The runner's runner - The Johnny Halberstadt story
To beat Johnny Halberstadt on the 18th of April 1981, you had to be willing to die trying. No one was, so no one did. Halberstadt stopped the clock in 3:05:37 to win the Two Oceans Marathon by nearly four minutes from Gabashane Vincent Rakabaela who had led the race for almost 42km but couldn’t stick with Johnny when he put down the hammer at the top of Constantia Neck.
“I had a plan. My plan was to get to the top of Constantia Neck ready to race. My whole thing was gonna be, I’m gonna run hard and when I get there I’m gonna be in reasonable condition to be able to effectively start the race there because to beat me today I’m gonna take you close to dying if you wanna stick with me,” recalls an animated Halberstadt from halfway around the world.
That time run almost 40 years ago, remains the third fastest time in the 56km race’s history placing the now naturalised American citizen second only to race record holder Thompson Magawana on the all time list of the world’s most beautiful ultra marathon. It may surprise some that this effort has stood the test of 4 decades, but not Bruce Fordyce who describes Halberstadt as the greatest athlete South Africa has ever produced because of his remarkable ability over a vast range of distances.
Born in Johannesburg in 1949, Halberstadt shot to prominence in 1979 when he won national titles over cross-country and the half marathon and finished second behind Piet Vorster at the Comrades Marathon all in the same year. This astonishing talent over middle and long distances on the track, road and cross country should have made Halberstadt the toast of the running town, but this was during Apartheid. Instead he was treated with suspicion by some white South Africans for showing the middle finger to the establishment. You see 1979 was also the year in which Halberstadt turned down a Springbok blazer in protest against the treatment of a black athlete.
Matthews Motshwarateu had been awarded national colours for both track and cross country a year earlier after he had deposed Ewald Bonzet to become the first South African to break 13:30 over 5 000m. Although his athletic achievements had made him a hero even in the white community earning him the Afrikaans nickname ‘walk and fall’ to describe his ungainly gait, ‘Loop en Val’ was still black. So when Motshwarateu was denied a passport to take up a US college scholarship at Texas El Paso University, Halberstadt spoke out.
“Three black athletes at the time had been awarded Springbok colours. South Africa was trying to get back into the Olympics and international sport after the years of sports boycotts, so there was a lot of window-dressing,” explains the 71-year old. “So here he is a Springbok and now he applies for a passport and all of a sudden is told that his father was born in Bophuthatswana so he’s gotta get a Bophuthatswana passport,” says Johnny.
The erstwhile Apartheid policy of separate development viewed black people’s presence in the cities as little more than a source of labour, creating semi-autonomous largely rural homelands were they were expected to reside when not in the city for work. Bophuthatswana was once such homeland with its own ‘government’ - puppets of the oppressive regime. The trouble was that Motshwarateu was born in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, forcing authorities to hatch this cunning plan in order to deny him his birthright of competing for the country.
“He couldn’t get a passport and I thought, this is totally ridiculous because we don’t give South African colours to Angolans, Russians or Americans?! He’s good enough to get Springbok colours to show the world, but he can’t get a South African passport! What kind of hypocrisy is that? I just couldn’t live with myself on that,” he exclaims.
Halberstadt rejected the colours in what was a culmination of a long-running battle with athletics bosses, putting him at the centre of a media storm and on the hit list of the South African Amateur Athletics Union which tried to force him out of the sport. “Because of all the stuff I was doing they said we were jeopardising South Africa’s chance of getting back in the Olympics. They said they were going to ban me,” he laughs. But he was unshaken and called their bluff, “...so let me get this straight? A banned union is gonna ban me from their union?! I said go ahead ban me, its fine.” Johnny wasn’t banned but they did make his life difficult.
Organisers of the Durban Athletic Club Marathon wanted him out of their race a week later accusing the multiple SA champion of professionalism at a time when the SAAU brandished the term like a swearword to deter runners from accepting money to race. Halberstadt had first gone over to the US on an athletic scholarship in January 1971. He competed on the track for Oklahoma State University before making the natural transition to professional racing as did most of his American and international counterparts on the college racing circuit. So when he returned to South Africa only to sneer at Springbok colours, race organisers had all the ammunition they needed to get rid of him.
But they failed and Halberstadt rubbed it in their noses by winning the Durban Athletic Club Marathon in the record time of 2:12:19. It wasn’t all plain sailing though, because he was subjected to abuse on the route as some white athletes called him a ‘kaffirboetie.’ But this didn’t worry the determined runner who later told Ronnie Borian of the Daily News that “for every snide comment there were at least 100 others backing me.”
Cries of professionalism were also heard at the start of Comrades in Durban four months earlier where Halberstadt lined up as a novice who’s sub-four minute mile and marathon pedigree made him a dangerous contender capable of beating the now ageing pre-race favourite Alan Robb. Yet even after giving spectators a memorable race in which he threw down the gauntlet right from the beginning to lead through Camperdown, the Comrades Marathon Association threatened to disqualify him for running wearing a cap emblazoned with a hotel logo.
“They were gonna disqualify me and I said that’s fine provided you disqualify everybody else who ran with a cap with any kind of logo on it. And I said let’s go through the tape and I’ll be fine because nobody can take away what I did,” he says. His second place behind Vorster on that Up Run with a young Fordyce beaten into third stood. But what was perhaps more surprising was Johnny’s resilience in the face of considerable institutional pressure. Where running bosses expected Halberstadt to be ashamed of his business-like approach, he was unrepentant. “They said it’s unfair, we’ve got a professional running against all these amateurs.” Halberstadt was having none of it; “I said if you want this takkies attitude to Comrades why don’t you just stipulate that you’re not allowed to train more than 25 miles a week and everybody’s got to wear Bata takkies,” he sniggers sarcastically.
“They said its not fair because I didn’t have a real job. I told them that my real job is to the best I can in Comrades. They said I was just after the money and I said I’ve got an MBA, I can go and get a job anywhere and I’ll make much more money than I’m doing now. They insisted that I was a professional and I said yes, I am and I’m proud of it,” was his triumphant retort.
But South African Athletics authorities would eventually be rid of Halberstadt when he emigrated to the US in 1994. Having combined his sharp intellect, with his business acumen and passion for running, Johnny decided to exploit opportunities that would have evaporated had he remained in the country. Armed with a footwear patent, he moved to Boulder, Colorado where he setup the very successful Boulder Running Company alongside another Americanised South African running champion Mark Plaatjes.
Halberstadt knew that his new channel sole would work in North America because he had been his own guinea pig on the southern tip of Africa. The pair of Adidas he wore on Easter Saturday in 1981 were fitted with what he called the Gijima midsole. That invention enabled him to fly down the hills while maintaining his form. A similar piece of technology, was later used by Nike in the innersole of the ZoomX Vaporfly which propelled Kenya’s Eluid Kipchoge to the first sub 2-hour marathon on planet Earth.
But then Johnny had always been miles ahead, just like he was when he placed himself at risk by refusing to turn a blind eye on the suffering of others. “These people weren’t radicals that wanted to go out and forcibly change things. But just through their lives, made a contribution to society just by living. A lot of people don’t realise what a big part they played in changing people’s perceptions because a lot of whites had to have their eyes opened to see that life was not quite the way they’d been taught.”
But who taught Johnny how to view the world through his prism of independent thinking? “I had great parents. My dad won an MBE (Member of the British Empire) award for his military service during the (second world) war,” expounds Halberstadt junior. “He took horses and mules to North Africa from South Africa in boats to move the artillery in the desert where South Africans were fighting. So when they got those horses and mules now they could move the artillery and it changed the whole face of the war there. I only found out about it late in life. He never said anything about it. He never told me anything.” This bravery was clearly hereditary and set him apart from many white South Africans who struggled to find the courage to stand up for what was right.
“I think that kind of can-do attitude rubs off on you. But if you think about the kinds of people that were around that time who started off with nothing, people like Zack Tshikalange. He’s such as successful guy. He was the first black South African to be admitted into the Wanderers Club and that was a big deal and started opening things up. He now owns Pick ’n Pays and hotels from nothing. Take Titus Mamabolo for example, he’s just such a role model” says Halberstadt.
To tell the tales of Mamabolo and those like him requires more than a single volume. Their pioneering stories were the nascent steps on the difficult road to equality - a race which continues to this day. South Africa’s running pioneers broke barriers athletic, mental and social by daring to run to their full potential and showing the world that black South Africans were capable. People like Johnny, played their part by offering support during the difficult times.