Durban - Jonathan Kaplan, the world record holder for the most rugby Tests refereed, is expecting a child on May 30 - but is adamant he will be running the Comrades Marathon on May 29.
Over the years, Kaplan has run seven Comrades Marathons and to say the event has had a big impact on his life might be an understatement.
Speaking to The Witness on Tuesday, he put it into perspective: “I reffed at all the big stadiums around the world. I was at four World Cups. Up until this point, I have reffed more Tests than anyone else in the history of the sport, but my favourite sporting event out of all is my first Comrades,” he shared.
Growing up in Durban, Kaplan watched Currie Cup rugby and the Comrades.
“I was never a very fit child,” he recalled.
“I participated in and liked cricket and rugby, but I was never very athletic. But I always had the idea of doing something to test myself. The Comrades was the ultimate challenge. It was in my mind growing up.”
One of the things that captured his imagination was the sheer scale of the world-famous ultra-marathon.
“Driving that distance when you are young, it seems like a forever journey, and the fact that people could run it, to me, was awesome,” he said.
Kaplan also grew up in a special era for the Comrades, during which the race numbers grew rapidly, runners became icons and spectator interest in the event rocketed.
“The first guy I saw coming over the hill to win was Piet Vorster on an up run. It’s that era of Allan Robb, and watching him shuffle as he came over Toll Gate Bridge into Durban, with everyone following after him.
“The Fordyce era was a really special era for anyone that was interested in doing Comrades,” Kaplan said.
He ran his first Comrades in 1988 and “loved it”. That same year Comrades legend Wally Hayward made his comeback to the race at the age of 79.
“I am totally in awe of that achievement,” Kaplan admitted. Then, laughing, he added: “I smashed him! He was previously unbeaten until I got hold of him. I smashed him by seven minutes or so.
“Once I heard that he was in the vicinity, and he had just gone past me at the last water table, I put the hammer down. I wasn’t prepared to let that octogenarian get past me again.”
Kaplan might have done many more Comrades, but there were a couple of good reasons he took a long break from the event, he explained.
Surgeons told him that due to injuries he wouldn’t be able to run on the road again, and with an eye on his burgeoning refereeing career he opted to follow their advice. But the Comrades eventually dragged him back onto the starting line.
The Comrades spirit is special and unique, Kaplan said: “Everyone is in the same sort of pain. It is really just about managing yourself.
“To a large degree, what you put into it mentally and physically all comes together on one day. It’s the only race that I know that is like that.”