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.