His thick mop of long hair is shorter and more wispy now, and at the age of 61 he is understandably more frail than he was 30 years ago – but Bruce Fordyce has lost none of his charisma, and he speaks with such comfortable eloquence it’s easy to understand how he has played a leading role in promoting the benefits of running and walking across the country.
Relaxing on the couch of his Parktown home, his outstretched legs resting on a coffee table, Fordyce takes us back to the very beginning.
It was a day he still considers a rare failure of sorts, but a key point in his career, nonetheless.
Having taken third place in the 1979 Comrades Marathon, Fordyce returned to the race in 1980 as one of the favourites.
It was his maiden victory.
But while his conservative, disciplined approach to the race would ultimately earn him the title of “Comrades King”, on this day he waited too long to chase his prey and could not catch a runaway Alan Robb.
“When people say I could have won [a tally of] 10 Comrades, they always think of one at the end (of my competitive career), but Alan Robb won in 1980, and I was second. That should have been my first, but I needed to be a bit braver,” Fordyce reminisces.
The following year, he took no chances on the Up Run and, wearing a controversial black armband as part of a protest against the race being aligned with a government festival, he took the lead from Johnny Halberstadt, with 25km remaining to earn the first of a string of victories.
So, Fordyce went on to win the race a record nine times between 1981 and 1990. His career also included three straight wins at the 55-mile London to Brighton ultra-marathon in England between 1981 and 1983, setting a world best of 4:50:21 with his third victory, and a national 100km record in Stellenbosch in 1989.
His Comrades Down Run record of 5:24:07 lasted 21 years before it was broken by Russian athlete Leonid Shvetsov in 2007, and his SA 100km mark of 6:25:07 stood for 27 years before it was eclipsed by Bongmusa Mthembu last season.
Born in Hong Kong to South African parents, Fordyce attended primary school in England before moving to Joburg at the age of 13.
It was not until his early years as an archaeology student at Wits, however, that he turned to running. Soon discovering his talent for ultra-distance races, it would become a lifelong obsession, and though he no longer hits the road twice a day as part of a structured high-intensity training programme, Fordyce still runs regularly.
“I’m completely addicted. It just adds structure to my life, and I don’t care how slow I am. That doesn’t worry me.”
In 2012, he finished the Comrades for the 30th occasion alongside former track prodigy Zola Budd in a respectable time of 8:06:10, but he has not been on the road on race day for five straight years.
“Comrades is massive for me, but the problem is that my right knee is shot, so I can only run one or two marathons a year, if I look after myself,” he says.
In April, he completed the London Marathon with his son, and next year he plans to run the Two Oceans 56km race in Cape Town for the 32nd time.
Synonymous with South African road running, Fordyce is a household name alongside the likes of the country’s best sportsmen. He has been a great driving force in getting more South Africans active over the past few decades.
He played a key role in elevating the status of the Comrades, which now attracts over 20 000 entrants, and more recently has also been involved in another running explosion.
Less than six years after he launched the South African Parkrun series, over 620 000 individuals have joined the country’s latest fitness craze, which sees groups of people gathering at specific venues around the country every Saturday morning for a free 5km jog or walk.
“It’s easily the biggest recreational activity in South Africa, and it’s tiny compared to what it will be in five years’ time,” Fordyce says.
“It’s the one place where someone who is out of shape, large and intimidated by running can come along and feel welcome.
“We’ll time you, and we won’t laugh at you. There’s no such thing as last place.”
Fordyce will be one of the most recognisable faces at the Expo in Durban next week, in the build-up to Comrades, and he will join the SABC television commentary team on June 4, but he might not run the race again.
“I’m not saying I’ve run my last, but I did my 30th with Zola [Budd] and it was a nice way to finish,” he says.
But while he has many other distractions, and his days on the road may be done, Fordyce will forever be remembered as the Comrades King.