Run The World #7 – GERDA STEYN

The 2019 edition of the Comrades Marathon finds itself in the record books, thanks to  Gerda Steyn who became the first woman to break six hours in the up-run race, knocking more than ten minutes off the previous mark.

“I had never won this race before, so that was my first goal. Breaking the record was just a big bonus on top of the win.”

The Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon run annually in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon race. The direction of the race alternates each year between the “up” run (87 km with more uphills) starting from Durban, and the “down” run (90 km with more downhills) starting from Pietermaritzburg. South African runner Gerda had a record-shattering day in June this year at the 98-year old Comrades. The 29-year-old broke the women’s up-run record by more than 10 minutes when she finished in 5:58:53. This made her the first women ever to break the six-hour mark in the up-run at the 90K (55 mile). She even placed 17th overall.

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Winner of the 94th Comrades Marathon – June 9th 2019, Durban, South Africa

In an interview with The Independent, Gerda shares, “This year, I sort of didn’t plan and decided to go with my ability. When I got to halfway, I was looking at my watch, and I knew I was on a course record, so I knew my race would start now. I gave it my all, and I left it all on the road.”

The previous mark was set in 2006 by Russian Elena Nurgalieva who ran a 6:09:23. In addition, Steyn also became the first woman since 1989 to win both Comrades and Two Oceans Marathon (South Africa’s gruelling ultramarathons) titles in the same year.

Born in 1990 and raised in the small town of Bothaville in the Free State, Gerda Steyn studied Quantity Surveying and Construction Management at the University of the Free State (UFS) between 2009 and 2012. She ran a couple of cross country races while studying, and played soccer and hockey for her university. Gerda grew up on a farm and like many South Africans used to watch the Comrades Marathon on TV. “It wasn’t as much the winners who inspired me the most, but rather the size of the field. I was convinced if all those thousands of South Africans could do it, I could too.” And though Comrades fascinated her year after year, she never ran consistently or even joined a running club.

In 2014, she moved from Johannesburg to Dubai to work as a quantity surveyor, and joined a running club there to meet new people and make friends in a new country. It was during this time that she met other runners from around the world who had participated in the Comrades Marathon before and were gearing up to participate again that year. Being from South Africa, she felt she had to join them. One of the members of the group, British pilot Duncan Ross, would later become her husband, and the activity which brought them together would ultimately unearth Steyn’s remarkable hidden talent. As preparation for her debut Comrades, she entered the Dubai Marathon in 2015. Runners over the age of twenty qualify when they are able to complete an officially recognized marathon (42.2 km) in under five hours (The criteria for 2019 was 4h50). During the event an athlete must also reach five cut-off points in specified times to complete the race. The full-time worker and part-time runner successfully recorded her first ever Comrades Marathon finish, her maiden attempt at the 87km  in 2015 in an unremarkable (according to her) time of 8:19:08. Returning the following year, she covered the gruelling course more than an hour quicker in 7:08:23, and in 2017 she displayed her full potential for the first time, stunning the elite women’s field to take fourth position on the Comrades ‘up’ run.

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Women’s fourth position at Comrades 2017

Gerda says she started taking running seriously in 2018, and came second to Ann Ashworth in a terrific women’s race. She also won the popular 56km Two Oceans ultra-marathon in Cape Town last year. In October the same year, she set a personal best of 33:36 to finish fifth at the FNB CitySurfRun 10km race in Durban, and in the following month made her international marathon debut, recording the best time for a South African entrant in the New York Marathon, stopping the clock at 2:31:04 over the 42.2km distance and ranking 13th overall. Irrespective of which distance she competes in, Gerda believes, “it is a matter of digging deep and stepping out of my comfort zone with no regrets after crossing the finish line”.

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First lady overall at the 10km event of the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon 2018 in a new PB of 34:29
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Second position among women in Comrades 2018

To help boost her time and performance, Steyn reached out to running coach, legendary former Comrades winner Nick Bester of the Nedbank Running Club in South Africa, who helped shaped her daily running routine. Post her 2018 runner-up position at Comrades, Gerda said, “I think that I can still improve physically and emotionally. But I am enjoying the process and extremely excited to see what I can do.” Her finesse at the Two Oceans in April 2019 catapulted Steyn’s career into a new realm, outclassing a strong field to retain her title in 3:31:29. Completing the race just 53 seconds outside the 30-year-old record held by local ultra-distance icon Frith van der Merwe, she proved that the long-standing mark could be broken. Her 2019 wins have made her just the third woman ever to win the Two Oceans Marathon and the Comrades in the same year and the first woman to complete an up-run in less than six hours. Spending time in the French Alps, preparing for rigours of the Comrades, she came into the race confident that she had a fast time in her.

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Rhône-Alpes, France
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Cape Town

Steyn anticipated an early race and she got one from 2018 winner Ashworth. The pair pushed each other forward from the gun and set a pace that enabled Steyn to ultimately shatter the up-run record by over ten minutes. She felt like she had a record-breaking run in her after increasing her fitness levels between the Two Oceans win and the Comrades. Club runners praise her tremendous positivity, and almost always find her with a smile on her face, giving her the moniker of The Smiling Assassin – smiling her way to the podium.

2019 Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon: Ultra Marathon 56km

“2018 has been a fantastic year for me. After Comrades I have been training specifically to improve my speed over shorter distances. I surprised myself in the last two months racing against the top runners over 10km and definitely feel like it comes down to the training.”

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Crossing the finish line at Two Oceans 2018
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Two Oceans 2018

The secret to her success, Steyn explains, is mixing up the type of training she does which allows her body to better recover from the inevitable strain of road running. “I am a big believer in cross training – running takes a lot out of your body and therefore I mix my training up with cycling and other exercises. I find that it not only keeps me less prone  to injury, but also makes my training more exciting. The most important thing is to believe in your training, and to to stick with what works for you.”

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Steyn begins her day between 5am and 6am, with a breakfast of a bowl of oats and coffee. “I never skip breakfast.” She then goes on a run that can take between an hour and two hours. “For soft runs (when she’s focusing on building fitness), I don’t focus on kilometres, I focus on the allocated time for running,” she says. When she’s at peak training for an event, she starts focusing on mileage. After the run, Steyn goes home to freshen up, and then it’s gym time. This includes weights, swimming, cycling and various other types of strength training. She then goes home for a hearty lunch. With the morning’s gruelling routine, it is important for her to wind down later in the day. For Steyn this includes a nap and, possibly, a physiotherapy session after lunch. She says coach Bester taught her the importance of remaining injury free. Running can take its toll on one’s body, any form of self-care during the training period is very important.  Steyn loves to go for walks at the end of the day in order to unwind. She emphasizes the importance of nutrition – “For me, it is important to put in what you take out of your body at all times.”

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Her fledgling career has risen to spectacular heights in just a few years, with the 29-year-old quickly cementing her place as the country’s top women’s ultra-distance runner. Record-breaking performances notwithstanding, Steyn has decided to put the ultra distance on hold to pursue an Olympic dream. “This was a big goal for me and it’s a dream come true, so it’ll be hard to top this, but I have a lot of goals.” Steyn will be dropping down to standard marathon distance in a bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Marathon in 2020. A Comrades record won’t count for the Olympics and Steyn will need to earn her place in Tokyo. Steyn will need to adjust to shorter distances and put up the kind of times that not only allow her to qualify for the Olympic marathon but suggest that she can do well in the race. Her tactical approach to the Comrades suggests that she has the ability to turn herself into an Olympic medal contender. “The marathon for me is a whole new world, but after today I will take some time to figure out where I go to from here”, she had  said after the win last month.

Steyn splits her time between Dubai, Johannesburg and France. She goes hiking in the French Alps, but says Lesotho’s Maloti Mountains as well as Johannesburg are her favourite places to train and hike.

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Tignes, France
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Afriski Mountain Resort

Regardless of whatever targets she sets herself down the line, however, there is no doubt she will be back. “Comrades is part of me, part of who I am and part of who I want to be in the future, and I think there is more I can put into this race, so it’s a very exciting time for me.”

gerda-steyn

 

Sources:

~www.businessinsider.co.za

~www.runnersworld.com

~www.thesouthafrican.com

~www.comrades.com

~www.citizen.co.za

~www.iol.co.za

 

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Run The World #6 – Abebe Bikila

Abebe Bikila couldn’t find a comfortable pair of shoes for the 1960 Rome Olympics. So he ran barefoot. He won gold. Set a world record. And created history in the sport of long distance running, making East Africans a force to reckon with ever since.

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The sixth in our series on international runners, Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila was the first sub-Saharan African Olympic gold medallist, and the first back-to-back Olympic champion. He won his first gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome while running barefoot, and won his second gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which made him the first athlete to successfully defend an Olympic marathon title.

Abebe was a member of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard – an elite infantry division that safeguarded the Emperor of Ethiopia. He was a soldier before he became an athlete, rising to the rank of a captain (shambel in Amharic); therefore his formal designation was Shambel Abebe Bikila. He was instrumental in establishing East Africa as a force in long distance running. Abebe participated in a total of sixteen marathons in his athletics career, winning twelve. According to Olympian and sports journalist Kenny Moore, Abebe was responsible for the great African distance running avalanche. He brought to the forefront the relationship between endurance and high-altitude training in all kinds of sports. The Abebe Bikila Award is presented to individuals for their contributions to long-distance running. Mamo Wolde, Juma Ikangaa, Tegla Loroupe, Paul Tergat, and Haile Gebrselassie are all recipients of the Abebe Bikila Award.

Abebe Bikila was born on August 7, 1932 in the small community of Jato. His birthday coincided with the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Marathon. As a young boy, Abebe played gena, a traditional hockey game. In 1952, he joined the 5th Infantry Regiment of the Imperial Guard in Addis Ababa. During the mid-1950s, Abebe ran 20 km (12 miles) from the hills of Sululta to Addis Ababa and back every dayOnni Niskanen, a Swedish coach employed by the Ethiopian government to train the Imperial Guard, soon noticed the twenty-four year old, and began training him for the marathon. In the 6,000-foot high mountains, he led Bikila and others through grueling workouts. Runs were up to twenty miles, including repeated sprints of 1,500 meters and barefoot runs over the rocky soil. In 1956, Abebe finished second to Wami Biratu in the Ethiopian Armed Forces championship.

In July 1960, Abebe won his first marathon in Addis Ababa. A month later he won again in Addis Ababa with a time of 2:21:23, which was faster than the existing Olympic record held by Emil Zátopek. Coach Niskanen entered both Wami Biratu and Abebe Bikila in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics, which would be run on 10th September. In Rome, Abebe purchased new running shoes, but they did not fit well and gave him blisters, leading to the decision to run barefoot instead. The race started late-afternoon and finished at night. Abebe’s winning time was 2:15:16, twenty-five seconds faster than runner-up Ben Abdesselam at 2:15:41 and breaking Russian marathoner Sergei Popov’s 1958 world record by eight tenths of a second. On crossing the finish line, Abebe began to run in place, saying that he could have run another 10–15 km (6–9 miles). He returned to his homeland a hero. The emperor awarded him the Star of Ethiopia and promoted him to the rank of asiraleqa (corporal). Bikila’s gold was the first Olympic medal by a black man, and marked the beginning of a new era in international competition.

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Bikila, with bib number 11, at the back of the pack
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Breaking away from the pack to get into lead position
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Finish line of the 1960 Rome Olympics
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Receiving the Star of Ethiopia from the Emperor
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On the podium of the 1960 Rome Olympics, with silver medallist Abdeslon Rhadi of Morocco and bronze winner Barry Magee of New Zealand.

In the 1961 Athens Classical Marathon, Abebe again won while running barefootThis was the second and last event in which he competed barefooted. The same year he won the marathons in Osaka (Japan) and Košice (Slovakia). While in Japan, he was approached by a Japanese shoe company, Onitsuka Tiger, with the possibility of wearing its shoes; Coach Niskanen declined the offer. Between his Olympic wins in 1960 and 1964, Abebe also ran the 1963 Boston Marathon —and finished fifth in 2:24:43. This was the only time in his competitive career that he completed an international marathon without winning. The race was won by Belgium’s Aurele Vandendriessche in a course record of 2:18:58.

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Training for the Tokyo Olympics with team mate Mamo Wolde

Forty days before the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Abebe felt pain while training. He was diagnosed with acute appendicitis, had an appendectomy on September 16, left the hospital within a week, and was all set to run the marathon on 21st October, this time wearing Puma shoes. Abebe began the race at the back of the pack until about the 10 km (6 miles) mark, when he slowly increased his pace. He entered the Olympic stadium alone, to the cheers of 75,000 spectators, finishing with a time of 2:12:11.2, four minutes and eight seconds ahead of silver medalist Basil Heatley of Great Britain. Abebe did not appear exhausted after the finish, and he again performed a routine of calisthenics, which included touching his toes twice then lying down on his back, cycling his legs in the air.

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At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

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In the book “Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History of the Games”, Charlie Lovett writes, For Bikila, no strategy was necessary. He slowly increased his lead, running with total concentration and precision. His body seemed to float down the streets. He ran  using the least amount of energy and his smooth strides and motionless head made the race appear effortless.

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On the podium of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics with silver medallist Basil Heatley of Great British and bronze winner Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan.

He was the first runner to successfully defend an Olympic marathon titleAs of the 2016 Olympic marathon, Abebe and Waldemar Cierpinski are the only athletes to have won two gold medals in the event, and they both did it back-to-back. For the second time, Abebe received Ethiopia’s only gold medal and again returned home to a hero’s welcome. The Emperor promoted him to the commissioned-officer rank of   metoaleqa  (lieutenant). He received the Order of Menelik II, a Volkswagen Beetle and a house.

In May 1965, Abebe returned to Japan and won his second Mainichi Marathon. In 1966 he ran marathons at Zarautz (Spain) and Inchon Seoul (South Korea), winning both. The 1966 Incheon–Seoul Marathon was the last marathon he ever completed. He did not finish the Zarautz International Marathon in July 1967 due to a hamstring injury, from which he never recovered.

In July 1968, he joined the rest of the Ethiopian Olympic team training for the Mexico Olympics. A week before the race, Abebe developed pain in his left leg. Doctors discovered a fracture in his fibula, and he was advised to stay off his feet until the day of the race. Abebe had to drop out of the race after approximately 16 km (10 miles) and Mamo Wolde won that year in 2:20:26.4. This was Bikila’s last marathon appearance. He was rewarded with a promotion to the rank of shambel (captain) upon his return to Ethiopia.

On the night of March 22, 1969, Abebe lost control of his Volkswagen Beetle while trying to avoid an oncoming car. It overturned, trapping him inside, and he was only freed the following morning where the Imperial Guard hospital declared him quadriplegic –  paralyzed from the neck downOn March 29, Abebe was transferred to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England, where he spent eight months receiving treatment. Although he could not move his head at first, his condition eventually improved to paraplegia, regaining the use of his arms, though he was paralyzed from the waist down and never walked again.

In 1970, Abebe began training for wheelchair-athlete archery competitionsIn July that year, he competed in archery and table tennis at the Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games in London. The Stoke Mandeville Games were an early predecessor of the Paralympic Games. In April 1971, Abebe participated in games for the disabled in Norway. He competed in archery and table tennis and defeated a field of sixteen in cross-country sled dog racing with a time of 1:16:17.

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At the International Paraplegic Games in Norway, 1971

Abebe was invited to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich as a special guest, and received a standing ovation during the opening ceremony. Speaking about his accident in a 1973 interview, Bikila said, “Men of success meet with tragedy. It was the will of God that I won the Olympics, and it was the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily.

Abebe Bikila died at age 41 on 25th October 1973, of a cerebral hemorrhage related to his accident four years earlier. He received a state funeral, was buried with full military honors, and Emperor Haile Selassie declared a national day of mourning. Many schools, venues, and events, including Abebe Bikila Stadium in Addis Ababa, are named after him. The American Community School of Addis Ababa dedicated its gymnasium (which included facilities for the disabled) to Abebe. Bikila was not only one of the greatest marathoners of all time, but also won at paraplegic games post his accident – truly a source of inspiration the world over.

On March 21, 2010, the Rome Marathon observed the 50th anniversary of his Olympic victoryWinner and fellow Ethiopian runner Siraj Gena, ran the last 300 meters (984 ft) of the race barefoot and received a €5,000 bonus. A plaque commemorating the anniversary is mounted on a wall on the Via di San Gregorio, and a footbridge in Ladispoli was named in Abebe’s honour. In 2010, the Italian company Vibram introduced the “Bikila” model of its FiveFingers line of minimalist shoes.

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Plaque at Via di san Gregorio, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Bikila’s Olympic gold win.
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Italian footwear company Vibram’s “Bikila” model of minimalist shoes.

 

A clip of Bikila running the 1960 and 1964 Olympic marathons:

https://www.olympic.org/videos/abebe-bikila-barefoot-to-olympic-gold

 

Sources:

~www.biography.yourdictionary.com

~www.olympic.org

Run The World #4 – Dave Heeley

For the fourth in our international runner series, we venture into ultrarunning territory.

In April 2015, British runner Dave Heeley became the first blind athlete to complete the 250 km (156 mile) Marathon des Sables – a course across the Sahara desert known as the “toughest footrace on earth”, equivalent to running six regular full marathons back-to-back. The then 57-year old father of three, known in running circles as “Blind Dave“, completed the six-day challenge running through sand dunes, rocks and dried rivers, contending with temperatures rising up to 50°C during the day and below freezing at night, with all his provisions on his back.

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Marathon des Sables

“Blindness has encouraged me to see another way.”

Dave was running to raise funds for the Albion Foundation, which uses sport to strengthen the local community, helping children and adults with disabilities and learning difficulties to both excel in sport and transit from education to work . He had two guides on the route – Rosemary Rhodes and Tony Ellis. In an interview with British Blind Sport, Heeley was quoted as saying, “Running makes you a bigger part of the community. You never know what it might bring and where it might take you.

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Fundraising for the Albion Foundation

Dave Heeley was born on 24th November 1957. At age ten, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa – a genetic, degenerative eye condition that causes breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. Beginning with decreased vision at night and in low light, loss of peripheral/tunnel vision, and progressing to total blindness, Heeley lost his vision completely in his twenties. His dream of joining the army shattered, young Dave knew he was going blind, and that his options were to stay negative or positive. He opted for the latter. “Am I going to sit here for the next fifty years waiting for that tree to disappear? No!” He spent years developing skills in Braille, computers, carpentry, and even now loves designing things and building furniture. He used a walking stick initially, until his first guide dog Peter changed his life. The four-legged friend gave him confidence, mobility and adventure.

 

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Dave-Heeley

The monumental feat at Marathon des Sables wasn’t Heeley’s first dip into the record books. In 2008, Dave became the first blind man to complete the Seven Magnificent Marathons challengerunning 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days. His route took him from Port Stanley in the Falkland Isands (Antarctica) to Santiago, Chile (South America), Los Angeles, USA (North America), Sydney (Australia), Dubai (Asia), Nairobi, Kenya (Africa), and ultimately finishing with the London Marathon (Europe). He was 50 at the time. 777 was undertaken to raise awareness for guide dogs for the blind. As Dave described the feat later, ” 7 days and 168 hours, of which 20 hours I slept and approximately 35 hours I ran; the rest was spent travelling. Travelling over 35,000 miles in the air, passing through some 34 different time zones,  running for 183.4 miles in temperatures ranging from -2 to 39°C“. His guide runner Mac was the third sighted person along side Mike Stroud and Sir Ranulph Fiennes to have achieved this superhuman challenge.

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777- start at the Falkland Islands
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777 – completing one of the legs at Dubai
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777 – ending the challenge at the London Marathon

 

“Life is not about what you can’t do, but what you can do.”

In 2011, Dave Heeley ran ten marathons in ten days, travelling from John O’Groats to Land’s End, cycling between each stage. Called “Top2Toe“, the challenge aided the Macmillan Cancer Support in their centenary year.

 

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Preparing for a 100 km cycling event, “Wheels For Change”, with tandem partner and guide Steve Dugmore

In 2016, he learnt swimming because he wanted to undertake “Escape from Alcatraz” – considered the toughest triathlon in the world. At 7.30 am on the morning of the 12th June, Dave along with his guide Tony leapt off the San Francisco Belle moored briefly alongside Alcatraz prison, into the cold, rough shark infested waters of San Francisco Bay, 58 minutes later hitting the beach, transferred onto the tandem and the San Fran hills taking 1 hour 18 minutes, finally donning the trainers hitting the cliffs and sand, taking 1 hour 24 minutes, crossing the finish line. Finally escaping from Alcatraz in 4 hours 14 minutes and 11 seconds, with smiles of relief!

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Prepped for Alcatraz with his guide Tony
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Swimming leg of the Alcatraz Triathlon – with a model shark named after his guide dog Seamus

His sporting endeavors are sponsored by Pertemps, UK, who also donate to his charity which works in partnership with the West Bromwich Albion Football Club, and £1000 are donated for every Great Run he completes. In 2017, since it was his 60th year, he took on the Great Run Series‘ entire world events calendar – starting in Edinburgh and finishing in Ethiopia, all in aid of the Albion Foundation. The series included two full marathons, six half marathons, two 10 mile events, ten 10 ks, one 5 mile race, and four 5 ks. In October the same year, he ran two races on the same day – the Birmingham International Marathon and the Great Birminghim Run. In May 2019, Dave took part in the Velo Birmingham & Midlands 100 mile bike ride, and also the 100 km Wheels For Change cycling event – to help raise funds for UNICEF along with his tandem cycling partner Steve Dugmore. In June this year he ran the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa.

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An innovative fund raiser for the “7inSeven” – a series of 7 cycling events across the UK

“I sat down the other day and calculated that, including training, I’ve run about 58,000 miles in my lifetime.”

Dave is always up for challenges. He has gone skiing, water skiing, horse riding, motorcycling, abseiling, but he enjoys nothing more than running! His book “From Light to Dark” was published in February 2016. Veteran record-breaking English explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes has foreworded the inspirational tale of triumph over adversity.

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With copies of his book

 

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7 Days – a short film based on the life of Dave Heeley, released in February this year.
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Guide dog Seamus looks appreciatively at a bus named in Dave’s honor.
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Dr. Dave Heeley, after receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Wolverhampton

Sources:

~www.blinddaveheeley.co.uk

~www.pertemps.co.uk

~www.sundaypost.com

~In The Running – Phil Hewitt

Run The World #2 – Achim Aretz

Put your best foot backwards!

When Achim Aretz runs, you can’t follow him. At a pace where many can’t even move forward, Achim’s ingenuity has caused him to run himself  into the record books by completing the world’s fastest backwards half-marathon and full marathon.

On 31st October 2010, Achim Aretz broke the six year old world record set by Chinese Xu Zhenjun over the marathon distance in reverse by 58 seconds, and his new record still holds at 3:42:41, set at the Frankfurt Marathon. Aretz reveals how Kenyan Wilson Kipsang couldn’t believe that a 3:40 hr marathoner could be in the record books. At the Hochwald Middle Rhine Marathon in Koblenz on 28th May 2011, Aretz broke his own previous record in the half marathon retro distance set in 2009, by completing in 1:35:49.

Achim Aretz was born on March 13, 1984 in Essen, Germany. He studied Geosciences in Münster and obtained a doctorate in Darmstadt from the Technical University. How does a passionate runner suddenly decide to run the other way round? The reason is “a crazy idea”. Aretz chanced on retro-running when he woke up with a hangover. To shake it off, he went for a run with a friend. Aretz was so slow that his friend started running backwards to while away the time. Aretz joined in for fun, and found he preferred it. He later discovered from the social network “Studivz“, that there really is an international retro-running scene, and decided to henceforth compete as a retro-runner. He says the attraction was the mental challenge, and the fact that he was developing different muscles compared to runners who run forward. His runs are both solo as well as with friends. “When I am running alone, I have to look back maybe every ten meters. When I am running together with friends, they tell me what lies behind me.”

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En route at the Frankfurt Marathon
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At a press conference after the Frankfurt Marathon, where he set the current world record for fastest reverse full marathon.
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At the Hochwald Middle Rhine Marathon, where the current world record for fastest reverse half marathon was set.

 

Medical specialists have confirmed that running backwards allows better recovery from certain knee and ankle injuries. Retro-running has been found to burn more calories with twenty percent less effort than running forward. Performance analyst Mitchell Phillips has underlined the benefits walking or running backwards brings – it is a great way to cool down, and also improves balance and increases neuromuscular efficiency. Phillips describes it as the perfect remedy to cure the imbalances between anterior and posterior chain muscle groups (like the hamstrings and quadriceps, for instance). In his book “Backwards Running“, Robert K. Stevenson describes retro-running as a fantastic activity for physical conditioning and training. It is considered healthy to occasionally tear the body out of everyday movements and break out of set habits. Not only other muscle groups, but also senses such as hearing are strengthened.

Running backwards has a meditative character“, says Aretz. “I perceive the environment differently when I walk backwards.” He does not see what lies ahead, but what he has already done. His ambition is not to win medals, and the main thing in competitions around the world is an opportunity to meet old acquaintances.

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With his friend Gregor Schlüter and centenarian marathoner Fauja Singh at the 29th Frankfurt Marathon

The 35-year old geologist runs up to 80 kilometers a week backwards. He explains how reverse runners start with the forefoot, thereby avoiding the typical rolling over the heel motion that occurs while moving forward. Beginners struggle with sore muscles at the beginning (as in any other sport), and many with knee problems have found it to be a beneficial alternative for relieving pressure on the knees. Several other sportspersons have also incorporated and benefited from retro-running, including boxer Gene Tunney and wrestlers William Muldoon and Ed Schultz.

Achim Aretz shares some tips in the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung for those who want to start running backwards:

Started very slowly and for a short time. It’s best to use a flat surface, such as a tartan/synthetic track. One needs to get used to going into the unknown. Bumpy terrains are not the best places to start to train. Not seeing the track is an unfamiliar situation for the mind and there is always the fear of falling. He cites the most difficult obstacles being dogs who can’t figure out what he’s doing. Training with a partner can be very useful for beginners because the partner can give instructions and set the direction. It helps when the retro-runner does not have to turn his head constantly – which can cause sore neck muscles. In addition, the mind is trained differently, because when one goes forwards and the other backwards, “right” then suddenly becomes “left” and vice versa.

In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Aretz reveals how Germany is a strong reverse running nation – they have many record holders up to the 5000 meters distance, and Aretz himself hold the records for the half marathon and full marathon distances. Achim Aretz has also authored a book titled “Faszination Marathon Andersherum“, where he talks about his journey as a retro-runner, shares scientific insights into the physical differences between running forward and backward, the challenges to the brain to break out of set patterns, and how changed perceptions bring new ideas and insights into running as well as to life.

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Achim Aretz’s book on backward running, originally written in German.

 

Sources:

~www.welt.de

~www.faz.net

~www.waz.de

~www.achim-aretz.de

~www.baukasten-dateien.de

~In The Running – Phil Hewitt

Run The World #1 – Violet Piercy

Our running group here will be celebrating its ninth anniversary next month. Over the last nine years since its inception, there has been a tradition of a city-wide coming together of all distance runners, to run a 21 km (13 miles) stretch on the city roads every first Sunday of every month. As a result, the anniversary run is going to be held on the seventh of July this year. As a line up to the celebrations, I will be writing a series of articles, featuring international distance runners.

First up is Violet Piercy, considered the pioneer of women’s running.

Violet Piercy is recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federation as having set the first women’s world’s best in the marathon distance. Now-a-days, women of all shapes and sizes run along the streets and compete in marathons around the world. But there was a time when running was considered injurious to women’s health, and one of the rules of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association (WAAA) was that no race should exceed 1000 meters, since any distance over a kilometer would be a “strain” and adversely affect child-bearing ability. Violet Percy blithely broke the rules of the WAAA and even broadcast an account of it on the BBC.

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In 1926, probably in response to the acclaim received by American Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, Violet ran from Windsor to London, thereby becoming the first Englishwoman to attempt a marathon and the first to be officially timed when she ran 3:40:22 on 3rd October 1926 on the Polytechnic Marathon course. She started at 4:27 pm, and was slowed down by suburban traffic outside Battersea Town Hall, till she finished at 8 pm. This time stood as a world record for the next 37 years, until American Merry Lepper ran 3:37:07 in California’s Western Hemisphere Marathon on 16th December 1963. Englishwoman Paula Radcliffe currently holds the world record for the fastest women’s marathon, with a time of 2:15:25 set in London in 2003.

Piercy fell into obscurity over the years, and athletics historian Peter Lovesey conducted a series of investigations into her athletics career. As we inch towards 2020, almost a century has passed since Violet Piercy ran the marathon in the 1920s, when the rules barred any woman from running more than two laps. Research by various historians shows that Violet ran five marathons between 1926 and 1936, in a pair of walking shoes with cross straps and heels. Piercy’s white jersey, black shorts and dance-like shoes serve as a priceless insight into a runner from a different era.

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An iconic picture of  Violet Piercy accompanied by three cyclists and followed by a car during a race in 1927.

Violet Stewart Louisa Piercy was born in Croydon, Surrey on 24th December 1889. She was 36 at the time of her first distance run, and her athletics career carried on till the age of 46. Over a period of 12 years and between two world wars, Piercy was widely regarded as an eccentric and feisty runner, who had a flair for slapping court cases against people who upset her. Rules were “tosh and piffle” to Violet, who ran solo marathons to prove to the world that women could be good at sport and endurance events. She referred to the sport as being based on rhythm, co-ordinated movements and clean living.

Reactions to her feats at the time?

The Westminister Gazette wrote: “It must be hoped that no other girl will be so foolish as to imitate her.”

Piercy’s response: “I am the only long-distance woman runner in this country, and people rather shout at me about it. I really don’t see why they should. Running is about the healthiest form of exercise a woman can have.” Piercy worked as a doctor’s secretary and encouraged others to take up distance running, but no one took up the challenge in her lifetime, and her runs were always solo.

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A news clipping of Piercy in 1934 from the Clapham Society

The second world war affected her stream of marathons, and there is no trail of hers since the 1950s. She is known to have passed away in a London hospital in April 1972, having suffered from brain hemorrhage, hypertension and chronic kidney-related infection. Violet Piercy had languished in obscurity for about 70 years, but the British Pathe archives, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Track Stats magazine have been instrumental in finally securing for her the recognition she deserves.

The link below is from the British Pathe website, and is a copyrighted video of Violet Piercy.

https://www.britishpathe.com/video/camera-interviews-the-runner/query/Violet

 

Sources:

~www.claphamsociety.com

~www.britishpathe.com

~www.clappedoutrunner.com

~In The Running – Phil Hewitt

Breaking Barriers In Marathon Running

“I lack the words to describe how I feel. It was really hard, but I was truly prepared to run my own race.”

~Eliud Kipchoge

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Yesterday was a great day for the long-distance running community. For those unable to fathom our excitement, a new world record was set at the Berlin Marathon. Imagine stepping on a treadmill, setting it to 13 mph, and running at that pace for over two hours. Or let’s use the analogy given by BBC Sports – imagine running 100 mts in 17.2 seconds; or if that’s feels slow, try it and repeat for 420 times without a pause. That’s just what Eliud Kipchoge accomplished at Berlin yesterday – setting a new world record by completing the marathon distance of 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) with a timing of 2 hours, 1 minute, and 39 seconds.

The first time a marathon was run as an official race, was at the London Olympics in 1908, where American Johnny Hayes emerged victorious with a timing of 2:55:18. Of course, a lot has changed since then in terms of training and technology. Four years ago, Dennis Kimetto from Kenya had created a new record of 2:02:57 in Berlin. Fellow Kenyan Kipchoge broke this record on Sunday by 78 seconds – recorded to be the largest single improvement in a world record marathon timing in over fifty years. Australian Derek Clayton had knocked down 2 minutes 37 seconds way back in 1967.

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Reductions in marathon timings over the years.

Kipchoge, 33, has competed in eleven marathons, out of which he has won ten and finished second in one. He has won both, the Berlin and London marathons three times each, and holds course records at both places. His split times astonished viewers and runners, both amateur and elite, the world over. Kipchoge’s average speed on Sunday was 13 mph, an average pace of 2.52 mins/km for each kilometer of the 42.195 km race, or every 400 mts in 68.8 seconds. He clocked the first 10 kms in world record pace, as led by three pacers from the start.

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With pacers, early on in the race.

Shortly after the halfway mark, all three pacers dropped out, leaving Kipchoge to run the remaining 21 kms alone. Rather than struggling or falling off the pace, he defied the odds and rather sped up, covering 30 kms of the race in 1:26:45, which is the fastest time ever recorded for that distance. He ran the first half of the race in 1 hour, 1 minute, 6 seconds, and went 30 seconds quicker in the second half. He ran from the 40k mark to the finish in 6 minutes, 8 seconds – the fastest known in any major marathon, without any obvious sprint. His overall pace was 4 minutes, 37 seconds per mile – for 26.2 miles. Jon Mulkeen from the IAAF (International Association of Athletic Federations) pointed out, “imagine running 200m reps in 34.60 seconds, and repeating that for 211 times with no rest in between”. That’s what Eliud Kipchoge did in Berlin yesterday.

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His splits up to the halfway mark

Long-distance runners might remember the “Breaking 2 Project” of Nike last year – an unofficial race to break the sub-2 hour marathon, on a track at Monza. Kipchoge had created a world record of 2:00:25 at the time, guided by a team of pacers. The race did not qualify as an official time, and was seen as more of a project. Kipchoge, however, did show his frightening potential as a long-distance runner, which manifested itself as he obliterated the competition on Berlin’s streets on Sunday. “I believed he was capable of smashing the World Record. He delivered in outstanding fashion and rewrote history”, said Paula Radcliffe – former record holder of the women’s marathon. Roger Robinson from Runners’ World added, “I have watched great runners for seventy years, from Emil Zapotek to Haile Gebrselassie, and not since Abebe Bikila in 1964 have I witnessed a world marathon record set with such focused mastery”. “I felt very confident. I am grateful to those who worked with me”, Kipchoge said after the race. Impeccable pacing and the focus of a Zen master have sealed Eliud Kipchoge’s place as the greatest marathoner of all time.

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“The lesson of running is to train well, and then have full faith in your training and show the proof in the race.”

 

 

 

Sources:

~www.bbc.com

~www.edition.cnn.com

~www.runnersworld.com

Forging Connections

Another well spent Sunday morning in the company of fellow runners from around the city.

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And then I came across this picture in today’s news, featuring people practicing yoga as part of the La Parisienne event in front of the Eiffel Tower.

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What is it about community events like these that bring people together? They are extremely beneficial for recreational athletes and fitness enthusiasts who might not be professionally trained in a sport or particular activity, but look forward to being active as a form of healthy living and fitness. One doesn’t need to be engaged competitively in order to practice an athletic endeavor. In such situations, people seek to connect with other kindred spirits who share the same interests.

Our run this weekend, comprised people running across varied distances. The route was the same, but some ran the half marathon distance, some did a 10k, while others completed any chosen distance on the route. It is the friendships that people forge with like-minded individuals, and the camaraderie they share that make community events fun and fruitful affairs.

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Tribe Of Reader-Runners

As the book collection spirals out of control with frequent bookstore visits, buying new books, scouring second-hand shops for thrift sales, and keeping an eye out for books in general, book gifts by friends helpfully aid that spiral – a progressive spiral to add to one’s home library, and a downward spiral as far as space to accommodate, and time to read them all is concerned.

I was at a running event yesterday, and received this book by ultrarunner Dean Karnanzes from a fellow marathoner. The newest addition to the running shelf. A book for a runner, about a runner, from a runner. 🙂

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