In May 1921 one man with a somewhat crazy idea saw his dream of a foot race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban become reality and at the end May every year we see the running of the Comrades Marathon. 90 of them are behind us now and we look ahead to 2025 to the 100th race, something that the man who came up with this crazy idea could not possibly have dreamt about.
That man in 1921 was Vic Clapham
It’s the road followed by the runners that I want to more or less look at. Comrades is run in alternate directions each year unless there’s a reason to change that and have two races in the same direction in successive years but this is not all that usual but as the original race was a “down run” I’ll look at that direction and as the next race we have in 2016 is a Down Run that’s another good reason to look at the Down Run in this chapter of The Marathon.
The “down run” starts outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall which still claims to be the biggest red brick building in the southern hemisphere. Originally built in 1893, the Pietermaritzburg City Hall was badly damaged by fire in 1895 but rebuilt to its former glory in 1901.
The city hall organ is one of the largest pipe organs in the southern hemisphere. It has 3806 pipes ranging in size from 11 metres down to the thickness of a knitting needle.
If you look carefully at the photograph of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall you will see towards the left, the permanent structure that marks the start of the first Comrades in 1921.
Most people believe that the city got its name from two famous Voortrekker leaders, Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz but there is another thinking that it was named after Piet Retief alone. Retief’s middle name was Maurits and there is therefore some who think that the city started off as Pieter Maurits Burg – but who knows? However in 1938 the city fathers took the decision that the second part of the city’s name should honour Gert Maritz. Interestingly, history tells us that neither Retief nor Maritz ever actually got to the city. Retief killed by Dingane and Maritz died of an illness in the Estcourt area.
We leave Pietermaritzburg and make our way onto the “old road” which until the new highway was built, carried the traffic to Durban. Perhaps one of the most famous – or is that notorious – landmarks on the road must be “Polly Shortts” which – particularly on the Up Run – has been the undoing of many a runner. Polly Shortts is named after a farmer who lived nearby in years gone by, and whose help was often sought when, after heavy rain, the road up the hill became muddy and impassable and one can imagine that, when you consider almost 2km of an extremely steep hill in the days before tarred roads that Mr. Shortts’ tractor was needed.
Not too far after Polly Shortts we dip down to a little river and we find the Tumble Inn and in the days when Comrades started at 6am it wasn’t uncommon to see spectators having dragged double beds onto the route and would be watching the race as the runners went by, from the comfort of their beds, glass of champagne in hand. Naturally very warmly dressed as at that time on a winter’s morning it was very “fresh” in that part of the world.
Tumble Inn Teapot is situated on a Stud Farm in Ashburton. It’s a quaint little farmhouse offering a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy a timeout with the girls, a quick snack with hubby or a get together with the moms group! It sits at the bottom of a little hill that runners in the “old days” used to incorrectly call Mkondeni which is actually a suburb of Pietermaritzburg. The modern runner calls it “Little Polly’s” and again, on the Up Run, not a very pleasant little climb.
Nothing much to see as we climb up through suburbs to reach the N3 as it’s still dark on the Down Run and to the turnoff to the Lion Park and apart from the game that obviously includes lions you will find elephant and various antelope and certainly worth a visit.
But let’s move along the road back onto the Comrades route as we head to the highest point between Pietermaritzburg and Durban at Umlaas Road we get to the highest point on the route between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.
That’s right. You have been running for 20kms UPHILL to reach the highest point on the route of the DOWN RUN! You have been warned and it’s mainly in the dark so you can’t clearly see that it’s uphill.
After that it’s on through to Camperdown and
then to Cato Ridge and then onto the “old road” proper and the crowds start to gather to give you that much needed encouragement.
Along what is known as “Harrison Flats” and the turnoff to Nagel Dam and into the start of the Valley of 1000 Hills but for a better view of the Valley we need to travel a bit further along the route and to resist the temptation to stop on Comrades Day to look at the view which is really quite spectacular.
On from the turnoff to Nagel Dam a few kilometres further we reach the Entambeni School for the Disabled who have long been recipients of part of the charity from Comrades for many years. The children are out in numbers at the side of the road cheering the runners on race day.
Another couple of kilometres and we get to Inchanga. At the top more fantastic views this time towards the N3 down far below with scenic KZN in the background and ahead lies the little village of Drummond that is the official half way in Comrades and the point where the dreams of many runners are shattered when they are pulled off the road because they couldn’t make the cut off in the required time. Drummond comes alive on Comrades day as hundreds of spectators gather to see the runners and that dreadful gun the signals the half way cut off time.
But Drummond hasn’t always had its tarred roads for runners to use.
About a kilometre on the Durban side of Drummond, a couple of really important things. Firstly a really nasty little climb out of Drummond that doesn’t really have a name that can be mentioned in polite circles and at the top of that is the famed “Arthur’s Seat” a seat carved out of the bank which is reputed to be the spot where the great Arthur Newton took a breather every year during his races in the 1920’s and runners are encouraged to stop and put a flower on the seat and greet the “spirit of the great man” with “Morning Arthur” if they want him to help them in the second half of the race. You can laugh about this if you wish but even the great Alan Robb greets Arthur Newton every year! Are you prepared to take a chance and do the second half without Arthur’s help? I certainly wouldn’t!
A few hundred metres further is possibly the best view of the breath taking Valley of a Thousand Hills and it’s also there that we find the Comrades Wall Of Honour that any runner who finishes the race can buy a plaque and have his or her name put up of the wall for all to see for all time.
The Valley of 1000 Hills is one of those few holiday destinations that has something for everyone. Unspoilt nature, wildlife, magnificent scenery, wining and dining, and warm country hospitality just a half an hour’s drive from the centre of Durban. The area is named after the thousands of hills which tumble down to the mighty Umgeni River, which flows from the Drakensberg Mountains to the Indian Ocean.
The old joke goes about sending mother in law for a one week holiday on each hill! Unkind and old but still used by many a downtrodden son in law.
Then on, into Botha’s Hill village, and another of the “big five hills” and some famous landmarks, probably the best known is the old Rob Roy Hotel that has now become a retirement home and one can but envy the views that the residents have with a different view over the Valley of 1000 Hills.
Not much further along the road is one of KZN’s most famous boys’ school, Kearsney College that excels in virtually every area. The classroom and the sports fields.
Comrades Day and it’s usual that the boys from Kearsney will be sitting and watching the runners go by and cheering for most of the day.
The beautiful entrance to Kearsney College seen in the autumn and incidentally, Kearsney College was founded in 1921, the year in which Comrades was first run.
Down the valley and into Hillcrest which about 30 years ago was no more than a village that has exploded into a good sized town offering everything from shopping to accommodation.
Leave Hillcrest and make your way through the leafy suburb of Winston Park and through into Kloof (heaven help you if you don’t pronounce it “Clue-oof” if you visit KZN). It is here in the Old Main Road that hundreds of spectators set up their areas to watch the race and cordon them off the day before Comrades to see the runners come through. The braai and beers forming as important a part of the day as do the runners.
After Kloof, it’s the drop down Field’s Hill into Pinetown and into the Josiah Gumede Road (formerly The Old Main Road) and well known to all Comrades runners since 1921.
Pinetown was a quiet little family type town until the early eighties but over recent years has boomed into a commercial hub. It has a rich history and as one travels through the centre of the town and you reach the Municipal Buildings one will find the stumps and bails on the commonage between the Pinetown Civic Centre and the Library alongside Old Main Road (now Josiah Gumede Road) to commemorate the founding of the Pinetown Cricket Club in 1878, when the first match was played there. Please don’t stop there on Comrades day to look at the wickets as that will serve only to waste valuable time.
The wickets are some 20kms from the finish of Comrades on the Down Run and on your left hand side! Interesting that when they were set up such cricketing greats as the late South African and Australian captains, Jackie McGlew and Richie Benaud were at the ceremony. There was also a small boy watching all this who grew up in Pinetown and who would many years later go on to run in Comrades Green Number 482 – but that’s another story altogether!
Leave Pinetown and it’s up and over Cowies Hill where at the top there is a fantastic view back over the town. On the Down Run it’s a tough climb but once you reach the top of Cowies Hill you know that most of the really hard work has been done and now it’s just “vasbyt”.
Cowies Hill has always been a very nice suburb of Pinetown with lovely houses and gardens. A sought after suburb.
Then it’s into Westville. Westville is an area near Durban and is some 15 km from Durban itself. Formerly an independent municipality governed by a Town Council, it is now part of the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, which also includes Durban. The town was laid out on the farm Westville (named in honour of Martin West, who was the first British lieutenant-governor of Natal) and it was formed in 1847. It developed from a settlement of German immigrants who arrived in 1848, and was proclaimed a borough in 1956.
When you get to the bottom of Cowies Hill on the Durban side the distance marker boards suddenly start to get invitingly low in terms of distance to go and it’s not long and suddenly you are into single figures as you reach 45th Cutting and you are now on the very outskirts of Durban and home is a mere 8kms away.
From 45th Cutting it’s a climb up from the traffic lights, over the top and down to what Durbanites call the Western Bypass and then it’s along a bit and the final little climb to the Tollgate Bridge.
Then it’s just 5kms home and it’s all downhill and flat running through the city centre to the finish at Kingsmead after you have spent the day running through some of the most beautiful parts of South Africa. A part of the country that thousands of runners who live the dream of a man who started this magical experience called The Comrades Marathon in 1921 have experienced.
It’s estimated some 300,000 runners have travelled this Old Road to Durban or from Durban over the years since 34 hardy souls set off to create history from outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall on 24 May 1921.