A question of time for top gun John September

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JOHN September wanted nothing more than to improve on his time and be one of the best road runners the Western Cape has produced.

The softly-spoken and unassuming September made no secret of the fact that he was annoyed and irritated by the “other side” running faster times than he did.

He could not wait to get his opportunity to shine.

John September
John September of WP leads the field in the junior men’s 1500m at the SAAAB champs in Port Elizabeth in 1985.

September was an athlete of the Western Province Amateur Athletics Union (an affiliate of the South Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB).

Apartheid regime

Although he was a SAAAB record-holder in the 5000m, 10 000m, and of a number of road races, September wanted to measure himself against the rest of South Africa and to improve his time.

Of course, under the apartheid regime with its policy of segregated sport he could not measure himself against the rest of South Africa; against the white athletes, and the small group of black athletes who were regarded as pariahs, unless he “defected” during the 1980’s.

The country had been divided along racial lines between 1948 and 1994 by a white National Party government policy of separation of whites from blacks (Blacks, Indian and Coloureds).

John September
John September of WP out in front alone in the SAAAB 15km road race champs in Athlone in the late 1980s.

September took a principled stand and sacrificed a large part of his athletics career­ – like thousands of SACOS athletes – and competed under the banner of SACOS with its mantra of ‘No Normal Sport in an Abnormal Society”.

Mountview High School

He trained under the tutelage of his schoolteacher Mark Jacobs at Mountview High School in Hanover Park – the man who had the greatest influence on him.

Jacobs is a former SAAAB 400m record holder and top 800m athlete.

Jacobs quit athletics in 1985 as he was of the view that athletes could not compete in sport while the country was burning. The year 1985 was a time of deep political unrest, torture, death and arrests as mostly the disenfranchised citizens fought the apartheid regime for a better life for all.

Father figure

September and Jacobs both belonged to the Hanover Park-based Vikings Club, although September subsequently competed for Trafalgar and Spartans.

“Mr Jacobs introduced me to club athletics,” says September.

September’s athletics grew out of the sub-economic and socio-economic neighbourhood of Hanover Park, a suburb of the City of Cape Town in the Western Cape province known more for gangsterism and drugs rather than athletics and academic gems – not unlike most of the other coloured townships.

John September
John September (2977) mixes it with big boys such as David Snyders (2993 Trafs), Moos Hartnick (2952 ER), Tobias Philander ( 2966 ER), Donovan Wright (2984 Titans) and Richard Lemmon (2985 Trafs) in a cross country meeting at Zeekoevlei.

“Mr Jacobs was like a father figure as I lost my dad at the age of 9. He was also my coach and his coaching kept me away from all the bad elements like gangsterism, drugs and alcohol and many other bad things,” says September.

September was a gem.

John September
John September, wearing his SAAAB colours, with some of his trophies.

Jacobs, who has a doctorate, picks up the story.

“He was a student at Mountview where I taught in the 80’s. I was still competitive, so we all trained together. With John, I was able to improve my coaching techniques, all of them learnt from books and whatever was shown on TV (the Sebastian Coe training video was showed on TV and I recorded it and used it for many years!)

“John and I were neighbours in a corner of Hanover Park that was close to Lansdowne Road and we often trained in the Ottery/Varkensvlei areas – away from the gangsters and cars; we had a 5 km and a 10 km route which became the weekly time trial for the school kids.

Newlands Forest

“John once or twice inherited my retired training shoes and ran in them long past their sell by date. “He had one thing going for him that lasted his whole running career: he never suffered any injuries. “Besides being one of those fortunate runners, he also had a very short stride and a high turnover (a bit like Michael Johnson) – today they believe that this style of running is best to prevent injuries. John ran that way naturally. I never interfered in the natural style of any of the school runners I coached.

“We used to drive to the army camp in Wetton, and then run from there into Wynberg and the surrounding areas, but I did not know the Forest that well then.

“I also had a friend who was in the Western Province junior squad at the time and his brother was a distance runner who worked at UCT. He would take us into Newlands Forest and the surrounding areas up to Constantia Nek. I took John along to these runs after a while.

John September
John September, Owen Machelm and David Snyders at the Wembley 15km road race in Athlone in the late 1980s.

“This is how we came to expand our training runs. Being a track runner I favoured repeats and interval training on the Vygieskraal track – this helped to improve John’s speed.

Overlooked

“John was a very disciplined runner – always available, never complaining, always willing to be an example to others – at school, he soon took the others for training and so on.

“When John was overlooked for the SACOS team in 1988, he produced the runs that surprised everyone, winning the 5000m and 10 000m, and setting SA records in these distances.

“John did eventually leave for a former white/multi-racial club where he came under the wing of a trained or qualified coach. We spoke about his move beforehand – I had stopped coaching him on a daily basis by then but we remained in touch as we still do from time to time. Athletics was in flux and John was ready to expand his horizons. He did move and improved his times – he also won many races under the new training regime.”

On a mission

John September
John September of WP and Thando Rulashe of EP. September won the senior men’s 10 000m race at his first attempt as a senior athlete at the SAAAB champs in 1986. Rulashe was second and former 10 000m champion Henry de Grass was third.

September was on a mission post-SACOS days to improve his times and become one of the best road runners of all-time in the Western Province and South Africa.

In August of 1994, September, running in the colours of Spartans, posted a time of 29 minutes and 6 seconds in a 10km road race run in Ottery.

His performance (sixth) on the South African all-time list is better than athletes of the calibre of Xolile Yawa and Gert Thys.

Only Matthews “Loop and Val” Motshwarateu (28:37), Matthews Temane (28:39), Shadrack Magotsi (29:03), Shadrack Hoff (29:040 and Adam Motlagale (29:05) were placed higher than him in 1994.

In later years, September improved his 10km time to 28 minutes and 43 seconds when he set a new WP record in Pinelands, smashing Marius Hugo-Schlecter’s record by 11 seconds.

Good athlete

Another astonishing performance by September was in 1994 when he removed triple Springbok Ewald Bonzet’s WP half-marathon record of 1 hour two minutes and 53 seconds in Bellville.

September clocked 1:02:52 in a race won by Gert Thys (1:02:41).

John September
John September, running in the colours of Spartans, is in top gear in a 10 000m race at the UWC Track in Bellville in 1991.

“On that day I knew I was a pretty good athlete having run so close to the SA marathon record holder Gert Thys and breaking Ewald Bonzet’s record,” says September.

He admired Temane as an athlete locally, and Vladimer Kotov internationally.

September, Donovan Wright and Owen Machelm had changed the face of athletics in the Western Cape and to some degree in South Africa.

The three-some proved that they can be the best in their respective disciplines – first to themselves and then to thousands of SACOS athletes who did not get the opportunity to showcase their talents post-1994, as they dominated the road and cross country races.

Perfect timing

September, Wright and Machelm’s timing was perfect by the time unity arrived in 1994. They were part of the last WP and SAAAB teams in 1991.

By then a lily-white South African cricket team was welcomed back in to the international arena in India, and South Africa hastily sent an under-prepared team to the Barcelona Olympics. The effects of those decisions are still being felt on a national scale in the Republic with out-dated arguments about transformation still being the order of the day.

September’s scrapbooks detail many victories, including the half marathon in Paarl, the 15km road race in Table View, the WP 21km champs in Melkbosstrand.

One of his scrapbooks has many results in them – a sign that September was determined to improve on his own times and that of his competitors.

Master’s athlete

He has even won the Paarl Mountain Race as a SACOS athlete and in the post-1994 period.

“I gained a lot of strength from my friendship with fellow athletes Wright, Machelm, Tobias Philander, Moos Hartnick, Desmond Zibi, Martin Saayman,” reflects September.

John September
Moos Hartnick and John September after a road race in Athlone.

They were also his rivals, he adds.

Zibi is a former SAAAB Prestige 1500m champion (1991) and he went on to gain second place in the world’s most picturesque marathon, the Two Oceans Marathon in 1999.

September was a far better athlete between 10km and the half marathon road races than the Two Oceans and beyond.

He has run the Two Oceans eight times, with a best time of 3 hours and 22 minutes.

As a Master’s athlete, September notched several notable victories, including the 21,1km Gun Run road race.

It prompted a local sports scribe to write in 2008, “The wily veteran has won many a race around the province, let alone up the West Coast.”

10 John

Time may have caught up with September, but he most certainly had set out goals by recording some of the fastest times in WP and SA.

September highlight’s some of his record feats:

Don Lock 8km – 22:51 (still the course record)

Pinelands 10km – 28:42 (still the course record);

Hohenhort 15km – 46min (still the course record);

Federated Timbers 21km – 62:23 race;

Bay to Bay 30km – 1hr35 (still the course record);

Glenryck 30km – 1hr35 (still the course record).

*Jacobs’ doctorate title: A description of entry-level tertiary students’ mathematical achievement: towards an analysis of student texts.

Jon September
John September, left, checks leader Henry de Grass in the senior men’s 10 000m race at the SAAAB champs in Paarl in 1986. September won the race at his first attempt as a senior men’s athlete.

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