Bruce Fordyce set the 50 miles road record of 4:50:51 at Chicago in 1984. The record still stands today. Here is an interview from December 1984 Issue of UltraRunning.
Bruce Fordyce King of the Road
by Stan Wagon, UltraRunning
Photo: Bruce Fordyce, encouraged by his sister, at the 1982 London-to-Brighton.
In the last five years no one has come close to matching the record of Bruce Fordyce at the 50-mile distance. By virtue of his British citizenship, the South African has been able to compete in both the Comrades and London to-Brighton races, the two most competitive 50+ mile races in the world. And his record in those races has been amazing:four straight Comrades wins and three straight at Brighton. And in his last effort at Brighton, in 1983, he recorded a 50-mile split of 4:50:21, the fastest 50 mile time ever recorded.
Bruce wanted to give an American race a try, and he decided to try the AMJA race in Chicago. On the night before the race Bruce shared some of his thoughts on his running career, and the situation in South Africa. For more details of Bruce's training see Bob Boeder's article in the June, 1984, issue of Ultrarunning.
Ultrarunning: Bruce, even before the 1983 London-Brighton race you were established as the best 50-mile runner of the 1980's. Yet many felt your career was lacking something because you hadn't set any world records. How important was the 50-mile record to you? Bruce Fordyce:At the time I'd have said it had no importance at all. In fact, the only time I knew that I was on pace for the record was when Bob Holmes told me that there was about a half-mile to the 50-mile mark and if I pushed I'd get the record. But my main aim had been to win the race, to beat Don Ritchie. Since the race, how ever, it has gained in importance.
It must be kept in perspective though, since a couple of guys, especially Ian Thompson, have run very fast there when 50- mile times were not taken.
UltraRunning: Was your effort in that race a particularly hard one?
Bruce Fordyce: No, it wasn't. I was pretty fit. That race went all right.
UltraRunning: As you know, tomorrow's course is pretty flat. How would a time here compare to one run on the first 50 miles of London-to Brighton?
Bruce Fordyce: There is the potential for a much faster time here, as long as the wind doesn't blow. But in or der to get a time like that you need the competition. I'm hoping there will be guys who will go at sub-six minute paces from the gun. And keep it up for 20 to 25 miles.
UltraRunning: Did you train harder for the 1983 Brighton than for prior years? Was it the first time Ritchie was there?
Bruce Fordyce: It was the first time Ritchie was there, but my training was pretty much the same. Except that maybe for my first Brighton I trained very hard. I didn't know what I was doing and I made a lot of mistakes in my preparation.
UltraRunning: What sort of mistakes?
Bruce Fordyce: The main problem for me is to recover from Comrades and build up again in time for London Brighton. Now I know that the secret is to take a big break after Comrades, just jogging three to five kilometers a day, and then with six or eight weeks to go be gin training again which, for me, means 100-110 miles a week. But in '81 I started hard training almost immediately after Comrades and I ran into a lot of problems - injuries and illness. I just didn't give my self enough time to recover.
UltraRunning: You have just finished a masters degree in archaeology. Has your running career interfered with that at all? How were you able to balance the two?
Bruce Fordyce: Yes, the two had started to clash towards the end. On the other hand, being a student provides an excellent environment for running. Being a fulltime professional runner might be better though, and I'm seriously thinking of trying that. I don't believe one can really perform well without be ing a semi-professional or having a job that's so low-key that a lot of time can be devoted to training. It's not just the time needed for training. When you're really pump ing out high mileage you're tired for the rest of the day, and can't operate well.
UltraRunning: Is there now prize money in some South African races?
Bruce Fordyce: There is, yes. Not in Com rades, but Comrades is similar to the Boston Marathon in that the prestige of winning leads to invi tations to races, sponsorship, etc.
UltraRunning: Might you consider running more in the U. S. where there is now a lot of prize money?
Bruce Fordyce: I'd consider running more in the U. S. just for the fun of it. It's great to see another country, and be a tourist for a bit. Obvi ously if there's some money that would be nice.
UltraRunning: What does your current work involve?
Bruce Fordyce: I'm doing research into Bush man Rock Art. It takes me into the mountainous parts of South Africa. There are no bushmen living there anymore, but their paintings are there. They left this incredible record of their past on the cave walls and on the rock faces. The bushmen now live in Botswana and Namibia and I go out there occa sionally to sort of interview them.
UltraRunning: Do you try to run on trails and softer surfaces? Do you think that's important?
Bruce Fordyce: No, I'm a road runner. I actually think running on the soft stuff, grass, etc., is bad for you.
UltraRunning: Bad for your speed or your health?
Bruce Fordyce: Bad for your knees, bad for your ankles. On uneven stuff you're turning them all the time. I think roads are great - flat, sol id, and always there. As long as you're wearing good shoes road running is great. Also, I'm badly shortsighted and I don't run with my glasses, so when I run on rough stuff I always turn an ankle.
UltraRunning: At the level you are at the training and travel must take a lot of dedication. What's your primary motivation for keeping at it?
Bruce Fordyce: A professor told me that fame is the spur. But no, to me it's fun and it's a challenge. I just really enjoy it. Not all the time though; I do get really bugged by it some times, churning out 100 mile weeks day-in day-out. But then again there is the potential for running to become a full-time job, so to speak.
UltraRunning: Comrades is often compared with our Boston Marathon. Are you as well-known in South Africa as Bill Rodgers was here when he was winning Boston repeatedly? Does the fame cause any problems?
Bruce Fordyce: Yes, I am very well known. This bothers me. a little in that I'm a private person. Sometimes I get annoyed when people recognize me on the street. But luckily that doesn't happen too much. On TV I look tough and big, but when I'm in town slouching around in my glasses and jeans, not a hell of a lot of people recognize me . When they do it can be a bit an noying; sometimes my friends who are with me will get annoyed.
UltraRunning: You were in L.A. for the Olympics as a tourist. As a track fan, what were some of the high and low points of the Games?
Bruce Fordyce: The high point was just the whole experience. it was absolutely fantastic. The Americans put on a marvelous show. The low point was the television coverage. I thought it was really biased and not good. But then again I went to the track and saw the stuff live. The races that I thought were really great were the 800 meters, the 1500 meters, and the 5,000, which was out of this world.
UltraRunning: They didn't show any of the 5,000 on TV.
Bruce Fordyce: The 10,000 was also an ab sorbing race, and the marathon was great too. I enjoyed all of them. A nother low poin t was the Zola Budd- Mary Decker incident. That was very unfortunate, really a great pity. I have a feeling that the Romanian, Puica, might have won anyway, and a lot of glory was taken out of her win. Certainly Budd would not have won, I'm sure of that. I think her main achievement - and it was a great achievement for such a young girl - was to make the final. It's too bad Mary Decker went to that postrace interview. She should have stayed away until she calmed down. Because she is such a great athlete she deserves to be able to run well and forget the incident.
UltraRunning: Has there been much discus sion in South Africa of Budd's de cision to leave? Some people here, especially after the Olympic final, thought that she might have been pushed into the rigorous inter national scene at too young an age.
Bruce Fordyce: Yes, Zola Budd is the main talking point in South Africa; there is a lot of discussion about her. I think whoever pushed her did the right thing. Even if she does nothing else, she got to the Olympics final and that is an amazing thing for anybody.
UltraRunning: You could conceivably have done the same thing since you're a British citizen, and perhaps have tried to excel at the marathon.
Bruce Fordyce: Yes, but my running career was really nonexistent. I didn't have the background of a Lopes or a Salazar. I didn't run in school and I started only at 21, because of Comrades. I just got hooked up into the whole Comrades thing from the word go, and I wasn't at all thinking of running standard marathons. All the top marathoners today are great 5,000, 10,000, or cross-country runners before they try the marathon. As far as the Olympics go I don't have any regrets. I think it's nice to be able to establish yourself in a certain niche in run ning. And just as people in academ ics are expert in some area or other, so I can say that I'm the expert at point-to-point 50-milers. It's not a big area, but it's nice that I've got something.
UltraRunning: A couple of years ago you were the center of some controversy in South Africa when the Comrades race was held on a national holi day and you and others wore black armbands. Can you describe the situation?
Bruce Fordyce: Yes, that was a tough time for me. There was some hostility then, and in some quarters there probably still is now. But I've never hidden my views:I really hate apartheid and I think it's been terribly damaging to the country which I love very much. I just think it's an evil thing. Back in 1981 the race was tied to festivities marking a cele bration of the Republic. It was really a celebration of apartheid. When the race was incorporated into this celebration there was a lot of pressure on a lot of us not to run it at all. I had put in a lot of training for it though, and a compromise reached in university circles was to show displeasure by wearing these black armbands. So a lot of people accused us of bring ing politics into sport. But really it was our reply to the people who first introduced politics into the Comrades. And it was in the mid dle of a bad time when we had riot police on our campuses. One of my running friends had been put into detention. I don't regret what I did; it's too bad that a lot of people were very upset.
UltraRunning: Other runners in the race took offense?
Bruce Fordyce: Oh, yes. There was a lot of hostility. Things were chucked at me.
UltraRunning: Were these incidents of the sort that would earn you a police file?
Bruce Fordyce: Oh, for sure. I've got a big file. But the best answer, you see, is to win the race. Because then there's not a hell of a lot of things people can do except shout at you.
UltraRunning: Surely the day will come when a black will win Comrades. Will that be an important event?
Bruce Fordyce: Oh yes. That will be consid ered a major milestone. And it will happen very soon. Blacks are win ning lots of other races, and in depth - putting eight in the top ten.
UltraRunning: Historically the British in South Africa have been more liberal than the Afrikaners or Boers, but the Afrikaners have come to domin ate the political scene. Do political beliefs still fall upon ethnic lines? Bruce Fordyce: On a broad scale. But you know the British were responsible for a lot of the laws that came about and current attitudes. My family is an interesting example. We are essentially British and Scottish, and came out a few generations ago. My great grand father on one side fought for the British during the Boer War, which was much the same as the American Civil War, and my great grand-father on the other side fought for the Boers. Now you get right wing people who are English speaking. And you get black people who are very happy to keep the situation as it is. People in the administration like to keep things as they are.
UltraRunning: Are there any blacks who succeed in South Africa's business world and become wealthy?
Bruce Fordyce: Oh yes, there are a lot. But there is a much greater number of people who don't. And a fan tastic amount of poverty. It's a strange country in that there is so much wealth and so much pover ty. People are still dying of chol era in the same country where the first heart transplant was done. But despite the great gap in living standards, an average black is probably better off in South Africa than anywhere else in Af rica. And that's a general feature of revolutionary societies. In the French revolution the peasants were the best off in Europe. Any way, that revolution was a bour geois revolution; it was the middle class that started it.
UltraRunning: Do blacks in other parts of Africa try to get into South Africa?
Bruce Fordyce: Yes, a lot of laborers come down. Even with the apartheid laws they can earn more money in South Africa. And you get a nat ural apartheid because people live together and like to be together.
UltraRunning: International sports boycotts have been in effect for 15 or 20 years now. Have they been effect ive?
Bruce Fordyce: Yes, I think they've been very, very effective. A lot of changes have been made. In fact, the original demands made by the International Olympic Committee in order for South Africa to be read mitted have been met. But of course it's gone beyond that now.
UltraRunning: Recently the "coloreds" of South Africa - Indians and Orient als - were granted the vote. Was that a major step?
Bruce Fordyce: It's not really a major step because the power is still in the hands of the whites. On the other hand, the fact that a body of another color can take part in the process of government is progress. So there is progress, but it's very, very slow, and it has to be forced in little steps.
UltraRunning: Is there hope for universal suffrage in South Africa?
Bruce Fordyce: Yes, it will come. It's inevitable.
UltraRunning: Comrades is now integrated. Are all races integrated?
Bruce Fordyce: All athletics is completely in tegra ted. The boycotters have a point in that while the race is in tegrated, the facilities are not. Anyone can run with anyone, but blacks still must go home to live in a different area. And their children will be playing on poorer facilities. All the clubs are inte grated though.
UltraRunning: Many American universities and other institutions are being pressured to divest their stock portfolios of companies that do business in South Africa without agreeing to certain principles. How is this viewed in South Africa?
Bruce Fordyce: Despite moves like that I think that America and Britain, say, are quite keen for things to stay pretty much the same. If a black majority came into power there's a good chance the country would go Marxist. A lot of Ameri can and British companies are mak ing a lot of money in South Africa, and they're not about to get out. They will do things like ensure equal pay for equal work what ever one's color and that sort of thing. I saw a slogan recently I don't know if it's just propaganda - that pointed out that the average black doesn't want di vestment because his standard of living will drop.
UltraRunning: Have you any impressions of American runners or races?
Bruce Fordyce: I think it's great how so many people are running. Here in Chicago you see people at all times of the day. You can go for a run and no one stares at you. Back home people will still stare a bit at a woman running. As far as the racing scene, I think a lot of America's top runners are wasting their best performances in relatively unimport ant races. To me the important races are the World Championships, the Olympics, and other big meets. Here you see great performances at Boston or New York, but yet the first American in the Olympics is lIth or something. The Americans are getting sidetracked by other events. Of course, there is a lot of money in these events so it's understandable.
UltraRunning: Fitness awareness is constant ly growing in the U. S. What about South Africa?
Bruce Fordyce: It's starting. But South Africa has the worst heart attack rate in the world. Diets are very high in fat; people eat a lot of barbecued meat. But corporations are starting to take an interest in fitness.
UltraRunning: Do you think there will be a six-day race in South Africa soon?
Bruce Fordyce: Maybe. Comrades is our king, and everyone is shooting for that. A lot of guys are starting to try 100 miles though.
UltraRunning: You mentioned that you'd like to make a career of running. What would that mean in terms of the distances you will race at?
Bruce Fordyce: I think for a while I'll do the same thing, and then consider mov ing up.
UltraRunning: Have you given any thought to Ritchie's records over longer distances, such as 100 miles?
Bruce Fordyce: Not really. I still prefer the competition of a hard-fought race. And not on a track. I can't imagine myself going round and round a track for hours and hours.
UltraRunning: Well, I hope your first run in this country goes well.
Bruce Fordyce: I'm looking forward to it.