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Maybe I’m prone to hyperbole, but I think this might go down as the best race I’ve ever run. How do you define best? That is the question. I’ve certainly run more interesting races, races I’ve enjoyed more, races I’ve suffered more, races in more scenic surroundings and so on. But when you pare it down to the bare bones of performance-based assessment, this one must be right up there.


Back in 1994, Nelson Mandela was poised to become the new president of South Africa. The Springboks had yet to win their first world cup. OJ Simpson was being chased down the highway by the police, and Ayrton Senna and Kurt Cobain were still alive.


Also at that time a group of Wits Athletics Club university runners ran a 5000m race in Durban in the now defunct SAU’s. I was in that group and ran 16:13 in a memorable “additional compromise 5000” which deserves a blog entry of its own. Team mate Hendrick (Ramaala) won the A race that day in 14:31. Also a story for another time.


That 16:13 PB stood from back then until Saturday 24 August 2013. 19 years.


During the period immediately after that 1994 race I was confident I would get under 16 minutes. Young and keen and on an upward curve, it was surely simply a matter of time. But it never happened. Months then years passed, I got close with a few sub 16:20’s but that was all. When I left Wits I gave up running (temporarily). My time to break 16 minutes had come and gone.


Fast forward to the early noughties. Back to running regularly in the new millennium, a new country and a new family. I stuck with the running, it became once again a way of life. Week in week out, month after month year after year.


So we arrive in 2013. This track season has been a good one.  I’ve run decent times in all the distances I’ve raced and was hoping it would culminate in Saturday’s 5000. I was confident of a good time but not of breaking 16 minutes. That was out of range. Inside 16:20 for the first time since the 90’s and I would go home very happy.


BMC 1551

Not sure why BMC were using numbers from 2007…

Time to Race.


We did a three mile warm-up where Ed showed us his old stomping ground around the Warwick University campus. The pace felt disconcertingly hard for a warm-up, but I pushed the negative thoughts aside and reminded myself that I was fit and that nine times out of ten it was fitness that determined how well you race, not how you feel on the warm-up.


A group of five runners, Ed, Dan, Tim, Chris and Sarah (superfast friend of Tim’s) were targeting 76 seconds a lap for kilometre splits of 3:10 and a finish time of 15:50. Ed, being capable of comfortably quicker than this, had volunteered to pace the group from gun to tape. Which he went on to do admirably.


My plan was not to commit to running with this group for the whole race but to try and stick with them for the first km. I thought I was capable of 16:15 and was happy to get there with a blow if necessary. Hence a first km of 3:10 suited me perfectly. After that I could run my own race, assessing how I felt as it went.




The gun went and we were off. Even though there is no entry standard for a BMC regional race, it does not attract all-comers. It tends to draw in the serious athletes who know their way around a track. So it was that when I tagged myself onto the back of Ed’s group, I was also at the back of the race.


After two laps our group swallowed up a pair of runners who popped straight out the back and I was no longer in last place.


The first km split was 3:11.


So far so good. It hadn’t felt particularly easy but it was manageable. I carried on. I focussed on maintaining as small as possible a gap to the back of the group so that I never felt disconnected. Once a gap appeared I knew I would struggle to close it.


2km in 6:20.


This was a good split. It meant I had run the second km in 3:09. It hadn’t felt any tougher than the first. Keep it going. More of the same. Keep calm and concentrate. I wanted to get to 3km before I lost touch.


The 3km mark came in 9:31.


A 3:11 for that one. At this point I worked out that even if I bombed to 3:20’s for the final 2km I would still run a 16:10. That gave me encouragement as I knew it was a time I would be happy with. So anything under that became a bonus. I pressed on. Things were getting tough now. The girl I had been running behind dropped off the group and I suddenly found a gap appearing between us and the group. I made a snap decision and went around her and surged to close the gap back to the group. It was hurting a lot now. Every lap that I could stay with them was bonus material. Ed was shouting out encouragement and splits to all of us, he had been doing it all race like a legend, but now it was all becoming blurry. My head was fuzzy with the pain and the concentration. I was determined not to tie up. The group was pulling away. I could not stay with them but we were only 3 laps from the end. I had stuck to them for 9 laps.


I hit the 4km mark in 12:46.


A 3:15 for that km, my slowest of the race. I knew I needed a 3:14 to get 16-flat. I was hurting so much I couldn’t think any more than that. I got to the start/finish line with two laps to go. I was totally on my own now. The group had splintered as Dan finally cut loose and Tim, Chris and Sarah stretched out behind him. Ed was still shepherding us but it was each to his own.


Two laps to go. Come on Mark. When will you ever get a chance to be in this position again?


I don’t know what my penultimate lap split was but I hit the bell in 14:38.


I needed an 82 second final 400 to do it. I didn’t feel confident. I kept waiting for the blow but I also kept pushing as hard as I could. Down the back straight. The timekeeper at the 200m mark had been calling times each lap. I heard him calmly announce 15:14 as I ran past him. I had 46 seconds to run the final 200m. Damn I was going to do this! I knew it was in my grasp now and I kicked as hard as I could down the home straight. The number I feared was 16:00. To be that close and miss it would be hard to take. I sprinted down the home straight and over the line. I looked down at my watch.



I had done it.


The next few minutes were a blur.


Dan (15:39), Tim (15:42), Sarah (15:45) and Chris (15:51) had all finished ahead of me. That meant every single one of us had achieved the sub16. We all stood around in mild disbelief. What just happened?


A magic day.


I want to end with an awesome paragraph from Ed’s blog on the race.


Everyone in our training group has been training really well this summer so it was satisfying to see it all come together for them. Moments like that are rare, and in an individual sport like athletics, feeling like part of a team effort is unusual but very enjoyable. My personal highlight was seeing my good friend Mark holding his arms aloft in disbelief after breaking a PB that had stood since his teenage years in 1994. It was inspirational to see him run the perfect race after training so hard this summer, and to see him not give up on running a time he ran half a lifetime ago. I will bear that in mind next time I complain about having PBs that are more than one year old.


See his full post here. Definitely worth a read. Mate you were a pacing rock for us all to lean on that night. Thank you.


Our club website also reported on the race.


Official Results:

BMC results

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Today saw the second running of the world famous Christmas Mile. Numbers were up on last year with four hardy souls toeing the line. The weather played along by being cold, miserable and wet.

22 December 2012 10:15am University of Birmingham Athletics Track.

1. Ed Banks 4:39
2. Martin Matthews 4:55
3. Mark Ince 5:04
4. Kevin McMillan 5:30

(Kevin had run a hard 5k immediately before the mile, solid pre-race preparation in anyone’s book.)

A few laps cool down and we were off.

That was that. The conditions minimised any pre or post race banter. The mile was short, sweet and to the point. And so is this report.

Same time next year chaps.


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How do you pay a fitting tribute to a man who has already had every kind of tribute paid to him from all corners of the planet?

Journalists, sports fans, political leaders, have all lined up to sound off on the career of the greatest distance runner the world has ever seen.


Perhaps the best I can do is to make a start by writing something from a personal perspective. Let’s go back to the beginning.

In 1992 shortly after taking up “proper” training and joining the Wits University Athletics Club, I met there, amongst others including Hendrick Ramaala, one Philip Knibbs. Phil and I are still close friends today and in contact on an almost daily basis. Both still chasing PB’s, warding off middle-age, and loving running everyday. In 1992 and 1993 we got to know one another and the rest of the Wits running group. We got swept up in anything and everything distance running related. We soaked up articles in Athletics Weekly, Track and Field News, the now-discontinued SA Runner, and even, yes even, Runners World.

We watched the World Junior Athletics Champs in 1992 and the World Champs in Stuttgart in 1993. I marvelled at Richard Chelimo, the Kenyan 10k star. Phil picked out an Ethiopian youngster, Haile Gebrselassie, who we had seen the in the junior champs previously, as one to watch for the future. “I like the look of this guy” “I think he is one to watch”. From that day on, as far as we were concerned, Haile’s progress was intertwined with ours. He inspired and amazed us, and set benchmarks that others could only observe from a distance. He took care of business wining world titles from 1500m up to 10000m on the track, while we took care of business trying to set PBs across all the distances we raced.

When I look back on Haile’s early-to-mid-90’s races, two things about Haile stand out in my mind. The first was his unwavering smile. Before each race, the camera panned from competitor to competitor, each nervously toeing the line and clearly trying to mentally prepare themselves for the physical discomfort they were about to put themselves through. Then the camera would reach Haile and he would be sporting a massive smile, usually looking up at people in the crowd and waving. He never showed any signs of apprehension or nerves or trepidation for what was about to unfold. (An aside: only Wilson Kipketer springs to mind as another pre-race smiler from the 90s). The second thing that stands out, probably as his greatest characteristic on the track, was his vicious and insurmountable finishing kick. He would wait and wait and wait on the shoulder of whoever was brave enough to lead the race, and when the time came, and the time was usually when the final lap bell sounded, for him to unleash his kick, unleash it he did. He was gone. Many would try and live with the kick, responding with a kick of their own; and for perhaps the first 100m or 200m of Haile’s kick, they would be on him, and you’d think, could this be the one? But it never was. Eventually, sometimes after 100m, sometimes after 200m, sometimes even after 300m, the challenger would fade and Haile would be away. The final lap of almost every race he started would end with him enjoying the finishing straight all to himself, blasting along seemingly above the tartan. Smiling. And taking the win.

Haile had many fantastic races on the track, but if there is one that stands out, it is, as many many fans have already pointed out, his duel with Paul Tergat in the Olympic 10000m final in Sydney in 2000. I’m going to come right out and say I was supporting Paul on that day. In any number of the vicious kicking races described above, it was Paul Tergat who suffered at the hands (legs?) of Haile. He was the perennial number two man on the track. His record on the country however was quite the reverse. He was Mr Cross Country in the 90’s. Dominating everyone for five world titles. Incredible record. But on the track it was a different story. He had never toppled King Haile on the tartan. That’s a tasty enough head-to-head on its own, but lets throw in a little more. They had both publicly stated that this was to be their final race on the track, both focussing on the road (and marathons) after the Olympics. More on that later. So this was effectively Tergat’s last chance to wrestle just one global track title from Geb. How was he going to set about doing it? He was going to try and beat Haile at his own game in one respect. That is, he was planning to unleash the mother of all finishing kicks. The kind of kick that would define the kicking ability of Messr Paul Tergat. Every bit of his leg speed would be deployed in the closing stages. Also, he was going to try and do it before Haile got going with one of his own. Race time. 

Let’s jump to 500m to go. The field is whittled down to the usual duo. Everyone else has cashed in their chips and called it a night. We go through the bell, the pace picks up from an already fast pace, it has been increasing for the last few laps in fact. Tergat goes. Haile responds. Haile eases past on the back straight. Doesn’t he? Doesn’t he? NO HE DOESN’T. Tergat is fighting with everything he has. This is his chance. He has been watching the Haile kick year after year and has had the chance to study it first hand on most occasions. Now it is his turn. He throws it down. The back straight comes and goes, the final bend comes and goes. TERGAT IS STILL IN FRONT! He has finally gotten on top of Haile’s finish. The man can be beaten. What a run. But hang on, 50m to go and they are inseparable! It’s a flat-out sprint now. It’s gone beyond a kick. Insane. The crowd is mental. Hairs on the arms and necks of running fans everywhere are on end. What the hell are we witnessing! There is 20m to go and it is still impossible to say who will win. It is the perfect and fitting finish to a pair of track careers and a rivalry that won’t be seen on the track again for many many years. It is the defining moment for both of their track careers. Who won? Oh yeah, Haile got it in the end. And he wasn’t smiling across the line, he was grimacing.

So began the next chapter of Haile’s career. His road career and more specifically, his marathon career. Lets jump to 2002 and the London Marathon. Amazingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), Paul Tergat is also in the race. With a mile or two to go, the lead pack is down to a group of three. Khalid Kannouchi, Paul Tergat and Haile. The race has been marketed as Haile’s debut. Technically speaking it isn’t as he ran one when he was a teenager, managing a finish in the 2:40’s off very little training. But really, to all intents and purposes, London 2002 was his debut. He was probably looking the most comfortable of the three heading into the final mile. Looks, however, can be deceiving. Kannouchi, the world record holder at the time, dropped the hammer with a long push for home as they headed past Big Ben and Haile was dropped straight away. Tergat hung on for slightly longer before also being dropped. Kannouchi’s marathon experience and ability had won out on the day and he had a fantastic race, winning, and breaking his own world record in the process. Haile however, in his “debut” had managed an amazing 2:06:35 for third. It was confirmation that he would enjoy some success over the marathon distance, in the years to come.

In my opinion, that 2002 London performance was to be Haile’s best marathon showing in a world class competitive field. He had some London disappointments after that, with a DNF and a lower placed finish.

But it was to be in even-paced marathon races, on fast courses with publicly stated attacks on the world record that he carved out his road niche. He raced in Europe, in Amsterdam first and then in Berlin, where he was to achieve his best results time-wise, with TWO world records. The second one, still standing, with Haile the only sub 2:04 man in history, at 2:03:59. He also dominated the Dubai marathon, chasing the world record but falling short, albeit with world class times, on three occasions.

During these times, it would be remiss to say he enjoyed the global adoration he had on the track. There was a small, but growing group of athletics fans who began to feel Haile was cheapening marathon racing in a way, by targeting fast races, ensuring no serious challengers were present so he was secure in the win, and then attempting to time-trial his way to a world record. It was, and is, a hotly debated and contentious discussion. Splitting fans down the middle. Whatever you believe, it has to be admitted that Haile never managed to win a marathon with a world class field present. London he tried, Boston he never raced, the Olympic marathon he never raced, and we all know how New York went.

That is not up for debate. What is up for debate is whether this was showing him to be weak or cowardly or a dodger, as the naysayers may have you believe.

My personal take is no. Whilst it is disappointing he never succeeded in a world class marathon field, I think it is disrespectful to suggest he dodges competition, given his track pedigree. He was the ultimate racer on the track. He was there to win, the time was secondary. That he broke so many world records en route is an indication of his unbelievable natural ability and gift. He raced all comers on the track year after year and proved himself against them year after year. Why should he necessarily have to take that same route on the roads? He chose to run marathons focussed on achieving fast times. He didn’t actively dodge world class fields – his number of attempts in London, which undeniably puts together the toughest field in the world year after year, are an indication that he did try and pit himself against the best. Unfortunately he never achieved the success that he aspired to in that area. Running fast times became his speciality and you can’t deny he did that better than anyone.

And so we come to his unexpected retirement announcement. Out of the blue, after being forced to drop out 16 miles into New York on Sunday. Turns out he had been carrying a knee injury and had had an MRI scan and fluids drained on the Saturday before. He shouldn’t have started the race. But he did. Perhaps he was feeling the pressure from the naysayers and the media on him to deliver in a quality marathon field. So he started. And the rest we know.

A final thought on his retirement. He made the decision and statement extremely soon after the race, when perhaps he was a little emotional, with disappointment, frustration, and sadness uppermost in his thoughts. To suggest he can no longer perform at the highest level is flat-out wrong. He ran a 59:30 half marathon in the Great North Run in September this year. Third fastest time ever on the course. He still has it. If he wants to carry on.

Let’s wait and see. I’m hoping he reconsiders.

For me, the best platform for him to show off his wares, is, was and always will be the track. On that surface, a racer, a record setter, a title winner. And all the while a humble gracious and smiling man.




[Footnote: in between writing and posting this; news articles are already circulating saying the Haile is reconsidering his retirement and “would like more time to think about it”. Come on Haile, get those trainers out!]

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Richard Mayer knows a bit about running. Let’s be honest and say he knows more about running, and South African running in particular, than pretty much anybody else I know. (Well, Keith Sherman excluded. Let’s call it a tie)

So when he decided to write a book on the most impressive era of South African road running, you know it is going to be a keeper. There’s no fluffed up, hyped up nonsense in there. Just an inspiring account of some pretty outstanding characters and some pretty outstanding performances.

The review below is taken from a South African newspaper called The Citizen.

The books is called: Three Men Named Matthews: Memories of the Golden Age of South African Distance Running and its Aftermath.

We can be the best

There was a time, during the isolation years, when South Africa had the best distance runners in the world.

Our elite athletes would, if given the chance, have left Kenyans and Ethiopians in their wake.

I was privileged to have front row seats at championships where these titans waged enthralling battles of will, talent and guile. I was fortunate to win the SA Road Running Association’s Press Award in 1989 and the SA Amateur Athletics Merit Award in 1990. Fortunate because there were several writers doing a better job.

However, none of us could have come close to matching the magnificent work produced by Richard Mayer in his new book Three Men Named Matthews: Memories of the Golden Age of South African Distance Running and its Aftermath.

In recalling the exploits of Mat thews Batswadi, Matthews Motshwar ateu and Matthews Temane, Mayer writes with incomparable inside knowledge and experience. He’s clocked up impressive 5 000m and 10km times at provincial level. He knows what makes top runners tick.

Make no mistake, we had world beaters. Temane’s 60:11 for the 21,1km in 1987 was the fastest on the planet. Incredibly, Temane was also a sub-four minute miler who beat icon Johan Fourie in Potchefstroom to set an altitude record of 3:55.4. Mayer describes this as “one of the greatest – if unheralded – mile performances in athletic history.

“It was a victory for grace over strength, and for the underdog over the overwhelming favourite”.

Indeed Temane was a graceful, smooth striding runner whose almost saintly, quiet demeanour became a focal point for black pride and white admiration. I was struck by the appar ent absence of ego, especially in com parison with lesser athletes who would boast during interviews.

Motshwarateu set a world record 10km record at the age of 21.

Batswadi was the trailblazer, the first black runner to be awarded Springbok colours.

But Mayer’s book is more than a paean to an athletes’ pantheon. A subtext is: we were so good, what happened? As Tim Noakes says in the foreword: “Why could SA athletics produce world-class athletes 20 years ago but apparently not any more?”

There are many answers. Surprisingly, the gold price is one. The mines no longer provide the level of support they did in the 1980s. We’ve also gone soft. All the great athletes in the book actively sought hardship, says Noakes.

We know about the new generation of politically minded administrators whom Noakes says are “less interested in serving athletes and growing the sport than in the pursuit of what they believe sport owes them”.

Noakes and Mayer agree that be hind all great athletes is a great coach. Mayer shows how the role of coaches has been subverted.

Thinking about these things while jogging the well-organised Soweto Marathon on Sunday, I was again awed by the massive community sup port there is for running, despite media bias towards other sports.

I believe we can be the power we were going to be. And to have a galaxy of Matthews triumphant on the world stage will uplift this nation.

There are people with enough knowledge and passion to make it happen. There are people who have the ability to get things done. There are people who can provide enough money.

The challenge is to get them all on the same track.

 The book is available online at http://www.redpepperbooks.co.za/ProductInfo.aspx?productid=9780620424189

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