I was deeply saddened on the morning of the 1st of July 2019 when I heard the news that Comrades great and 5 time winner, Jackie Mekler, had passed away at the age of 87. What made it even worse was that I had spent time with him at Comrades this year less than a month earlier.
Jackie Mekler. Superb athlete and absolute gentleman
Jackie had been my hero when I was a child and when I was a teenager watching Comrades in those early days of the late 50’s and early 60’s and when he won his 5th Comrades in 1968 it was the year I ran my first one. By winning that year, Jackie became only the 4th runner to win Comrades five times and I remember clearly where I was at the exact moment that happened.
Jackie in Comrades wearing his famous race number 9
I had come through Drummond and over Inchanga and was heading towards the Enthembeni School when a spectator at the side of the road shouted “He’s coming in. Jackie’s coming in to win Comrades”.
I stopped where this spectator was and whilst I didn’t have a clue who the spectator was, I stood with him and listened on his portable radio to the commentary by the SABC’s Michael Toms of Jackie Mekler coming in to win his 5th Comrades. I looked at my watch and it was just after 12 noon.
My hero had done it! He had joined that elite group of Newton, Ballington and Hayward as the only runners to have won 5 Comrades. It would be another very nearly 20 years before anyone else achieved that when Bruce Fordyce won his 5th in 1985. We all know that Bruce went on to win 9 of them, 8 in succession.
It was a special day for me, the 31st of May 1968. Jackie Mekler had won his 5th Comrades and I had finished my first one – albeit it almost four and half hours later. For some strange reason, and I have never known why, I felt a special bond between Jackie and me and I still do because of the 1968 race, despite the fact that it was still many years before I would meet him in person. I mention this about Jackie Mekler that I published in January 2016.
The following year in 1969, Comrades was one of very mixed emotions for me. I took a little under 2 hours off my time of the previous year and I was thrilled beyond description, and Jackie Mekler was tipped by those “in the know” to win his 6th that would have put him as the man with the most wins ever.
That 6th win didn’t happen for him though, as Jackie had problems on the road that year in what was his last competitive Comrades, and he had to be content with his 3rd place.
My mixed emotions, apart from my own run, were because whilst I had wanted to see Jackie get his 6th win, Comrades 1969 was won by a friend of mine, Dave Bagshaw, with whom I had done quite a bit of running because he was a regular visitor to Ian Jardine’s Sunday morning group and that’s where I ran my weekly long runs.
Dave had won in 5:45:35 to set a new best time (record) for the Down Run, the first of his three successive Comrades wins. He set a new best time for the Up Run in 1970 as well and just missed beating his own Down Run time in 1971.
Fast forward to the 90’s and I had, by that time, stopped running having been forced to do so because of a back injury that turned out to be permanent, but what had happened after my 14th Comrades was that I had become involved with Radio 702 and I was a regular at road races all around South Africa, giving details of road races that were being held. I had got onto 702 by pure accident (but that’s a story I have already told elsewhere) and through hard work I had managed to get 702 (and not me) to the point of being regarded, in many places, as the voice of road running, particularly in Gauteng, but Comrades every year was the highlight for me on radio.
This had come about mainly because we were virtually everywhere reporting races but at the same time I got to know a lot of the top runners and at some stage during the 90’s an absolute thrill when I was introduced to the man who had been my hero in the late 50’s and into the 60’s, Jackie Mekler.
My initial thought was that he wouldn’t really have too much interest in me. After all, I was a very mediocre Comrades runner (although all 14 were under the time limit of 11 hours at that time and 9 of them had been under 10 hours and 2 of those 9 were under 9 hours) but instead I found a genuine, sincere and humble man who had time for everyone he met and I have always regarded myself as a friend of Jackie’s after that first meeting as I saw him regularly almost every year after that.
Jackie never, in my opinion, regarded himself as anything special because of his 5 wins but in my eyes and in the eyes of many people involved with Comrades, he was something very special. He will always be remembered, not only for his 5 Comrades wins but also as the first man to break 6 hours on the Up Run
Jackie Mekler breasts the tape in 1960 Comrades – the first man under 6 hours on the Up Run
When I got to the 60th Comrades I had attended in 2018, I phoned Jackie to ask him how many he had attended as I was keen to find as many of the people as possible who had attended as many, if not more than me. I thought that Jackie could well be one of those bearing in mind that he ran his first one in 1952 finishing in 7th place that today would have won him a gold medal but in those days he was the first person outside the six gold medals awarded then. I had attended my first one in 1956 so that in effect gave him a four year start on me.
I chatted to Jackie about what I was looking for and he told me that he honestly didn’t know how many he had attended as he was not at Comrades at times during the 1950’s (some of the reasons given in his autobiography) despite coming back for his second run and first win in 1958. He said simply to me that he thought I had been at more of them than he had which disappointed me because I would very much like to have been 2nd or 3rd behind him in the number attended and to be able to say that only Jackie Mekler and maybe one other had attended more Comrades than I had.
It turned out that Brian Swart who is very well known in Comrades circles has in fact attended 4 more than I have but whether Jackie attended more than I did, I don’t know.
I saw Jackie at Comrades 2018 and he congratulated me on being at my 60th race and I hadn’t said anything more to him about the matter. I was absolutely “gobsmacked” that the great man of Comrades should have remembered such an insignificant thing.
Fast forward another year to about early May 2019 (I am not sure exactly when it was) that Jackie phoned me to ask if I would help him with making known, through my activity on Twitter and any other social media, the fact that his autobiography titled “RUNNING ALONE” would be launched at Expo for Comrades 2019 after he had spent the better part of over 30 years writing it!
I told him it would be an honour to do so and that I had a friend who writes under the name of “The Running Mann”, Stuart Mann, and I would get him involved as he has a large following on both Twitter and with his blogs.
Our conversation ended with two things I’ll never forget. The first of them was when Jackie asked me if I would be attending Comrades 2019 and when I said that I would be there, his response was “enjoy your 61st”. Why and how Jackie remembered that is beyond me yet he did but that’s was just the kind of person he was.
The other thing he said just before our conversation ended was that with the book launch he was worried, and in his words “I wonder who even remembers Jackie Mekler”. I assured him that many, if not most runners remembered him and one of the things that had kept his name known was a race in Pretoria named after him.
I then called Stuart who said that he would be thrilled to help although he had never actually met Jackie. He managed to put that right at Comrades 2019 and one of Stuart’s prized photos was taken with Jackie at his book launch at Expo.
Stuart Mann, The Running Mann, with Jackie at Comrades Expo 2019
All of Jackie’s successes in the running world are told in his book and he won at almost every distance from 10km to 100 miles and at one time he held the world records for both 30 miles and 40 miles and it’s a book well worth reading if anyone has any interest in road running.
The book launch at Expo 2019 was very successful and when I asked Jackie on Comrades day whether most of the buyers had been older runners and former runners, I was very surprised when he told me that a large number of books had been bought by people who had probably not even been born when he won his 5th Comrades.
This thrills me as I am one of those “older former runners” who has a passion for the history of Comrades and the fact that so many young runners have an interest in Jackie Mekler and his achievements makes me very happy.
With Jackie at his book launch at Expo 2019
I spent some time with Jackie, both at Expo and also on Comrades day and on Comrades day we were chatting about nothing in particular and everything in general and I spent a good time with him.
Just three weeks later, my hero and my friend had gone.
Goodbye Jackie Mekler. You were a great athlete and an even greater gentleman.
I’m going to miss you at Comrades every year. R.I.P.
9 July 2019