Inspiring Runner: Anthony Abrahamson
My OMTOM Odyssey
Odyssey – a long and eventful journey. Originating from Homer’s Greek epic poem describing the travels of Odysseus during his ten years of wandering after the fall of Troy, eventually returning home to Ithaca.
In true pursuit of my own odyssey, it was in my early years when I found that running would fulfill my hankering for long, eventful and adventurous life experiences. And even after 45 years of my own epic journey of running, I’m still enjoying it. For many years I have been trying to figure out what it is that drives the few of us on the fringe of the ultra running fraternity to continue to do this, and why in my specific case. Is it something genetic, hard-wired into the brain? Well, maybe…
As a 4th generation South African, I am a descendent of several strands of the immigration wave to South Africa in the 1800’s, starting with the arrival of my great-grandfather in about 1870. He hailed from Prussia, and was keen to establish a new life in a faraway country. Perhaps my perseverance can be attributed to his seemingly indomitable spirit. A further influence was my intrepid Danish maternal grandfather who, around 1910, cycled (yes, on a 1910 style bicycle) from Copenhagen to Spain over the Alps and via Italy, returning back through France, Belgium and Germany! Then there are the Irish roots from my paternal grandmother, which were shared with my cousin Mike Wilmot, a seasoned Comrades runner who completed 37 Comrades Marathons, 31 Duzis and 14 Old Mutual Two Ocean Ultra Marathons.
No surprise then that I inherited genes, which led me to complete 40 OMTOMs, 10 Comrades and probably another 100 plus other marathons and ultra marathons.
The 1970s – The Odyssey Begins
My journey began in 1970 when I listened, spell-bound, to tales of adventure related by Preston Moorcroft, a fellow resident of UCT’s Driekoppen, on his return from running the Comrades that year. Having not completed anything more than 5km in cross-country at school this seemed as courageous and adventurous as climbing Everest or trekking to the South Pole; pursuits that I secretly harboured but at the time were inaccessible. I was hooked and immediately resolved to run the Comrades the next year in 1971.
OMTOM 1971 proved to be a harrowing experience. After returning to university in March 1971, I started training with the UCT running club based at the Oval. Trying to keep up with many talented runners such as Rob Knutzen, Andy Black, PJ Sullivan and Hugh Amoore. It was there that I first met Tim Noakes, already experimenting with early medical research.
Instructed by the coach to join in distance training for the Comrades, on 1 May 1971 I found myself on the start line of the Celtic Harriers 35-mile race (later renamed the Two Oceans Marathon) – my very first official race of any distance. Finishing stone last in position 31, I nevertheless, unwittingly, lined up one month later in Pietermaritzburg to run the Comrades, finishing just 10 minutes before the cutoff.
Totally shattered after running the Comrades, unprepared and untrained, I resolved never to attempt either race again. But, being young and foolish and with the bug having bitten, I managed, amongst other life-changing adventures, to come back and complete 5 voyages in the 70s. These voyages were slotted in between starting my career in engineering, my marriage to Audrey in 1977 and a two-year stint studying further in the USA in 1978/79. Our son Mark arrived in 1980.
Roo – My Dream Team Running Companion
It was during one of my early work-related adventures that I found my first real running soulmate, Roo, who was to be my constant companion for the next decade. She came from the Kalahari area where I had been posted for two years as a young engineer on a large road construction project. Roo was a full-blooded English Harrier (or Foxhound), the species bred to pursue foxes in the horse-and-hound tradition. The original pack had been imported by a local farmer. Foxhounds are bred to run, so when Roo was offered to me as a puppy in 1975 I could not resist bringing her into the family. Her first experience of the Two Oceans was in 1977 when she jumped out of my seconding car near Constantia Nek and finished with me on the grounds of Brookside.
Chet Sainsbury came to Roo’s rescue in the Old Mutual Two Oceans race in 1978, whilst I was away in the USA. He recounted how Roo saw the runners passing my home in St James and escaped to join the runners, finishing with them at Brookside. When she appeared lost at the finish Chet contacted the phone number attached to Roo’s collar and she was duly collected from Brookside. Roo went on to run another five Old Mutual Two Ocean Ultra Marathon voyages after my return until a debate of the time ended in the banning of dogs from official races. Nevertheless, Roo continued training runs for many years until passing on in 1990. I rather lived in the shadow of my famous running companion, usually being referred to as “Roo’s owner”.
The 1980s – The Halcyon Days
The most exciting decade of running for many of us – while in the 70s runners were regarded as being on the lunatic fringe, the 80s running boom brought running into full focus, both in South Africa and internationally. During that decade there were huge increases in numbers of races and race participation. It was also the era of scientific advances in the physiology of running. Notably, a ball-by-ball account of Tim Noakes’ research was delivered to runners in the form of a regular newsletter that was the forerunner of the SA Runner magazine (later taken over by Runner’s World). Those of us striving for better times devoured the latest ideas regarding nutrition and training techniques. My own adaptation of using running fuel on long runs and races was to decant inexpensive liquid glucose into plastic bank bags, creating the equivalent of gel sachets today. The glucose had the consistency of treacle and so needed heating to flow, but in my opinion this was the finest running fuel of the day.
This decade will be remembered by my contemporaries as the glory days of running, not least because we were at our peak and produced the PBs that were so important to achieve. But being pioneers in the running revolution was exciting and fun. My Two Oceans PB of 3h52m achieved in 1984 was the second of four silvers earned, the same year that Chet and I campaigned shoulder to shoulder for a PB in the down Comrades. We were not to finish together, he pushing ahead at 45th Cutting to complete the race in 6h56m with me finishing 6 minutes behind in 7h02m. I returned the favour in 1985 when in the Two Oceans; I came upon Chet struggling on the climb to Constantia Nek – we both were within a whisper of silver and with 10km to go. Never thinking he would make it I finished in 3:58m with 2 minutes to spare – Chet had kept me in his sights and came through a minute later for his first silver.
The 1990s – One More Crack At Silver
Family and work commitments took priority in this decade, most voyages completed with minimal training, except for a final campaign to gain silver in 1995 (the year of my 20th voyage and at age 45). All the stars seemed aligned in training and using experience to compensate for advancing age, I managed to finish with a minute to spare, completely in control. It was my swansong to fast running and a proud moment.
2000 to 2015 – A Time For Companionship
Running Two Oceans each year has always been so much more than chasing good times. However, after 2000, solid friendships became of even greater importance, always with our mutual love of the sport being the binding force. John Brimble (36 Two Oceans Ultra voyages) features particularly strongly in this part of the journey, as well as Chet, Joe Tyrrell, Pete McNamara and friends at my club Foresters. Apart from the many runs and time together, we regularly took to the trails and have enjoyed some high adventures in the wilderness – Puffer, Otter Trail Run, and the multi-day Richterveld, Aussenkehr and Transkei Wild Runs. Wilderness trail running brings home the real spirit of running – merging the act of running and the joy of being out there, with exciting journeys shared with companions.
Well, I’m still out on my odyssey, not knowing when it will end. Certainly my Two Oceans journey will continue for as long as I enjoy it and feel capable, perhaps for another decade. I am indebted to the wonderful organisers and volunteers of the Two Oceans who make this great race possible, and who over so many years have given me the opportunity of making this journey so often. Its importance is immeasurable and has given me enjoyment, good health, youthfulness and enthusiasm for life. It has at various times been a platform for experimenting with goal-setting, where planning, honest hard work and meeting the deadline have helped create the discipline important to work and other spheres in life.
Finally, and most importantly, without my loving and supportive wife and family who recognise the benefits of running, and who have participated with me both as runners and supporters, I doubt I would have reached this point in my journey. My profound thanks to them for always being there.
See you on the start-line of the Two Oceans 2016 – enjoy it and hope you achieve your goals.
Tony Abrahamson 2016
Permanent number 36