86: Jackie Mekler (1932-2019) – Comrades Legend


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By Davy Crockett You can read, listen, or watch Jackie Mekler from South Africa was perhaps the greatest ultrarunner in the world during the late 1950s and early 1960s and was a five-time winner of the Comrades Marathon (54 miles). His path to greatness is particularly inspiring because as a boy in an orphanage, he became a self-taught runner. He was boosted by fierce self-determination that grew out of his lonely and harsh childhood experience. The Comrades Marathon held in South Africa is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon race that is still held today with fields that have topped 23,000 runners. The year 2021, marked the 100th anniversary of Comrades Marathon. Help is needed to continue the Ultrarunning History Podcast and website. Please consider becoming a patreon member of ultrarunning history. Help to preserve this history by signing up to contribute a few dollars each month. Visit https://ultrarunninghistory.com/member This episode on Jackie Mekler is the sixth part of a series honoring Comrades and South African ultrarunning. 80: Comrades Marathon – 100 years old 59: Arthur Newton 83: Hardy Ballington – The Forgotten Great Ultrarunner 84: Wally Hayward (1908-2006) – South African Legend 85: Mavis Hutchison – Galloping Granny 86: Jackie Mekler - Comrades Legend This episode is largely based on Jackie Mekler's autobiography Running Alone: The autobiography of long-distance runner Jackie Mekler where you can read far more details about his running career. Childhood Jakie's mother with sister Hannah Jack “Jackie” Mekler was born March 4, 1932, in Johannesburg, South Africa. His parents, Mike and Sonia Mekler emigrated to South Africa from Eastern Europe in the 1920s with little more than the clothing on their backs. His father had studied to become a dental mechanic but was unable to find employment and the young couple struggled to survive financially. Children were born, first Hannah and then Jackie. Bertrams suburb of Johannesburg in 1930s The Meklers first lived in a large room with family friends in Bertrams, a Johannesburg suburb, A few years later, there were able to afford buying a fairly new home nearby. Sadly, Jackie’s mother, a nurse, developed Parkinson’s disease that crippled her requiring the young children to care for her. His father worked long hours selling fruit from the back of a horse-drawn cart trying to support the young family. Jackie wrote, “Physically, I was always small and underweight for my age – facts that caused my parents considerable concern in my preschool years. I remember regular visits to the local hospital, where I was put on innumerable courses of ‘pink pills’ and tonics.” Jackie’s obsessive personality started to show through when as a child he would spend hours kicking a soccer ball against a wall, humming a tune about soccer boots. In the summer months he would rush home from school and loved to go off to the local municipal baths at Ellis Park to swim. Life at an Orphanage When red-headed Jackie was nine years old, his mother became so ill that she needed to be sent to a nursing home. His father just couldn’t deal with raising children and also working long hours, so he decided to send Jackie and Hannah to live at the Arcadia orphanage. Jackie came home from school one day to find a large black sedan parked in front of their house waiting to take them to the orphanage. The two children cried and argued with their father, who bribed them with a half a crown each if they agreed to go. They no choice and moved into the orphanage. A couple weeks later their father visited with news that their mother had died. Arcadia Orphanage Arcadia was a Jewish orphanage that was established at a villa in 1923. Jackie Mekler was required to participate in Jewish rituals and rules which was a major adjustment for him. There were about 300 children who lived in large dormitories,

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