CAPE TOWN – Mark Plaatjes is rated as one of the most talented distance athletes produced in South Africa. He was one of a select few world-class athletes competing in SA in cross country and road races in the 1980s, before seeking new challenges and international competition in moving to the United States in 1986.
Running was a vital part of a younger Plaatjes’ life, without which it would likely have taken a very different turn. “Running gave me everything I have in life,” Plaatjes acknowledged. “In the early days in Johannesburg, the money we could earn in road races each week made all the difference. It was pretty good in those days - there were well-sponsored series where we could earn really good prize money. Probably more than you could earn today!”
Born in Johannesburg in 1961 to seamstress and shoemaker parents and one of 10 children, Plaatjes could never have expected substantial family financial support and running proved his passport to some of life’s material benefits.
“Make no mistake, prize money is a huge incentive. It paid for the deposit on my house, my education at Wits and my subsequent opportunities in life. Running also got me my wife! Shirley had seen me on my training route, running with the dogs, and one day she stopped me to ask where I was running to. We chatted a bit and the rest is history,” Plaatjes said.
“Road running in South Africa was on a high in the 1980s - probably the glory days, in spite of our international isolation. But there were several reasons this was so. Firstly, 80 percent of my races were in and around Johannesburg. That made it much easier for us. In the States you often cross two or three time zones so your routines are upset.
“Then the grassroots support given to emerging runners at the time made a big difference. For example, the mines provided a great nursery for many of the country’s best athletes. They would recruit top coaches and provide young athletes with a structure and routine to become world class.
“Thirdly, the standard of competition was very high. Every week I was racing against the likes of Mathews Temane (who I rate the best SA athlete of all time), Gibeon Moshaba and Ernest Seleke. The prize incentives were there, but you had to work hard to earn it. The pace was always hot. In the States, you seldom have all the big guys in one race - they are spread over several races here and further abroad.
“Fourth, we had the extra incentive of showing we were as good as the athletes in the rest of the world. We could not race against them, but we could record world-class times and make comparisons. In those times we had many athletes in the world top 10 rankings and there were additional financial incentives to those who made that target.
“And lastly we were lucky to have top quality races, which were very well organised, carried good prize money and that further motivated athletes to achieve those times.”
Plaatjes believes some of these factors have been incorporated into the Cape Town Marathon, which is why it has achieved the success it has.
“And it will undoubtedly get better once it has had time to grow as a top-quality race. Not having to travel overseas to race a world-class marathon is a huge bonus,” added Plaatjes. “I wish I could have run it!
“The substantial prize money on offer is great and you find that athletes will always run better in a well-run event. And with someone like Elana (van Zyl-Meyer) in the driving seat, that’s good. She was always one of my favourite athletes - she would race hard from the start, as she did at the Barcelona Olympics, unlike a Mo Farah, who plays around at the beginning and then comes through at the end.”
Plaatjes regards his best running years as those in SA prior to his move to the US.
“Undoubtedly this was the case. Only my world title in 1993 would make the top list of my career highlights. The others would include my first marathon, which I won in two hours 17 minutes in Potchefstroom when I was just 17, my South African marathon title in Port Elizabeth in 1985 which I won in 2:08:58 (his best ever time) and my two cross country titles in 1984 and 1985 in Stellebosch and Pretoria,” he said. But Plaatjes, who left SA in search of a better life for his daughters, ultimately basing his family in Boulder, Colorado, will mostly be remembered for his world marathon title win for the US in Stuttgart in 1993.
“It was a very hot day with high humidity and we started at 3pm. I was part of a large lead pack through 22 kilometres and then the Namibian, Luketz Swartbooi, suddenly injected some pace and broke up the group. Five guys went with him, but I thought the pace (was) too quick in the conditions and opted to hold back. At about 27 kilometres I made a move to bridge the gap and quickly caught two guys. I then overtook Kim Jae-Ryong of Korea at 35 kilometres and was told I was two minutes behind the leader,” Plaatjies said.
“I was relaxed and happy to get a silver medal, but I caught sight of Luketz on a long straight leading up to the stadium. I made my move and caught him just before the stadium. I ran onto the track but there was no finish tape and I was not sure if I’d crossed the line. So I just kept on running till an official told me I could stop!”
Plaatjes won in 2hr 13min 57sec - just 13 seconds ahead of Swartbooi, who took silver, and credits his win to a return to his SA training programme.
“I had based my training in South Africa on two quality sessions and a long run on the weekend, but found that all the top guys in Boulder did three quality sessions a week plus the long run, so I adopted the new training regime,” Plaatjes said. “I found I could do the sessions, but was unable then to race to my full potential. It took me three years to realise that this was not working for me and I went back to my South African formula with immediate results.”
These included a win at the Los Angeles Marathon in 2:10:29 in 1990 and the world title in 1993.
Plaatjes still runs four or five times a week, but does it now just for enjoyment.
“It’s my serenity and meditation. I hope it will always be part of my life. But I don’t want to do the tough sessions anymore and so I’m happy not to compete in the master’s categories. Perhaps we only have so many years of tough running in our legs and I’ve used those up,” Plaatjes said.
But Plaatjes has not ruled out a return to the Comrades Marathon, possibly to run with fellow-Boulder resident, Colleen de Reuck.
“I attempted (the) Comrades twice but never finished it, so that might be a possibility. But I would certainly not train to be competitive - just for fun,” Plaatjes said.