CAPE TOWN – Thirty-five years ago a small, dark-haired runner emerged out of the morning mist along Glencairn Main Road going like the proverbial clappers. Another dark-haired athlete of stronger build rushed out of a vehicle to hand him a bottle, urging him onwards towards Simon’s Town.
Bernard Rose was out on his own at the front of the 1983 Peninsula Marathon and would go on to equal Geoff Bacon’s South African marathon record of 2hr 12min 10sec.
His second on the day was none other than SA distance-running legend Ewald Bonzet, who would himself improve on Rose’s time by two seconds in Stellenbosch six months later. Johan Dreyer’s 2:11:42 in Kuils River in July of that year, however, deprived Bonzet of a national mark.
Running in the colours of Johannesburg club Rocky Road Runners, the 29-year-old Rose was in the form of his life and ran a perfect race, finishing three minutes up on second-placed local athlete Stephen Donald.
In the days before road closures for high-profile marathons, Rose’s biggest challenge was to avoid the buses which swerved past him along the traditional Main Road route.
Although the field of 1 400 was considerably smaller than the 6 000 who ran this year’s event, there was no doubting the quality up front, with six runners dipping below 2:20 and another 12 under 2:30. Four athletes bettered the 2:30 mark this year with none inside 2:20.
Rose, who at 65 still runs regularly, although at a more sedate pace, will go down as one of SA’s marathon legends and someone who has also ploughed back considerable business and management skill, and experience into the sport, having served as Athletics SA chief executive and manager of Elana van Zyl Meyer during her highly-successful stint as a professional distance athlete.
“I guess there were three marathons I would rate as my top three,” reflected Rose. “Equalling the SA record at Peninsula was a highlight, with my win that year at Sun City a close second. It was a little crazy in that I ran at Sun City just two weeks after Peninsula and won in 2:14:45, I think still the world’s fastest time at altitude. I felt so good after Peninsula, so I rested a few days and was able to deliver at Sun City.
“My third highlight was my debut marathon at Eugene in the US. At that time, Olympic gold medallist Frank Shorter boasted the world’s fastest debut marathon of something over 2:18 and I bettered that by running 2:17:45. Unlike the Peninsula, I recall that my legs were incredibly sore afterwards. In fact, I was on for a time around 2:12 but the last 5km were agony. I couldn’t walk for a week!”
Rose had a reputation for being one of SA’s most consistent marathoners. He recorded nine times within less than three minutes of each other, ranging from his 2:12:10 best and 2:15:04, including three sub-2:15s at the Peninsula, with several others just a few minutes slower.
“I only ran one marathon slower than 2:20,” Rose recalled, “and that was a disaster when I really blew up and hit the wall.”
Returning from the US, Rose linked up with charismatic coach Stewart Banner, who had world 800m record holder March Fiasconaro in his stable.
“Stewart helped me enormously and he drew an impressive group of track and road athletes. I recall that at one national championships his athletes won everything from 100m to 5 000m,” said Rose.
“He helped me to strong track performances (Rose ran 13:32 and 28:58 for the 5 000 and 10 000m) and laid the foundation for my marathons. I earned national colours for track and road on several occasions over a five-year period from 1978.”
While isolated from international competition, Rose recalls the strong internal competition in those days, when athletes had a hunger for success he feels might not always be there today.
“Competing on the track against the likes of Matthews Batswadi, Ewald Bonzet and Matthews ‘Loop en Val’ Motshwarateu, you knew you were in for a battle. We ran ourselves to exhaustion,” he said.
Earlier, Rose had been a late starter in athletics, only really taking his running seriously in his matric year at Randfontein High School in 1970. But he made up for lost time when he linked up with leading SA distance runner Fanie van Zijl, whose coaching input was largely responsible for Rose winning a sports scholarship to Oklahoma State.
Unlike his Oklahoma and SA counterpart Johnny Halberstadt, who had several high-profile though unsuccessful attempts at winning the Comrades Marathon, Rose never contemplated giving ultra-marathoning serious thought as an elite athlete, being content with winning silver medals at his single relatively non-competitive outings at the Two Oceans and Comrades. Rose has strong links with the Cape Town Marathon, having kept in close touch with Van Zyl Meyer, the driving force behind the event’s success in recent years.
He rates the evening when she won the 10 000m silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics as a highlight in his career and he acknowledges her role in the success story that has become the Cape Town Marathon.