Brisbane retiree Andy Steele has run the legendary Comrades, an 89km ultramarathon in South Africa, three times. This year, he’s upping the ante by cycling the 1670km from Cape Town to the race start to raise money for needy children and mothers.
Andy Steele was 47 when he finally gave in to his back pain and had a spinal fusion of his L5 S1 vertebrae.
In the five years leading up to surgery, he’d spent several stints in hospital for debilitating back pain. He could no longer sit for any length of time; going to a concert, movies or eating out with friends was no longer an option. He couldn’t run or play with his children.
As a sole practitioner in the building industry, and despite having income protection insurance, his shortened working hours were having a severe detrimental effect on his income as the sole provider for his young family.
“There is a lot of negative talk about having back surgery,” Andy said. “But I’d tried all the available options. In the end, I had to pack away my fears and focus on the positive outcomes, which we hear about all too seldom. For me, spinal fusion offered me a life and a physicality that I’d had to put on hold.”
New Zealand-born Andy had started running marathons in his early 30s. Being fit was always an integral part of his life, although as a child, he always ran “stone motherless last” in any sprint. It wasn’t until he reached secondary school and had the chance to try cross country races that he realised his skills were in staying the distance.
Andy had completed several Gold Coast marathons and other events around Brisbane when his back problems intensified. By his mid-40s, he was restricted to walking.
“We took a photo of me finishing my first Gold Coast marathon to the hospital and hung it on the wall so the first thing I’d see when I woke from surgery was me achieving what I planned to get back to,” Andy said.
“It was major surgery. They took bone from my hip and put it into titanium cages and stainless steel rods in my back, over almost five hours.”
Recuperation took a good six months, as did a gradual return to fulltime work, which meant some changes such as working from a standing desk that Andy and another mate successfully developed and marketed for some time.
Andy began building up with half marathons and short trail runs, supplemented with Pilates to strengthen his core, regular massage and physio, acupuncture, and regular visits to doctors, as well as continuing with a dietitician and later a nutritionist.
“I joined Pat Carroll’s Running Group and started monitored training, as well as joining another more local group, River City Runners.”
This was when Andy discovered the world’s largest (the field is capped at 20,000 runners) and oldest ultramarathon, the Comrades, in South Africa. He had great memories of 18 months spent working in Johannesburg in his early 20s, and the 89km run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg that must be completed within 12 hours to be awarded a Finisher’s Medal became his next challenge.
Andy completed his first Comrades in 2011 when he was 58, and now has three to his credit.
Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, Andy is now adding a marathon of a different kind, courtesy of a Comrades running mate 20 years his junior.
“It’s called Unogwaja and involves not just running Comrades in the allotted time, but travelling the 1670km from Cape Town by bicycle in the 10 days leading up to the run,” Andy said.
The ride was initiated in honour of Comrades legend Phil Masterton-Smith, who was affectionately known as “Unogwaja”, which means “the hare” in Zulu. In 1933 Masterton-Smith, who’d won his first Comrades at the age of 19, couldn’t afford the train fare from Cape Town to compete, so he cycled across South Africa to Pietermaritzburg.
Almost eight decades later, Team Unogwaja succeeded in cycling from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg in 10 days, and then running the ‘Ultimate Human Race’ on day 11.
Andy’s preliminary enquiries in 2016 revealed that the Unogwaja team consisted of a dozen selected athletes from around the globe. Some were Olympians and none were aged in their 40s, let alone in their 60s, and his cycling experience was limited to intermittent rides for pleasure.
But when he discovered that Unogwaja raised funds for South Africa’s needy children and mothers, he’d found the motivation to challenge himself afresh.
“To run Comrades, you need to qualify,” Andy said.
“I was pretty sure I could make the cut for that, given my marathon times from New York in 2014 and Chicago in 2017.
“But the cycle was something else. I’ve spent the past 18 months working on my technique in a studio as well as cycling thousands of kilometres on roads in Australia and New Zealand and in May, I’ll be heading to Cape Town.
“My wife Chris has been been a tremendous support and because I retired from my fulltime quantity surveying practice in 2015, I had the gift of time to train.
“We spent five weeks back in New Zealand avoiding the worst of Brisbane’s February heat and humidity, so I could continue to train over there. It’s a great place to ride hills – essential since over the course of the Unogwaja ride you ascend more than double the height of Mt Everest.”
Andy’s message to all seniors is that life’s setbacks can be golden opportunities in disguise.
“I was never a ‘natural’ at sport but once I identified what I could do, rather than focusing on what I was lousy at, my headspace gave me a huge advantage. At 65, I have never felt so good!”
This story originally appeared in the June-July-August 2018 edition of 50 Something magazine.