The Two Oceans Ultra Marathon is called “ the world’s most beautiful marathon”, and it’s doubtful anyone would disagree. Runners race along the perimeter of South Africa’s Cape Peninsula, a long finger of land at the tip of Africa pointing down into the Atlantic Ocean. They pass long white sand beaches, waves breaking in the blue sea, and houses perched on oceanside cliffs as they wind along 56 kilometres (34.8 miles) of road.
Yes, that’s right, 34.8 miles. Even some of the world’s most beautiful scenery goes unnoticed by runners struggling up some of the famously long hills.
In a few weeks, Eric Webster, an 80-year-old Adventist pastor, will compete in the Two Oceans half marathon (21 kilometers) for the eighth time. (He has run the full 56 kilometer ultra marathon five times.)
But instead of running with 18,000 other runners from South Africa and around the world in a Saturday race that nearly shuts down the city of Cape Town, Webster and about 50 other runners will run the race on Friday, the day before. This will be the 19th year that Webster has organized a Friday Two Oceans race, in full cooperation with the official Two Oceans organizers.
The Friday race is the same as the Saturday race, fully recognized, with officials to start and end the race for the Adventists, Jews, and club members who are helping to officiate the following day.
The roads are not closed, and there are no official water stops or massive cheering crowds (each runner is permitted a “second” to follow in a car or bicycle and carry water and energy drinks), but the same route is followed and runners can feel the same sense of achievement at the end.
“I have never raced on Sabbath,” says Webster. And “not running on Sabbath has not hampered my running career.”
A racing history
Webster first laced up his running shoes and headed out the door for a jog when he was 40 years old. It was 1967, and jogging was gaining in popularity around the world. He was soon running about three kilometers three or four times a week.
“Then when I turned 60 I suddenly had a desire for longer distances,” Webster says. “I worked up to my first marathon of 42 kilometers [26.2 miles].”
For the next 17 years, Webster ran four or five full marathons every year, as well as numerous ten and 21 kilometer races.
While in his 60s, Webster successfully completed the Comrades Ultra Marathon – one of the world’s most difficult races – three times. The Comrades is an 89 kilometer (55.9 miles) race run between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, on South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. There is a time limit of eleven hours – many don’t make it. Runners lose their toenails after the famed race; there is crying and ultimate exhaustion.
Webster calls completing his first Comrades, at the age of 61, the ultimate moment of his running career. He describes it like this:
“At one stage of the race I joined a man who was running his 10th Comrades. I felt he knew what he was doing and so practically entrusted myself to him. He realized in the last 10 kilometers of the race that we were pressed for time and would have to keep going in order to complete on time. I clearly remember coming into Durban and eventually into the sports arena amidst applause only to make the finish line with 30 seconds to spare. We completed the race in 10 hours 59 minutes and 30 seconds. It was a dramatic physical and emotional high.”
After he turned 77, Webster thought he should slow down, so he took the marathons out of his schedule, though he continued to run shorter races, including half marathons.
“However, as I approached the age of 80 I suddenly felt a desire to run a full one,” Webster says. So last year, he ran five half marathons and one full marathon a week after he turned 80 on August 26.
During his running career, Webster has run about 160 official races, including about 30 marathons, and 13 ultra marathons (between 52 kilometers and 89 kilometers).
Now he runs 15 to 20 kilometers every week, usually in a long Sunday morning training run and a shorter weekday run.
He often runs from his retirement cottage outside Cape Town down to the sea, 10 kilometers away on the public highway. His wife of 57 years, Ruth, drives down to meet him and bring him back home.
Webster enjoys the training runs on his own. “It gives me a great time to think constructively,” he says.
But he also keeps piling up the race medals. On February 17, he ran a half marathon in Cape Town, finishing six minutes before the cut-off time of three hours. He was recognized as the oldest runner in the race, among a thousand runners.
“I enjoy the invigorating exercise,” Webster says. “Running a race with crowds can be very exhilarating. The companionship with others means a lot.”
“I will keep on and see how long I can still run a half marathon in three hours,” he says. “I anticipate if all goes well I could carry on this year and next year when I turn 82. I might then even decide to carry on a few more years by cutting down to 10 kilometers. Of course I will let the Lord lead and direct me. I give God all the honor for my good health.”
It’s not as though Webster doesn’t have anything else to keep him busy. He started publishing a South African version of The Signs of the Times on a self-supporting basis in 1991, and still works six days a week as the magazine’s editor and manager. The magazine comes out seven times a year, in both an English and an Afrikaans edition – about 15,000 copies total. Aside from an Afrikaans translator and a graphic artist, Webster and his wife do everything, including the finance and mailing the copies out.
Webster is the head elder at the Claremont, Cape Town church. He also preaches often, teaches the Sabbath School lesson, conducts funerals and spends at least an hour a day in devotions.
Webster retired from ministry in 1992, after 44 years of service. During his career, he worked as a pastor, a teacher, a conference president, director of Voice of Prophecy Cape Town and head of the theology department at Helderberg College outside Cape Town.
He studied theology at Helderberg College (undergrad, graduated 1948), received a master’s from Potomac University in Washington DC (merged into Andrews University in 1959), earned a Master of Divinity from Andrews University (1972), and completed a Doctorate in Theology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa (1982).
In his long church career, Webster says he had the privilege of leading many to Christ and to baptism. He conducted Bible studies and held numerous evening evangelistic campaigns.
“I enjoyed pastoral work very much,” Webster says. “I loved preaching, and still do. I greatly enjoy visiting people and praying with them. It has been a pleasure to conduct many weddings, and to visit the sick. I have always found conducting funerals a great spiritual opportunity to be a blessing to the family and to friends.”
In the two years he has lived in the retirement village, Webster has conducted three funerals for non-Adventist residents.
But though he has always kept very busy, Webster feels that running has always helped him in his work, by giving him energy, and time to think creatively.
“It has been a great blessing for my physical, mental and spiritual health,” Webster says. “I couldn’t have done what I have for the Signs if it were not for my running. The running has been a great blessing in my editorial work. They have fitted like hand and glove.”
But despite his love of running, and the blessing he feels it has brought, Webster has maintained his stance against running on Sabbath. “Not because I am a legalist,” he says, “but our Adventist running community in South Africa have felt it best not to run races Sabbath – even when that decision has limited the runners.”
Webster says no official decision has been made, but the Adventist runners just feel an official race is not a good atmosphere for keeping the Sabbath. He explains it like this:
“If I felt it was in order for me to run races on Sabbath, I would be honor-bound to open up all Sabbath sport to our young people. That means cricket matches, soccer matches, baseball, basketball, swimming galas, etc. . . Of course, if we can argue that perhaps we have been too strict on the question of Sabbath races and should ease up we must insist this is the way to go for all young people in all sports (perhaps with the exception of boxing as it might be hard to argue for Sabbath-keeping while knocking your opponent down).”
“Of course, this view does not preclude, in my thinking, the personal Sabbath walk up the mountain or even a personal jog. That is up to each individual. Exercise is good on Sabbath – we have just taken this position in regard to races. . . [But] a certain amount of leeway needs to be granted to personal conscience. . . I sense that it is quite a sacrifice for a young person to give up a career in sport because of the Sabbath. But if as a church we are right in this stand we realize that many of our members also make a sacrifice in their careers because of the Sabbath. I think it all goes together.”
Throughout his 40 years of running, Webster has appreciated the support he gets from his family, particularly his wife Ruth, who drives him to races and training runs, and brings food for afterward.
His children and grandchildren are very proud of his accomplishments, and Webster is thrilled that some of them are following in his running footsteps.
Eric Webster has three married children and eight grandchildren. His son John is Dean of the School of Religion at La Sierra University. His daughter Jennifer and her husband Rodger lecture at Pacific Adventist University in Papua New Guinea. His daughter Gillian lives near Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and teaches special students in the public school system. One of his grandchildren, Raewyn Hankins, recently completed her MDiv at Andrews University and is going into pastoral work in the South Eastern California Conference.