Ferdi le Grange: Runner who dominated marathons in 1970s
FERDI le Grange, who has died at the age of 65, was South Africa’s greatest marathon runner in the 1970s and, for a period, the seventh-fastest such athlete in the world.
In 1971, he became the first in Africa to run a marathon in under two hours, 20 minutes when, in his debut run over this distance, on a hilly course in Durbanville, Cape Town, he clocked 2:19:02.2.
Two months later, he ran the same course in 2:17:51.4, beating the previous record holder, Willie Oliver, by almost seven minutes.
From then on, until his medical studies forced him to retire from competitive running at the age of 25, he was unbeatable over this distance in South Africa. He set six South African marathon records.
His greatest run was in the South African Open Marathon in Port Elizabeth in 1974 when he clocked 2:12:47. It was the fastest marathon ever run in Africa and placed him seventh on the world list that year. His record stood for five years, until Johnny Halberstadt shaved 28 seconds off it with a run of 2:12:19 in 1979.
Le Grange is regarded by many as South Africa’s greatest marathon runner until the arrival of Josiah Thugwane, who won gold at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta with a time of 2:12:36.
The international sports boycott prevented Le Grange himself from competing in the Olympics and severely limited his chances of testing himself against the best in other international events. Despite being among the top 10 marathon runners in the world for a number of years, he ran only five international marathons in his career.
Nevertheless, he ran against the world’s best in the UK and Europe, in the process becoming the first runner ever to run two sub-2:20 marathons in one week.
He ran in South Africa’s first multiracial marathon, 1973’s South African Games Marathon through the streets of Pretoria, which he won by almost seven minutes in a time of 2:24:12.
In 1974, he became the first runner in Africa to run more than 20km in an hour. He ran 20.158km on a grass track in Bellville and beat the record held by the great Abebe Bikila.
Le Grange was born in Molteno in the Eastern Cape on August 26 1948, the son of a farmer. He matriculated at the local government school. There were only four matriculants in his year, one girl and three boys. He liked to joke about the fact that he was the head boy.
He studied medicine at Stellenbosch University and the University of the Witwatersrand, and practised as a plastic surgeon in Bedfordview, Gauteng.
He died in his sleep. He is survived by his wife, Kathy, and four children. — Chris Barron
GOING THE DISTANCE: Ferdi le Grange set six SA records