Mavis Hutchison, fondly known as South Africa’s Galloping Granny and resident of Fish Hoek is, at 86, still competing in major athletics events. On Thursday 17 May she and her fellow Western Province teammates are leaving for Pretoria where they will be competing in the South African Masters Championships. Mavis will be taking part in the 100 and 200m sprints and the javelin and shotput field events.
Mavis became internationally known when she became the first woman to run across the USA, following this magnificent achievement with a run down the length of the UK.
One of a set of twins, Mavis was born in Kimberley in 1924. As a young girl she was sickly, having three long bouts of St.Vitus’ Dance (chorea) between the ages of 12 and 16. St Vitus’ Dance is a disease affecting the nervous system. “I was a very nervous person, scared of my own shadow. I had no guts. My twin sister had to do all the talking for me.”
It was only once she had children of her own that Mavis became interested in athletics. When her son Jess took part in the Rand Daily Mail Big Walk in Johannesburg, she decided to accompany him. A grueling debut for someone who had not done much running or walking, she withdrew from the Walk after 60kms with 20kms still to go. The following year she completed the walk in 91/2 hours.
Soon she was taking part in 4km long cross country events, running initially for Johannesburg Harriers before joining Germiston Calllies where she got involved in road running.
It was Mavis who pioneered women athletes taking part in road racing. In the 1960s women did not run on the road. 800m was the limit for any woman athlete. According to international rules, men and women were not able to race together either. However, Mavis would set off before the men in races, running unofficially, but her time would still be recorded. “I was regarded as something of a freak show,” she says with a smile. In 1965 she took part unofficially in her first Comrades for it was only in 1975 that the Comrades ultra-marathon was opened to men and women and people of all races.
Her first Comrades was run in wet and icy weather. She resolved that if she could make it to Drummond, she would complete the race. Which she did, despite the fact that her husband gave up the race at Drummond as he was too cold to continue. She caught up to a runner in Westville who was not about to allow a woman to beat him. After she had overtaken him for the third time, he stepped aside, bowed and said: “Madam, you may pass!” “Thereafter I did not dare give up,” laughs Mavis. She completed the course in 10h7. Her son Jess was the youngest person to have completed the Comrades. Only two women had completed the Comrades before Mavis, Frances Hayward running it in 11h35 in 1923 and Geraldine Watson in 1932. The latter was the first women to run both the up and the down run.
The morning following her first Comrades Mavis was aching all over, but she was determined not to let her pain show. Donning a pair of stilettos she made her way agonizingly down the stairs to breakfast where one of her ‘comrades’ said, “Mavis don’t be upset! In those conditions no woman would have finished!” Little did he know! She went on to complete a further seven Comrades Marathons, the last in 1981 after which she was barred from running for ten years as a result of having appeared in an advert. “It did not even make me much money,” she says ruefully. “It was a stupid thing to do!”
Male domination was not the only obstacle to be overcome – there were political obstacles too. In Scotland in 1969 for the World Championships, the South African cross- country team, of which Mavis was a member, stood tearfully at the sidelines, having been banned from the tournament because of South Africa’s racist policies.
As a result of politics, Mavis and other South Africans taking part in the second World Masters Athletics Championships in Goteburg in Sweden in 1969 participated under the American flag. Mavis earned 5 medals: for the 100m (2nd), 400m (3rd), 5000m walk (4th) shotput (3rd), javelin (2nd) and the marathon, which she won. The following year she participated in Hanover Germany with the teams from the then Southern Rhodesia. Very principled, Mavis says, “Taking part under another country’s flag was terrible … a form of cheating. I realize it was not honest and I am not proud of it.”
Her long distance running career started in 1973 when she decided to run from Germiston to Durban. Only three other runners had done this: Don Sheppard, Ian Jardin, a blind runner, and John Ball. She completed the run in 6 days and 12 hours, the following year running from Durban to Germiston in 7days 7 hours.
1975 saw her running from Pretoria to Cape Town in 22 days, in 1976 from Germiston to Cape Town, which she ran in 19 days, and in 1977 from Messina to Johannesburg, all in preparation for fulfilling a dream of running across America, a run that Bob Sheppard had done without seconds and Bruce Tullugh from England had also completed. It was Bruce Tullugh’s book about his run that inspired Mavis and helped her plan her route.
Mavis’s epic run across the USA took place in 1978, starting at the Los Angeles City Hall and finishing at the New York City Hall. A bundle of nerves and questioning her sanity while on the starting line, she knew however as she left that she would indeed finish. It took “sheer guts and determination to do so”, running through 13 states, 4 time zones and an average of 72kms every day for 70 days – 6 million footsteps in all!
“There were times when I thought I could not run another step but would set my goal as the next crack in the road – and so I ran from crack to crack. The heavy trucks drawing trailers would lift me up as they passed and I would always land on my right leg. By the 33rd day I suffered a severe injury. I could not move and cried like a baby. But the next day I was back on the road again. I could not take painkillers as they would have masked any further injury taking place. It was very tough. What brought me through were the words of the hymn Lead Kindly Light by John Henry Newman which I sang continually in my head.
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom, lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home; lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
One step at a time.
‘Four weeks of blistering heat were followed by four weeks of snow and icy winds and then a week of ceaseless rain. But when I reached Alantown the sun came out and stayed. When I crossed the line I could not believe it. I had achieved an ambition of a lifetime. The next morning I realized this could not be the end – I still had a lifetime ahead!”
Mavis was 52 when she ran across America. The women runners who have followed in her footsteps have all been in their 30s.
The following year Mavis ran across England. “It took only 16 days but it was 16 days of sheer hell. I was chasing the 20 year old record of Wendy Lewis which she had set at the age of 16 or 17. It was the wettest summer recorded in England in 600 years. I averaged 88kms a day. Everything was wrong – the rain, the bumper to bumper holiday traffic, I was covered in bites, my feet were on fire….” By the time the indomitable runner reached Shrewesbury, she had severely injured her Achilles tendon of her right heel and was in agony. The doctor she saw advised her, as a doctor, to give up the run, but knowing that this was out of the question, as a friend he wished her good luck! “It is not easy to give up when someone else is paying the bills. I would never hsve felt comfortable doing that,” says Mavis. She broke Wendy Lewis’s record by 9 hours. “When I came to the end of the run I saw the South African flag flying. It made me feel so proud and so humble.
I ran in 12 pairs of shoes in England and 25 in the USA. They were all marked with numbers and I would run in them in numerical order, changing shoes three times a day. They were sponsored by Tigers (Asics).”
She completed two more long runs in South Africa. Her fundraising run for the Year of the Aged took her from Kimberley to Cape Town, via Bloemfontein, the old Transvaal, Eastern Transvaal, Natal, Transkei, Eastern Cape, Garden Route and then via Worcester to the Mother City, a distance of 3 200kms in 56 days. “It was tough as I had to be at certain places at certain times to meet dignitaries and give talks. I had bad flu in the Transkei and for two days could not run. Then in Worcester I was really feeling good, until I fell flat on my face and dislocated my collarbone. Bloody and sore I completed the day’s run but then spent the night in the Worcester Hospital, completing the run with my arm in a sling.”
Mavis’s last long run was with David O’Keal in aid of drug abuse. Setting out from Pretoria together they then split up, Mavis running to Cape Town via Kimberley and David via Bloemfontein, before meeting up again. They were persuaded to end the run at Newlands stadium where a cricket test match was on the go. “The crowd were there to watch the cricket, not to see two very tired long distance runners! I wanted to run to the City Hall. However, I enjoyed the irony of the presentation taking place in that most holy of holy grounds – the all male section of Newlands!” she quips.
For a person who describes herself as having had no guts, she certainly persevered in situations where most others would have given up. In San Sebastian in Spain in 2005 for the World Masters Athletics Championships, her legs before the march past became very itchy, red and painful and she was diagnosed with cellulitis. She was advised to withdraw from her events as participating while suffering from cellulitis was potentially life threatening. Again Mavis defied doctor’s advice and all odds, clinching silver medals in the 5000 m walk, 800 metres, shotput and javelin. “I needed one gold. The chemist gave me magic mutti for my bronchitis (I was very concerned about not taking banned substances), the road was shocking and we were racing in 44 degrees. I hated it. But I could not have withdrawn from the events as once again someone else was paying the bill!
Asked what she would think about during the long hard hours spent on the road, she replied. “I would put the whole world straight! When I was overseas I would always be thinking of my children. Brute force and ignorance got me through all the tough times! I am not sure if I would do what I have done if I had my life over again. It was tough on my family.”
When Mavis and her husband first retired to Fish Hoek in about 1983 she opened the Mavis Hutchison Health and Fitness Centre on Main Road opposite to where Shoprite now stands.”It even had a heated pool!” she says. She enjoyed running the gym for the next five years.
“One must not retire,” she says. “We all need to be challenged along the way. I have been blessed in so many ways. All my strength does not come from myself. The Lord gives every bird his food, but he does not throw it into the nest. I have learnt that one has to get out of the nest. It is attitude not circumstances that create the events in our lives. We all make our choices and our mistakes. What counts is our attitude towards them.”
On parting with Mavis, having taken up way too much of her time, I asked her for some final words of wisdom. “You don’t grow old. Only when you stop growing are you old.” Mavis Hutchison is certainly not old! This inspiring, gutsy athletic legend is one of the most vital, energetic and enthusiastic octogenarians that I have met. We wish her great success and enjoyment this weekend at the SA Masters Championships in Pretoria.