Tuesday, June 14, 2011

RunnerDude Chats with Zola Budd

Excitement doesn't do justice in describing how I felt when I found out a few months ago that Zola Pieterse (better known by her maiden name, Zola Budd) agreed to do an interview with me. I was elated. I've followed Budd and her story ever since the '84 Olympcis. You see, 1984 was the year I started running. It was also the year I ran my first 10K. The 1984 Olympics were very motivating to me as I began to experience my budding new love for running. Zola intrigued me during those games because of her barefoot running. Today barefoot running is all the rage, but back in the 80s it was pretty much unheard of (in the states that is). In South Africa, Zola's birthplace and childhood home, barefoot running was a way of life. Not only did her barefoot running captivate me, the fact that she was about my age was pretty cool too.

Zola's name became a household word in 1984 when at 17 she broke the women's 5000m world record. Her time was 15:01.83. Unfortunately because the race took place in South Africa, which at that point was excluded from international athletics competition due to its apartheid policy, the IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation) did not acknowledge Zola's time as an official world record. But in 1985, Zola came back officially claiming the title while representing Great Britain with a finishing time of 14:48.07. Zola also has two world cross country titles and numerous other track victories.

Zola's running achievements are often overshadowed by an incident during the '84 Olympics when fellow runner Mary Decker-Slaney collided with Zola during the 3000m race resulting in Mary falling and being unable to finish the race. While originally in the lead, Zola, finished the race 7th. Zola was initially unfairly blamed for the incident, but the IAAF jury found that Zola was not responsible for the collision and years later Decker was quoted as saying, “The reason I fell, some people think she tripped me deliberately. I happen to know that wasn’t the case at all. The reason I fell is because I am and was very inexperienced in running in a pack."(reference)
Today Zola (45 years-old) is a volunteer coach at Coastal Carolina College near Myrtle Beach, S.C. She married Michael Pieterse in 1989 and they have three children (a daughter and twin sons). All the while, Zola has continued to run.

Read on to learn more about this amazing woman.

RD: Your birthplace is South Africa. Where are you located now?
Zola: We now live in Myrtle Beach, SC, USA.

RD: Many know of Zola Budd, the young barefoot runner of the 80s who at 17, broke the women's 5000meter world record with a time of 15:01.83. Others remember the Apartheid era of South Africa, during the time you first began to make a name for yourself in the running world. And still others remember the incident with Mary Decker. I’d like to know more about the young Zola growing up in South Africa. What was life like as a youngster?
Zola: I grew up on a small holding surrounded by veld (grasslands of South Africa) and lots of space to play outdoors. We had all sorts of animals and I spent most of my time outside playing games with the local black kids. We lived out of town and my only friends were the farm workers’ kids I grew up with. It was a life close to nature and I loved it.

RD: Your older sister, Jenny, played a big role in your early life and if what I’ve read is correct, you started running as a child, because Jenny was a runner. While in your early teens, Jenny died from melanoma. Tell me more about this special older sister. How did she impact your life?
Zola: When I was born, my mom was very ill. Jenny took care of me and I called her mom before I called my real mom, mom! She had a profound influence on my life. She was a very strong willed person but with a lot of compassion. Her absence left a big void in my life. I still think of her every day.

RD: Your father often got criticized for pushing you too hard in your running. You’ve many times described how your father wanted you to do well, and succeed as a runner, but that he wasn’t what the press made him out to be. What kind of man was your father? How would you describe your relationship with him?
Zola: When I think of my dad I always have fond memories of us spending time outdoors with the animals. He loved chickens and had all these cages with chickens. He loved nature and we would talk about anything and everything while we were together.

My dad never pushed me in my running. I was the one who had to wake them up in the morning to take me running, otherwise I wouldn’t have got to training. It was an unwritten rule in our house, that I decide if I want to train or not. My father did interfere with the business side of my running and that is where our relationship went sour. It is a valuable lesson I learnt not to repeat with my own kids and that is to give them enough freedom to be who they want to be.

RD: I was just about a year older than you when you came onto the running scene. I think because of all the politics that surrounded much of your early career that many think you were older than you were at the time. I think of my 15-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son and can’t even fathom either one of them having to deal with the normal stress of world-class competitive running much less being the focus of so much attention, much of which really had nothing to do with you as a person, but just the situation and the politics of the time. What do you think helped you persevere though that time period?
Zola: I think my faith. I realized early in life that nothing is as important as your faith in God. It was and still is a rock to my life. The other factor is the way I perceived life. I still think of myself as that little barefoot girl growing up on a farm surrounded by animals. That is who I am and not the runner per se.

RD: Looking back upon your running career? What if any might you change or wish would have happened?
Zola: I would not have competed in the 84 Olympics. Maybe the World Juniors first before moving up to the big league.

RD: You were a barefoot runner well before the recent barefoot craze. You’ve mentioned many times that running barefoot was the norm growing up in South Africa and that it was just the natural thing for you to do when running competitively. What do you think about the recent focus on barefoot running? Do you run in shoes today?
Zola: I do run in shoes today. I got injured in 1986 and started wearing orthotics in my shoes and stopped running barefoot. I am slowly getting back to training barefoot on the grass and track again. Running barefoot is great, but you have to be careful. Growing up in SA we went barefoot all the time so our foot muscles were very strong. Living in the US where kids are forced to wear shoes, their foot muscles do not develop as they are supposed to so when you try running barefoot as an adult, it can cause serious injuries if you're not careful.

My advice is to be very conservative in your approach to barefoot running. I never ran barefoot on the road and don’t know how one can do that with all the glass and other dangerous objects around.

RD: Are your children runners? What kind of advice do you give your children in regards to running? Do you coach them or are you just Mom?
Zola: My oldest daughter runs cross country and my youngest just for fun. I will encourage them to be busy but never to be competitive runners. Life is too short and there are just too many other things to do than running. I encourage them to use running as a tool to stay healthy and promote a healthy attitude to life, not to be competitive.

RD: You have so many running accomplishments, but which one or ones to you consider your biggest running accomplishment? Why?
Zola: Probably the European Cup in Moscow in 1985 which I won and out-sprinted Zaitseva, the Russian.

RD: You are still a very competitive runner. In 2009 you ran and won the women’s division of the Dasani Half Marathon in Myrtle Beach, SC a time of 1:20:41. What’s ahead on your running calendar?
Zola: I want to do the world Masters cross country this year and a marathon at the end of the year. Next year I would love to do the Comrades in SA, just to finish, not competitive. And I am thinking of something completely different, like the Ironman.

RD: What do you enjoy now most about running? Is this different from your youth?
Zola: I love being outdoors in nature. I love running in the woods in Myrtle Beach, as well as on the dust roads around my home town. I just love being outside and smelling the different seasons and hearing my own footsteps on the dirt. It is very spiritual. I have seen amazing nature scenes when running.

RD: Are you a lone runner or do you run with a group?
Zola: I mostly run on my own. Because of my kids’ schedule and my work, I have to squeeze in time between travel and kids.

RD: What are your favorite training foods?
Zola: I have never been on a special diet, but I love tea and toast with peanut butter and apricot jam.

RD: What’s the funniest or oddest thing that’s happened to you while on a run?
Zola: While on an early morning run I ran past a truck next to a road close to our house. It was an out and back route. I greeted the guys very friendly but I noticed they were a bit tense. When I came back on the same route they were still next to the road. When I got home my neighbour phoned and asked if I heard the shots. The guys in the truck just robbed a van from the bank which I had just passed a few minutes back. That is South Africa.

RD: Do you have a favorite brand of running shoe? Which model? Why?
Zola: I love my Newtons, the reason being that they simulate barefoot running. I love the Gravity the most because it really gets you on your forefoot and the fact that I can get about 1500k’s out of them!

RD: What’s your favorite race distance(s) today? Do you have a favorite race you run each year?
Zola: My favourite distance is an 8k. That’s why I love cross country so much. I would love to run our Free State Cross Country Champs every year back in Bloemfontein, SA, but alas it is not always possible.

RD: If you were speaking to a group of kids, non-runners, or runner wannabes and trying to encourage them to run, what would you say?
Zola: I would encourage each and everyone to find their own special reason why they want to run. Not everybody is competitive or want to be the best. A lot of kids enjoy the friendships that develop during running, for others it is the fact that you do not have to worry about your weight, etc. It is important for every kid to have his/her own goals and reasons to run and you as a coach should accommodate this and help the kid grow in his/her goals.

RD: We’ve covered a lot. What’s one more thing you’d like to say to the readers and your fans?
Zola: What I am most proud about my running is that after 30 years I am still active and running and competing in my age group. I started running seriously at the age of 14 and I turned 45 last month and I am still looking forward to running and racing.

RD: Zola, you’re an amazing woman and athlete and a true inspiration. We’ll be rooting for you as you achieve your goals of world masters cross country, a marathon at the end of the year, and possibly Comrades!


Tina @GottaRunNow said...

So nice to read that she still enjoys running. I'm the same age, but started running later. To run so many years and not tire of it - she's doing something right. Great interview!

RunnerDude said...

I agree! Thanks, Tina!

Kevin said...

Nice interview, great questions. I remember watching the 1984 Olympics and she and Decker colliding. I always wondered what happened to her.

Junk Miler said...

Funny how she can't imagine running barefoot on roads - I can't imagine running barefoot on the veld!

Medievalist said...

this was so cool that you were able to do this! awesome interview!

rumfunandsun said...

Inspiring to hear from her!!!