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.