This is an article by invitation. Early May 2019 as news appeared of a race due in northern California where runners would attempt breaking the world records for 50 miles and 100 kilometers, this blog asked South African great Bruce Fordyce if he would be willing to contribute an article about the 50 mile-world record that has been his since 1983. He agreed. Reproduced below is the article he wrote (it appeared first on his website www.brucefordyce.com, which has an associated blog); it is in the form of a letter to Jim Walmsley of the US who bettered Bruce’s longstanding record. The new mark was set at the Hoka One One Project Carbon X 100km race.
Congratulations Jim Walmsley on setting a new world record for 50 miles at the Hoka One One race and for running with such courage and dignity.
I would be lying if I said the news of your success didn’t cause a slight wrench in my heart and a dull sense of regret that lasted some time. Suddenly I was no longer the world record holder for 50 miles. The record had been part of my life for 36 years and its departure, while not as traumatic, reminded me of the death, three weeks ago, of our favourite black Bombay cat, Onyx. I still look for Onyx, lying on his favourite couch, and I still can’t stop looking over my shoulder to see that silky black cat following me up the stairs to his food bowl. I suppose it will be the same with my, now your, 50 mile record. I must remember to amend my CV.
Of course, I had been warned. I had been given time to compose myself. When I heard the news that a group of elite athletes had gathered to celebrate the launch of the new Hoka shoe while having a tilt at the 50 mile and 100 kilometres world best times I knew there was trouble afoot. When I spotted your name on the entries list, I knew that my days were probably numbered. After all Jim, your CV is extremely impressive and your bold, aggressive front running approach to racing is the direct opposite of my rather timid approach to the pain of any ultra.
And so, galvanised by my final hours as world record holder, I dredged the back of my mind for memories of September 1983 when I ran my third London to Brighton and where I ran through 50 miles in 4:50:21 en route to the finish on the Brighton beachfront close to the famous pavilion. (I still had 4 miles to run, to Brighton Pavilion and the finish line.)
At 7 AM on that Sunday morning a London bobby stepped onto the road beneath the famous Big Ben, stopped the early morning traffic, and beckoned at us runners to line up. Then the famous clock’s chiming bells sent us on our way across Westminster Bridge, past the Elephant and Castle pub, and down the A23 road to Brighton all the way to the sea. On the way we ran past quaint sounding villages and landmarks such as Pease Pottage, Crawley, Ditchling Beacon and Dale Hill. We also ran past seemingly randomly placed drinks tables where the local vicars and parish volunteers proffered tennis biscuits and Lemon Barley water for refreshments, and cranky old race historian John Jewel rode part of the route on the legendary Arthur Newton’s ancient Edwardian bicycle. After many miles of hard running we were confronted by the ridge of chalk hills known as the Sussex Downs (which should be called the Sussex Ups). There was nothing quaint about those rolling hills or about the quality of the opposition I raced against. Some of these great athletes are no longer with us, but a very fast pace was guaranteed when the field consisted of names such as Don Ritchie, Cavin Woodward, Graeme Fraser, Tony Abbott and Danny Biggs. We dashed through our first 8kms (5 miles) in 27 minutes or so. This pace wouldn’t give anybody in Nairobi or Addis Ababa sleepless nights but as you and I both know Jim, it does become a problem when you have to stitch 10 of those splits together with no respite.
At about 48 miles in this race Ian Champion, the race organiser, jumped out of a car and shouted in his delightful cockney accent that I was on pace for a world record and that they were taking splits at 50 miles. Ian, still a good friend, was a full- time red London bus driver and a part time race official in those days. He could have been plucked straight out of the Beatle’s song Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields.
“ This is no porky pie (lie) Bruce mate, you’re heading for a world record, now get your bum into gear!’’ he yelled.
At my lowest ebb yesterday, I took comfort from the wise words of the greatest of us all, the legendary Wally Hayward. As you know Jim, Wally Hayward won five Comrades marathons and set numerous ultramarathon records. He also ran the Comrades in 9:45, just three weeks shy of his 80th birthday, proving so eloquently that you don’t necessarily have to be first across the finish line to be a great winner. Earlier that same year I had taken eight minutes off the Comrades marathon record (yes 1983 was a very fine vintage for me). After the race I found myself chatting with Wally. He counseled me “ Bruce, always remember, we borrow records, but we keep titles.’’
“ I have long ago ceased to hold any records in the Comrades,’’ he continued, “ you chaps are running half an hour faster than I, but I will always be the 1930 Comrades champion. No one can take that from me.’’
“ Nor can they take the 1950, 1951, 1953 or 1954 titles from you or any of the other great titles in your glittering career,’’ I should have added.
Of course, Wally was correct. I still have a treasured photograph where I am receiving the enormous Arthur Newton trophy from the Mayor of Brighton at a post-race function. Incidentally, titles and medals were only handed out at this function after we had toasted The Queen.
Wally emphasised that we are merely custodians of records. We look after them, treasure and honour them and then we hand them on.
I received the record from Don Ritchie, and now Jim, you have it, and you deserve it. Be warned, however, that here in South Africa we have a Zulu warrior called Bongmusa Mthembu who could take five minutes off the record and, on his day, David Gatebe is capable of running even faster. When he won the 2016 Comrades marathon David probably passed through 50 miles in 4:43 or so.
Your new record is a magnificent addition to your CV but there is one glaring omission from that CV and that is a Comrades marathon title. Like Odysseus’s sirens the race is calling you, beckoning from the province of Kwazulu-Natal. Come and race the most famous ultra of them all and test yourself against the best in the world. You will enjoy the whole amazing African adventure. If you were to win the Comrades you would join an illustrious club of US winners. Ann Trason, Cheryl Winn, Camille Herron and Alberto Salazar have all won our great race. None of them set a record while doing so.
Whenever I am slightly sad or depressed I love to run and after a run nothing seems to really matter that much (the memory of Onyx still haunts me however and the sadness might take a few runs yet before it fades). And so I ran very early this morning in Parktown in Johannesburg (my favourite city) and enjoyed crunching over autumn leaves and listening to olive thrushes greet the dawn. A Fiery-Necked night jar called from the Parktown Ridge filling the dawn with its mystical cry “ Good lord deliver us, Good Lord deliver us.’’ From the top of the Westcliff stairs I paused to gaze at a fiery vermilion African sunrise. As a species, humankind was born in Africa and our earliest ancestors were the most magnificent runners. They handed this gift of running down to us and Jim, you and I have certainly not spurned that gift.
I have heard rumours that there is some technical reason that your record might not be ratified. As far as I am concerned you have run a recorded 50 miles faster than anyone else.
You are the record holder!
Once again, congratulations Jim.
(The author, Bruce Fordyce, is a well-known ultra-runner. His blog can be accessed at www.brucefordyce.com. For a report on the Hoka One One Project Carbon X race please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/05/06/50-miles-jim-walmsley-sets-a-new-mark/ or scroll down on this blog. Besides the 50 mile-world record, Bruce Fordyce holds the record for the most number of wins at South Africa’s annual Comrades Marathon. He won it nine times; eight of that in a row. For more on Bruce please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/02/12/bruce-fordyce-on-comrades-and-running/)