MY THANKS TO THE COMRADES MARATHON ASSOCIATION FOR THE OBITUARY TO SAM TSHABALALA
Running a fantastic time of 6:10:40 in his very first Comrades in 1987, Sam would continue to improve with a 5:54:34 the following year. In only his third Comrades run, and his first Down Run (with both previous years having been Up Runs), Samuel Tshabalala went on to make history as the first Black man to win the Comrades Marathon in 1989. His convincing win of 5:35:51 was over four minutes ahead of second place, Willie Mtolo.
This historic victory would go on to inspire Black runners for decades to come. Many future winners have attributed their passion for running to Sam, especially when faced with the adversity of a horrific car accident in 1991 that left him in months of recovery, and extensive injuries. Undaunted, Sam would return to run a sub 6h30 in 1992. Throughout his Comrades career, Sam managed to attain 13 finishes, with one Gold and a staggering 12 Silver medals.
For his milestone achievement and massive contribution to the sport of ultra-distance running, the Comrades Marathon Association awarded Sam with the prestigious Platinum Medal Award in 1998. With the introduction of the official Comrades Winners Jacket in 2016, the CMA presented Mr Tshabalala with a retrospective jacket in 2019 for his 1989 performance.
Both on and off the field, he was known and admired for his humility, kindness and giving nature. He motivated an entire generation of Comrades runners and spectators; and imparted the desire to dream, to win and achieve amongst many of today’s Comrades Champions.
CMA Chairperson, Mqondisi Ngcobo said, “We live in gratitude to a Comrades Winner, Hero and Legend. What Mr Tshabalala did for ultra-running and our generation of athletes is part and parcel of our road-running history and great South African heritage. He showed us how to be courageous, great and at the same time humble and real.”
Ngcobo adds, “Sam was a trailblazer and pioneer. He was someone who lived out the noble attributes of The Ultimate Human Race by his determined nature, will to succeed and continuously giving of his best. He will be sadly missed by the Comrades community and everyone who knew him.”
1989 Comrades Runner-Up Willie Mtolo said, “Sam was at Comrades in 2019 and it was really good to catch up with him after many years. He was a very good person. We ran a great race in 1989 and remained very good friends since then. We had a lot to talk about every time that we met. I know that he was involved in assisting youngsters in his village with their running. That was Sam for you – helpful, encouraging, motivating and a true inspiration. I will always remember him.”
Former CMA Chairperson, Mervyn Williams said, “It was my privilege, as Chairman of the CMA, to welcome Sam over the finish line on that memorable day in 1989. Sam was indeed a gracious winner and fully deserved all the accolades as the first “black man” to win the Comrades Marathon. May he rest in peace and my sincere condolences to his family.”
President of KwaZulu-Natal Athletics, Steve Mkasi says, “I was away in Uganda when I first heard of Sam winning the 1989 Comrades Marathon and then saw the victory photo of him with the Comrades laurel wreath. That image got deeply ingrained in my mind. It was an incredible moment to behold. Being a runner myself, I knew all too well what Sam’s victory meant to every South African. To this day, Comrades lives within me because of that image. Gone but never forgotten. May his soul rest in peace.”
1991 Comrades Winner, Nick Bester says, “Sad news. I will never forget Sam during the 1989 Comrades Marathon when he passed me with his running cap and he was wearing the cap with the flap at the back covering his neck and he went on to win the race as the first ever black athlete to do so. Willie Mtolo was in 2nd place, Jean Marc Belloq in 3rd and I in 4th position. Sam also ran the Comrades Marathon again many years later after he survived a terrible motor accident. A true Comrades Marathon Champion, he was always down to earth and humble.”