TIME TO CELEBRATE A CENTENARY

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February 18, 2021 by DAVE JACK

For the second year in a row the Comrades Marathon has been cancelled because of the global pandemic we have come to know as Covid-19 and the saddest part of it all is that 2021 is the centenary year of the race, the first one having been run on the 24th of May 1921 and here we are 100 years later when we were planning to have a big centenary celebration to mark the occasion, a virus came along and changed all that.

But has it?

We may not be able to have an actual race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban which was to have been the direction of the race in 2021 but that doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the centenary of Comrades.  Many might be tempted to say that without an actual race, there’s nothing much to celebrate but I think they are so wrong.

I am going to be travelling to KZN to join in the celebrations and I haven’t run Comrades since 1987 having been stopped from running again because of injury and I am still looking forward to celebrating the centenary as much as anybody.

It’s my guess that there are many more former runners who are no longer able to run the race but to whom Comrades is very important and who want to celebrate the centenary of this amazing event even if they are not able to run it any longer but how do we intend doing this?

One small suggestion I can make is to have a look at the history of the race if one isn’t perhaps as familiar with it as one could be. The question that is often asked though, is why would anyone want to show any interest in the history of something that happened in South Africa’s dark past but when one sits and looks at the race in detail, there is so much that happened in those years that have shaped the race of today and had an impact on almost everyone running. The saddest part is that many are aiming to achieve something when they run and what they are aiming for is something that is the result of something that happened many years ago. Let’s have a look at a few of those.

One of the most commonly sought after things is the Bill Rowan Medal that is earned when a runner can get a time under 9 hours. The disappointment when a runner misses the medal by a few minutes or less is plain to see but who was Bill Rowan and what is significant about 9 hours.  Many runners know the answers to these questions but an equal number of runners have no idea at all that Bill Rowan was the first winner of Comrades in 1921 and he ran a time of 8 hours 59 minutes.

That remains the slowest winning time in the history of the race but the significance of the time to win a Bill Rowan Medal is that if one is earned, it means that the runner earning it could, in theory, have won the first Comrades in 1921 because of a better time than that run by the winner that year.

Just one of the things that happened many years ago that impacts the results of runners in the modern Comrades.

Go through the list of medals and all the medals are named after people who are no longer with us and who were involved with Comrades many years ago and what they did was long before South Africa became part of the “normalised” world of sport.  Think of Wally Hayward, Isavel Roche-Kelly, Robert Mtshali and Vic Clapham all of whom have Comrades medals named after them.

The fun part of this is to then go and find out what they did to have the honour of having medals named after them.

Whilst getting this information one can learn a little about Comrades and the history of Comrades.

When did Comrades have the biggest margin between 1st and 2nd place and who was the winner and in what year? 

When were the two years when we saw the two closest finishes and who were the runners involved in those finishes?

These are the sorts of things that make Comrades so interesting and makes it much more than just another road race as some people sadly think it is.

Who has the biggest collection of wins? In the men’s race most people would be able to guess fairly accurately but what was the controversy surrounding his first win?

Having figured out who the male with the most wins is, what about the female with the most wins?

Who are the men who have won the race 5 times, and four times (there’s only 2 who have done that), three times and the number who have achieved that gets smaller but who are they? In the women’s race we have a few multiple race winners and again they were a long time ago.

Who were the first man and women who ran under 6 hours in both the Up Run and the Down Run and in which years?

It’s these sorts of things that make Comrades so interesting and when you start looking at the answers to the questions I have put into here, the interest grows and you realise that there is so much more. There is, for example, only one man who has run under 5 hours 20 minutes on the Down Run and he did that in 2016. Who was he?

Nobody has managed it on the Up Run.

Only three women have run under 6 hours on the Down Run, the fastest in 1989 in 5:54

And only one woman has run under 6 hours on the Up Run.

I have deliberately left out the names of those who have achieved in Comrades because getting to know Comrades is just one way that I can think that we can celebrate the centenary of Comrades. Learn about this wonderful event – this wonderful happening because its way more than just a road race!

I am saddened when I hear people shrug and say “It’s just another road race on the calendar” because its way more than that. If it was “Just another road race on the calendar” why is it that thousands of spectators get out there on race day and spend the day at the side of the road cheering runners they don’t know in most cases!

I don’t know what the situation is going to be with the Expo this year and whether there will even be an Expo given the rules with “social gatherings” and the restrictions on the numbers attending these gatherings because of Covid but a major disappointment for me every year has been the number of people gathered around the newspaper cuttings at the history exhibition that has information going back over many years about the race.  The last time I was at Expo looking at the history section, there was only one other person there and he was even older than I am!  It turned out that he had run in 1946, the year before I was born!

When I think about how this race has grown from its humble beginnings in 1921 to what it was the last few years it took place I don’t understand how anybody can say it is “just another road race”. 

When one looks at the start line in the mid 1920’s and the number of runners who lined up to tackle the Comrades.

And one compares it with the start line of the 21st century and one looks at all that has happened in the years between those two starts!

I am saddened that there is so little interest in the history of this great race because it really is a great race. It has so much to offer and what it has to offer is so much more than simply a running race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.  I last ran in 1987 and was at my first Comrades as a spectator in 1956 and I have been to every race except three of them since that first one I attended because it gives me so much and has given me so much over the years in terms of many things. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t have gone to the race almost every year since the first one I attended in 1956 and I wouldn’t keep going back year after year.

If it doesn’t give one something very special in so many different ways, I most certainly would not have been drawn to go to the race so many times even after I had stopped running and after my radio reporting days ended when I didn’t really have any reason to attend other than the fact that Comrades continued to give me that “special something” every year that has been part of my personal growth for so many years.

My biggest problem is that I am not able to fully explain it and I gave up trying to do so many years ago and simply accepted it to be the case.

That’s the reason I will be in KZN once again this year from the 24th of May to celebrate the centenary of this amazing “happening” even though there will be no actual race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

FEBRUARY 2021

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