June 1, 2015 by DAVE JACK
The 90th Comrades Marathon is done and dusted. Records, with Gift Kelehe winning and joining big brother Andrew to become the only brothers in the 90 year race history to win Comrades. Also the first time in many years that South Africans finished first and second in the women’s race with Caroline Wostmann and Charne Bosman taking the first two places.
Let’s, however, look back in time and try to compare the Golden Jubilee race in 1975 with the 90th in 2015. I was fortunate enough to have run the 50th Comrades in 1975 and thrilled that I was able to run my best Comrades in what some would consider to be a slow time, but, which for me, will always be something of which I’m proud. It was 8:29.
I was also fortunate to have been at the 90th Comrades on Sunday, 40 years after my best one but 60 years after I was at my first Comrades as a 9 year old spectator in 1956.
Again I have been fortunate to have been involved in Comrades this year because of these blogs, a lot of tweets which I hope have helped some of the back of the field runners and I have also been able to assist a couple of runners in their training. I was thrilled when I was told that two runners I didn’t know took my 200/100 advice on running hills and found it made a huge difference to their ability to get up some of those hills. Makes one feel really good to hear those sorts of things.
It was while I was sitting at the side of the road in Botha’s Hill last Sunday, that I started thinking about the 50th and the 90th Comrades and the difference between them. Which one do I think was better? That is an impossible question to answer, certainly I’m not able to answer it and remember that Comrades 2015 is the 57th race which I have attended. I have been fortunate to have been a spectator, a second to friends, a runner of 14 of them, a committee member, a radio reporter on another 14 Comrades, the stadium announcer for about 10 races and now as I age, back where I started, as a spectator.
So which one, 50th or 90th was better? As I said, I defy anyone to be able to answer that because every Comrades since the first one I saw in 1956, differs from every other one. Better than the previous races, or just different? My feeling is that if anything is to progress, no matter what it is, there has to be growth and change in so many ways. A lot of people may not like change but as they say, the only constant in life is change!
So, let’s have a look at the 50th in 1975 and the 90th in 2015. The only thing the two races have in common is that Durban is where it’s always been and so is Pietermaritzburg. I can’t think of anything else except perhaps the 5 major hills.
Roadworks and the number of runners now in Comrades have forced small changes to the route in some instances taking away a few nasty little climbs and changes to finishing venues but nothing else too major.
So that’s the route done.
What about the organisers? In 1975, for the 50th we had a sub-committee of Collegians Harriers comprising five people and for the 90th Comrades in 2015, a big management team (note that I didn’t use the word committee) as Comrades is no longer a little locally organised run but has grown to a massive international event with many more facets today than there were in 1975. The TV planning itself is a major undertaking. The Comrades Museum and social media are big jobs, neither of which were there in 1975 so before one condemns, it’s important to understand how the world has changed and if Comrades had not changed with it, there would be no Comrades.
What about what happened on the road during the run?
Firstly, the biggest two differences are the number of runners, 1400 starters in 1975 for the 50th against the better part of 15,000 this year. The other big difference is that in 2015, there were almost 50 refreshment stations from start to finish catering for virtually every need the runner might have. Then in addition, there are paramedics on the road covering the entire distance.
In 1975, for the 50th, there were no refreshment stations. Those were still a couple of years away and there were no paramedics on the road. Each runner had his or her (remember that women were allowed to compete officially for the first time in 1975) own second, either on a motorcycle so that getting through the traffic was fairly easy, or in a car that made getting through the traffic a major undertaking but whether bike or car, both were loaded with cooler boxes, water, cold drinks and ice and with the traffic there was no guarantee that you would get a drink as often as you would like if your second was in a car.
The other major difference was the time limit. Whilst in the first few Comrades in the 1920s there was a 12 hour time limit, it was changed to 11 hours and it stayed there until 2000 when it went back to 12 hours. Pretty much the same distance in the 50th as it was in the 90th, but an hour less time in which to finish back then.
Before Comrades there was no Expo for the 50th and no computerisation or Champion Chip. It was all a manual exercise for the 50th as opposed to very sophisticated computer systems for the 90th and automatic timing at the finish via Champion Chip. I found the live tracking of runners via the app to be amazing this year and really hope this happens every year. It was brilliant. In 1975 there were no such things as “apps”.
In terms of what runners wore in the 50th, it was pretty barbaric when compared to what runners wore in the 90th. A lot of runners were still in “takkies” and some of us in the early model running shoes with very little in the way of protection against the thumping your knees, hips and back took from almost 90km. Having said that I did see a couple of runners on Sunday running barefoot. To my mind and considering my permanent back injury from inadequate shoes, I think that is plain crazy.
Is it then possible to really compare the 50th Comrades in 1975 and the 90th Comrades in 2015. I honestly don’t believe that it’s possible to look at the two events and say that one was better than the other. Speak to the runners who did the 90th Comrades and probably most would tell you that they would hate to have run the 50th because of so little in the way of facilities.
On the other hand, find an “old timer” who ran the 50th in 1975 and in all probability you will hear something along the lines of “those were fun days, I would hate to run today”
From my point of view? The 50th and the 90th had one thing in common. They were both fantastic and I can only hope that I will still be able to be at the side of the road to see my 67th race in the centenary Comrades in 2015.