Behind the mask

This is the first of what we hope will be a series of articles about older and familiar figures in the Wychwoods; what links each person is an enthusiasm or an interest in their past which is virtually unknown to all but their closest friends.  As their story unfolds, so their passion will be revealed. We begin with Aubrey Raye, a well-known face in our communities.

aubreyrayandmrsAubrey Raye treads a well-worn path between the Paddocks and the Coop, a path that often continues to the Baptist church in Milton, a place he regards as his spiritual home.  His stride is slow, measured, his head bent, his beard framing a warm pair of eyes. In his hand he carries a stick, just, he assures us, for balance. While he is past eighty, he is by no means ready to forfeit his mobility.  That mobility was central to his passion.

Aubrey and wife, Lorna, who is herself a mainstay of both the Paddocks and the church, originated in South Africa.  His career, one that lasted forty years, was in freight forwarding from which he retired in 1996. A quieter life called, one that led them both to England, Overbury to be precise, where the gentle pursuit of gardening on an estate became his lot; he loved it.  A brief spell back in South Africa could not hide their love of England so they returned, this time to Oddington, again to do gardening and domestic work.

That took them to 2007 when their search for rented property was hampered by the demand for such properties following that summer’s floods.  After much fruitless hunting, they found a flat in Shipton Road, close to Milton village hall where they remained until 2016 at which point, in recognition of the need for a more accessible property, they moved into the Paddocks where they are to this day.  This was perfect and Lorna was able, at last, to walk out of their French windows in her bare feet, onto the lawn, a sensation she had so relished back home in South Africa. In all this recent progression, Aubrey’s former passion had been thoroughly concealed, a passion that dated back to his native childhood.

He grew up in Pinetown, a small settlement not far from the coastal city of Durban.  On 31st May each year, the town carnival took pride of place, an event of great fascination to a young Aubrey.  And through the town on that occasion came a stream of heroic runners, participants in one of the world’s most famous ultra-distance races, the Comrades Marathon, a 55 mile epic endurance event, run on alternate years either from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, the ‘downhill’ route or the other way around, the ‘uphill’ route.  Aubrey marvelled at the athleticism and simple staying power on display but it was not for him; hockey and rugby were his sports of choice.

It was only when suppleness and injuries took their toll that he took up jogging; nothing too serious but lurking at the back of his mind was THAT race – he wondered?  While he loved the camaraderie of jogging and found his sparse frame ideally suited to stamina events, the Comrades Marathon was still a distant dream, but a dream whose vague edges began to solidify into ambition.  Saturday morning runs saw a group of fellow enthusiasts tackle the nearby gorge as part of runs lasting up to 30 miles. 55 miles surely couldn’t be so much harder?

aubreyrayHe was ready.  Despite his lack of background in distance running, 1973 saw him on the starting line in Durban ready for the ‘uphill’ challenge.  Alongside him were around 700 runners, all men, all white (this was the era of Apartheid) all prepared for the ultimate athletic challenge.  He didn’t disappoint; supported by followers on bikes, he breasted the tape well inside nine hours, qualifying for a bronze medal at his first attempt at the event.

The bug had well and truly bitten.  That year was the first of twelve annual appearances in the race spread over a fifteen year period, a race that evolved over the years so that by the turn of the century, women and black runners were encouraged to join; now the field has swelled to over 10,000 runners, such is the iconic appeal of the Comrades Marathon.  Over the years, Aubrey progressed to a high of eight hours and 10 minutes for the down course, only marginally slower at eight hours 18 minutes for the up course, always well within the 11 hour limit that qualified him for the much sought after bronze medal.

That was then and now is now, but a heart-warming link exists with those halcyon days of athletic glory.  In what turned out to be his last outing at the distance, his race number was 1418. As tradition dictated, that number became his to share with his family and so it is that daughter Shelley has now run seven Comrades Marathons of her own, each time wearing her father’s own number, 1418.  Younger sister, Donna, has also run the event once. For Aubrey, pride in their achievements and a broad smile points to a time he will never forget.

So how would he sum up his memories of running the world’s most prestigious ultra-distance race?

“I have fond memories of the fun, laughter and camaraderie on the long training runs.  The pain on the day – not so good, but the satisfaction of completing another Comrades was enormous.”

It all goes to show that behind every mask, every Aubrey Raye, behind every older person, there is a treasure trove of memories just waiting to be shared and enjoyed.

If any other reader would like to feature in this series, having a long-held but largely unknown passion in their earlier life, please get in touch with the editor.

August-September 2019