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Home >> Blog >> Guest Blogger >> Inspirational Runner: Tommy Gibson

Inspirational Runner: Tommy Gibson

  • Ultra Marathon

My running career has not been long, depending on how one defines “start”: is it when you start walking, or when you run the first pole to pole, or the first time you run continuously for 30 min or that first 5 km or the first timed Park Run or maybe the first 10Km race and a “Medal”?

All I know is that in early 2013 I was sick (or thought I was):

  • I was under 3 specialists,
  • I was diagnosed with chronic IBS, 
  • I suffered an emergency appendectomy,
  • I needed to have some work done in an unmentionable orifice,
  • I had just lost 20KG in 2.5 months.
  • I had just been “forced” to take early retirement at 63 (another story);
  • I was in a bad place physically and psychologically. 

What was going to happen to me? (Let’s just say that I had some pretty good hymns selected for my funeral.)

After sorting out the medical issues and in process of sorting out my eating habit to control my IBS, my dear wife said to me that medically there was nothing wrong and my problem was now in my head!

Some lifestyle changing decisions had to be made! 

So in July of 2013, I started walking around the neighbourhood at 5 am and set the objective of walking around for 30 min pulling down illegal signs (but that’s another story).

I have never been a runner. In fact, I thought it was the most stupid thing anyone could do, you all know that guy that stops at the stop street blowing his hooter swearing at the runners when there is a race on? I was that guy!

As it turns out, I started getting bored with walking and started running from one pole to another, and walking the next. This, I guess, would be called walk/running and then the obvious happened without me even knowing it, increasing the running to run/walking.

Then one day I realized I was running for half an hour without stopping (that aha moment), the biggest surprise was that I was running about 4km! I thought “damn, I can do this”! And that’s how I got bitten by the bug.

By that stage I had just turned 63, a friend suggested I run the Ebotsi Park Run, so I registered and ran a 29min 5Km on my first run, and that found to my surprise that I was placed in the top 10 for my age category – even while walking some of the way! This was October 2013.

The same friend then said, “why don’t you try the 10km Rowland Night Race, organised by Benoni Northerns Athletic Club” (BNAC). “10 km?” I said… “I doubt I can run that far!”  His comment was he runs that as a Club Run 3 times a week. So I entered and completed it in 59:59, this was in November 2013, I was ecstatic!

I then joined BNAC and was told about the Johnson Crane. I remember hovering over the Online Entry, not being able to decide between the 10km or half marathon. Eventually I thought, “stuff it” and clicked on the 21.1km entry option.

Then the training began. I ran “flat out” at every opportunity I got. I heard that some people were saying “you don’t get the gain if you don’t have the pain”. Which now I know is not entirely correct. I would run so hard that I ended up trying to suck air in through every orifice of my body!

A week before the race I was challenged to a game of squash (big mistake I had last played 20 years before) during which I felt “something go” on the top of my right foot. But with a week to go to my first half marathon, I pushed through and ran it in 1:59, falling into my wife’s arms, crying, at the finish line.

The next week I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my right foot and taken off running for “at least 6 WEEKS”!

I was devastated to have come this far and now to have to stop, so I joined a gym and started cross training, I got up to swimming 1 km in a session - something I had never achieved before. I became a “machine”.

So it turned out that having a stress fracture was actually the best thing that could have happened to me, as it gave me the opportunity to read up on running, during which time I learnt important lessons about rest days – especially at my age.

Now, I still had to control my IBS, so while everyone else is looking for water points I was looking to see where the Portaloos were!

From my heaviest (105kg) three years before, I was now down to 69.8kg.

I started my target setting and my comeback strategy with the goal of running a full marathon within 12 months of starting running (November 2013). I selected Sanlam Cape Town Marathon (SCTM) in September 2014 as my first marathon, and the Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra Marathon in my second year of running (2015).  During this build-up I achieved:

  • 00:25 5km
  • 00:50 10km
  • 1:49 half marathon

This from someone who could once not run further than 200m in a single stretch!

There was small group of runners – novices – from the club that were also training for their first marathon: Leanne, Robyn, Ruddy and Patrick. So I joined them on their Saturday long runs.

What memories - running Bedfordview Hills at 05:30 in the middle of winter, sub-zero temperatures, seeing the moon setting over the Johannesburg skyline… it’s indescribable.

The most enjoyable was the “Sandton to Soweto” Half – in my opinion, a disaster in terms of organisation, but a super route and phenomenal crowd support. Running through Soweto was unbelievable and a new experience. “Kajima Madala Kajima!” (Run, old man, RUN!”), they shouted. “Whose your old man?” I thought!

One of the biggest shocks I got was that I wore my first pair of shoes out in 350Km (three months). There was no way I could afford this! I then changed my shoes, but  - most important – I tried to change my strike from being a heal striker to soul striker.  I believe this made a big difference, including focusing on a better posture, as I learned from all those running books.

And so to the big day came. My first marathon. I thought I could achieve a 4:10 marathon and on paper this was achievable. But I also told myself that I would be happy with a 4:30. But there was also the small matter of a challenge between my daughter and myself that I would get a tattoo if I got anything below a 4:30.

My race was doomed from the start.  I went out too fast and hit the wall at 30km at the top of Bree Street.  It felt so unreal to try and control my legs and make them do something they clearly didn’t want to do!

I struggled on for the last 12km, cramping, but I persisted and made it home in 4:29!

Again my wife and I cried. I had run a marathon!

The most unforgettable part of this run was running past Rondebosch  Common, looking up to the right and seeing Table Mountain, thinking all the while that I gave up this view to live in Gauteng!

I still sit and wonder what it is about running that gets us out there at 5am, almost every day of the week, and sometimes as early as 3am to do a race.  What is it about finding the highest hills to run around Bedfordview on a Saturday morning?

I don’t believe it’s only the endorphins as is commonly stated; it is so much more.

In my case, one of the reasons is that my entire working career in a corporate environment, while I was a manager, it was always about a team’s effort and the team achieving the goals. I used to get satisfaction out of seeing subordinates achieving goals and it was my function to facilitate this and as a team we achieved many goals.

With running it’s your own set target/goal and it’s you and your effort when you achieve this.

For me it’s not about winning, obviously, but also about being able to achieve what you personally set out to do. It’s not about beating John or Jane -  you are running against yourself. (However there are times when I think “bugger you, I’ll get to the top before you” only to find the she or he has the same idea! 

I believe there are over 25,000 registered runners in CGA alone and there are probably 25,000 reasons they run.

How can anyone describe that vibe on the start line, the smell of the Wintergreen, the chit chat about strategy and the banter about what worked in this race, the anticipation as the clock ticks towards the top of the hour and then the release and getting into the your rhythm?

I love to listen to the sounds around me as we run. In the movie August Rush, August says, “Listen. Can you hear it? The music. I can hear it everywhere. In the wind... in the air... in the light. It's all around us. All you have to do is open yourself up. All you have to do... is listen.”

Nowhere is that so true as when you are running with a group, the “slip slap” of shoes on the road almost in rhythm, the chit chat and how these change as you run downhill and then uphill, speeding up and slowing down, volume increasing and decreasing. I recall, with goose flesh, running to the top of Fishers Hill on New Year’s Day at 5h30am in the morning and watching the sun come up on the first day of 2015.   I must be crazy!

My log book (yes I have logged every single kilometre I have run), shows I have covered over 3 200km, earned 19 medals, am not wearing my 6th pair of shoes, and lost three sets of toe nails (ouch). (Why do runners still grow toe nails?) 

My PB’s are

  • 5km:      25 min - Park Run
  • 10km: 50 min - Spar Irene
  • 15km: 1:20 – Colgate
  • 32km: 3:07 – Bronkies
  • 42,2km: 4:04 - Vaal

If I calculate this back through “Race Age Average Calculator” I am doing all right: a 4:04:59 marathon at 64 is equivalent to about a 3:11:57 if I was 25 year old! “Not too shabby hey, Nige?” I should have started earlier!

I do however have to give credit to a number of people: BNAC and some incredible people within that club, who encouraged me and believed in me, giving me the confidence to do things that I never thought possible. Here you have a domestic worker running next to an Airbus captain or an artisan pushing a Managing Director or company owner to run faster. And a Comrades silver medallist that would run back over a kilometre to “go fetch” a slower runner during a training session. And an experienced runner slowing up to encourage another runner to ensure that she gets her qualifying time. The younger runners that I see as challenges keep me competitive even though they run circles around me, sometimes.  And I’m inspired by the domestic worker who runs from Brakpan to Benoni (+-15 Km) to run a 10km club run that starts at 5am, before going back to work!

My family is also an amazing source of the encouragement and support. Like when my daughter puts little notes in my “after run” eating pack.

I am inspired by so many others too.  Like Jean-Paul Bedard who went from a “lost cause” drug addict and alcoholic to an elite runner with a zest for life. Like the lady with one lung who ran a 6:00 OMTOM Ultra. Like the blind runner that finished the “Sandton to Soweto” in  4 :10.

When old friends and colleagues ask me why I do this, I don’t know how to answer. So I just laugh and mumble something. How can you explain to someone in single sentence, without sounding big headed or show-offish, why and how I do it, when there are so many reasons…

But here I am. 64 years old. And within 12 months I have achieved the biggest goal of my life!

Or have I?

I am now less than three weeks away from my next major goal – to finish the Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra Marathon in 6:30. Travel arrangements are sorted. I’m ready (doing up to 75/80km per week, including 27km of weekend hill training). I have one more half marathon to run, but I’m strong and I really can’t wait.

I am, of course, saddened by the fire damage around the Southern Peninsula, but I am sure everything will work out as it should.

Who knows… maybe my next goal is Comrades!