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Zola Budd Pieterse — March, 2014
Zola Budd Pieterse is the 1985 and 1986 World Cross Country Champion, winning those titles in Portugal and Switzerland, respectively. She set World Records at 2,000 meters of 5:33.15, 3,000 meters indoors of 8:39.9 and 5,000 meters of 14:48.07, the latter breaking the World Record by ten seconds. Zola also broke both the United Kingdom and Commonwealth records for 1,500 meters in 3:59.96, the mile in 4:17.57 and 3000 m in 8:28.83. She was the 1985 European Cup 3,000 meters Gold Medalist. Zola was a member of the 1984 British Olympic team and 1992 South African Olympic team. She is well-known for competing barefoot almost exclusively. In the 1984 Olympic 3,000 meters final she was involved in tight racing which resulted in Mary Decker-Slaney sustaining a fall for which race officials exonerated Zola. She won 15 national championships for South Africa and Great Britain at distances ranging from 1,500 meters to the half marathon. In recent years Zola has competed in South African ultra marathons, including the Two Oceans 56k twice and the 90k Comrades Marathon. She is the 2014 overall women’s champ of the Charleston (SC) Marathon. Her personal best times include: 800m - 2:00.58; 1,500m – 3:59:96; mile - 4:17.57; 2,000m – 5:30.19; 3,000m – 8:28:83; 5,000m – 14:48.07; 10,000m (road) – 32:20; half marathon – 1:11:04 and marathon – 2:55:39. She is a volunteer distance coach at Coastal Carolina University, lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and has three children, Lisa, Michael and Azelle. Zola was gracious to spend nearly an hour on the telephone in late February, 2014.
GCR:Despite your career achievements including two World Cross Country Championships and multiple World Records, it seems that many people remember you mainly from the 1984 Olympic incident involving Mary Decker-Slaney. I will touch on all of this, but first, you were only 17 years old and coming from South Africa, which was struggling with the political and social situation of apartheid – how tough was it for a young girl who just wanted to run getting caught up in huge international issues?
ZBPFor me on a personal level it was really difficult because I come from a very small town. English wasn’t my first language which made it even more difficult at that time. It was very tough – especially the political side of it as it was almost like people were blaming me personally for everything bad that was happening in South Africa.
GCR:Notwithstanding the situation, was it still exciting when you made the British Olympic team or was it hard to feel as good as you would have hoped due to the protests?
ZBPIt was tough just getting to the races and going to warm up without interference. By the time I got to the Olympics in 1984 I was mentally and physically so exhausted.
GCR:Did you march in Opening Ceremonies, see other track and field competitions or get around to many other Olympic events?
ZBPI didn’t march in the Opening Ceremonies. I stayed in san Diego in the British training camp until about a day or two before the race and then I went to Los Angeles so I wasn’t part of the Olympics at all. I didn’t see anything else – just my race.
GCR:Your race is one that we remember for when you tangled with Mary Decker-Slaney, she went down and you didn’t. Did it sort of come out of the blue as you were running and it just happened?
ZBPNo, I think what happened was that the pace was slowing in the front and so the back was catching up. I was getting spiked, because I was running barefoot, on the bottom of my feet. The only place safe to run is on the outside, the front or the back, so that is why I went to the front. People were starting to bump me and spike me and the only place left for me to go was to the front. I was in the lead for more than a lap and then I felt this bump on me. When I came around on the next lap I saw Mary lying on the infield and I knew she had fallen. That is when the crowd started booing.
GCR:It looked like in the race that you slowed down purposefully and didn’t race all out after that. What were you thinking at that point?
ZBPAt that time I wanted to get off the track but I was in a race and couldn’t stop. I just continued and finished because my coach always said that we should never stop during a race. I didn’t want to be on the podium. I think I would have won a silver medal or a bronze, but I consciously ran slower because I didn’t want to be on the podium.
GCR:It must have also been tough too because, from what I understand, Mary was one of your heroes whom you looked up to, wasn’t she?
ZBPYes, especially after the way she ran in 1983 in the World Championships, she was one of my heroes. I was younger than she and always looked up to her and the way she was also a front runner.
GCR:You mentioned your barefoot running and that is one thing that I remember vividly. Did you race at all in shoes or did you race exclusively barefoot up to that point?
ZBPI was almost totally barefoot. The only time I raced with shoes is when the weather was really bad or when it rained and the track was slippery.
GCR:After the Olympics you turned it around and in early 1985 you won the World Cross Country Championship which is arguably the hardest race to win as it is on a tough course and everyone who was good from the 1,500 meters to the marathon was there. What was your training like leading up to Worlds?
ZBPThe race was in Portugal and my training was really good. What really helped me was that I did some indoor racing and I actually approached cross country like another track race. I was surprised that it went so well.
GCR:You won by over twenty seconds as Cathy Branta and Ingrid Kristiansen were your closest pursuers. Did they stay with you for a while or did you go off the front with your front-running style?
ZBPThe course had these little humps and my coach told me to accelerate as I approached them as I wasn’t good on obstacles. When the race started I went to the front and didn’t realize that I was leading. I felt so good. It was one of those days that come along in your career that are few and far between. It was a two lap course and after the first lap I realized that I was actually gaining and making a gap when I went over the obstacles because I was running so aggressively. After the first lap I realized I could start running hard. I was just having a great race and everything went well that day.
GCR:Were you using the same coach as you did when you were starting out during your first few years in high school? And what was your coach doing that helped you the most?
ZBPThe coach that was my coach in high school, Peter Lovoskofsny, helped me until the late 1980s until I got injured and took some time off. He was coaching me during both World Cross Country Championships. He instilled in me a work ethic that was good. He was really strict with training sessions. He also taught me to listen to my body. The way we approached cross country was the same way we approached track season.
GCR:Did you run with periodic phases of training during the year such as one with more mileage, one with more hills and fartlek and one more on the track?
ZBPI firmly believe in that as you need some time away from hard training and racing. I had periods specifically for cross country where I was just doing mileage and then harder workouts and cross country racing and it was similar for track season. It is really important for an athlete to have time away from competing to just run for the joy of it.
GCR:After that cross country win 1985 was an outstanding year for you as you went on to break the UK and Commonwealth records for the 1,500 meters in 3:59.96, the mile in 4:17.57, the 3,000 meters in 8:28.83 and breaking the 5,000 meter World Record by over ten seconds in 14:48.07. What was key to such an outstanding year and running so well at a variety of distances?
ZBPI don’t really know except that my training was going so well. I did do a lot more mileage in the beginning of 1985. I had to battle to get in race shape in the early season perhaps due to the higher mileage. But as soon as I started coming through and running well I ran my personal best times in seven consecutive races. It was just a period in one’s career where everything happens.
GCR:What did you up your base distance from compared to previous years?
ZBPNormally my top distance base was 120 to 130k per week (interviewer’s note – approx. 75 to 80 miles per week). But before the 1985 track season I went up to 160 to 170k per week (note – 100 to 105 miles per week)
GCR:That is a lot of distance training for someone who was primarily a 5,000 meter runner. I know you did come close to breaking two minutes for 800 meters. Would you consider yourself more of a strength runner than a speed runner? Or did you have just the right balance?
ZBPI think I was more of a strength runner. If I had trained for the 800 meters I might have been able to break two minutes, but my strength came from being able to run two straight laps in 60 seconds. I couldn’t go out the first lap in 55 seconds. The strength is probably what carried me through in the 1,500 meters and 3k.
GCR:When you ran your best times in the 1,500 meters, mile and 3,000 meters they were all in races with Mary Decker-Slaney and Maricica Puica where you ended up in third place. Do you recall any tactics or racing strategies which stood out in any of those races?
ZBPThose races were tough. I remember the 3k in Rome where I ran 8:28. It was so tough running at that speed for so many laps. That’s all I can remember. But I felt privileged to be able to run with them because they pulled me through to running the best times in my career. That was really great running with them and being able to run through the first 800 meters of a 3k in 2:11 and to just hang in there to see what would happen. It was tough, but very exciting.
GCR:You did win the European Cup 3,000 meters. What were highlights of that victory?
ZBPIt was in Moscow so it was nice and warm and the weather was great. I went out to the front and ran as well as I could. I ran consistent laps. The girl who was beaten in 1983 by Mary at the end in the World Championships, Brigette Kraus, was in the race and I just kept in front. On the last lap every time she tried to pass me I just sprinted, and eventually I outsprinted her in the last 100 meters. I suddenly became a sprinter to race so well at that level.
GCR:I can relate as I was a strength runner and in some of my best races I was able to outsprint people because they weren’t as strong and couldn’t use their sprint speed. Is this what you found?
ZBPYes, definitely. If you are running from strength you can beat people who are much faster than you. It’s not about who has the best basic speed, but who can run the fastest when they are tired. That’s a big difference. If you can run quick when you are tired that is speed endurance. The base of my training was speed endurance and building me up that way.
GCR:What were some of the training sessions that helped your speed endurance and ability to be an outstanding racer?
ZBPIt was a combination of lots of sessions. I remember going out for a really hard 10k or a really hard 8k. We did a lot of intervals like 12 times 1,000 meters on the grass with a really short recovery. During track season we would get that down to five times 1,000 meters with a short recovery. The essence of it was to run the same pace with less and less and less recovery and to teach your body to recover quicker between the intervals. That was a main basis of my training. In the winter we didn’t do long slow runs. We did longer runs, like ten miles, at a fast pace.
GCR:Some people, including me, when we are training for a marathon, will run a 17 mile run with 10 miles about a minute per mile slower than race pace, five miles at race pace and two miles faster than race pace. Did you do this type of training where you were running fast when you were tired?
ZBPThat is exactly how we trained. We also did mixed sessions where we ran on the road and then went to the track. We would run hard on the track on tired legs. That was some of the toughest training we did.
GCR:Moving forward, the next year in 1986 you defended your title at the World Cross Country Championships. A lot of times it has been said that it is harder to defend then to win the first time. Did you feel the pressure on you as a marked woman that everyone was aiming for?
ZBPIt was scary trying to defend my title. The weather was fine the day before the race, but the day of the race it started raining. I made the mistake of running barefoot as it was so slippery and muddy. But I came through and ran quite well on that day in Switzerland.
GCR:Lynn Jennings, who finished second to you, won three World Cross Country Championships in future years. Did Lynn stay with you for a while?
ZBPShe was with me for a while but eventually I got a gap, especially on the areas that were drier or where there was more grass for me to get a grip. It was a great experience running in Switzerland because the Swiss crowd is so knowledgeable about running.
GCR:You started out strong in the 1986 track season, breaking the indoor 3,000 meter World Record in 8:39.79. Then outdoors you ran just over four minutes for 1,500 meters and five seconds faster for 3k than you ran indoors before injuries crept upon you. What happened that derailed such a promising season?
ZBPIn 1986 my training before the track season was very good. I think it was much better than my training sessions were in 1985. That 8:34 3k was really good for me. But I got this nagging hamstring injury which got worse and worse as the season progressed. I just couldn’t keep up with the training, although I was in good shape, as it was so painful when I was running. After the season I found I had a stress fracture in my hip.
GCR:You took 1987 off from competition to recover from those injuries and then in 1988 there was more political controversy and the IAAF suspended you after several African nations claimed that you had competed in an event in South Africa which was still banned from international competition. What are the facts and how disappointing was this to have politics again interfere with sport?
ZBPIt was really disappointing as I had gone to South Africa just to see a doctor who was helping me. He was a kinesiologist who did great work with runners and rugby players and ballet dancers. He helped me to recover from my injury and I could run again without pain. I was watching a local cross country race and people said I competed, which I didn’t. Because of the strong presence pushed by Africans countries I was banned as they said I had competed in South Africa. It was tough. That more or less ended my international running career. I decided to go back to South Africa and not to race any more.
GCR:It sure must have been disappointing as you were young, in good shape and wanted to race. What did you do the next few years as far as running? Did you run for fun or train at a fairly good level, but not quite as strongly?
ZBPAfter 1988 when I went back home I just took some time off from running. In 1989 I got married. I kept jogging every day and only started back running again in 1990. I ran some local races, but nothing serious. Then I started training with another coach in 1990 and ran the 1991 track season in South Africa. In 1992 when South Africa had been reinstated to international competition I tried to run the Olympic Games in Barcelona. I was sick by fever and shouldn’t have raced but I desperately wanted to. I competed but had a very bad season.
GCR:In 1992 at the Olympics did you get to go to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and enjoy the Olympic experience even though you weren’t competing as well as you hoped?
ZBPYes, I enjoyed the Olympic experience. I stayed in the village and we went to watch other events with tickets we bought on the black market. I guess I enjoyed myself too much. And although I had a bad run, the Olympics were a great experience and I truly experienced the Olympics as they were.
GCR:Did you get a chance to see the men’s basketball ‘Dream Team’ from the United States as I know that was a big highlight of the Barcelona Games?
ZBPThat was impossible to get into. It was sold out. We got into some tennis matches to support South African players who were playing. We saw Steffi Graf which was nice.
GCR:The next couple years you had two top ten finishes at the World Cross Country Championships so you were rounding into shape. Why weren’t you able to get back to your previous wining form?
ZBPIn 1993 I had a good cross country season. But I think it was my motivation. I enjoyed cross country training as it was nice and not as hard as track training. Cross country training is a bit more relaxed although the racing is really hard. I was just scared of getting into the track season and really doing it again. Then in 1994 I became pregnant with my daughter and that was when I decided to stop running track internationally.
GCR:Were you still running exclusively barefoot through this time or were you wearing shoes some of the time?
ZBPI was still running barefoot most of the time except when the weather was bad.
GCR:It’s is interesting as a comparison as when I interviewed New Zealand’s Lorraine Moller she was also a barefoot runner in her youth. She lives in Colorado now and told me she still likes to get out and run barefoot to feel the earth under her feet and to have a connection with the earth. Have you met Lorraine and do you feel like that too?
ZBPYes, I have met Lorraine and I still try at least once or twice a week to get out and run barefoot, especially in the summer when the weather is nice. But I only run barefoot on grass or a smooth surface. I won’t run barefoot on the roads.
GCR:Speaking of the roads, you have been running some marathons and earlier this year were the women’s champion at the Charleston Marathon in 2:59:42. How do you like running the longer distance and running on the roads? Has it been a different type of fun?
ZBPI wouldn’t say its fun. For me it is tough. I’ve always been shy about running a marathon because I have low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. So it’s been scary doing the long runs and long races. But now I am getting used to it and for me it is a new challenge. I like to be challenged and that is why I do it - because it’s really tough for my body. To start running marathons at my age is difficult but I enjoy the challenge.
GCR:You haven’t stopped at marathons as, in your home country of South Africa, you’ve done the Two Oceans 56k race twice and the Comrades Marathon 90k race. I’ve done fifty marathons, but nothing longer – after being so good at shorter races, how was it doing a 90k race and being out there that long?
ZBPFor me it was scary. I think I lost it as after running 50k my mind suddenly was thinking that I had run 50k and still had about a marathon to go. I just lost it there. At 60k is the worst place to be in the Comrades as there is such a long way to go and you feel like dying. It was very, very tough. In short races it is all about running aggressively, but in longer races you have to hold back as long as possible and just do what I call the junk miles before you really get to the racing miles which are the last few miles of the race. And by then your body is so depleted that there is emotional manipulating to get yourself to finish.
GCR:What type of feeling was it when you finished the Comrades? Was it one of exhilaration and exhaustion and accomplishment? How was it when you crossed the line and stopped and knew you had made it?
ZBPThat’s why the Comrades race is so popular. There are about 14,000 people running it and it doesn’t matter if you are first or the last person to finish. There is this elation and a feeling that you’ve done it. It’s so special and all the years I was running, including winning the World Cross Country Championships, didn’t come close to the feeling I had of finishing the Comrades.
GCR:You mentioned that at the height of your track training you were doing 160 or 170 kilometers per week. What type of training in terms of mileage or long runs do you do to get ready for longer races like Two Oceans and Comrades?
ZBPAt the moment I am training to do the Two Oceans race again in April so I’m up to 60 or 70 miles a week. The big difference between what I do now compared to when I was young is that the quality now is much less. The quality of the work when I was young was quite high. I do long runs of back-to-back runs on Friday and Saturday. To do a 40k run is a long way so I break it up and run two days consecutively of 25k and 25k. That’s the way I train.
GCR:That is smart because on long runs you start getting into the zone where it is really tough about 17 or 18 miles, so if you are doing 25k two days in a row you are stopping at 15 and a half miles which might be the perfect distance to get in a long run but not break yourself down too much.
ZBPI learned it from people who have been training for the Comrades as it is better for your body to recover. As soon as you start running longer than three hours at a time the body takes so much longer to recover. It’s actually detrimental to your body so that is why I break it down over two consecutive days.
GCR:Let’s go back to your childhood as you didn’t just become a great runner overnight at seventeen years of age. How old were you when you started running and what was your life like in terms of fitness and athletics as a child?
ZBPWe were active because of the good weather. Even in winter when it was cold there was no snow so we were always outside playing. I grew up in a town with no technology, no televisions, nothing. So we spent most of our time playing outdoors. We lived on a small holding, which is like a small farm, so we were always running and playing with friends. That’s the way we grew up. By the time I got to high school I was 14 years old when I started running seriously and training every day. By the end of the year I was training maybe twice a day sometimes. I think I got a good base from being an active child and always being outdoors.
GCR:What was the organized high school competitive situation like in South Africa?
ZBPIt was actually quite good as we would run locally and then go to provincial meets, state meets and then national events as well. Also, what happened at that time since South Africa wasn’t allowed to compete internationally is that all of the senior runners would compete in a circuit of senior events that was almost like a Grand Prix. If you were a good junior you were invited to run in senior events against senior runners which were under good conditions as the races were in the evenings with crowds. These races were very conducive to running good times. Running for me in South Africa was very strong and the competitiveness was very strong. I remember while I was growing up at 14 years old there was another girl in my town who was also 14 years old who was running a 9:14 for 3k. I looked up to her and she was my rival. That was what I was aiming for. I wasn’t aiming for ten minutes. I was aiming for 9:14 because she was running that. Growing up in South Africa the standard of runners was so high. I remember watching the senior men running cross country and if they weren’t able to run a sub-29 minute 10k at altitude they couldn’t make our state team as a senior. It was such a privilege to grow up in that era and to see all of these great athletes running before me and around me from the same area. They were really an inspiration.
GCR:When did you get fast enough to where you were one of the top female runners in the country? Did it take two to three years?
ZBPIt actually happened quite quickly. I had started running with my high school coach at 14 years of age and the next year I won my first South African title. It was an 800 meters for girls under a certain age and I ran a 2:11. It happened really fast as I developed quickly as an athlete.
GCR:We’ve talked about your racing cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track and now you race primarily on the roads – which is your favorite venue?
ZBPMy favorite would be cross country. I still love cross country running. I like the cross country distance of 8k or 10k. The 8k for women is probably my favorite.
GCR:We talked a little about some of your competitors such as your high school rival who ran a 9:14 for 3k, Lynn Jennings and Ingrid Kristiansen in cross country and Mary Decker-Slaney and Maricica Puica on the track. Which of these racing foes were your favorites to compete against or is there someone else because she pushed you to do your best regardless of whether you won or lost?
ZBPI liked to compete with the South African girl, Elana Meyer. At that time she was Elana van Zyl. She pushed me in South Africa in the 1980s. In the 1990s she was running much better than I was. She had a good decade of running well in the 1990s, but in the 1980s she pushed me and pulled me to good times.
GCR:Currently you are assisting with some coaching on the collegiate level in South Carolina. How different and similar is it coaching and getting athletes to do the right things and to instill the characteristics they need compared to getting yourself prepared to do well?
ZBPI’m a volunteer coach at Coastal Carolina University so I run with the girls, help them out and try to help them motivationally. The most important thing I teach them is to learn their body well because all of us react differently to different types of training. You can’t have a universal program and apply it to everybody across the board. You have to individualize. If person A runs well with a certain training it doesn’t mean that person B will. Less is better for some athletes and more is better for others. So individualizing is the most important thing.
GCR:As you mentioned, you are running the Two Oceans 56k race again this year. What do you see as your future competitive goals for the next three to five years and how long do you think you are going to compete?
ZBPI’d love to compete as a Grandmaster. That’s my aim. I want to continue to enjoy our great sport. What I believe running is all about is using it as a tool to better your life. I’d love to do another few marathons – not necessarily faster, but it is such a great experience to run a marathon. Every marathon is different and every marathon is tough in its own way. Whether you run well or badly you still feel like you have accomplished something when you finish.
GCR:As the years go by and you gear down from competitive racing, do you see running always continuing as a part of your life, even if it is just to get your body moving and to be out in nature?
ZBPYes, that is the only reason why I still run – because I have a passion inside of me and a love for running. Otherwise I wouldn’t have run and still kept on running. Being outdoors and having that great feeling while running is the best thing about running. It’s almost like feeling more alive when I am running.
GCR:When you speak to a group and sum up in a minute the major lessons you have learned during your life from working to achieve your potential, the discipline of running, high level racing success and the outside adversity from politics or social situation that you can’t control, what do you say that you would like to share with my readers?
ZBPAlthough bad things can happen to you, you’ll survive and you will come through it. Think of yourself as a survivor. Running has carried you through it. I use running as a tool to stay healthy and close to God. If we have that attitude with our running we can never go wrong with running.
GCR:As a follow up, how important do you think it is to have that balance in life between physical, mental, spiritual and emotional harmony as you try to move forward as a person?
ZBPI think it is very important and it is something we can all use, especially the spiritual side. Running is powerful when you go on a long run and you find that sweet spot after an hour or so. You get tired and you deepen your subconscious. Running is a powerful tool to help people get in touch with their spiritual side again.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsI love woodworking and quilting – two opposites
NicknamesAs a kid, ‘Zivi’
Favorite movies‘The Lion King’
Favorite TV shows‘Big Bang Theory’
Favorite musicClassical cello music
Favorite authorDostoyevsky
First vehicleA small little green truck. It was tiny, like a miniature truck
Current carA Prius
First JobI worked in my mom’s catering business
FamilyI have three kids. The oldest is Lisa and the twins are Michael and Azelle
PetsWe have three dogs and a bird and a lizard
Favorite breakfastIn South Africa there is a meal that is like grits, but the corn is thicker than the refined grits over here
Favorite mealChicken
Favorite beveragesSprite Zero
First running memoryMy first race at school when I was in Grade one. In South Africa there is an athletic day for the whole school. I remember running and at the finish there was a piece of wool line which cut my throat
Running heroesHaile Gebrselassie, Henry Rono, Jim Ryun, and the British trio of Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram
Greatest running momentMy first South African title in the 800 meters I won when I was 15 years old
Worst running momentProbably the 1992 Olympic Games
Childhood dreamsI always wanted to be a detective solving mysteries and solving crimes
Funny memoriesWhen I was a teenager we were running in a small park in the center of my hometown and this giraffe was standing in the middle of the road. I was making jokes and asking the giraffe what the weather was like up there with his long neck. I didn’t realize that the giraffe had a little baby in the woods nearby. The giraffe kicked at us. My friend was running with me and, even though he was tired, he pushed me in the back and started sprinting. I’ve never seen him run that fast. That was a funny moment running away from a giraffe
Embarrassing momentI forgot to bring my contact lenses with me for a race and I couldn’t see at all in the race. It was embarrassing especially because it was a cross country race
Favorite places to travelIt would definitely be in South Africa along the coast in George or the Karoo which is a desert area in South Africa. Those are my favorite places in the whole world. I visited them recently