The time that I spent in Venezuela in 1978-81, resulted in a seismic change in my direction in life: the geography of the country; the people, the friends that I made, with some of whom I am still in contact, the challenge of learning the language, the food, the music, the wonderful climate. I could go on and on, and usually do.
And of course, it was in Caracas, where I was introduced to competitive running, inspired by Herbert Robertson, about whom I have previously written (see lenblackwood.com/2016/05/11/3). But there were two others, who greatly contributed to my modest success as a long-distance runner – Fidel Rotondaro and Pedro Penzini.
I first met Fidel while training in the Parque del Este. He was the enthusiastic organizer of local races and runners under the name ‘Club Ataka’. I happily accepted to join with his group and often, after a race or long training run, he would invite us to his house for a beer or three.
Fidel was an economist by discipline, but in those days, he had a charter business, with his own 6-seater turbo-prop, stationed at the city airport, just across from where I worked, at Maraven, the oil company. He used to transport wealthy businessmen and tourists, both within Venezuela and internationally. Twice he invited several of us to accompany him, in his plane, to races in Florida. And when there, we stayed at his house in Fort Lauderdale.
Fidel was not just hospitable to his friends, he sponsored and subsidized two young talented local runners, poor guys with few resources.
Once, Fidel arranged a race in Canaima, in Eastern Venezuela, with a group of runners from Caracas and Indians from a local football club. We set off in three small planes and one by one we landed in a field by the river Orinoco. The landing strip was quite short, and twice we overshot the field and took off again, to avoid ending up in the water. From there we took a canoe to an island in the river, where Fidel, or perhaps one of his friends, had a large open-sided dwelling. We had a huge bar-b-cue and slept the night in hammocks. It was idyllic. The next day we had a short flight to Canaima. By air, was the only means of getting to Cainama; there were no roads.
The 15 km race was run over dirt tracks, out and back, through beautiful countryside, with no shade. It was quite hot and the last stage was along the airport runway, when my legs moved, but everything else seemed to be stationary. After, we took some canoes on the lagoon and passed behind one of the waterfalls. I will never forget the experience.
Pedro was not with us that weekend. He was a chemist, at that time working in the pharmaceutical industry. He was an enthusiastic advocate of healthy living and wrote a weekly column for a national paper, under the heading ‘Correr es Vivir‘ – (To run is to live). He wrote a book on the subject, in the early days of mass running, when Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar and Greta Waitz were every runner’s heroes. I will never forget one of his weekly columns entitled – ‘Escupir o no escupir‘, ‘To spit or not to spit’. It was about the effects of the loss of fluid during a long race, and I never did know whether he was being serious or just ‘tongue-in-cheek’.
When I returned from the Cleveland marathon in May 1980, having attained a Boston qualifying time of under 2:50, Pedro wrote a very flattering article about me for El Nacional. I remember that I was wearing my all black running shorts and singlet (John Walker, the 1500 m runner of New Zealand, was one of my heroes in that era), while the photographer took shot after shot of me running past him. I don’t know what happened to my copy of the article.
But life moved on, and so did I. For twenty years, Pedro continued to write his weekly ‘Correr es Vivir‘, on running, sports and healthy living. He had a daily program on radio and later on television, and became a well-known personality. But despite his clean-living life-style, he fell ill and died in 2010, at the age of 74.
Fidel has never stopped running. He is the only Venezuelan, and one of the few of any nationality, that have completed a marathon in all seven continents. And yes, that includes Antarctica. He has had a serious illness and a debilitating Achilles tear, but went on to compete successfully at international level in a plethora of Ironman triathlons. He is now 76, living between Isla Margarita and Miami, and still competing.
As I sit here tonight in Cape Town, with my head filled to overflowing with warm memories of nearly 40 years ago, I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to have known Fidel and Pedro.
Each, in their own way, enriched my life, and that I will never forget.