Q&A with the Comrades King, Bruce Fordyce

Mar 3, 2020

Bruce Fordyce is an icon in the running community and will always be known as the Comrades King. He won the Comrades Marathon a record 9 times, of which 8 wins were consecutive, and was also a world record holder for two distances. Today he continues to inspire countless runners to get up and get active in his role as President of parkrun Southern Africa.

Run Life asked Bruce a few questions about his illustrious career and what it took to become such a running legend.

Bruce Fordyce 4

What are your PB’s?

  • 5km:  0:14:20
  • 10km:  0:29:53
  • Half Marathon:  1:07 – This was actually the 2nd half of a marathon. I generally didn’t race half marathons during my career.
  • Full Marathon:  2:17
  • 50km:  2:53
  • 100km:  6:25 – This was a world record in 1989
  • 50 miles:  4:50:51 – This was a world record that I held from 1983 to 2019
  • Comrades up run:  5:27:42
  • Comrades down run:  5:24:07

Most South African long-distance runners will know about your Comrades achievements, but you had numerous wins during your career. What are some of your other career highlights?

  • Winner of 3 London to Brighton Ultramarathons (In those days, this was the sibling race to Comrades in the UK)
  • Winner of the US 50 Mile Championship
  • Winner of the 100km World Championship (This took place in Stellenbosch against 40 of the best ultra-distance runners in the world.)
  • National University Marathon Champion (Originally called the Dalrymple Games. This is one that I’m particularly proud of)

Young Bruce Fordyce

What was your favourite and least favourite part about running the Comrades?

My favourite part was obviously winning the race. I was lucky enough that I never won by only a small margin, so I knew when I got close to the stadium that I had won. The emotions that you feel when entering that stadium are just indescribable and that last stretch on the finish straight was the most amazing feeling.

My least favourite part was probably feeling the pressure in the week leading up to the race. As a favourite to win there is an extreme amount of pressure with the media and public expectations that are placed on you.

Then I suppose the one thing that any Comrades runner can relate to is that mental Block that you hit late in the race. For me it usually came between about 65 and 70km, where you just ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” It’s a horrible headspace to be in.

In every long distance run, there comes a point where our bodies start to hurt and the urge to give in becomes extremely tempting. What was your secret to pushing through the pain?

For me, it’s a far worse feeling to give up than to suffer through the pain. When you give up, you have to live with that forever. The pain will always come and, if you give up, the pain will be over very quickly, but the memory of that defeat will last for a long time afterwards. For that reason, to keep going was always the easier option. Obviously if you need to give up for a real injury or because you’re sick, that’s a different story.

What advice would you give to a novice runner aiming to complete their first Comrades Marathon?

Enjoy the full experience that the Comrades has to offer – everything from the first second when you start training. It’s an amazing adventure and you need to enjoy every experience as much as possible.

The day of Comrades will be the longest and the shortest day of your life at the same time. Take in every single moment. The start line is incredibly emotional when you listen to the national anthem, Chariots of Fire, Shosholoza, the cock crow and that cannon going off. Your first Comrades is also unlikely to be the fastest time that you’re going to run, so let go of the time pressure and take it all in – the excitement and the fear.

Very few other runners have managed to maintain the mental and physical strength that you did for as long as you did. What were the key factors that went into training for and winning 9 Comrades Marathons (and running hard for a number of others)?

Well the first ingredient is that I chose good parents. There’s no doubt that I had good genetics on my side. The next part was that I hit on a good programme in 1979 and I stuck with it. Throughout my running career, I actually changed that programme very little. Maybe a few small tweaks here and there, but the basic programme never changed.  It worked for me and I wholeheartedly believed in it.

Every year, I knew when I got to the start line that I was going to achieve my goal time. It didn’t mean that someone else wouldn’t achieve a time that was faster than mine, but I knew for certain that I would achieve the time that I had set out to run.

I firmly believe that success at the Comrades does not come to the person who trains the hardest but rather to the person who trains the cleverest. Never be influenced by what others around you are doing. Find the programme that works for you and stick with it.

Bruce Fordyce at Comrades

You completed your first Comrades in 1977 in a time of 6:45, which means that you took a relatively untrained body to a brilliant time in less than 1 year. What was your typical training schedule between July 1976 and Comrades 1977?

To be honest, I didn’t have any kind of typical schedule. I just slowly started to run further. My first run was 10 minutes around the field at WITS University. Then within a month I progressed to a 10km run and slowly started progressing and running further.

At the start of 1977 I joined the Wits Running Club and just started doing what the other runners were doing. There were a lot of more experienced runners and I listened to their stories and experiences and started taking their advice. There were days where studying or having a typical student social life got in the way of running and I would have to miss some days of training but then I would pick up again after that.

Genetics undoubtedly played a big part in the time I achieved on that race and, of course, I had youth on my side.

When you were at the peak of your running career, nutrition on the run was very different to what it is today. What did you rely on to sustain your energy levels?

Water and Coke with added sugar. Nothing else. There were no gels in those days and no potatoes or other food on the road. Water and Coke was all we had.

My last meal was the night before the race. I didn’t have breakfast before the race but, as the elites, we were lucky enough that we would finish the race before lunchtime. So we’d get to sit down and eat brunch while the rest of the field still had hours out there on the road.

I have to say though that these days I’m a huge Tim Noakes Banting fan and think back in horror on my previous eating strategy!

If you could offer one tip to anyone running the Comrades Marathon, what would it be?

Start slowly, as slow as possible. Comrades rewards cowards, not bravery. You need to be afraid of what’s coming on the race. If you’re cocky and start too fast, Comrades will knock you right back down before the end of the race. Respect the distance, respect the hills and be conservative.

As the parkrun President in Southern Africa, you must have taken part in parkruns across the world. How many different parkruns have you completed and which was your favourite?

I’ve run at 240 different parkrun venues around the world and completed over 400 actual runs. Before parkrun grew to this level, the only venue in South Africa was at Delta Park, so I’ve run almost 50 at that venue alone. There are quite a few new parkrun venues in the pipeline for South Africa, so I’m looking forward to adding to that list.

In terms of my favourite, I would have to say that wherever my friends are running is my favourite. The venues are all so great and each parkrun is so special, that I truly couldn’t pick a favourite venue.

Bruce has written two books on how to run the Comrades called the Fordyce Diaries – Conquering The Up and Tackling A Down Run. If you’re training for or thinking about running the ultimate human race, then these books are a must read. You can purchase them here.

Bruce fordyce holding Comrades Trophy

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