m also lucky that I can shift around my work hours, so some days I can work for 7 hours, then others for 9 hours. This allows me to fit in double session days.
I work in Centurion and live in Johannesburg North, so travel time also steals a lot of my day and I’m always thinking of ways to optimise my time. For example, on some days during the build up to Comrades I would wake up at 4am and drive straight to work when there wasn’t any traffic. This would save me around 30 minutes of travel time. I would then run (up to 50km) and still get to work at a reasonable time. During peak training, my family would only see me in the morning one day a week. Running 5 hour long runs on the weekend means that it’s almost lunchtime when I get home and then I need to invest time with my family/friends or do household chores when my body just wanted to be on the couch.
What are your running PB’s?
What motivates you to get up and run when your body is tired, the training starts feeling hard or you just don’t feel like it?
The exact same drive that I had right in the beginning – just to improve. I think having a structured program is key to success. Without one, it’s easy to change your run to a shorter distance or swap the morning run to the afternoon, only to find that you actually don’t have time for it later. Having a training goal motivates you to hit your weekly targets. With time I’ve slowly learnt when my body is telling me that I’m really tired and need to skip a session or when I just don’t feel like it and need to dig deep because the feeling when I’ve finished the run is so worth it.
What is your training secret?
Consistency is the most important thing. Don’t run aimlessly. If you really want to improve, then a coach who understands what runs you specifically need to include can offer you some real benefit. I’ve seen far too many runners wonder why they’re not improving, only to see that they’re not actually completing so many of the runs they need to get the most out of their training.
If you could give one tip to new runners, what would it be?
If you want to get the most out of running then join a real running club, one that has a community and a brick and mortar club. The people you meet along the way are what truly make the journey worth it.