I have written about the fact that I’ll be attending my 60th Comrades in 2018 and I have spoken about it and I have also written and spoken about the fact that it’s the 50th anniversary of my first running of Comrades in 1968.
I have often told the story of how as a 9 year old boy I stood at the side of the road in Pinetown and watched the Comrades Marathon for the first time and was immediately captivated by it and I turned to my father who had taken me to watch the race and said to him “when I’m big I’m going to run this” and I have said over and over that I don’t know why I said this to him or what prompted me to say this. Whatever it was it proved to be something that was to define the path of my life in so many ways over the years since then, both in business and personally.
In 2017 I met one of our top women runners, Ann Ashworth, and I discovered that she has almost the exact same story as mine. Her father took her to watch the race when she was very young, younger than I had been when I saw my first Comrades and obviously many years after my experience, and she stood at the side of the road and as the runners came past she turned to her Dad and said “when I’m big I’m going to run this”. Comrades has had also had huge impact on her life.
I don’t know how many people have a similar story to the two of us but I certainly know many people who have thrown themselves into this race and given so much to it. People who have their Comrades numbers as their car registration numbers or part of their email addresses for example as I have. Just a small example but that sort of thing but at the risk of boring you to tears please allow me to tell you my story again.
After having not missed being at a Comrades since watching that race which Gerald Walsh won in 1956, on the 31st of May 1968 as a 21 year old young man I lined up at the start of the Comrades Marathon in Durban as a first time runner and 10 hours and 25 minutes later I crossed the finish line in Pietermaritzburg to earn the first of my 14 Comrades medals.
The strange thing is whilst I’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of my first Comrades, I don’t remember much about that day. I only remember about half a dozen or so bits of what happened during the day. I remember a few things that happened before I trotted down into Drummond and looked at my watch (an ordinary wristwatch) and it was 8 minutes past 11 and thinking that was OK and that if I could repeat that for the second half to Pietermaritzburg I’d be fine in terms of the 11 hours we had in those days.
I remember stopping about 200 metres before I got to Enthembeni School to listen to the radio – no TV sets back then – that a spectator had as Jackie Mekler – in my opinion one of the greatest Comrades runners – came in to the finish for his 5th win, a touch after 12 noon and thinking that I could only hurt for another 5 hours because then it would be 5pm and I would either be at the finish or I would have to stop because I would have run out of time and I had done 6 hours already so I and the pain were over half way.
Then I remember very little more until I reached Polly’s. Going up Polly’s that first Comrades of mine is crystal clear to this day. I knew how I was going to do that. I had planned that over and over before race day. 200 paces run. 100 paces walk. 200 paces run. 100 paces walk. 200 paces run. 100 paces walk and so on whether I was tired or not that’s what I was going to do and that’s what I did and soon the top was there.
The result was that Polly’s, and in fact no hill on Comrades or any other race, was ever a problem because that’s the way I handled them all and I’ve often spoken about controlled walking many times over the years. It’s as simple as that.
Does it hurt? Of course it hurts but it helps to get the pain over much quicker! Remember the old adage? If it didn’t hurt everyone would do it!
Back to that first Comrades and I remember nothing more until I came into the grounds of Collegians Club where we finished in those days. I don’t remember hearing any announcer and I don’t remember if there was one. Then suddenly it was all over and the watches had stopped at 10:25.
4:25pm on the 31st of May 1968 and I had finished Comrades!
I was alone on the track. No other runners. Just me. We weren’t given our medals on the day as happens now. We had to attend a “Medal Parade” a few weeks later where they were presented to us or they were posted if runners couldn’t get to the Medal Parade. The medals were engraved with our name and time.
I did 5 hours and 8 minutes for the first half and 5 hours 17 minutes for the second half. Still very proud of that split although I still have no idea what the distance of each half was. I didn’t care and I still don’t!
I had trained for four and a half months from absolute scratch to get there but I was very strong mentally because I had given lots of attention to that side of things as well as the physical side and the way I went up Polly’s was proof of that.
So the 10th of June 2018 I’ll be 71 and I’ll be attending my 60th Comrades and at the same time celebrating the 50th anniversary of that first run in 1968. I find it hard to believe that its 50 years ago but it is and so much water has flowed under that bridge since then but there are two things that have stayed in the same place.
Durban and Pietermaritzburg!
The start and finish may have been moved around a bit but Durban and Pietermaritzburg are still where they’ve always been! The distance may have changed a bit over different years but the race is always between those two cities and they’re where they’ve always been!
I have often been asked what distances I ran in my various Comrades. I have no idea how far any of them were. The distance made not one scrap of difference to me nor should it to anyone running Comrades. I’ve asked a couple of winners if they knew what distance they ran and those I asked also didn’t know. I was told to get to the start before 6am and run to the finish before 5pm as it was in those days – so I did!
I’ve missed only three races since 1956 and those were deliberate misses which I did after being at 50 races in succession and I did so because I thought that I had probably got Comrades out of my system by then. Those three were 2006, 2007 and 2008 and by the time the 2008 race came round I was going crazy because I wasn’t there and I even took myself overseas so that I didn’t feel it but it didn’t help. I sat in front of a computer all day in the UK and watched as much of the race as I could that was streamed live via the internet so whilst I regard myself as not having been there, I certainly watched as much of it as I could from 10,000kms away!
I didn’t plan that the two anniversaries (attending my 60th and the 50th anniversary of my first run) would both fall in 2018 and it was only a few years ago that I realised that they do.
Anyway I hadn’t got it out of my system after the 50 years and 2009 I was back at Comrades and have been every year since and as long as I am able to do so will continue attending. My next target is the 2021 Comrades. 100 years since the first Comrades when Bill Rowan trotted into Durban to win in 8 hours 59 minutes. That’s only 3 years away so all being well I should make that!
My next target after that is 2025. The 100th race. I was privileged to have run the 50th one and to have notched up my personal best time so to be at the 100th whilst only as a spectator is an important goal.
I have been involved in many facets of Comrades. I started as a spectator and then a second in the days before refreshment stations when runners had their own personal seconds. I’ve also served on the Comrades organising committee in what was one of the most rewarding of experiences.
I spent 18 years on the road reporting on the race “live” into news and sports bulletins for 702 Talk Radio and for many of those same years on arrival at the finish juggled my phone and a microphone as I also handled the stadium announcing as part of that team. It was also during that time that I was asked to handle the prizegiving one year and had the honour of meeting Madiba. Something I will never forget.
I brought many great runners home from that announcers’ tower at the finish and if you were to ask me to single out one or two special moments I would have to say the day in 1989 when Frith van der Merwe ran 5:54 to finish 15th overall and set a woman’s time that I think is going to take a huge effort to beat and Bruce Fordyce’s 9th win in 1990.
I doubt that we’ll ever see 9 wins from a runner again, certainly not in what’s left of my lifetime. I’m not certain that people fully understand what a feat it is to win Comrades once let alone 9 of them. Ask all those great runners who have failed to win whilst trying to do so and there is a long list I could rattle off of really top class distance runners who tried to win but couldn’t.
I’ve often been asked what the attraction of Comrades is that has drawn me back over and over for 60 years and I really don’t know what it is. I can easily explain the years when I ran. I can also easily explain the years when I was working as a journalist or stadium announcer but there are many who would say that the remaining years defy logic and I would be hard pressed to argue that. In fact I would have a bit of a problem arguing why I travel to Durban year after year to attend Comrades as a spectator.
Why I sit at the side of the road on race day cheering on a bunch of runners, most of whom I don’t know and those I do know are so busy fighting their enemy “time” that they don’t want to stop and talk anyway.
I don’t know why I go year after year to Expo to look at the same exhibitors offering almost the same things and why I shake my head along with some of the other “old timers” when we see obvious novices desperate to make sure they finish, prepared to try any product on offer that they think will get them to the finish on race day when all they really need to do is to get out there and run to the finish.
I can’t answer any of those questions and I wouldn’t even attempt to do so. It is one of those mysterious things that one is simply not able to answer. One of those things that one can try to arrive at some sort of logical answer and still not find one, so long ago I realised that there is no point in trying and that I should simply accept that when I stood at the side of the road as a 9 year old boy in 1956 and watched Comrades for the first time that something magical happened.
There’s no debate that over those 60 years I have met some of the most amazing people, some of whom have become lifelong friends but there’s more to it than just that. There was something so much more that did so much to shape my destiny and the direction of my life in so many wonderful ways.
That being the case, why try to find an explanation?