Ask me which are the highlight years of my Comrades involvement years and there are many but one of them will be 1979 for a variety of reasons not least of which is that I was on the Comrades organising committee when it was still organised by a sub-committee of Collegians Harriers and made up of just 5 of us and it was also the first time in 30 years that we had a Comrades winner from Pietermaritzburg. The last time that had happened was when Reg Allison won in 1949.
The interesting thing is that this was in fact the first ever win by a Collegians Harriers runner as the club was originally known as Maritzburg Harriers Athletic Club. During 1950 the club became a sub-section of Collegians Club and only then the name changed to Collegians Harriers so when Reg Allison won Comrades in 1949, Collegians Harriers didn’t actually exist.
Piet Vorster went into the record books as that first Collegians Harrier and many would say against all odds but was that really the case? Those of us in Collegians Harriers firmly maintain that it wasn’t against the odds. After many years I caught up with Piet and we went back to those far off years when this all happened.
DJ: Before we get to Comrades 1979, how many had you run before that and how had you gone in those?
PV: I ran my first one in 1971 whilst still at university in Pretoria and then it was on and off until I got to 1978 and finished in 4th place in the year that Alan Robb ran that brilliant sub 5:30 and I realised then that I should really take Comrades seriously. The year before that though, in 1977 I had finished 24th and that was the first bit of encouragement I had.
In total I ran 14 Comrades over a 24 year period.
DJ: I’ve seen one author who has written that it took you 7 years to win Comrades. What did he mean by that because it doesn’t sound like it to me?
PV: I have absolutely no idea because until my 24th place in 1977 and my 4th place in 1978 I hadn’t really taken Comrades that seriously and it was only after those two and in particular the 1978 4th place that I realised that I had the potential to win Comrades. So that I took 7 years to win Comrades I don’t know about, unless he’s saying that it was 7 years from the time of my first one to my win, but even that isn’t right because it was 8 years and in my early years of Comrades the thought of gold let alone winning didn’t even cross my mind.
DJ: That same author also said that your build-up to Comrades in 1979 hadn’t been all that impressive but I remember differently that you had some good pre-Comrades runs and that you had a convincing win in the Arthur Newton 56km at the end of April.
More importantly I remember that a bunch of us from Collegians Harriers went up to Blythedale Beach for the weekend for the Stanger to Mandini race on the North Coast that was very popular back then and we were sitting around in one of the chalets talking about Comrades and who we thought was going to win and your wife very quietly nodded in your direction and said “there’s this year’s winner of Comrades”.
Do you remember that and had you already decided that you were going for it that year because after that comment I certainly had no doubt at all who was going to win.
PV: I don’t remember that weekend and as a result I don’t remember that comment from my wife.
Again I don’t understand the unimpressive build-up to Comrades. I was very happy with my build-up to Comrades and I remember that Arthur Newton win and was very happy with that and in fact very happy with the way all my training had gone until the upset right at the end.
DJ: If we fast forward to race morning and the upset you mention. It’s widely reported that you almost didn’t start because of a painful Achilles tendon you had picked up a couple of weeks before and you had a jog around the block before the start with no pain and you decided to start. Is that basically what happened?
PV: No, but partly correct. It wasn’t actually a jog around the block at the start, but what happened was that about three weeks earlier, a group of us were on what was probably our last long run of about 40Km and I felt the discomfort in the tendon so between then and Comrades I gave it lots of rest but on Comrades morning I still wasn’t sure so I went for a run to test it.
I did a run of about 4km on Field’s Hill where I was staying with my brother who was also my second and I could feel it wasn’t quite right and when I got back to my brother’s house, I said to my brother that I wasn’t going to run. My brother insisted that I should at least start and I could always withdraw if necessary but I had come too far and trained too hard, not to start so I went to the start and from there I lined up and started.
DJ: So now the race starts and Johnny Halberstadt takes off like a man possessed. What was going through your mind because he went through Drummond in record pace and you were 2nd at that stage.
PV: I was 5 minutes behind him going up Botha’s and my seconds told me that I was closing the gap on Johnny. I was running comfortably and my plan was to carry on at the pace at which I had trained and that was what I was aiming to do. I knew that if I could maintain the pace I was doing I would be fine. I wasn’t chasing Halberstadt. I was running at the pace at which I had trained and was maintaining that and I was on schedule and the Achilles was forgotten.
DJ: In the stretch between Cato Ridge and Camperdown you saw Halberstadt for the first time since the start and you were still strong. That must have given you a huge boost.
PV: It definitely did despite the fact that I had been getting the messages on what he was doing for the previous 10kms but when I actually saw him then I knew that I had got him.
DJ: I don’t think any of us will forget that TV footage of you looking down at him lying in the grass as you went past him. Did you know it was all over then or were you concerned he would or could come back at you?
PV: I knew it was all over. I knew he couldn’t come back at me. I was strong and relaxed and running at my own pace and I got nothing from my seconds to alert me that I should be worried about anything. Polly’s lay ahead of me and I took that without any problem at all.
DJ: The first Pietermaritzburg man in 30 years to win Comrades and the finish was in Pietermaritzburg and that was home. I was in the finish pen that year when you came in and I know how I felt but I can’t begin to think what you must have felt like. Do you still remember it all these years later?
PV: Strangely, I didn’t feel anything different from any other Comrades finish – at that stage – when I crossed the finish line. What I had done only started to sink in some time afterwards and the following day and in the days after that and then I was very grateful that it all worked out for me that day.
DJ: A win and a record and just two seconds short of becoming the first man to break 5:45 for the Up Run but very little recognition is given to you for your win these days. Does that disappoint you – even a little bit?
PV: No – not at all. I got all the recognition I deserved after my win. If you win Comrades you’ve won it and that’s something you live with for the rest of your life and it never leaves you. One thing that struck me as very strange after the race is that some media, both television and some written media, referred to me as a virtual unknown who had won and that after I had finished 4th in Comrades the previous year!
This photograph taken after the race with 2nd placed Johnny Halberstadt on the left, Piet in the middle and Bruce Fordyce who finished in 3rd place on the right.
DJ: Clearly someone hadn’t done their homework! After that win. Did you come back again and give it another full go because we were starting to go into the Fordyce era and even Alan Robb could only manage one more win against him. Did you retire from competitive Comrades running soon after that? I know you moved to the Cape but did you carry on running Comrades from there or did you call it a day?
PV: No, I didn’t retire from Comrades. I got two more gold medals in years shortly after that but I didn’t run in 1980 simply through a lack of commitment but I had a 3rd place in the Dusi Canoe Marathon behind the late Graeme Pope-Ellis and second placed Andre Hawarden in 1980.
I also didn’t run in 1981 but then came back in 1982 and had a full go on the Down Run and finished 6th for a gold medal and then 7th in 1983 then after that, it was a case of as and when I felt like it until 1996 and that was my 14th and last one.
The story then of the man who set the record in 1979 of 5:45:02 and beat Johnny Halberstadt who finished 2nd and Bruce Fordyce who was 3rd and the man who was the first Pietermaritzburg winner in 30 years and the man who, on Comrades morning decided not to run because of a slight niggle to his Achilles Tendon until told to at least start by his brother who was also his second and the rest – as they say – is history!
Sadly Piet contracted Motor Neuron Disease a couple of years ago and today is wheelchair bound. At Comrades 2017 he was a guest of honour and one of the past winners who was presented with his Winner’s Blazer at the prizegiving, something that Comrades introduced a few years ago and Piet made the trip to Pietermaritzburg for the awarding of that blazer.
Piet also was given the job of awarding green numbers to certain of the runners who had won their numbers and as a result had joined the Green Number Club along with Piet and many others of us who have qualified by running Comrades 10 times.
Research is ongoing into MND and as we are right now there is no cure and the research is obviously very expensive and should there be any readers of this blog who wish to make donations in Piet’s Vorster’s name to assist with this research this can be done by electronic transfer to:
MNDA of SA,
Account Number: 270629130
Standard Bank of SA Ltd
Rondebosch Branch Code: 025009
Ref : Piet Vorster – Comrades Marathon
Swift Code (essential for International Transfers): SBZAZAJJ 02500911.
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