Strong legs vital piece of Comrades puzzle

FILE PICTURE: Brent Harris, John Walland, Graeme Watkins, Bruce Fordyce, Jennifer Su, Butch James and Rikki Brest look forward to the Hyundai Rock the Run, 15 January 2013. The Hyundai Rock the Run which is South Africas first 10 km and 21.1 km running event combining sport and live music and will take place on the 16 March 2014 from Mushroom Farm Park Picture: Neil McCartney

Australian marathon legend, Rob de Castella, or better known as Deek, has always been a hero of mine.

Not only because of his amazing running achievements, but also because of the wonderful work he is doing with bringing distance running to impoverished Aboriginal communities in Australia. It was a great honour for me to meet him at a function in Canberra in March last year.

His running career is littered with great achievements, but two that stand out were his 1982 Commonwealth Games marathon victory, and his bold front-running win in the 1986 Boston Marathon.

In the 1982 Commonwealth race his duel against Tanzania’s Juma Ikangaa will always be rated as one of the most exciting marathons ever run. For at least five years in the Eighties Deek was the world’s leading marathon runner and everyone wanted to know how he trained and what he and coach Pat Clohessy did to produce such dominance.

Deek was a strength runner, bringing endurance and tremendous leg strength to his running rather than the sheer speed of his East African rivals.

Indeed his arm-swinging pounding style has been likened to “macheteing his way through thick bush”. Not a surprise that his nickname means “tree” apparently because of his inner calm and very thick muscular legs.

As I tried to become a better ultra-runner in the Eighties I made it my business to try and learn how he trained and how he nurtured such great running strength. Leg strength is vital for Comrades runners because it isn’t a particularly fast race, but rather a race for the strong.

It is leg strength that enables us to drag ourselves up those fearsome Comrades ascents and to survive the pounding on the even steeper descents.

What did Deek do to make himself so strong? Did he lift weights in the gym, did he run lots of punishing hill sessions?

Well in fact he did, and in many ways his training programme was very similar to that of many elite ultra-marathon runners. He just didn’t run the very long, slow distances on the weekend that so many of us run in preparation for the Comrades.

However one session stood out. It was a midweek run of 30km at a brisk pace, generally run on a Wednesday evening. It was a strength-building session run with no stops or breaks, even for a drink.

I wasn’t running anything remotely similar in the middle of the training week at the time, and neither was anyone I knew. I think this was probably because no one has time to run for two to three hours in the middle of the working week and it seemed impossible to fit this session in.

I decided to find a way to get it done. I would run from my home to meet my training friends and we would run our normal 10 to 12km session and then I would run home via a loop.

It was lonely, and it was all run in the dark as Comrades grew closer and Autumn days grew shorter. At times I questioned my sanity, but it worked brilliantly.

When combined with a weekend run of 40 to 60km the results were exciting. The midweek 25 to 30km evening run became a permanent fixture of my training programme.

Now not everyone can run such a distance in the middle of the week, but I do like to encourage Comrades runners to try to run one session in the week that is just a little longer than the others. Try to add a couple of kilometres to that familiar run and try to run it at your planned Comrades pace with as few stops as possible.

None of us can emulate Deek’s wonderful achievements, but we can improve enormously by working on our running strength.

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