Training tips from a legendary, nine-time winner.
I really miss the old Pieter Korkie 56km.
Named after the late, great Pieter Korkie, the race was the second oldest ultramarathon in South Africa and for many years was second in importance only to the Comrades Marathon.
The list of past winners of the Korkie reads like the who’s who of South African ultra-running.
Sadly, the event no longer exists but in its day it was an absolute gem of a race.
For Gauteng runners it was a vital stepping-stone on their journeys to Comrades.
Run between Pretoria and Germiston, it was known as the “slow poison race” as runners climbed gradually and relentlessly between the two cities.
Most importantly, however, for many years the Korkie served as the kick-off signal for the start of proper Comrades training.
After the Korkie it was always time to get serious about the Comrades.
I can remember running the Korkie every year at the beginning of March, allowing myself a couple of easy recovery days, having a pre-winter season anti-flu injection, and then plunging headlong into weeks of hard training for the Comrades.
Of course, this was not a Comrades training regime starting from a zero base.
No one could run a race like the Korkie without a solid foundation of many weeks of training and I ran the Korkie with many months of running in my legs.
But that running had been light and fun.
There was no real sense of purpose.
Once the Korkie was completed however, the work and preparation for the Comrades could really begin in earnest.
The tough 56 km Korkie slog reminded every runner that there was still plenty of work to be completed by June in order to find those extra 30-odd kilometers to be able to run the 90km of the Comrades Marathon.
But runners don’t need the great race to remind them that it is now time to get serious as the marathon season is in full swing.
The first ultras of the season are attracting entries and in some cases are already sold out.
Up in the Highveld the pretty pink and white cosmos flowers have started to bloom.
Comrades old-timers have always joked that the cosmos flowers are the harbingers of the Comrades Marathon.
I still recall that as we ran the Korkie many of us would pause briefly to pick cosmos flowers from the side of the road and fix them to our hats and peak caps.
It was always a last fun gesture before things became very serious.
I have always argued that training for a race is a science, while racing is an art.
For Comrades runners the science begins in March and should continue through April and May leaving time to sharpen up and then taper to race day.
What has happened in the months before is largely irrelevant.
Impressive times and mega training mileage in the South African summer months are unimportant and have no bearing on the results at the Comrades in June.
I honed and perfected my approach to training for the Comrades back in 1979 when a slight injury severely hampered my training in January and February.
At the same time I attended a running talk given by the legendary Dave Levick in which he spoke about his despair at an injury in early 1973 that cost him weeks of precious training.
Both of us thought we were severely under-prepared and that any hope of a good result had vanished.
I finished a surprised and delighted third that year. And Dave? Well Dave won his Comrades in 1973 with a storming second-half.
I then spent the next decade following almost exactly the same training pattern.
For the six months before the Korkie race I ran between 80 and 120km a week.
I had fun, I raced shorter distances. I even donned spikes occasionally and ventured onto the track.
Immediately after the Korkie I ran pure distance, anything from 160 to 220km a week.
I kept this up for about 10 weeks.
In early May I cut my weekly mileage back drastically and focused on speedwork, sharpening up with track and hill sessions, and short distance races.
My plan and training programme worked beautifully for over a decade and though I would never have dared to be so arrogant as to predict victory at every occasion, I would line up on race day confident that my training would deliver a result of around five and a half hours.
Those who know their coaching methods and famous coaches well will be able to identify that my training approach to the Comrades is pure “Lydiard.”
I simply trained the way the famous Arthur Lydiard trained his athletes in the 1960s.
He was correct then and I believe he is still correct now.
It is no coincidence that I met the great New Zealander at a prize giving function after the 1979 City to City 50km race, another former classic race that no longer exists.
Lydiard is considered by many to be simply the greatest running coach ever known.
I found Lydiard to be a gruff, straight talking Kiwi whose ideas made perfect sense.
Most famous for coaching the track star Peter Snell and influencing other legendary New Zealanders like Halberg, Magee, Quax, Dixon and Walker, Lydiard made his track runners run several weeks of long slow distance mileage before sharpening them up and enabling them to be in peak form just before major championships.
Snell, who was an Olympic 800/1500m runner even completed a marathon in training, and regularly ran over 32km while preparing for the track.
At that prize giving function I sought Lydiard out as quickly and politely as I could and I’m sure I irritated the great coach with my persistent questions.
However, I still remember the advice he gave me and the others who gathered around him.
His influence was immense. His words were to help guide me for over a decade and they still guide those to whom I offer advice.
So now it is time as we enter March.
Comrades runners need to pretend that they have all just run the Korkie.
It is time to become Lydiard devotees.
The hard work is about to begin.
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