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The 1993 Great Train Relay 
Way back in 1993 I was a first year Engineering student at Wits University, Johannesburg.

I had recently joined the Athletics Club which was to change my life in so many ways. We had a proper coach, who gave us proper programs to follow. The improvements had been nothing short of incredible for those of us who had never stuck to a program before. But that’s by the by. I was hooked on running and was sponging up advice and experiences wherever I could.

Sometime in the second half of the year, a trip to Port Elizabeth (a city on the South African East Coast) to race a train was in order. It was called the Great Train Race and the train was called the Apple Express. 

From the now defunct race website “The Great Train race is an annual 10-man relay event over 73 km. It is hotly contested and has become the de facto South African club relay championship. The race is not only between the teams of runners, but also between the TRAIN and the runners – the aim is to beat the steam train!”.  The link also mentions that at the height of its popularity, in 1996, there were 624 teams taking part. That’s 6240 runners. A big event.

I have no idea who organised the trip, although it was probably the likes of Keith Sherman or Geoff Lee (the club chairman and soon-to-be ultrarunning hero). Anyway we were bundled into a team bus and sent down to the seaside.

The runners I can remember being on that trip are: Hendrick Ramaala, Alex Burrows, Paulo Contente, Philip Knibbs, Piers Cruickshanks, Mark Wadley, Geoff Lee, and me. There were ten in a relay team so there must be another two who have completely slipped my mind.

We had no realistic aspirations of greatness in the race. Club running in South Africa is (or was at least; having been away from the scene for over a decade I don’t know whether this is still the case) dominated by a number of top level clubs sponsored by large mining companies or other big hitting industrial companies. They filled their teams with national and world class professional runners, and the competition was fierce at the top. The likes of President Brandt Mines had Xolile Yawa (60min half marathon runner, multiple SA national champion at 10000m, Olympian), Meck Methuli etc. President Steyn Mines was another top club, Iscor Steel etc. Anyway, the point is we would be nowhere near these elite teams and had considered a top 50 as a good target.

But we had an ace up our sleeve. Unbeknownst to any of us, and possibly not yet to himself, Hendrick was fast.

Hendrick was on the verge of breaking through to good provincial level and soon after that national level, and a few years after that, truly world class (two silver medals at World Half Marathon Champs, sub-60 half marathons ten years before it became commonplace among Kenyans). He was on his way to somewhere good. But we didn’t know it yet. What we did know is that he was the fastest on our team, so he got first leg. The advice was “Be cool Hendrick, you will be among professional runners so don’t try and go with the pace. Top 15 to 20 is your target”. Naturally Hendrick ignored this nonsense and went out like the steam train. He was leading the whole damn race halfway through his leg.  He ended in second place, Xolile having caught him somewhere towards the end (probably thinking who is this guy??).

Our second leg runner was Alex Burrows. He didn’t train with us so we didn’t know him too well, but what we did know is that he had run a 3:54 1500m in Joburg (2000m above sea level), so yeah he had some moves. He lost a place or two but we were still about 5th overall. The rest of us ran as hard as we could, each losing a few places. All I remember about my leg was going out way too hard. Welcome to relay running mince. When the adrenalin wore off I realised I was screwed, but hung on as best I could. And so it went. Until our last leg runner, Paulo Contente, got going. Amazingly we were still high up in the placings, 21st overall.

As each of us finished our leg, the team bus had picked us up and drove to the next leg. So we were all in the van and driving the final leg of the race. Paulo was running well. He was a 9:30 steepler, so he was pretty hot shit in our books. He was also Portuguese and I mention this because, outside of the running, the trip had been punctuated by Paulo’s tales of any and all things Portuguese. He also told the most disgusting jokes my young mind had ever heard. He was great.

So back to the final leg. We’re lying 21st and the finish is about half a mile away. The route goes left and left again, around a large field. So you can see the finish banner from a long way off. We had driven ahead of the runners now, to get to the finish, so now were waiting about half a mile from the end, to see if Paulo had held onto 21st . He comes into view down the road, sprinting like a man possessed, in TWENTIETH place! We’re driving alongside him and he gasps something about the guy in twentieth making a wrong turn. Sure enough a few seconds later we see the runner who had been ahead of him previously, CLIMBING THROUGH A HOLE IN THE FENCE to get back onto the road from the field he had somehow ended up in.

Turns out he had gotten lost and asked Paulo which way to go. Paulo, being a competitive guy (understatement) had seen his opportunity and taken it. He offered a route that he knew was wrong. Off the runner went, and on realising his mistake had cut through the field to try  and make up lost time. Paulo was long gone by now, sprinting as though it was a 400m race. The runner behind him came through strongly, but Paulo held on by a few seconds and we secured twentieth!

Before you get all “that’s not cricket”, remember that runners and teams were supposed to know their leg routes beforehand. This guy hadn’t done his homework.

It was an awesome first away trip with the club, and there were many more to come. But this one always stays with me, because it was the first.

Hendrick’s opener and Paulo’s closer made it all the more memorable. How did the train do? No idea.

Footnote: In researching the Train Relay to look for photos etc., I sadly discovered that from the height of its powers in the late 90’s it has not been run since 2004. There is talk of it restarting soon, so here’s hoping.

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