Posted in PERSONAL STORY

COMRADES – PASSION OR OBSESSION?

I have had people telling me that I have OCD about Comrades. Others have described it as a passion, but allow me in this chapter to tell you the story of my daughter, Merran, and then you can decide whether we both have OCD or whether we both have a passion for Comrades, or both.

Merran will be 39 years old in September 2016 and on Sunday the 29th of May 2016 she was at her 36th Comrades, her first one before she was yet a year old.

I grant you that for the first few years of her life she had very little say in the matter but now as an adult, a wife and a mother, she’s still there every year and I have no doubt at all that is some sort of record. I have thrown out a challenge to anyone who can beat that and no takers so we’ll take that as a record.  I also have little doubt that even after I am long gone that she will be at every Comrades.

Between us then we have been at 95 Comrades in total with the 91st race on 29th May 2016.   Another record perhaps?

As far as Merran is concerned, she has not just been a spectator at Comrades all those years when she was in her teens and now as an adult. In the early days and once again now, she had been and is now once again a spectator but she played an integral role in getting news of the race through to the listeners of Radio 702, and as she started to grow older, she got to know the route as well as I do.  She got to know the rules of Comrades and the way in which to best prepare for, and run Comrades. In fact had I not needed her on race day to help me, who knows, she may have been my only running child.

It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that her real involvement started. By this time I had stopped running because of the permanent injury that had affected me but I was well and truly part of the media then, having been involved since the mid 80’s. Those 80’s days were very difficult times to cover Comrades as cellphones had not yet come to South Africa and one year we found a company in Pietermaritzburg that had a system that by radio we contacted them and they then “patched” me through to the studio for my report. Pretty antiquated but it worked.

It’s very important to understand that the role of the written media and that of the electronic media differ significantly. The electronic media is “immediate” and therefore needs to be “live” and that applies equally to radio and television. The problem I faced is that I had to try to do the job with only one car on the route, that I drove as well as doing my reporting (we didn’t broadcast but only reported into news and sports reports), and just the help of my wife, Diane to write down information on pre-prepared sheets. Where we were what distance, and the lead runners and Merran travelling with us in the car so that she could back up the information Diane was taking down. One thing that did take my attention off the road and the runners and the traffic was the fun I used to have sticking the nose of our boldly branded Radio 702 news car in front of the television cameras much to the extreme annoyance of the TV crew.

I realised after a couple of years that Merran’s knowledge of Comrades was such that she was actually wasted in the news car and I made arrangements with the organisers for her to accreditation to travel on the media bus. She had to wrap up very warmly because in the early morning cold, particularly on the down run from Pietermarizburg, as she was exposed on the top level of the media truck.

What then happened was that Merran would phone the race numbers of the leaders to Diane and she would look them up from the list we had been given by the organisers. What often happened as a result of this is that we had an advantage over the other radio stations who had to rely on their vehicles to fight their way through the traffic to get to the front and were often blocked from getting to the lead pack by the very media trucks on which they could have relied.

We then discovered we had yet another problem. We couldn’t get to the women and who was leading that race further back in the field, but we had communication between the front truck on which Merran was freezing but doing a great job, and the truck further back following the women. As a result she was able to get info from the other media folk on the “women’s media truck” who by now had accepted her as a “colleague”.  She, in exchange for this information and with her intimate knowledge of the route, was able to give the rest of the media On her truck, (all written media) this information, route details, landmark information, etc. and everyone was happy.

When I had to break away from the lead procession to get to the finish to see the leaders coming in, I still had Merran sending information back to Diane who in turn was giving me the info I needed.

The result of this “family team” working for Radio 702 were often significantly ahead of other radio stations.

I was unbelievably happy when, after one Comrades, the boss man of the national radio station, called my News Editor, Chris Gibbons, to ask how many vehicles we had had on the road and Chris told him we had just one with one person on the press truck. He congratulated Chris on our job well done saying that we had beaten them with their 20 reporters throughout the race.

A very proud day in my radio days.

At the same time that I was reporting the race for Radio 702 I was also stadium announcer and again Merran played a major role on the announcing tower, assisting Diane to identify runners coming in at the finish so that I could announce them, but I still don’t know whether Merran and I have a passion for Comrades or OCD about it!

I’m happy with either because we both love this race!

Posted in PERSONAL STORY

MADIBA, TOP RUNNERS & ME

This is not the story of the Comrades Marathon. It’s not the story of the guts and the glory of the road.

This particular part of the story of my relationship with Comrades is not in any way intended to be a name dropping exercise at all. I am simply mentioning the people who, through Comrades, came into my life and had an impact on it.

One thing I clearly remember about my first Comrades in 1968 was that as we ran up what was then Berea Road in Durban the field was already spread out and the leaders passed Tollgate by the time we were half way up Berea Road and there were two elderly ladies standing at the side of the road watching “The Marathon” and one of them said to the other “They must have started them in batches this year”. By that time the leaders and eventual winner, Jackie Mekler were over the top of Tollgate and on their way to Pietermaritzburg.

Jackie was my big hero in those early days before I started running Comrades myself and he had already won it four times so it wasn’t strange that I should have stopped about 8km after Drummond to listen on the radio (no TV then) to commentary of Jackie coming in to win his 5th Comrades.

The following year Jackie didn’t win nor did he ever win it again but those 5 wins were enough to put him into the history books and into my book of heroes. Little did I know that in later years, when I was with Radio 702 that I would meet the five time winner and get to know him fairly well.

I have had the privilege of meeting four of the five male runners who have won the race 5 times or more. Hardy Ballington, Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler and Bruce Fordyce.

The following year after Jackie’s fifth win it was the turn of Dave Bagshaw in 1969 to win Comrades and he won three in a row. Dave lived in Pinetown as I did and he would often join the “Jardine Sunday School” for some LSD (and it was slow) but during the week he trained very hard on his speed and to even think about running with him was out of the question.

I was transferred to Pietermaritzburg in late 1971 and it wasn’t too long before I met Mick Winn who was Chairman of Collegians Harriers and who would later go on to become Chairman of the Natal Marathon Runners Assoc and then the South African Road Runners Assoc and it was during this time that Mick persuaded me to make myself available to stand on the committee of Collegians Harriers and during my time at Collegians I started meeting more people who would go on to be Comrades winners.

Derek Preiss who was the winner in 1974 and 1975, I knew well and he was in fact out on a run with a good friend of mine, Bill Sim and he wasn’t feeling well so he turned home and left Bill to run on alone and whilst running on the pavement a car left the road and killed Bill.

Piet Vorster was the winner in 1979 and the first Pietermaritzburg winner since Reg Alison in the late 40’s. I remember in March 1979 a few of us from Collegians had gone away for the weekend to run the Stanger to Mandini race and we were all sitting around chatting about who we thought would win Comrades that year and very quietly Piet’s wife said, Piet’s going to win. Piet was running well that year but wasn’t one of the favourites.  Strange but after that, I didn’t for one minute doubt that Piet would win and as history shows, Mrs Vorster was right.

It wasn’t until after I stopped running and my radio years with Radio 702 started, that I really got to know some of the really big names in running and these included people like winners, Tommy Malone, Manie Kuhn, Alan Robb (four wins), Nick Bester, Andrew Kelehe, Shaun Miekeljohn, Alberto Salazar (the American who ran only once and that was in 1974 and won it) Charl Mattheus and of course Bruce Fordyce.

Heading the list of people I met through Comrades has to be former president, the late Nelson Mandela. He was the guest of honour and handing out the prizes for the 1996 race and that was one of the many times I was stadium announcer. That particular year I had been asked to do the announcing of the prize giving for both the stadium and the SABC and found myself on the stage less than 10 metres away from the great man.

I had asked the official Comrades photographer, Ivor Ginsberg, to be at the ready in the event that I should get close enough to Madiba to get a photograph with us both in it but it looked as though that wasn’t going happen as he was at one end of the stage and I was the other end. Meanwhile, Ivor was signalling frantically that I needed to move closer to Madiba because he wanted to take a photo because the light was fading and flash photography was not allowed because of the President’s eyes that were so bad after working for so many years in the lime quarry on Robben Island. I have been to that quarry and I have never seen anything with such reflection so easy to understand the condition of his eyes.

Eventually the chap from the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund asked me whether I had met the President and if not whether I would like to do so. No hesitation. I was taken across the stage to meet him and it was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced and I still remember it as though it was yesterday that is happened. As he took my hand to shake it, he said to me – and I will never forget the words – “It’s an honour to meet you”.

I was completely blown away. He then thanked me for what I – and 702 – had done for the Children’s Fund that year and I had worked hard on air to make it known and to get the word out of the charity drive. Then he smiled and said “How’s Debra – give her my love” referring of course to Debra Patta the well-known journalist with whom I worked at the time at 702.

After I came off the stage at the end of the prizegiving I told Dan Moyane (now eNCA morning anchor and former 702 news and morning show presenter) and with whom I was sharing the stadium announcing that year, what he had said to me in thanking me – and Dan’s immediate response was “He knows exactly who you are because he listens to 702 whenever he’s at his residence in Pretoria”.

It was an amazing experience.

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

ARTHUR NEWTON’S MISSING COMRADES CLOCK :

 

I spoke in my previous chapter about one of the big things that happened to me whilst on the Comrades Committee in 1979 was the “finding” of Noel Burree who had finished second in 1931 but I also was fortunate enough to have “found” something else as well during my year on the committee.

We have just a few weeks to go the 90th Comrades and I am sure that a lot of runners will be visiting the museum at Comrades House and if you had no plans to do so, change your mind and don’t miss it.

The clock presented to Arthur Newton by the Natal Witness in the early twenties is now on display in the Comrades Museum has had an interesting journey since being presented to the great man but not very many people know the story of that clock and how it eventually ended up in the Comrades Museum.

Photo courtesy of movies.org

Newton was a farmer in the Harding area in southern KZN and at some time – and it seems nobody is sure when – after winning it, he presented the clock to the Harding Town Board so that the clock could be on permanent display in the Harding Town Hall.

As far as we know it was there for many years until the Town Hall was destroyed by fire in the late sixties and one of the very few things saved from the fire was the Arthur Newton clock.

Whilst the Town Hall was being rebuilt the clock was simply put on top of a filing cabinet in the office of the Town Clerk and after the Town Hall was completed the clock was overlooked and left on top of the filing cabinet for around 10 years.

During the seventies I had been appointed as District Manager of the then, SA Eagle Insurance Co and part of my “district” included Harding and as SA Eagle were the insurers of the Harding Town Board it was my job to visit the Town Clerk on a routine basis.

On one of these visits, the Town Clerk was called away from his office for a short while and I spotted the clock on top of the filing cabinet and decided to take a look at it. There were files and papers scattered around the base but I was able to see an inscription plate on the base and when I moved the papers was thrilled to see what the clock was.

When the Town Clerk returned to his office I asked him if he knew exactly what the clock was and he shrugged his shoulders and said it had been there for years and he had no idea at all. By this time the clock was not working and whether it stopped during the rescue from the fire, again nobody knows.

As he had no idea where the clock had come from or its history, and didn’t really seem to care, I asked him if I could have the clock as I was a member of the Comrades Marathon Committee (which he knew anyway) and was given an immediate answer of “NO, it belongs to us”. After some begging and pleading he agreed that it could be “lent” to Comrades so I left with the precious clock in my car. Some years later the Harding Town Board eventually gave the clock to Comrades.

When I got back to Pietermaritzburg, I had absolutely no idea what to do with the clock and spoke to Mick Winn who was both Collegians Harriers and Comrades Chairman at the time and he too had no idea, so the clock was put on top of the safe in my office as this was long before the establishment of any sort of Comrades Museum.

What I did do however, was to see the editor of the Natal Witness as it was they who had originally presented the clock to Arthur Newton way back in the twenties and I told them about my find. They were very excited and sent a photographer round to my office to take photographs of the clock (with the prettiest girl in my office looking at the clock) and the story appeared in “The Witness” the following day.   At the same time I spoke to a friend of mine, Rod Webbstock, who was a watchmaker in Pietermaritzburg to ask him if he thought he could get it going again and what it would cost to do so.

Armed with an approximate cost I then went back to the editor of “The Witness” and suggested to him that it might be a good idea, as they had originally presented the clock that they should pay for it to be repaired. Without hesitation they agreed so the clock went off to Rod Webbstock’s workshop and he started working on it and eventually he got the clock working again. Whilst it was working it never kept accurate time though and stopped working when it felt like it and had to be persuaded to start up again.

After the repair it was returned to my office and spent quite a time sitting on the safe in the corner of my office. I was transferred away from Pietermaritzburg in August 1979 after that 1979 Comrades when I was on the organising committee and not knowing what to do with the clock I gave it to Mick Winn and he put it in his office at the pharmacy. There was still no museum. So it was relegated to once again spending its days on top of a cabinet.

Sometime later the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg gave a small corner of the museum to Comrades for the start of the Comrades Museum and the clock was one of the items that went there from Mick.

Later with the establishment of the CMA and the purchase of what is now Comrades House and the establishment of the Comrades Museum the clock found its new permanent home and it still stands there. Unfortunately the clock stopped working again in the years that followed between its repair by Rod Webbstock and the establishment of the Comrades Museum in Comrades House. On one of my recent visits to the Comrades museum I was told that the organisers have found somebody they think can repair it.

I look forward to seeing the clock returned to its former glory but if you visit the Comrades Museum at any time be sure to take a look at Arthur Newton’s missing clock. It’s had a very interesting life and if you get there before Comrades, I’m sure that Arthur Newton would be thrilled if you stop at Arthur’s Seat just before Drummond to give the customary greeting of “Morning Arthur” and put a flower in the seat, that you spend an extra few seconds there telling him you have seen his clock.

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

NOEL BURREE – 2nd IN COMRADES & WITHOUT A DRINK FROM START TO FINISH :

 

In 1979 I was voted onto the Comrades organising committee and it’s one of my regrets that I was only able to serve one year before being transferred away from Pietermaritzburg by my employers. Serving on the Comrades committee albeit only for a year was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.

I was friendly with chap by the name of Pat Fletcher who was one of the managers at Wesbank and they had agreed to organise one of the refreshment stations I mentioned in my previous blog and he asked me whether it would be possible for Wesbank to have the loan of all the Comrades trophies to be put on show at their stand at the Royal Show in Pietermaritzburg that year. The Comrades committee agreed subject to trophy cabinets being made with armour plate glass to stop any possibility of a “smash & grab” and all was agreed.

The Royal Show started and on one of the show days I decided to go along to the Wesbank stand to see what had been done with the trophies.

Whilst I was standing there chatting to Pat I was aware of an elderly couple behind me looking at the trophies and I heard the wife say to her husband “There is the trophy your name should be on dear”.

I immediately stopped talking to Pat and turned my attention to the couple standing at the trophy cabinet. I told them I could not help overhearing the comment that the elderly lady had made to her husband and was interested to know which trophy they were talking about.

“That one there” she said pointing to the Anderson Trophy for the second person home.   “That’s interesting” I replied. “What year was that?”

The old man then chipped in and said “It was 1931 – a long, long time ago young man” (which I was at that time)!

Having more than a passing interest in Comrades it didn’t take me more than a few seconds to put a name to the person who had finished second in 1931 in what is still the second closest finish in the history of the race.

“Noel Burree finished second that year – but I thought he was dead” I said inserting my foot ever so gently into my mouth.

“No I’m not dead” the old man said very seriously.

While I was trying to figure how best to correct the embarrassing situation I had caused, Ronnie Borain who wrote for the Sunday Tribune came strolling past. Precision timing!

I called Ronnie and introduced him to Noel Burree and he made me promise that no other media person should get the story. This was before my days with Radio 702 so no problem there.

The Sunday following the day I had met Noel Burree the lead story in the Tribune was his and his 1931 run.

What had happened is that Burree had been living in the caravan park at Ifafa beach down the South Coast for years and every year without fail he had hitched his caravan to his car and had towed it to Pietermaritzburg to watch Comrades – and nobody knew he was there!

A day or two after “finding” him I went along to the Pietermaritzburg Caravan park to visit Mr & Mrs Burree and spent a fascinating afternoon with them while he told me the story of that run when he lost to Phil Masterton-Smith by 2 seconds.

The morning of the race he was due to be given a lift to the start, but the person with whom he had arranged this, didn’t arrive. He then found a bicycle but it had a flat tyre.

“What did you do?” I asked the “Old Man”

“What could I do” he replied “I ran to the start and arrived just in time to see the rest of the runners disappearing along Commercial Road in the direction of Durban”

We chatted a little more about how he had made up the distance and how the race had gone and then he told me that he had another problem at Drummond. The person who was to give him his drink wasn’t there.

I asked him when he had last had a drink. “That was to have been my only drink during the race” he said.

So what did he do, I wanted to know.

“I had no choice. I just had to run on and I had to finish the race without anything to drink”

He had actually run an entire Comrades and finished second after having run to the start without a drink along the road.

Noel Burree was an instant V.I.P. at Comrades in 1979 and for several years after that.

A charming and humble man and one of the stories of my involvement in Comrades I will always hold very near and dear.

 

Posted in ALL MY BLOGS, UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

COMRADES REFRESHMENT STATIONS ARE BORN. :

This is not the story of the Comrades Marathon. It’s not the story of the guts and the glory of the road. This is the story of refreshment stations but not as we know them today.  It’s the story of how they came about.  How they started and of how we knew nothing about them. 

It’s also my story.  My story of my involvement with Comrades over 60 years, the years that bring us to the 90th running of the race in 2015 and what I am hoping to do is to give readers a glimpse into the past at what things were like in those far off days back then.

1975, the Golden Jubilee had been a success in every way and we even saw a few of the old winners sitting at the finish line. In a previous chapter I mentioned Mick Winn who was Chairman of Comrades at the time of the Golden Jubilee and Mick himself was a pretty good runner.

Before I move on to the following years, one story about Mick came back to me as I sat down to write this chapter about how refreshment stations were born.  Mick, in 1975, wanted to run the race with it being the 50th but he had a problem in that the official luncheon for the dignitaries was at 1pm.  That was 7 hours into the race and Mick had to be at that luncheon.  Talk about the horns of a dilemma!

Run the 50th Comrades or be at the function which was his job as Chairman. I have never asked Mick how long it took him to make a decision but when the decision had been made, he ran the 50th Comrades and he was at the luncheon!

He crossed the finish line around 6:40!

Anyway let’s move on and 1976 saw the emergence of a new hero when Alan Robb won his first of four Comrades.

I on the other hand had a shocker and wracked with pain from cramp I managed to finish, doing the second half slower than Alan had run the entire race!

1977 and I ran my 10th and number 482 became mine forever and I decided to call it a day. That of course changed a few years later.

Nothing much happened in 1978 to make it stand out for me but 1979 was probably one of the highlights of my long association with Comrades. I found myself on the Comrades committee which at that time consisted of just five people. The biggest regret I have is that I was only able to serve for one year before my employers transferred me away from Pietermaritzburg.

Along I went to my first committee meeting and discussion revolved around the fact that following a part ban on seconding vehicles because of traffic volumes, that 1979 should be the year of a total ban other than those vehicles with express permission to be on the road. The discussion went along well and then I was told that I was responsible for refreshment “tables” (I don’t think they had the exalted title of “stations” at that time), and I was given a few rather tatty files used by the chap who had organised a few of these tables the year before with the partial ban. It actually turned out that they weren’t much use to me anyway.

I didn’t have a clue where to start. One thing that was sorted and a major relief was that Coca Cola had confirmed that they were on board for the drinks. The water was easy. A couple of tankers took care of that. Coke also confirmed that they would provide paper cups, not only for the Coke but also for the drinking water. This was long before the advent of water sachets.

The drinks and something to put the drinks into was sorted. Now remained just one little problem. The people to work on the refreshment tables – and reaching into the memory bank, I seem to remember there were going to be 22 of them. An obscure number but that’s what we arrived at. We worked out that given the number of runners we expected that we would need about 30 people at each table. 660 people! Where on earth was I going to find 660 people to get out of bed at some unearthly hour so give sweaty runners a drink.

The way to do it was obviously to approach companies to use their staff. Not only that but to provide their staff with T shirts at their cost branded with the company logo, as well as something to feed these brave souls. I thought that this wouldn’t be too difficult a task. 22 companies wasn’t that bad. One was already sorted when I told my staff what they were going to be doing on Comrades.

I then contacted my colleague at the Durban Branch of SA Eagle (I was manager of the Pietermaritzburg Branch) and talked him into it. Eventually and somewhat reluctantly he agreed and SA Eagle in Durban went on from the 1979 Comrades to be the first company to look after a refreshment station at Comrades for 20 consecutive years.

After a lot of hard work I managed to find the 22 companies to engage in this new thing in Comrades and in fact in road running in South Africa as I can’t remember any other race doing this. If I am wrong, forgiveness please.

What we then did was to get as many of them as possible together to teach them what they had to do and how much to pour into each cup whether Coke or water, which would be at different tables at the refreshment station.

Probably the most fun we had in staffing the tables was after I had approached a good friend at Wesbank, Pat Fletcher who was the ABM. He was very keen but he had nowhere near the 30 people needed so every lunchtime and any other time he was free, Pat would prowl Church Street in Pietermaritzburg and stop every pretty girl he saw and ask them if they would like to join the Wesbank table which was going to be at the top of Polly’s (and was for many years). Surprisingly it didn’t take Pat too long to find his “Wesbank Girls”, nor did he get any slaps across the face or any other part of his anatomy and got from each of them, their T shirt and shorts sizes, again without any smacks – and then he ordered one size smaller for each of them!

The big day came and as soon as the runners set off towards Pietermaritzburg, so did I to check that the plan and reality were in line. Perfect, until I was very close to Drummond and found a lot of crates of Coke, lots of paper cups and water – and no people!

Instant panic. Where was I going to find the company that had agreed to be there at that time of the morning. I had phone numbers but we had no cell phones in 1979!  I drove on towards Drummond not feeling great at all when my headlights picked up a very sad and cold and worried looking bunch of people. They told me in panic that the Coke truck hadn’t arrived and what were we going to do?

After I had reunited those people with the crates of Coke I made my way to the finish in Pietermaritzburg. As it turned out that was my only problem of the day and bonus was seeing my Collegians Harriers team mate Piet Vorster come across the line to win.

And so the birth of refreshment stations along the entire route.  Today Comrades runners could simply not survive without them and I am extremely proud to have played such an crucial role in the birth of the refreshment stations.