The 1921 Comrades Marathon Tribute Run

The 24th of May 1921 saw just 34 men start from the Pietermaritzburg City Hall to run to Durban for the very first Comrades Marathon and now on the 24th of May 2021, 34 runners will make a tribute run starting from the exact spot outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall where those runners, 100 years ago, set off for Durban.

There has been a lot of speculation as to who the runners are who have been honoured with being part of the tribute run in this centenary year and who will run from the Pietermaritzburg City Hall to Comrades House just 2.2km away to where the dignitaries await them and where the day’s festivities begin.

Sadly the festivities have had to be limited to 250 people because of covid but nonetheless we will see CMA Elders, former Chairpersons, current CMA Board and Staff members, members of the Race Organising Committee, current sponsors, representatives of the Official Comrades Charities, a number of very important dignitaries and select media in attendance.

CMA Chairperson, Cheryl Winn said, “We will remember Comrades’ origins, owed primarily to the inspiration and tireless efforts of a humble railroad engine driver and soldier, Vic Clapham, who returned from war with the vision of staging a living memorial to the suffering, loss of life, spirit, fortitude and camaraderie of the soldiers with whom he had shared the devastation of World War I.” 

Winn added, “A significant aspect of the day is recalling the brave early pioneers – some of whom completed the distance unofficially when the race was restricted exclusively to white males; our winners, heroes and record-breakers who have consistently inspired us with ever-improving competitive performances; and we will celebrate the so-called ‘ordinary runners’ for whom there is nothing at all that is ‘ordinary’ and who embody the spirit of grit, determination, camaraderie, hope and humanity upon which the Comrades Marathon was founded.”

The 34 runners who will be paying tribute to those early pioneers of the Ultimate Human Race are:

Achievement Men (25)
Winner 1976 – 78 & 80 Alan Robb
Winner 1981 – 88 & 90Bruce Fordyce 
Winner 1991Nick Bester
Winner 1992Jetman Msuthu
Winner 1995Shaun Meiklejohn
Winner 2000/02/04Vladimir Kotov
Winner 2001Andrew Kelehe 
Winner 2003Fusi Nhlapo
Winner 2005Sipho Ngomane 
Winner 2012Ludwick Mamabolo
Winner 2013Claude Moshiywa
Winner 2015Gift Kelehe 
Winner 2016David Gatebe 
Winner 2019Edward Mothibi
47 Medals Barry Holland 
47 Medals Louis Massyn
42 Medals Mike Cowling 
42 Medals Wietsche van der Westhuizen 
42 Medals Zwelitsha Gono
42 Medals Dave Lowe 
41 Medals Tommy Neitski
41 Medals Dave Williams 
40 Medals Johan van Eeden 
40 Medals Boysie van Staden 
40 Medals Shaun Wood 
AchievementWomen (9)
Winner 1979Jan Mallen 
Winner 1985 – 87Helen Lucre 
Winner 1992Francis van Blerk 
Winner 1993Tilda Tearle 
Winner 1998Rae Bisschoff
Winner 2015Caroline Cherry (Wostmann)
Winner 2016Charne Bosman 
31 Medals Pat Fisher 
30 Medals Kim Pain 

The occasion’s activities will be live-streamed, and Comrades runners and supporters in South Africa and around the world are invited to follow the day’s proceedings from 09h00 – 15h00 on the Comrades website, or on Facebook @ComradesMarathon.

20 May 2021



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.




As we move ever closer to getting rid of the year many of us will remember as the year that never was, when the world was effectively turned upside down and so many things we held near and dear to us, had to disappear forever and we had to change, and we all had to learn to make adjustments to the way we live and in many cases with difficulty, we will breathe a collective sigh of relief hoping that 2020 has gone forever but I fear we haven’t seen the last of it.

Some things are slowly returning to the way they were before we heard about Covid but some never will. Some still need to be changed and a lot of thought still has to go into the way many things have to change.

One of the things that nobody has yet come up with an answer to it seems, is the question of the big city marathons around the world where thousands of people run shoulder to shoulder for most of the way and the concept of “social distancing” is virtually impossible. We saw a recent example of what happened to the London Marathon where, usually around 40,000 people or more took to the streets of London and “owned” the city for a day in April every year.  The race was moved to November and to an elite only runners’ race in a multi lap (some 19 laps) in a park in London.  It was a good race if one happened to be watching it on TV but it simply wasn’t the London Marathon.  

Let’s look closer to home however and at Comrades. When entries opened for the 2020 Comrades they were capped at 27500. We don’t yet know what the organisers have in mind for the numbers for the 2021 race or even if there will be a race in 2021. The media launch hasn’t yet happened and entries are expected to open early in the new year and both those happenings have been delayed because of uncertainty.

Every day we hear horror stories of the rise in Covid infections from around the world and who knows what is going to happen in South Africa by June 2021, the provisional date set for Comrades 2021. Remember that this time last year, none of us had even heard of Covid and now, less than a year later, it controls our lives.

Comrades 2021 is a very important one because it is exactly 100 years since those 34 tough runners lined up outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall to run the first Comrades mainly on dirt roads to Durban and just under 9 hours later Bill Rowan put his name into the record books as the first person to win the race in what remains the slowest time in the history of the race.

The interesting thing is the number of runners to strive to win for themselves a “Bill Rowan Medal” for finishing the modern Comrades in under 9 hours and many of those achieving this have no idea why the medal is so named – and sadly most of them don’t care!

Since then, Comrades has written itself a glorious history and culture, much of which is celebrated in various ways still and runners through the years use much of the events of bygone years to measure their own performances and even as recently as 2018, we saw the introduction of the Robert Mtshali medal named after the first black runner of Comrades and now awarded to all runners who finish between 9 & 10 hours. Robert Mtshali ran his Comrades in 9 & a half hours in 1935 so long before Comrades was opened to all races (that happened in 1975), a medal honouring the achievement of a man in 1935 is now awarded so it took 40 years after Mtshali ran his Comrades for the race to be opened to all races and to women.

Comrades organisers have now put up a plaque at Comrades House in Pietermaritzburg to honour Robert Mtshali.

Ask many of the runners who won a Robert Mtshali Medal since it was introduced how it came about and when Mtshali ran and they won’t have a clue.  That is so sad!

These are just two of many little bits of history that go to make Comrades what it is and hardly a year goes by that something doesn’t happen to add to the magic that makes this event so very special and now with the cancellation of the 2020 race because of the global Covid pandemic it joins the 5 races of World War two as the only times the race has had to be cancelled since it’s inception and some months ago I asked Race Director, Rowyn James whether the centenary of the race would be celebrated even if the race itself can’t be held and he assured me that it would.  

Many of us will be very disappointed if there is no actual race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban on the second Sunday of June in 2021 but there can still be reason to celebrate the centenary and it can still be done with all the glitz and glamour we would expect.  One should just look at the Comrades Race the Legends that Comrades put together in June 2020 that took place instead of the actual Comrades and what an amazing success that was to realise just what can be done if necessary.

A huge part of the centenary celebration, I would think, will take in the history of the race and if runners really want to feel part of it they would need to learn as much as they can about this incredible event. There are, sadly, many who regard Comrades as “just another race on the calendar”.

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Let me assure you that Comrades is not just another Road Race. It’s more than that. Way more and if we end up without an actual race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, my guess is that the Comrades organisers will still give us plenty to celebrate for the centenary of this amazing event but to get the full benefit please learn as much as you can about it.  It will give you so much more if you do.