This week we heard the very sad news that the legendary Don Oliver had died. For over 40 years Don was one of the great characters of South African road running and his contribution to the sport was immense.
A respected marathon runner in his own right, Don ran 18 Two Oceans ultras, 19 Comrades marathons, dozens of standard marathons and other road races. But it was as the “Comrades Coach” that Don made his greatest contribution.
Along with teammate Dennis Tabakin, and with the assistance of his running club Rocky Road Runners Don started a series of Comrades training advice panels. These panel discussions were held every few weeks and were aimed primarily at the novice Comrades runner. At these discussions Don and Dennis would offer training schedules and advice and they would also invite other speakers to participate.
Held first in the late 1970s the talks grew very rapidly in scale and popularity. As a young Comrades gold medalist I was first asked to speak back in 1980. I shared the stage with Don every year after that until 2018. Over the years we became close friends and I was truly delighted to receive a platinum medal for services to the Comrades at the same occasion that Don received his.
I have no idea how many aspiring Comrades runners Don helped over the years, but it must number in the tens of thousands.
Sadly, Don lost both his legs to a rare blood disorder and was confined to a wheelchair. For a man who loved running so much this must have been a bitter blow, but I never heard him complain. Instead he continued with his coaching and even published a training guide; “ Make sure of your medal”.
Don settled in Bloubergstrand in the Western Cape and it was there he discovered parkrun and became a volunteer at Big Bay parkrun, his closest parkrun.
One day I spotted a social media photograph of a rain-soaked, bedraggled Don Oliver timing parkrunners in the pouring rain. I phoned him to thank him for his selfless contribution.
“Don’t thank me” he said. “If it wasn’t for parkrun I would sit on my own in my flat in Bloubergstrand watching television. Instead, I enjoy volunteering and helping my large family of new friends.
Afterwards we all head off for coffee and breakfast and serious runners ask me for coaching advice. Saturdays have become my favourite day of the week.”
Don continued to volunteer at parkrun until a few days before his death. His passing has left a huge void in South African road running and at parkrun SA. When Don spoke at his Rocky Road Runner’s training sessions to a group of spellbound novice runners he always started each chat with the words;
“And where are we now?”
We are all the poorer for your passing Don. That’s where we are now.
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