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On track for a mid-life crisis
28 Oct 2011

HE raised his gun. My mouth was dry. My heart was pounding. My knees were shaking.

Just before he pulled the trigger, he barked: “On your marks!” A split second later, I was out of the starting blocks, running towards the finishing post 100 metres away. It was July 1997, and I had put myself on the line to run against 50 other women of a certain age, who had come from all over the world to compete in the 12th World Masters’ Athletic Championships in Durban. In 15,25 seconds, my race was over.

That exhilarating dash was the culmination of a wonderful mid-life crisis which started when I surprised everyone, including myself, by winning the mother’s race at a junior school sport’s day, despite being at least 10 years older than some of the other contenders, who had no idea that I had been a serious school-girl athlete while they were still in nappies. At the time, I was distracted by a career change and had no reason to dwell on my victory — until I read in the press that the next World Masters would be taking place down the road in Durban the following year. Suddenly, the memory of the mother’s race, and the life that was left in my fast-twitch calf muscles could not be denied. So I stepped into the fast lane and entered the 100-metre race in the 45 to 49 year-old category.

The first inkling I had that I was going to cut a ridiculous figure was when I went into a sports shop to buy a pair of running spikes. “What size shoe does your son or daughter take?” asked the salesperson, whose eyebrows hit the ceiling when I replied “Well actually, the spikes are for me. I am a master track athlete.” After this encounter, I realised that my first fitness training forays needed to be done very privately. So I slunk off to a remote field on the edge of town, far away from the prying eyes of anyone who might ridicule my attempts to catapult out of the starting blocks (I usually fell over), or my fartlek routines (during which no variation of my speed was discernible to the naked eye). Naturally, my family was sceptical, and any mention of my fartlek progress at the dining room table resulted in an eruption of much mirth and mayhem. They refused to believe this was a Swedish word for a legitimate training method, in which a runner varies her pace significantly during a training session. Instead, they latched onto it with lavatorial glee, convinced it described perfectly what was bound to accompany any wannabe 46-year-old track athlete, especially the crazy woman who used to be their wife and mother.

In spite of — or maybe because of their derision — a few months later, I felt I had made sufficient progress on my own and the time had come for me to find a coach to prepare me for my first race. Fortunately I was put in touch with a high school teacher who based herself at Voortrekker High in the afternoons, where she coached a fair number of athletes from various schools in the city. With complete disregard for my age or ego, she asked me to join the group of 12- year-old girls, who she felt would perfectly pace me in my quixotic quest. How I cursed those gazelle-like creatures. All legs and long hair, flying always in front of me down the straight. And how I burned with embarrassment when a little boy with close-cropped hair, sauntered past me once as I doubled up to catch my breath: “Tannie, jy hardloop soos ‘n skilpad!” he opined.

Undaunted, I carried on training hard, and in the following months, armed with white paint to mark off 100, 200 and 400-metre stretches on flat roads, I practised wherever I went. At home in Pietermaritzburg, I sprinted alongside the Duzi at Makro. On holidays, I sprinted alongside the sea, the Berg and the Kruger Park, much to the bemusement of the other road users. Eventually, I felt confident enough to enter provincial and national competitions which took me to Durban, Bloemfontein and Pretoria, where I was always placed in the top three in my age group — only because there were usually just three of us making up the field.

Despite their initial cynicism, my family followed me to many meetings. But perhaps their attendance was based not so much on their loyalty to me, as their wish to enjoy the pure comedy and entertainment that the master athletes inadvertently provided. Once, the hammer-throw competition for 60 year old women was stopped for almost an hour while officials hunted desperately for a step ladder. It was needed to extricate the hammer, which, having been released too early by a buxom granny with centrifugal force issues, had ended up firmly enmeshed at the very top of the protective fence. On another occasion, the world champion for the men’s 400-metre hurdles in the over 70 age category attempted to set a new world record by running a solo race against the clock. He was making excellent progress until he hit the final straight, when suddenly and in great anguish, he stopped in his tracks. The requisite last hurdle was simply not there, making his stupendous effort completely null and void. In furious frustration he vented his righteous anger on the officials. The curses and insults that rained down must surely echo in their ears to this day. But it was the championships that provided the most bizarre moment of all. Just after the start of the 100 metres for men in the over 60 year category, we noticed that a competitor who had travelled all the way from Australia was straggling behind the other runners. Then his arms and legs stopped pumping and we saw that his running shorts were sliding down towards his ankles. Unbelievably, the elastic band on his running shorts had snapped. To his credit, with great dignity he hitched them up, and eventually crossed the finishing line, with his itinerant shorts balled tightly in his fists. Those of us warming up for our own event could only wonder at his heartache and humiliation — all for the want of a piece of strong elastic.

These are my most colourful memories of the time of the 1997 World Masters’ Championships. But what of my achievements? Naturally I was delighted because I shaved five seconds off my personal best time over 100 metres; naturally I was delighted because I received recognition from the KZN athletics’ association; and naturally I was delighted because I placed 19th out of over 50 athletes, some of whom were former Olympians. But these were mere trifles and paled into insignificance compared with what happened at my last training session at Voortrekker High, a few days before the championships. I was at peak fitness and as I sprinted down the straight, for the first time ever I overtook those 12 year olds and the little boy with the close-cropped hair. Afterwards he came up to me panting furiously, and with a look of undisguised admiration on his face, he said: “Tannie, nou hardloop jy soos ’n springbok”.

About the Writer

IN the olden days, Yvonne Spain was a city councillor and an NGO activist in the children’s rights and HIV/Aids sector. ‘Nowadays, I am often in the company of ginger cats, newspapers and Mr Google. I have plenty of time to play Scrabble, attend to my reading list and travel to interesting places, both near and far. Occasionally, I am hauled out of retirement by an NGO to assist with report writing, proof-reading or administration. And yes, I still run whenever I can, but creaking knees dictate a preference for long walks with good friends.’

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