Posted in PERSONAL STORIES

WHO I AM

People might wonder what gives me the right to write about or talk about the Comrades Marathon, that amazing event that takes place in June every year, although 2020 saw it cancelled because of a global pandemic, only the second time in the history of the race that this has happened, the first time from 1941 to 1945 because of World War 2.   Allow me to briefly explain my credentials.

I was introduced to the Comrades Marathon early on the morning of the 31st of May 1956 when my dad woke me and asked me whether I wanted to go with him to watch “The Marathon”. I had absolutely no idea what that was but that’s what locals called this wonderful event that is run in alternate directions between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in the province of Kwa Zulu- Natal in South Africa at the end of May every year and has been run every year since 1921.

I was only 9 years old and a little bleary eyed when I dragged myself along to stand at the side of the road in Pinetown where I grew up and which is part of the route to wait for this race, little knowing how my life was about to change that day.

In 1956 there were a little under 100 runners on the “Up Run” that started in Durban and made its way to Pietermaritzburg some 89kms (about 55 miles) away over some very punishing terrain and as I stood and watched the runners make their way through Pinetown I was captivated and without hesitation I said to my father that when I was “big” I was going to run the race! I had to wait until 1968 before I had the opportunity to run it for the first time.

That was the 31st of May 1956 and since then I have been at every Comrades Marathon except just three of them and of course the cancelled race in 2020. Why did I miss those three Comrades? I thought after I had been at 50 of them in succession that I had probably got Comrades out of my system so I deliberately missed two of them and had dreadful withdrawal. The third year I decided to travel to the UK to avoid the withdrawal but then sat in front of a computer and watched the live streaming on the internet so whilst I wasn’t actually at the race, I was “sort of” there.

During the second half of 1999 I went in search of any runner who had been to more Comrades that I had and after a lot of searching I came across just one and that was Brian Swart, who is well known in the Comrades world of Pietermaritzburg and who has in fact put together the Comrades history in the Comrades website. He has attended 4 more than I have.  If there are any other people who have attended Comrades more times I would love to hear from them.

My credentials as far as Comrades are concerned are that I have run 14 of them. I have been a helper to friends of mine who have run when I was not running. I have served on the organising committee, I have worked for a radio station reporting “live” into sports and news bulletins for 18 years. I have worked as stadium announcer for over 10 years and in the years in between I have enjoyed simply being a spectator watching the race from the side of the road or from the VIP lounge at the finish.  I have travelled with international runners on the tour busses in the days prior to race day taking these foreign visiting runners over the route, and in 2018 I was part of the seconding team of the winning woman, Ann Ashworth, (although I played a small part given the speed she was running at!) so not much I haven’t done and I have loved every aspect of my involvement.

I have had the privilege of having met many of the winners and personalities over the years and Comrades has given me substantially more than I could ever have dreamed I could have had when I stood at the side of the road on the 31st of May 1956.

How many more Comrades do I intend attending? The answer to that question is fairly simple. As long as I am still alive and able to be there, I will do all I can to be at “the marathon”, the name given to this wonderful event by locals in days gone by.

Over the last couple of years I have tried to capture something of the magic I have felt in a series of blogs and I hope I have been able to do this and I hope that those of you who read these and who visit this website can experience even a little of the “magic” I feel for that strip of tarmac between Kwa Zulu-Natal’s two cities.

Posted in PERSONAL STORIES

MY 60 YEARS AT COMRADES

Now that the dust has settled on the 90th Comrades Marathon in 2015, I thought it might be a good time to have a look back over the 60 years since my relationship with Comrades started on 31st May 1956. I haven’t been at all 60 races. I missed three of them but 2015 was the 57th time I have been at Comrades.

I have been fortunate to have done many things in Comrades over that time (except win it of course) beginning as a spectator, moving on to the job of second before the days of refreshment stations then to actually running the race 14 times and serving on the organising committee then I moved on to a radio journalist reporting on the race over 10 times for Radio 702 and also being fortunate enough to be able to present shows from the Expo. In this photo interviewing Andrew Hudson who at the time was opening bat for South Africa.

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At the same time I was also stadium announcer and  also for a period in excess of 10 years. It was during the stadium announcing time and whilst working with TV man Arnie Geerdts, we decided that it was our job to get the crowds worked into a frenzy before each cut off.

Also during the time as stadium announcer I had the honour of meeting the Late Nelson Mandela whilst I was doing the prizegiving. That will go down as one of the really major moments in my life.

Now back to a spectator and in 2015 writing these blogs that I know some people have enjoyed and also tweeting non training tips that help in preparation and on race day and again more very positive feedback.

Does this mean that my relationship with Comrades is about to come to an end? There is no chance of that. The love I have for this “happening” is just far too strong for that to happen and as long I am able to stand upright, it’s my intention to be at Comrades.

So what is this blog all about? What I would like to do is to summarise in as short a post as possible the 60 years since I first met this race.

1956 and I met Comrades for the first time and the race was won by Gerald Walsh. I was immediately captivated by the whole event and remember that there were under 100 runners at the time.

1958, Jackie Mekler won his first of five Comrades. A childhood hero of mine and today I am proud to call him a friend. Such is this race.

1961 George Claasen, a headmaster from Middelburg in what is now Mpumalanga won the race against all odds. “Oom George” was the father of Springbok Captain, Wynand Claasen and in later years was very involved in road running and still has a marathon named after him in Centurion that’s usually one of the last Comrades Qualifiers.

GEORGE CLAASEN

1962 a team from The English Road Runners Club came to Comrades to run against a local team. Englishman John Smith won the race and apart from Jackie Mekler taking second place, the English took the remaining top places.

JOHN SMITH 1962

1965 saw the wettest Comrades in history. A very happy Englishman Bernard Gomersall is reported to “done a jig” when he saw the weather which suited him. He won the race easily. Interestingly in 1968 Gomersall came back again and was in a state of near exhaustion when he finished in 7th place.

1967 the drama year when Tommy Malone collapsed at the finish line and was beaten by one second by Manie Kuhn in what is the closest finish ever. Official times have it at one second but the general feeling is that with the sophisticated timing equipment we have today, the time would probably have been closer than one second.

comrades 1967 

1968 and Jackie Mekler won his fifth Comrades Marathon and I ran my first one. Around 600 runners and I finished in 320th position in a time of 10:25.

JACKIE MEKLER1969 and Dave Bagshaw won the first of his three successive wins. Going for his fourth win in 1972 Englishman, Mick Orton caused a major upset by beating Bagshaw.  Orton was part of the Tipton Harriers team that won the Gunga Din Trophy.

1975 and the Golden Jubilee race and for the first time the race was open to all runners within certain age limits and Betty Cavanagh was the first official woman’s winner of a Comrades medal.

BETTY CAVANAGH

The race that year was limited to 1500 runners because organisers were concerned that the roads couldn’t handle any more than that. 1975 a special year for me in that I ran my best time. A very modest 8:29 but a time of which I am proud.

1976 and a new hero on the scene. Alan Robb won the first of his four Comrades. Three in a row and then 1980 for the fourth win. Alan has now run over 40 Comrades. ALAN ROBBThen came the 1980’s and Bruce Fordyce. Eight wins in eight years and one of the finest tacticians I think Comrades has ever seen. He ran his race and according to his plans and won. He also was a master mind games player and destroyed more than one runner who tried to de-throne him. BRUCE FORDYCEBruce didn’t run in 1989, choosing instead to run an international although unofficial 100km race in Stellenbosch which he also won and this left the door open for a new winner and that was Sam Tshabalala, the first black winner of Comrades, who took the lead at Tollgate to upset the dreams of KZN favourite, Willie Mtolo who had to be content with second place.

SAM TSHABABALA

And another big happening in the 1989 Comrades was the amazing run by Frith van der Merwe who finished in 15th position overall to set a women’s race record of 5:54:43 that still stands after 26 years.

FRITH

Bruce Fordyce was back again in 1990 to win his 9th Comrades and his last competitive race and then we moved into the 1990’s with start of the big foreign wave of winners.   1993 it was German, Charly Doll, 1994 the American Alberto Salazar who used a completely different strategy to that we had seen before when he basically went to the lead In Westville on the up run – and stayed there. Some felt (and I was one of them) that he was lucky not to have been caught by Nick Bester near the end. Bester was significantly stronger than the American.

A sprinkling of South African winners like Shaun Meiklejohn and Charl Mattheus but it was mainly time for the East Europeans and particularly the Russians who made the Comrades theirs for the better part of 10 years.

2000 was a big year for Comrades. The “Millenium Race” attracted around 24,000 runners, the largest field ever seen in Comrades and the time limit was extended to 12 hours to accommodate those hopefuls who wanted to be part of this amazing event. 2000 also saw Comrades with the only female Chairperson (she actually referred to herself as Chairman) in its history when the Late Alison West took the event into a new century.

The only multiple winner we have seen in the last 10 years has been Zimbabwean Stephen Muzhingi who managed a hat trick of wins in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and eventually the 90th Comrades in 2015 saw Gift Kelehe win and join big brother Andrew who won in 2001 to become the first brothers ever to have won Comrades.

There you have it, a summary of my 60 year relationship with this incredible “happening” called Comrades Marathon.

Posted in PERSONAL STORIES

TAKKIES AND CORPSE REVIVER :

What I am hoping to do is to give readers a glimpse into the past at what things were like in those far off days back when I first started running. I have been asked at times to speak at club pre-Comrades evenings and I am always asked to speak about what things were like in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The reaction is worth seeing with the latter day runner amazed at what we did.

I mentioned in my previous chapter that I had met Clive Crawley (race No.1 and Robin Friedeman (race No.111) who had both agreed to help me in my training which they did by telling me that LSD existed and what the letters stood for and that was the sum total of the training advice although, they did give me advice on equipment, but let’s move away from the actual training I covered in my last blog and look at the build up to Comrades Day.

Both Clive and Robin told me that shoes were the first thing I had to get and that the only shoe to get was the good old fashioned Bata “takkie” (plimsole or sandshoe) that I could get at virtually any shop. What I had to do was to take the shoes to a shoemaker in Durban who knew exactly what to do as far as building up the heel to provide cushioning to “protect” you from the jarring of the road as he did this for almost all the Durban area runners. They both suggested that the “takkies” be those that laced to half way to avoid stitching, etc around the toes.

I also learnt from another 1965 gold medallist, Roland Davey, how to “soap” my takkies to stop blisters by mashing left over soap bars from the bathroom into a cream and filling the takkies with this cream and then to put the shoes on and run.

Messy. Very messy, but in all the years I wore soaped takkies, I never had a blister. The soap worked its way into the canvas of the takkie making the inside smooth and taking the shape of your foot. The first time you wore them after soaping them you left a trail of soap suds as you did if you ran in the rain!

Shorts and vests were ordinary cotton and of course when they were wet they held water and your vest looked a little like a mini skirt and if your shorts were even slightly too loose they slipped and I had one Comrades with exactly that and I had to do the last 20 or so Kms holding my shorts up!  Track suits were compulsory because organisers sent you four numbers and it was a requirement that you had a number on the back and front of both your running vest and your tracksuit top when you arrived at registration but I’ll talk about later.

The reason the numbers had to be on the tracksuit top was if it turned cold we wore our track suit tops.

Next job was to get my entry done. No computers in those days so no online entries. You had to find an entry booklet and one of the stockists of these was Kings Sports in Durban. This booklet also had all sorts of tips especially aimed at the novice. None of the tips of any great value it must be said. Race entry was R2 in those years and neither qualifying nor club membership was required.

Those two rules only in your first Comrades. If you ran again in following years you needed to join a club. I had taken the decision to join the club to which most of my new found running friends belonged and on race day proudly sported the colours of Savages. As I had entered prior to joining Savages the race programme brochure shows me without a club.

The race numbers were made of a flimsy cloth and printed in the garage of one the Comrades committee members. The numbers were then posted to all the runners. As I said in my previous blog I was allocated race number 482.

As there were no refreshment stations back then and we needed to drink during the race we had to organise “seconds” and in my case that job went to my Dad in his VW Beetle. In the car we had a cooler box full of ice, two large containers of water (for sponging), a bucket (I still remember, but have no idea why, that the bucket was blue) into which went the sponging water.

Those of us who were in Ian Jardine’s group all drank what was called “Corpse Reviver”.  I think, but I don’t know for certain, that this was a concoction invented by the “Old Man” himself. The ingredients which were all in powder form were glucose (for instant energy), icing sugar (for longer acting energy), salt (to help with cramping) and incidentally my kidneys are still 100% and bi-carb to get rid of wind build up in the stomach and to help with nausea. I can’t remember how much of this powder mix went into a small bottle of Schweppes lemonade so we could drink it.  Certainly not scientifically proved to work but it did – and it tasted pretty good too.

So race day arrived on 31st May 1968 and off to the start and on the stairs of the Durban City Hall were the officials with two huge white boards with the numbers of all the entrants. We were required to show the officials all four of the numbers sent to us through the post and they then marked us off the boards and we were ready to run.

The famous cock crow by Max Trimborn who instead of firing the starters gun in the 1948 race, gave a loud cock crow to start the race. In 1968 he was at the start as usual and he gave the crow himself and along with a normal starter’s pistol, off we went.

About 15km up the road I met my Dad for my first drink and sponge and then after that more or less every 10km assuming he didn’t get stuck in a traffic jam on the route,  so I had something to drink about 8 times but in sufficient quantities that I didn’t dehydrate.

I finished in 10:25.