Running Alone by Jackie Mekler (A book review)

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At the age of nine, Jackie Mekler was placed in an orphanage. This marked the end of his happy childhood – and the orphanage was where he remained until getting expelled at the age of 16. Jackie Mekler was a caged bird who hated the rules, regulations and discipline within the institution. On the 26th of December 1945, a diminutive 13-year-old boy bunked out of the orphanage to go for his first run. As his mop of bright ginger hair bobbed up and down Valley Street in Johannesburg, Jackie Mekler had finally found the means to escape the constrictions, constraints and controls that had been thrust upon him. “My frustration led me to explore ways of loosening the shackles of confinement. The best and easiest way was to start running.”

Jackie Mekler found solace on the roads surrounding the orphanage. He loved to run alone and the space he found out there allowed him to fill his head with fantasies of becoming a champion athlete. From that very first run he knew he had found his life’s passion and started capturing each daring escape from the orphanage into his “Diary of Running”.

He would run 7,524 miles (12,309km) before he won his first race – the 1952 Southern Transvaal Marathon at the tender age of 20 – and after that he couldn’t stop winning (his second victory was less than a month later at the Durban Athletic Club marathon).

Jackie Mekler is an intensely private person – this is one of the reasons his autobiography has taken 45 years to complete and be published – but, whilst he shared very little of his hardships growing up even with his closest friends, he poured his soul into those running diaries. The diaries capture the intricate details of his training runs and the 403 competitive races he participated in.

Jackie Mekler’s first running diary / the first entries in the logbook / Total miles run diary entry 1945-1947

Jackie Mekler logged every single run he ever did in his ‘diaries’ – an amazing 66,870 miles (106,992km) until he retired from competitive running in 1969. The quality of his running data is such that Professor Tim Noakes (who writes one of the book’s forewords) used the logbooks as the cornerstone of his research into distance running.

Whilst a scientist like Noakes gets his kicks from the data, it is the stories behind them that feed into the richness of the book. Jackie Mekler extracts and condenses those 66,870 miles of raw data into a wonderful 400-page autobiography jam-packed with enthralling accounts and anecdotes.

The book is an historic trip down memory lane as Jackie describes memorable runs, the build-up to big events, successes and failures on the road and reminisces on the international tours he did to the United Kingdom, Greece and Finland. The storytelling is completely engaging and I found myself willing him on to his Comrades victories as well as feeling the pain of his failures – the biggest of which was letting touring Englishmen beat him (and the pride of South Africa) at Comrades on three occasions.

The 20-chapter book is divided into three sections:

  1. The Early Years
  2. The Competitive Years
  3. Life After Comrades

The meat of the book (ten chapters) covers ‘The Competitive Years’ which Mekler marks as his first Comrades (as a 20-year-old in 1952) to his 1969 Comrades (where he earned the last of his ten gold medals, finishing third).

Jackie Mekler’s haul of ten Comrades gold medals (including five wins).

Jackie’s Comrades record is remarkable. He won the race five times, was the first person to finish under 6-hours on the “Up” run and (therefore the first Comrades runner to hear the noonday gun in Pietermaritzburg), he held both the “Up” and “Down” run records and was the first man to run under 6-hours in both directions.

Jackie Mekler wins the 1960 Comrades “Up” run in a record time of 5:56:32 and becomes the first participant to hear Maritzburg’s midday gun.

The descriptions of each of his Comrades races make wonderful reading but I enjoyed his 1963 triumph the best. The build-up involved finishing fourth at the highly competitive Athens Marathon, flying back to South Africa the day before Comrades (and only getting to Durban because they delayed the connecting flight especially for him), running 10 miles after landing in Durban to ‘loosen up’, starting the race completely exhausted, getting caught and relentlessly pursued after taking the lead, but then pushing on and eventually beating Wally Hayward’s “Down” record in a winning time of 5:51:20.

Jackie Mekler with the deputy mayor of Durban Mr D. Kinsman after winning Comrades 1963 and becoming the first man to break six hours in both directions.

Naturally, the Comrades Marathon features significantly within the text but there are also numerous intriguing accounts from other South African races and competitors of the day as well as absorbing narratives of his various overseas journeys and interactions with foreign running legends. One of the most interesting is his second-place finish in the incredibly disorganised 1954 Empire Games* marathon on a scorching hot day in Vancouver (the story is so nuanced that you’ll need to read the book to discover his take on what many scribes believe to be one of the two most unique marathons of all time).

* The forerunner to the Commonwealth Games

The Springbok team that competed in the Empire Games in Canada in 1954 was (from the left) As Burger, Vic Dreyer, Dalene Seanepoel, Jackie Mekler, Jan Barnard, Chris Hattingh (manager), Fanie du Plessis and Johnny Veitch.

When Jackie Mekler won his first Comrades, there were just three other men who’d won it five times: Hardy Ballington, Arthur Newton and Wally Hayward*. The former features as a bit player in the book (when his records get broken) but the relationship between Newton, Hayward and Mekler is an intricate and special highlight of the book.

* Bruce Fordyce with 9 wins and Elena Nurgalieva with 8 wins have subsequently made the list.

Newton was something of a grandfather figure to Jackie, taking him under his wing and nurturing his talent (initially via long-distance mail from England and later in person). Jackie always stayed with and got coached by Newton whilst visiting the UK. Jackie Mekler ran incredible training distances by choice and obviously found a kindred spirit in Newton. “When Newton was asked whether a runner could run too much and burn himself out prematurely, he was very firm in his reply: ‘Nonsense, you cannot have too much running, ever’.”

Jackie Mekler running alongside Arthur Newton in London in 1955. Newton’s famous bike is on display at Comrades House.

A 19-year-old Mekler (who had just started running marathons) was clearly in awe of Wally Hayward. Mekler writes, “On 22 April 1951, I watched Wally Hayward win the second annual 38-mile Pieter Korkie Marathon from Pretoria to Germiston in a record time of 4:07:14. That great athlete was undoubtedly the king of long distance running in South Africa at that time. He had a majestic look about him, and he won every race he entered. His was a household name throughout the country. I vividly recall marvelling at the tremendous power with which he ran, effortlessly brushing aside all opposition. On that occasion, he was well-tanned, a picture of health, vitality and fitness; his powerful legs topped by a well-built body. I wondered if I could ever compete in his class. Of course, his autograph was one of my prized possessions.”

Jackie Mekler training with Wally Hayward in London.

Wally later became a mentor to Jackie (and was Jackie’s second, helping him with drinks, when Jackie broke the 40- and 50-mile world records by running 200 laps around the dusty Delville Stadium track in Germiston). However, Wally Hayward was a mountain of a man who cast a big shadow – and it was in the mid-1950s that Jackie Mekler grew into the space that Wally vacated after Hayward was (very sadly and somewhat unjustly) declared a ‘professional’ on an archaic (even then) technicality.

22-year-old Jackie Mekler on his way to setting 40 and 50 mile world track records in Germiston in 1954. Various Germiston Callies runners joined Jackie for a few laps at a time. Running here with Jackie is Etienne Hibbert (on left). Fred Morrison, a much-loved Callies member and a sort of father figure to Jackie, is pictured walking next to the track. Fred organised the world record attempt.

Some of the best anecdotes in the book involve Wally Hayward, like how he used to get around the problem of hotels not providing breakfast before marathons by packing his own portable stove and cooking a pre-race steak in his hotel room. Not all of the advice Wally gave his youthful protégé was that practical however, “For all long distance runners, the subject of urinating during a race needs to be firmly addressed. Everyone seems to have a different approach. Wally Hayward, for example, had a method that defies both science and belief. I once dared inquire about the secret of his gift. He was evasive, replying vaguely, ‘Oh, you know, you just tie a knot in it and blow the rest out in steam! Try it sometime.’”

Jackie was obviously as private about his comfort breaks as he was his personal life which resulted in losing a few minutes at the side of the road during Comrades, “For me, a combination of physiology and decorum dictated that my following motor car had to be signalled to stop at an appropriate point, both doors had to be opened and I would seek comfort between the screens they provided.”

Jackie Mekler followed by his seconding vehicle at Comrades. The car doors provided some privacy when he needed a quick break at the side of the road.

Whilst on the topic, Jackie’s wry and dry sense of humour comes across frequently in the book – this example from his first London to Brighton ultra marathon, “At that stage, probably thanks to the cool weather, I was bursting for a piddle. I dashed up the imposing driveway into a nearby garden. While I was ‘splashing my boots’ – a term Newton always used – I heard footsteps coming down the path from the house. The footsteps came nearer and nearer and the image of a man gradually emerged from the dense fog. Feeling rather ridiculous at being caught in the act, I blurted out ‘Hope you don’t mind!’ in as confident a manner as I could muster. Back came the reply out of the heavy fog ‘It’s OK ol’ chap – I’m only the postman!’”

Many of the best anecdotes involve Fred Morrison – Gauteng runners like me who’ve wondered who Fred Morrison was and why Germiston Callies honour him with the naming rights to their half marathon will have all their questions about this legendry character answered in the book. Let’s just say that if you are get into trouble with the traffic police whilst supporting a Comrades runner you can try to play the, “But I’m seconding Jackie Mekler” card!

In many ways Jackie Meckler was the ‘consummate amateur’. He ran before sports science was a discipline or sports doctors started practicing, “There was nothing scientific about my training programme. I just ran as much as I could, whenever I could.” Examples of this include waking up at 2:30am to do 60km runs before work, an 85km ‘tendon tester’ 10 days before Comrades and (after breaking the 30-mile world record but being “puzzled why I had run so poorly”) going on a 10-mile test run later that afternoon to “prove conclusively whether or not I had fully extended myself in the race”.

This except from the book best sums up his approach to running, “The more I ran, the quicker I recovered, the more I ran. I kept fit all year round and loved racing, quite happy to tackle any race from three miles on the track to the 54-mile Comrades Marathon.”

Race hydration was another topic that fascinated me. After breaking Jackie Gibson’s record to win the hilly 1954 Southern Transvaal Marathon in Krugersdorp (2:33:06) he commented, “Throughout the race I felt strong and confident, needing only one sip of lemonade and two sips of tea the whole way.”

Also of note is that he won all his races wearing cheap Bata takkies and ran sockless – using dishwashing liquid to prevent blisters (so I guess you could say he quite literally showed the competition a clean pair of heels!).

The book is easy but enthralling reading. It is written with honesty and humility. Jackie Mekler doesn’t hold back on expressing what his opponents’ mistakes were, but he does so with grace and never gloats over his victories. Similarly, he covers the races he lost with same fact-based candour. In fact, the only people who come in for a minor tongue-lashing during the book are bumbling administrators and their application of archaic, nonsensical rules (I guess some things never change!).

Jackie Mekler is a name familiar to most South Africans. Winning the Comrades earns you a level of recognition that no other race in the country can match – and winning it five times guarantees your elevation to ‘legend’ status. However, very few of us know much about Jackie Mekler, the man or his achievements outside of Comrades.

‘Running Alone’ captures the Jackie Mekler story beautifully. The book also provides fascinating insights into the spirit and ethos of distance running in the 1950s and 1960s through the eyes of the greatest ultra runner of the period. I absolutely loved reading ‘Running Alone’ – the book is a riveting, ‘must read’ for any athletics enthusiast. The only downside is that Jackie Mekler, now 87, is unlikely to write a sequel.

How to Purchase a Copy

The book retails at R295 and will be officially launched at this year’s Comrades Expo (Jackie Mekler will be on hand to sign copies – times to be confirmed). Hard copies and digital versions of the book are available online at http://www.runningalone.co.za/ and the book will also be sold at specified running shops.

Afterword

The final chapter of the book is entitled, “My Motivations”. Jackie advised Dave Jack (a mutual friend through whom I got involved in reading an advance copy of the book) to read the last chapter first and then go back to page one. When I questioned Jackie about this he said the final chapter was his attempt to explain his intentions with the book, who he is as a person and that his approach to running and life in general will “make much more sense if you know who I am.” The ‘last chapter first’ advice was meant for existing friends and acquaintances, but I think it’s just as valid for the rest of us as well.

On that note, it’s fitting to cross the finish line of this review with a quote from Jackie Mekler that helps to explain the philosophy of the book’s title, ‘Running Alone’, “One of the most important factors I learned during these runs was to struggle and fight alone without encouragement from others. The value of this approach cannot be over-emphasized for the long-distance runner has to live with and motivate himself or herself from within. I had no one to encourage me or sympathise with me or offer me a lift home. At times on my training runs I became so tired that it surely would have been beneficial to cut short my session or stop altogether. But early on, for better or worse, I trained myself never to give in, only to drive harder.”

A recent photo of Jackie Mekler holding a plaque from the Greek Marathon in Athens.

All photos supplied.

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5 Replies to “Running Alone by Jackie Mekler (A book review)”

  1. Fascinating, can’t wait to read the book. I remember walking a stretch of Polly Shortts with Jackie in his last Comrades and having a short chat.

  2. I now remember that we were caught on TV and as I was next to Jackie, TV superimposed an an interview with Jackie over my image just showing my legs walking next to him.

  3. Great seeing you again Jacky – on SABC – I used to often train with Mercer Davies listening to his running experiences & he gave me his Olympics running shorts.
    Hope to read your book – that stuff is like hens teeth today.

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