1998 at the top of Sani Pass at 2874m above sea level (9429 feet) in the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. I went up to treat the late and truly great Zithulele Sinqe (second left), affectionately know as Zed. This was six weeks before Comrades marathon. Zed refused to come down from altitude and so I ended up going to Zed. I am on the right of the photo proudly supporting the 1996 World Surf-Lifesaving Champions, Durban Surf Life Saving Club track top. That was my first venture into the World of international sports competition looking after athletes. Durban Surf became the first non Australian life saving club to win a world Champs title and then a few thereafter and I was pleased with myself and the small role I had played in their success. That might actually be the top from the again successful 1998 world champs.
I can't remember how I ended up going to treat Zed, it was certainly through the late Jacque Malan, who was Zed's and other South African marathon running standouts agent. At the time he was undergoing chemotherapy for liver cancer.
I ended up getting to the border posts too late in the afternoon to get a lift up and so ran up the 8km pass with a back pack. I was really fit at the time , but it ended up taking well over an hour to run walk the very steep pass, in the snow, at altitude. I was dreaming of a hot shower, but found once at the top that the water pipes froze at 4pm and typically defrosted at around 11 am.
Zed had started experiencing limiting knee pain towards the end of his career and so had moved to the longer distance so that he could be competitive. He said the knee did not hurt while jogging and that you could easily win the Comrades marathon (around 90km) with a jog, he never did win. The year before on the down he had come 4th, pulled up with cramps, but reported that he had not respected the distance and had not trained anything over 120km per week. That year at very high altitude, if memory serves me correct he had clocked many 160-180km weeks.
We just so happened to meet Derek Maccaskill (left) who was working for SAB, Ray De Vries (second right a running agent to many, many comrades runners) and I am embarrassed to say I cannot recall the man in the middle (Jamie i think) who were testing a New 4x4 on the legendary pass. Looking back it seems a strange coincidence.
The reason for this long winded post however is that it was a very pivotal part in my fledgling career of treating athletes. At that stage I was trying to out read and out knowledge everyone to be the best therapist. Zed however had a rather interesting story and changed my thinking and quite possibly my life forever. He was not so much concerned with pain, but rather the limitation that prevented him from running properly. He had grown up in a very hard and unforgiving environment and discomfort was a daily reality. He was concerned more with restriction or limitation of function than pain. If he could run well he could earn a living, if he could not move well he could no longer provide. He changed my focus of treatment in the few days i spent up there from pain relief (primary focus of my practice at the time) to improve function.
He also completely changed my world view of training. I was at that stage a student of coaching and techniques and I was a firm believer in base training, periodisation, intervals, peaking, recovery periods, drills and trying to learn and understand the process or formulae of training. Zed told me his story which may not be factually correct in the details and timeline but it is in the essence. He is truly one of the athletes I would most like to reminisce with today, but alas he is no longer here to tell his tale.
So as I remember, how Zed told me, around a gas stove at nearly 3000m altitude, 20 years ago, here is how he came to be one of South Africas greatest runners.
At the time Zed discovered running, he was an unemployed teacher. He would go to the informal labour lines in the morning trying to get manual labour as a painter or in construction for minimal cash pay. I do mean minimal in the strongest sense of the word. He would often go home to the township without work. In the afternoon he would go for a run as he found the run help lifted his spirits and took his mind away from depression, hunger and low self esteem. What kind of a man could not provide for his family. He ran to escape. He ran 30 minutes each day.
One day a man in his community asked him where he had run to? Zed described his route and the man said that if he ran that far in 30 minutes he confirmed his suspicions that Zed was fast. He offered to take Zed to a race on the weekend. Zed at first declined saying he ran to escape hardship and to feel better about himself. But the man explained that he was hoping to win prize money at the race and that he felt that Zed was an even better runner than he. Zed went with the man at his insistence. He could possibly earn more than a weeks wage at the race. Zed won the race. A 10 or 15km I believe. He immediately wanted to know if he could race another? I think he raced one other local race before the man said he should consider entering a half marathon with big prize money. Zed won this too at which stage he was noticed and I think joined a running club. It was only at this stage that Zed received any form of running equipment like running clothes and running shoes. He was then as I recall either immediately entered into South African Marathon champs or possibly one marathon thereafter. He won in a time of 2:08:04 which i think was at the time the South African record.
It would be wonderful to corroborate this story with him and possibly running historians may know Zed's story better than I. At the time however he profoundly changed my beliefs into what it takes to become a world class runner and I left that mountain top having learned far more than I had given. 30 minutes a day and a 2:08 marathon, no science, no nutrition, no equipment, no structured training, no drills, no high performance, no mental coaching, no rehab, no therapy.
It is not to say that these things do not have a place, that is not my statement and not my point of view. It certainly rearranged forever my world view or mental construct of what it takes to run sub 2:10
Zed was later to introduce me to his good friend and the topic of another post one day, the incredible Josia Thugwane, the 1996 Olympic gold medal winner in the Marathon. Josia's formula? He simply never ever put his shoes on for less than 90 minutes of running.
Josia is still around, but is quite possibly the most humble and unassuming human being I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I will post a link to a story of him on my timeline if you care to read further and possibly post a small part of his story as I remember it at a later time.
Take care my friends and thank you for reading this. I wish my words could do more justice to two remarkable human beings and a part of their life story.
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