South Africa Loses Famous Marathoner

 “Ferdie” Le Grange was 65.

(c) 2013 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Ferdinand Andries (“Ferdie”) Le Grange, who died on Oct. 29 at the age of 65, was South Africa’s greatest marathon runner of the post-war era until the advent of Josiah Thugwane. Unlike Thugwane, Le Grange never had the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games because of the international sports boycott against his country, but he was the first athlete to run a sub-2:20:00 marathon on the continent of Africa and set six South African marathon records — the only runner in history to do so more than twice.

Never beaten by a fellow South African while in his prime, Le Grange ran only five international marathons in his career. On June 4, 1972, he competed in the AAA Marathon in Manchester, which was also the British trial for the Olympic Games, against the likes of West German Lutz Philipp and Britons Ron Hill, Jim Alder, Bill Adcocks and Don Faircloth. Le Grange finished eighth in 2:16:19, his third national record.

Then he crossed the English Channel to race another marathon in Brussels a mere week later. This time he not only set his fourth national record, but also a “world record.” Showing no ill effects of the Manchester race, he won in 2:15:34.6. No other runner had ever run two sub-2:20s in a week.

In April 1973 he was part of a historic occasion when white and black runners competed together for the very first time, in the South Africa Games Marathon through the streets of Pretoria. Le Grange won by almost 7 minutes in 2:24:12.

On 3 June 1973 he returned to Manchester for the fifth Maxol Marathon. It was another strong field, with Philipp there again, and also East Germany’s Eckhardt Lesse. But Le Grange was a different runner from the one of 1972. He led until 30 km, when Lesse started pushing the pace. Lesse won in a national record and Le Grange finished fourth in 2:13:58, his fifth S.A. record and good enough for tenth on the world list for the year.

Six weeks later he won his first national marathon title in 2:17:40.

On January 24, 1974, he became the first runner from Africa to exceed 20 km in an hour, breaking the record of none other than Abebe Bikila, when he ran 20.158 km on the Bellville grass track. In the same race he also set an SA record of 47:58.6 for 10 miles.

Three years before, on March 6, 1971, he had become the first runner to run faster than 2:20:00 on African soil when, in his debut over the distance over a hilly course in Durbanville near Cape Town, he clocked 2:19:02.2.

Scarcely two months later he returned to the same venue for the Republic Festival Marathon – and ran even faster! He finished in 2:17:51.4 and trounced previous record holder Willie Oliver by almost seven minutes.

But his greatest race came on April 23, 1974, when he won the SA Open Marathon in Port Elizabeth in 2:12:47, at the time the fastest marathon ever in Africa. It placed him seventh on the world list that year.

Sadly, it was also the last serious effort of his career. He decided that his medical studies took too much of his time and, although only 25, retired. His other personal bests at the end of his career were 3:55.5 (’68), 8:21.0 (’69), 8:59.2 (’72), 13:46.6, 28:55.0 (both ‘73) and 20.158 km (’74).

Although he stopped competing in 1974, he always kept fairly fit and in 1995 finished 105th in the S.A. Marathon (again in Port Elizabeth!) in 2:46:01. In 1985 he ran the Comrades in 6:44:47 and in 1993 and 1994 the Two Oceans ultramarathon, dipping under 4 hours in the latter.

At the time of his death he was a plastic surgeon in Germiston. He was born on August 26, 1948 in Molteno.

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