Posted in PERSONAL STORIES

MY 60 YEARS AT COMRADES

Now that the dust has settled on the 90th Comrades Marathon in 2015, I thought it might be a good time to have a look back over the 60 years since my relationship with Comrades started on 31st May 1956. I haven’t been at all 60 races. I missed three of them but 2015 was the 57th time I have been at Comrades.

I have been fortunate to have done many things in Comrades over that time (except win it of course) beginning as a spectator, moving on to the job of second before the days of refreshment stations then to actually running the race 14 times and serving on the organising committee then I moved on to a radio journalist reporting on the race over 10 times for Radio 702 and also being fortunate enough to be able to present shows from the Expo. In this photo interviewing Andrew Hudson who at the time was opening bat for South Africa.

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At the same time I was also stadium announcer and  also for a period in excess of 10 years. It was during the stadium announcing time and whilst working with TV man Arnie Geerdts, we decided that it was our job to get the crowds worked into a frenzy before each cut off.

Also during the time as stadium announcer I had the honour of meeting the Late Nelson Mandela whilst I was doing the prizegiving. That will go down as one of the really major moments in my life.

Now back to a spectator and in 2015 writing these blogs that I know some people have enjoyed and also tweeting non training tips that help in preparation and on race day and again more very positive feedback.

Does this mean that my relationship with Comrades is about to come to an end? There is no chance of that. The love I have for this “happening” is just far too strong for that to happen and as long I am able to stand upright, it’s my intention to be at Comrades.

So what is this blog all about? What I would like to do is to summarise in as short a post as possible the 60 years since I first met this race.

1956 and I met Comrades for the first time and the race was won by Gerald Walsh. I was immediately captivated by the whole event and remember that there were under 100 runners at the time.

1958, Jackie Mekler won his first of five Comrades. A childhood hero of mine and today I am proud to call him a friend. Such is this race.

1961 George Claasen, a headmaster from Middelburg in what is now Mpumalanga won the race against all odds. “Oom George” was the father of Springbok Captain, Wynand Claasen and in later years was very involved in road running and still has a marathon named after him in Centurion that’s usually one of the last Comrades Qualifiers.

GEORGE CLAASEN

1962 a team from The English Road Runners Club came to Comrades to run against a local team. Englishman John Smith won the race and apart from Jackie Mekler taking second place, the English took the remaining top places.

JOHN SMITH 1962

1965 saw the wettest Comrades in history. A very happy Englishman Bernard Gomersall is reported to “done a jig” when he saw the weather which suited him. He won the race easily. Interestingly in 1968 Gomersall came back again and was in a state of near exhaustion when he finished in 7th place.

1967 the drama year when Tommy Malone collapsed at the finish line and was beaten by one second by Manie Kuhn in what is the closest finish ever. Official times have it at one second but the general feeling is that with the sophisticated timing equipment we have today, the time would probably have been closer than one second.

comrades 1967 

1968 and Jackie Mekler won his fifth Comrades Marathon and I ran my first one. Around 600 runners and I finished in 320th position in a time of 10:25.

JACKIE MEKLER1969 and Dave Bagshaw won the first of his three successive wins. Going for his fourth win in 1972 Englishman, Mick Orton caused a major upset by beating Bagshaw.  Orton was part of the Tipton Harriers team that won the Gunga Din Trophy.

1975 and the Golden Jubilee race and for the first time the race was open to all runners within certain age limits and Betty Cavanagh was the first official woman’s winner of a Comrades medal.

BETTY CAVANAGH

The race that year was limited to 1500 runners because organisers were concerned that the roads couldn’t handle any more than that. 1975 a special year for me in that I ran my best time. A very modest 8:29 but a time of which I am proud.

1976 and a new hero on the scene. Alan Robb won the first of his four Comrades. Three in a row and then 1980 for the fourth win. Alan has now run over 40 Comrades. ALAN ROBBThen came the 1980’s and Bruce Fordyce. Eight wins in eight years and one of the finest tacticians I think Comrades has ever seen. He ran his race and according to his plans and won. He also was a master mind games player and destroyed more than one runner who tried to de-throne him. BRUCE FORDYCEBruce didn’t run in 1989, choosing instead to run an international although unofficial 100km race in Stellenbosch which he also won and this left the door open for a new winner and that was Sam Tshabalala, the first black winner of Comrades, who took the lead at Tollgate to upset the dreams of KZN favourite, Willie Mtolo who had to be content with second place.

SAM TSHABABALA

And another big happening in the 1989 Comrades was the amazing run by Frith van der Merwe who finished in 15th position overall to set a women’s race record of 5:54:43 that still stands after 26 years.

FRITH

Bruce Fordyce was back again in 1990 to win his 9th Comrades and his last competitive race and then we moved into the 1990’s with start of the big foreign wave of winners.   1993 it was German, Charly Doll, 1994 the American Alberto Salazar who used a completely different strategy to that we had seen before when he basically went to the lead In Westville on the up run – and stayed there. Some felt (and I was one of them) that he was lucky not to have been caught by Nick Bester near the end. Bester was significantly stronger than the American.

A sprinkling of South African winners like Shaun Meiklejohn and Charl Mattheus but it was mainly time for the East Europeans and particularly the Russians who made the Comrades theirs for the better part of 10 years.

2000 was a big year for Comrades. The “Millenium Race” attracted around 24,000 runners, the largest field ever seen in Comrades and the time limit was extended to 12 hours to accommodate those hopefuls who wanted to be part of this amazing event. 2000 also saw Comrades with the only female Chairperson (she actually referred to herself as Chairman) in its history when the Late Alison West took the event into a new century.

The only multiple winner we have seen in the last 10 years has been Zimbabwean Stephen Muzhingi who managed a hat trick of wins in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and eventually the 90th Comrades in 2015 saw Gift Kelehe win and join big brother Andrew who won in 2001 to become the first brothers ever to have won Comrades.

There you have it, a summary of my 60 year relationship with this incredible “happening” called Comrades Marathon.

Posted in COMRADES PERSONALITIES

MICK WINN – LONG TIME COMRADES BOSS :

I have referred to Mick Winn on numerous occasions as Chairman of many different organisations in the road running world from Collegians Harriers, Comrades Marathon, CMA and South African Road Running Assoc to name but a few. Mick has been in the public eye for many years as the spokesman for these various bodies but how many people actually know what makes this man tick.

Mick Winn

I have known Mick since 1971 but when I wanted to write this blog I found that whilst he’s a very public person, Mick is actually a very private person so I asked him to tell me who Mick Winn is

 

D.J.   You’ve been involved in Comrades for a long time. What caused this love of Comrades to start.

M.W.      In 1956 I moved from Durban to Pmb when I purchased my first pharmacy.  I played golf believing that it would promote my customer base, which inevitably resulted in spending extended periods at the 19th hole.  I was also a smoker, which I realised detracted from the healthy lifestyle that I was presumably expected to project in my profession.  In 1963 I decided to give up both smoking and golf.  I lived on the Comrades Marathon route and was woken one morning (31 May) to the sounds of extra traffic on the road, followed a short time later by the sounds of traffic going in the opposite direction followed by guys running.  Some slender and very fit looking, others quite portly and running much slower.  I later discovered that I had witnessed Comrades runners and their entourages on their way to Durban.  My overwhelming impression was – if they can do it, so can I.  Hence began a 52 year association with the greatest race of them all.

 

D.J.      Whilst you were still running you also developed an interest in road running  (mainly) administration. How did that start? How long were you at the helm of Comrades and were you instrumental in the establishment of CMA? 

M.W.      Within the year following completion of my first Comrades Marathon I joined Collegians Harriers Athletic Club (it was not a requirement to belong to a club for your first Comrades in those days).  I have always been the sort of person who becomes actively involved and within a couple of years I was voted in as chairman of the club.  Comrades in those days was an ordinary club race, organised by small sub-committee of Collegians Harriers, and as chairman I automatically became a member of the sub-committee.  I continued as chairman for 12 years, ran 12 Comrades (in times varying from 10:52 to 6:35).  During this time I became chairman of both the main club and the Comrades committee.  We progressed from being a sub-committee (with its own finances) and from being financially embarrassed (two of us had to stand as guarantors for the payment of medals which were manufactured in England by the Royal Mint) to a situation in which there were surplus funds.  The cross-country section of the club made a strong move to have these funds utilised to purchase a small bus to transport athletes to and from cross-country events , which was strongly opposed by the Comrades committee, the members of which were far more concerned with protecting the future sustainability of the race.  The move was eventually circumvented by a vote within the club to form a separate autonomous association that would have total control over the race and responsibility for its assets.  Obtaining permission to have an association recognised by the provincial athletic authorities is another long story in itself.  I was elected as the founding chairman of the Comrades Marathon Association and continued until 1985. 

 

D.J.      I remember that you were instrumental in changing the NMRA from a primarily Durban organisation to a true provincial body. It seems when you believe strongly in something you’ll move heaven and earth to correct what you consider incorrect. 

M.W.      During this period (approx 1975 – 1985) road running in South African was growing at a phenomenal rate.  The charisma of Bruce Fordyce and the advent of television coverage of  road running were to a very large degree responsible for so much attention being directed to the sport.  Logically the demands on the provincial body (Natal Marathon Runners Association) necessitated an expansion of that body as well.  It went hand in glove with the formation of the SA Road Running Association which adopted a national stand point and initiated the implementation of minimum standards and requirements that the organisation of a road race which now must comply with (medical facilities, accurate course measurement, referees & technical officials.  My chairmanship of NMRA was 3 years and 12 years with SARRA.

 

D.J.        Certain people are blessed with the ability to speak in public in a very strong way. You have that ability. Is it a natural gift or did you learn it through Toastmasters or some other such body? 

M.W.      I am not at all sure that I have an ability to speak well in public.  I am of the view though that if you believe strongly enough on any subject you will have no difficulty in articulating your thoughts on this subject.  I never belonged to Toastmasters but did participate in a Dale Carnegie course when I first moved to Pmb.

 

D.J.      Running, and Comrades specifically, has changed over the last 20 or so years. When you look at “the old days” and now, has the change been good for the sport. 

M.W.    There have been enormous changes in every facet of the CM except the most important and intrinsic ones – the ethos and spirit of the race.  Multi-sponsorship, media attention and larger fields have led to ever-increasing demands in terms of organisation and technology, but at the end of the day it is still a footrace between Durban and Pmb and the basics remain the same.  There are just a lot more frills today.  It will be remembered that Comrades was the first major sporting event in the country to be opened to men and women of all races in 1975.   This in itself led to an increase in numbers, bearing in mind that the sport of running is achievable to almost everyone.  Investment in equipment is minimal unlike many sports.  Fortunately the growth has been gradual and the organisers have been able to keep pace with it.  From a race which was organised completely by 5 men in the lounge of someone’s home to a fulltime staff contingent of 13 operating from a Comrades owned museum and administrative headquarters is proof of such growth.  It has been incredibly good for the sport.

 

 D.J.      South Africa is definitely no longer in the league it was in the 90s in terms of marathon runners when we had the likes of Mtolo, Tsebe, Peu, Thugwane and others. Is it because development has been left behind or are the runners just not there.

M.W.        As you suggest South African road running is certainly not in the same space it was in the 1990’s.  The ability must still be out there but unfortunately it remains undiscovered and/or unfulfilled.  These days athletics administration appears to be more focussed on position, power and protocol than on the development and promotion of its athletes.  The current road running commission in ASA bears no resemblance whatsoever to the dynamism of SARRA in former years.  SARRA’s focus was not only improving the sport, but also incentivising the athletes, encouraging and providing competition and opportunities for excellence.  More and more athletes are discovering the sport, but few are attaining the heights of those years.

 

D.J.        One of the things I have always wished for is to see one of my children come into the finish of this passion we call Comrades. Describe how you felt in 1979 when Graham came in and you met him in the finish area.

M.W.      The picture taken on the finish line of Comrades when my son Graham finished tells it all.  He was only 18 years old (acceptable entry age at that time) and finished in a time of 7:12.  He was almost beyond exhaustion and seeing your son in that condition is heart-breaking.  His grit and determination is still manifest today and he shows it in almost everything that he does.  He is one of South Africa’s leading event equestrians and has represented South Africa at World Championships.

 

D.J.    In terms of your own running, I don’t know if people realise that you were an above average runner. You have your Comrades green number. You have also run at least one 100 miler and a pretty good marathon PB.

M.W.    Twelve finishes for permanent number 138, all consecutive until the demands of chairmanship put an end to the challenge.  Worst time was first run – 10:52 and best time 6:35.  PB Marathon time was 2:45.  Did one 100 Miler (160km) on the track – finished 6th in an overall time of 15 hours, something.

 

D.J.      Finally, do you think that the passion Mick Winn has for Comrades will ever wane? I know you have a new idea of compiling untold or forgotten Comrades stories.

M.W.      Does the passion that anyone has for Comrades ever wane”  Mine certainly hasn’t..  I have been physically present at every race since 1964 – 52 years with one exception. – Cheryl gave birth to our son, Simon on Comrades day in 1986.  He missed the gun by 50 minutes giving both the doctor and me the opportunity to watch the race in its entirety on TV.  It was a truly unique coincidence for our son to have been born on the day that means so much to both of us.