When Jackie Mekler was a young man, he used to get up in the middle of the night and run to work. After a day of training as a printers’ apprentice in Westgate, in the Jo’burg suburb of Ferreirasdorp, he changed out of his overalls, put on his takkies and ran home to Yeoville. There was no use in making a fuss; it was simply something one did, his single-mindedness emblematic of values that seem almost quaint today.
Such matter-of-fact dedication served Mekler well. He was never one to complain unduly, partly because the road represented freedom from domestic pain. His parents had emigrated from Lithuania in the late 1920s and, when his mother died about 12 years later, his father, unable to cope, moved from their Bertrams home and put Mekler in the Arcadia Orphanage in Parktown. He was confused, traumatised and desperately unhappy.
On Boxing Day morning in 1945, he made a temporary escape. “I crept out of my dormitory and ran a half a mile in a nearby street,” he writes in an unpublished autobiography. “I enjoyed the run enormously, visualising myself becoming a famous athlete. This was the first step in my competitive running career, which spanned 21 years.”
After gingerly testing the waters as a 13-year-old, Mekler discovered an aptitude for long-distance running, which never left him, being the one constant in an early life full of itch and upheaval. He never matriculated from Parktown Boys’ High, for example, after being turned out of the orphanage for reasons unknown.
For two weeks, he roomed with his father in a boarding house, pounding the streets as he looked for work. He found it as a printers’ assistant, and the trade provided him with a professional home. He moved into sales and management in due course.
Now in his early 80s, he eventually retired to a farm close to the Ngodwana paper mill in Mpumalanga to farm timber, avocados and pecan nuts. By his own admission his memory is slightly woolly, although not hazy enough to have forgotten that, in his first Comrades in 1952, he and his second contrived to miss each other for hours.
“He only got to me at about halfway,” Mekler recalls. “I was terribly dehydrated and thirsty. Still I managed to finish seventh.”
The 1950s were a time of growing confidence for the young Mekler. He remembers buying a training book written by the great Arthur Newton and had the chutzpah to write a fan’s letter to the man who entered his first Comrades as a publicity stunt and went on to win the race five times in its early years.
Three years after sending his letter, he was living with Newton – then nearly blind – and training with him in Ruislip, London. “He helped me immensely and told me I had to be so much better than the other chap,” says Mekler. “That letter is one of my real mementoes. Arthur was a great inspiration.”
While growing in confidence, the upward curve of progress was slower than it should have been. Undiagnosed anaemia played a part in Mekler treading water – or appearing to do so – and, despite coming fifth in the 1953 Comrades, he didn’t win until 1958, the first of five wins spanning a 10-year period between 1958 and 1968.
Basic training methods
“The doctors didn’t know much about diet or long-distance running in those days. It turned out I had an iron deficiency. Equipment and training methods were basic. We glued a sponge-rubber heel to our takkies and off we went.”
Of course, one shouldn’t glamorise those years but it is almost impossible not to.
The story is told, for example, of Wally Hayward, Mekler’s colleague at Germiston Harriers, going on a training run from Germiston to Pretoria and back. Halfway, he would freshen up by dunking his head in the fountains and drying off on the return run home.
When asked about his finest achievements, Mekler says that it’s a difficult question. He was proud of breaking the up record in the Comrades during his 1960 winning run but reserves a special place in his heart for his final Comrades victory – in 1968.
“Without much training I was determined to run again. I headed off the Englishmen, including Bernard Gomersall. That was probably one of my best moments all told.
“Running was a joy for me. It was peaceful. There was the fresh air. I always used to run alone.”