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.