GROENKLOOF NATURE RESERVE, South Africa (Reuters) - My running partner has generously conceded to my pace and it’s not because of the warmth of the African sun on a glorious autumn day.
I often find myself with training partners faster than me but seldom has the gap been so glaring, for on this particular day the person striding alongside me was South African track legend Zola Pieterse, better known by her maiden name Budd.
Zola and I are both training for our first Comrades Marathon, dubbed “The Ultimate Human Race” - a grueling 89 km (55 miles) that ends in the port city of Durban.
Our routes to the Comrades could hardly be more different: she is an elite athlete who has competed against the world’s best runners, while at 47 I have only been running seriously the past few years and have spent more than a few nights in smoky bars.
Zola spends a lot of time on her feet and the original barefoot running superstar has strong views on the subject - even if, contrary to popular belief, most of her road work has been done in running shoes, even in her blistering prime.
On this particular day on trails on the outskirts of Pretoria, she was clad in a pair of Newton trainers, a “natural running” shoe she is marketing and developing.
But Zola is a firm believer in allowing children to romp barefoot and feels that in the United States, where she has lived for the past four years, parents “bubble wrap” their young.
“If you look at athletes from Africa, the way we grew up in Africa was going barefoot. It’s acceptable. I think it’s only in the U.S. and Europe where people are frowned upon if they go barefoot. Even my kids went to school barefoot,” she said.
“In the United States my kids are stuck in shoes because they are not allowed to compete at school level barefoot in any athletics event, which is quite strange to me,” she said.
Barefoot running is trendy now, inspired in part by the best selling 2009 book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall.
There is a growing school of thought that modern running injuries are a consequence of shoes with cushioned support structures that make people run in an “unnatural” way.
But even Zola, a trail-blazer for the barefoot tribe, says shoeless running has its limits.
“Many people don’t realize that most of my training I did in shoes, I only raced barefoot on the track and on the grass. Most of my training, about 60 percent, I did with shoes on the road,” she said.
“Most of the training I did when I was younger was probably about 170 km a week and it’s impossible to do that barefoot, especially in South Africa with the glass and the cold and the heat,” she told Reuters TV.
Zola burst onto the world stage as a barefoot running sensation in the early 1980s, when South Africa was barred from the global sports arena because of apartheid.
She competed in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics for Britain and her collision with American Mary Decker in the women’s 3000 meter final became one of the most dramatic events in the history of the track.
Decker was felled and could not finish and Zola was, in the eyes of her many fans, unfairly blamed for the incident by the U.S. media as she was in front. Visibly rattled, she finished 7th but went on to become a 2-time world cross country champion.
She remains passionate about cross country and off-road running and as we navigated the trails in a reserve outside Pretoria, she noted that “this kind of running forces you to lift your knees”. It also forces you to keep a sharp look out.
Zola remains proudly South African, still retaining her membership with The Unlimited running club here, and while her main residence is now Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, she strongly hinted that she did not plan to settle there.
“When you sit in America you miss the open plains and you miss the sound of rain and the smell of rain and the smell of the veld. If you’re African it’s different and I don’t think one will ever become an American or British. It doesn’t matter where you move, you will always be a South African,” she said.
At 45, Zola remains every ounce an athlete and she glided along the trail antelope-like in a way that made it look effortless during the hour we spent running together.
“I think it’s one of the most natural things for any human to do is to be able to run because it’s that flight or fight reaction you have. You either fight or you run away. It’s just a natural way for us to move,” she said.
On June 3rd, she will be attempting her first Comrades Marathon, which she says is a goal of any South African runner. Zola will be aiming for the extremely respectable target of under eight hours.
By way of contrast, I am aiming for 11 hours and really just hoping to finish the thing. Zola will be leaving me behind that day.
Editing by Paul Casciato