Sign up for the latest Boston Marathon updates
👟 Everything you need to know about Marathon Monday, delivered to your inbox.
Ernst Van Dyk is a record 10-time champion of the Boston Marathon wheelchair race and a two-time Paralympic gold medalist. After 30 years competing as a world class athlete, Van Dyk is retiring at the age of 50.
This year’s Boston Marathon will be the last of his career and the 22nd he’s raced in the city in total. On Tuesday, Boston.com spoke with the South Africa native about his racing career and his plans moving forward.
The following is a transcript of the conversation, edited lightly for clarity.
Q: Do you have a particular Boston Marathon year that sticks out to you?
A: If you’ve done 22, there’s a story at every race, and here’s so many different stories. There’s the story when I won in 2004 and I broke the world record and I became the first racer to go under one hour and 20, that whole story around that one, and then there’s the one in 2014, the year after the bombing. If you compare the two photos of when I crossed the line in 2004 versus 2014, they tell two different stories. Both of them are special for very different reasons.
Q: What does the 10th anniversary of the bombings mean to you?
A: I think we learned a lot , we learned a lot about resilience, and what it means to be strong, and how Boston did it and how it changed our world of marathon racing. Suddenly, it was seen as a vulnerable event where before it was just fun, and everybody just went along with their business. So it changed the world a lot, and it changed the way we viewed the sport and we view the world and some of it was hard to work with. I was pretty close to those explosions when they happened. I was in the Oriental Hotel with Spaulding rehab and we were celebrating the team that was coming in. They were our charity runners, and they never made it because they were stopped after that explosion. So, I was very close to that and also shared a lot of the stories of the people that recovered afterwards through our contact with Spaulding and those patients.
Q: Is it set that this will be your last Boston Marathon?
A: Yeah, it’s actually my 50th birthday today, so this is my retirement year. I’m doing all the races that I love, that I’ve either won or have good relationships with. That’s four of them. And then I’m done.
Q: How long have you known that your 50th birthday would mark your last year for racing?
A: It wasn’t planned. Our professional careers take different routes. In 2021, I got a career opportunity and that fast-tracked where I was going with my career versus my sport. I also struggled in 2022 with long COVID and being older, the recovery was just really, really slow. I found myself in a space where it was not enjoyable anymore.
There’s just no time to train enough the way I would like to train. That was compounded by the fact that I lost half a year of training and at my age, it takes a long time to bring it back. Then with my career, I just couldn’t bring it back to the point where I wanted to and I got to a point where I just said to myself, ‘look, there’s no time and you’re not going to enjoy it.’
It’s becoming a bit of a frustration because you know you still have it in you that if you could train the way you used to train three or four years ago, you could be in the front group racing for it. But now you find yourself in the second or the third group, and it’s not fun. So, I’d rather go and do something totally different like Ironman, and just race against myself and train for fitness and health.
Q: Which other marathons are you looking to compete in this year?
A: I’ll do Boston, and I’ll do London the following week. And then I have to do Chicago, which is a race I won a few times. And then I will end it all off with New York.
Q: Do you have traditions tied to each location you visit?
A: I’ve been doing this for 30 years. This will be my 22nd Boston. You build a relationship with the city and you have certain things you do there. I’ve had various relationships over the years in Boston with various sponsors I had there, friendships that I developed out of those sponsorships and then things that I like to do or used to do.
Looking back today I regret that I didn’t make more of the time in those cities and enjoy more. To me it was like a job. You have a race to do, you go in focused, you deliver and you get out. A lot of the places I’ve seen in my career I’ll probably never see again. I didn’t really utilize that opportunity when I was there and of course, it’s easy with hindsight to have a bit of regret.
With Boston, there’s friends that I love to see there. It’s not so much about what I do, it’s about who I see and who I am in contact with and who I spend time with and I think that’s what’s special. It’s the same with New York. We stay in Central Park, we’re at Times Square. None of that really appealed to me. It’s about training in Central Park, enjoying the vibe and just seeing my racing family: the race directors, the organizers, the support staff and the people you’ve become friends with over the years.
Q: In the past you’ve discussed your relationship with God, can you speak about your faith and how that connects with your racing?
A: I won Boston 10 times and I was on the podium 18 times. That’s 10 races out of 20 where so many things could have gone wrong. There are so many variables to consider and you just pray through all of them, that you won’t get a flat tire, that nobody will run in front of you, you won’t miss a corner, you won’t get a cramp, you won’t crash. There’s so many different aspects of any race that you have to consider and a lot of it is luck, a lot of it is faith, just to get through it in one piece.
You just trust and you believe that you know everything would go according to plan and there would be an invisible hand protecting you and guiding you throughout that event, because it is a high speed event, it is dangerous and you’re moving at extremely high speeds. Things can go terribly wrong very quickly and I’m just fortunate that I got through all of them and that I was protected.
Q: Growing up, did you have athletes that you looked up to?
A: In the schooling system that I was in in this country at that point, where we were in our development in South Africa, was very isolated. But when I got out of school, and I discovered the sport and I started traveling more, there were athletes that I could connect with. What you have to understand about the sport is back when I started, there was no YouTube where you could go look things up. The internet was non-existent. It was just coming into infancy back then. So the only way that you could improve was to convince one of the older guys to teach you how to sit in the chair, how to be aerodynamic, how to make your gloves, things to consider when training because wheelchair racing is somewhere in between running and cycling. So, there’s not really at that point a coach that would know what they were doing. You would get that knowledge from other athletes.
I was fortunate that I connected with an athlete named Franz Nietlispach. He won Boston five times and he became my mentor and the athlete that I looked up to, and I spent countless weekends, weeks, months at his home in Switzerland, where we trained together and he just took me under his wing and taught me everything that I needed to know to beat him, until I beat him and then that was it. But, we stayed friends, we spoke today. His birthday was on Sunday. So we still even have contact today and he’s 60 now and I’m 50. So, I was really fortunate that he was willing to teach me and helped me.
It took a long time to develop as a wheelchair racer when I was young, and today guys are 21, 22, 23, and winning races because that knowledge is a click away, and they have access to it and they can improve themselves.
Q: Have you found younger athletes reaching out to you for advice?
A: Before I joined the company where I’m working now, I was in the business of distributing customized sports equipment for athletes whether it was racing wheelchairs, hand cycles, basketball chairs, tennis chairs, that was my job. I distributed worldwide and had contact with lots of developing athletes and I was helping them get started, get a good kick off, get the right equipment, and just exchange a bit of knowledge.
Q: Can you talk about some of the work you’re doing now?
A: I’m working for a global company called Össur and it is a non-invasive orthopedic company. So, half of the portfolio is, we develop prosthetic components and the other half is bracing and support, so any typical brace that you would need after operation, knee surgery or if you broke your ankle, or your elbow, or your wrist. We have the bracing and support for that.
I’m a double amputee myself so I do wear prosthetics and I wear the company’s products and I take care of the business for southern Africa. So, I’m leading a big team here and we work to make sure that people reach optimal mobility. We supply the equipment components that our customers need to manufacture those prosthetic devices and get our patients or their patients up and running again.
Q: Did you know that this is what you wanted to do after racing?
A: It just popped, and it developed. I started out as an ambassador for them just using their products and talking to the customers about their products and then later joined them and went through the whole sales career path. I became sales manager and then became managing director in 2022. I’ve always worked. My grandma told me you will get a degree and you will work and you will not rely on sport as an income. So I’ve always worked whether it was a half day job, or just running my own company. I’ve always been in people management and sales and this was just an avenue that opened up and I connected really well with the brand and really connected with the culture of the company and found my home here.
👟 Everything you need to know about Marathon Monday, delivered to your inbox.
Stay up to date with everything Boston. Receive the latest news and breaking updates, straight from our newsroom to your inbox.