Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

BEATEN BY A WAR AND A PANDEMIC

Only two things have beaten Comrades since it started in 1921. A war and a pandemic.

World War ll saw Comrades stop from 1941 to 1945 and the global pandemic we came to know as Covid – 19 brought Comrades to a halt in 2020 and with it the hopes and dreams of over 27,000 runners.

The last Comrades before World War ll in 1940 went down in the record books because most runners didn’t think it was going to take place and as a result very few continued training and because a lot of the men who were expected to enter had withdrawn and left to join their units at training camps at various centres around the country the field was left to just 23 who set off on the Up Run that year.

Those who did run are said to have eased back on their Comrades training as they were not sure whether Comrades would take place or not and it was only Allen Boyce already with three gold medals and two of them for second place in both 1938 and 1939 in his collection who took the decision that he was going to give his training his full attention in case Comrades did in fact happen.

Allen Boyce won in 1940 by a staggering 1 hour and 50 minutes a gap unlikely to ever be beaten in the future but that was the end of Comrades until 1946 because of World War ll and since then there has not been much that has threatened to disrupt the race.

We had already had the launch of the 95th Comrades scheduled for the 14th of June 2020, the slogan of which was to be “Iphupho Lami – Dare to Dream” and the field had been increased to allow a massive 27,500 runners to take part, the biggest number ever and the excitement was there both locally and from runners overseas.

Entries had sold out in two and a half days which was something unheard of and the organisers got themselves ready to start preparing for everything and then at the beginning of 2020 a city in China called Wuhan, hardly known to the average South African shot to prominence and we started to hear more and more about it on the news. There was clearly nothing much to worry about because the Americans weren’t too worried it seemed and then we started to hear alarming stories coming out of Italy and then Spain and then the rest of Europe about something that was being called Covid-19 or corona virus and it didn’t take long and it was being called a “global pandemic”.

South Africa is part of the “globe” surely but still nothing was happening here or anywhere else in Africa it seemed – then it started.

By March the Americans and the Brits were taking very real notice of what this “pandemic” seemed to be doing but still nothing too much in the southern tip of Africa but we started to hear things and then towards the end of March, we were all glued to our television sets as our president told us just how serious this pandemic was and what had to be done to slow it down even though it wasn’t doing too much damage at that stage and South Africa found itself in “lockdown” so that we could prepare for what was coming, a new experience for us all.

The regulations were stringent. Restaurants had to close as did theatres and other places of entertainment but we then heard that sports events were being affected by the “lockdown” and our national cricket and rugby teams had to cancel overseas tours and we couldn’t leave our homes or exercise in groups and running was affected so what about Comrades we all asked?

The Comrades organisers put out a media release saying that they were going ahead with the planning but unfortunately the media release was incorrectly read by many of the important people and in a flash we had cabinet ministers and suchlike people coming on TV saying Comrades would not be happening without the permission of the controlling body of athletics in South Africa.

The problem was that at no stage did Comrades say that THE RACE would go ahead as planned but rather that the ORGANISING would go ahead. When one considers that it takes virtually a full year to organise this event it then all makes sense but for a short while a lot of unhappiness all round until the confusion was resolved.

Eventually in mid-April a further media release, this time from the controlling body of athletics came out saying that Comrades would be postponed to a future date still to be announced and that – other than announcing a complete cancellation – was all that could be done at that stage. That made sense because we had no idea what this virus was going to do.

It was beyond the control of the Comrades organisers but not all runners saw it that way and many took to social media saying that the Comrades Marathon Association owed it to runners to tell them what was going to be happening. The fact that they couldn’t do this didn’t matter, some people thought that Comrades organisers were duty bound to tell runners something that was impossible for them to do.

The other thing that happened was that the organisers said that if it did take place the latest it could take place was the end of September but that was also not acceptable to all and runners then started deciding on dates for the race and some were quoted in the media giving the “perfect date” with reasons when it should be held, the dates which didn’t agree with those thought by the organisers.

The country however remained in lockdown and slowly – ever so slowly – restrictions started to be eased but we all remained very frustrated, not so much because we had no answer about Comrades but because some of us fall into the so-called “high risk category” of over 70 years of age and “experts” in the field of viruses started to suggest that those of us in that category should perhaps remain in lockdown until the end of September!

Then eventually on the 14th of May the joint media release came from Comrades and ASA telling us that Comrades 2020 was cancelled and was definitely not taking place this year so all the confusion, all the uncertainty and all the anger could finally be laid to rest.

So for the second time in the very long history of this incredible event, it is being cancelled for a reason beyond the control of the organisers but it is still the organisers who will take the anger and abuse levelled at them by many runners and by many members of the public.

Those of us who love this race – and I am certainly one of them – are very disappointed about the cancellation but we need to understand that this is not the fault of the organisers nor of the athletics body nor the government and that it’s been said over and over that just as it was a World War that stopped Comrades once before, so has a war, this time against an invisible enemy, done exactly the same thing again and just as the race came through the last war that stopped it and it survived, so it will do so again this time.

May 2020

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

VERY SPECIAL COMRADES FEATS

If you can run and finish the Comrades Marathon within the time limit it’s always been regarded as a feat but, in my saying that to complete Comrades is a feat it could be regarded as something of an oxymoron when you consider that some time ago I wrote that Comrades isn’t hard.  So what on earth am I going on about then?

It’s been said many times by many people that if Comrades was easy then everyone would do it but when you consider the number of South Africans who could fall into the category to qualify to run Comrades and you compare it to the total number in the 94 editions of the race that we’ve had since it all started in 1921, the percentage is very small so what on earth am I on about when, on the one hand I say that it’s a special feat to run this race yet on the other hand, I say it’s not hard?

Allow me to try to explain before we look at some of what I think have been very special feats we’ve seen in this event over the years.

I don’t think that Comrades itself is hard and as always, I am talking to those who run between 9 and 12 hours because that’s what I know and that’s where I have been other than two of mine where I dipped under 9  hours and I’ve written previously that the hard part of Comrades is getting to the start.  The training is hard and you need to be both physically and mentally prepared and it’s that preparation that makes it a special feat to run and finish the 90km between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in decent condition.

The training takes extreme dedication over at least 6 months (and sometimes longer) and that’s the part that’s hard. That’s the part that makes it a special feat for anyone to finish this race. Race day itself to the ordinary runner who has trained properly is not hard. I always found it to be a great day in my runs, and “they” say it’s something every South African should do at least once and I totally agree but be careful because once it gets into your system, it’s very difficult to get rid of it. Certainly there can be times when you might have prepared properly and on race day you still come undone. It’s happened to me but I’m not alone. That’s when the mental training kicks in and gets you home but you go back the following year to “fix” it.

What I want to look at in this article, and this is not intended to take away anything from anyone who has run Comrades (and I’ve started and finished 14 of them) are the very special feats that have been achieved in this magical event over the years and it’s some of those I want to look at.

There have been some very special feats in Comrades, feats that in some way set themselves apart from the others and in looking at them, the one that immediately springs to mind has to be Bruce Fordyce. Eight wins in successive years, then a one year break before coming back to win his 9th, something that no other male runner has come anywhere near.

                                                        Bruce Fordyce as he’s best remembered                                                                                                                                             

 The closest to Bruce’s 9 wins was the 8 in the women’s race by Elena Nurgalieva, one of the famous Russian twins we got to know so well at Comrades.

                         Elena Nurgalieva during one of her 8 wins

 

Second to Bruce in the number of wins by men are 4 runners who have each won 5 Comrades. Arthur Newton in the 1920s, Hardy Ballington in the 1930s, Wally Hayward in the 1950s and Jackie Mekler in the 1960s.

Fordyce won his 6th Comrades to put himself ahead of all the others in 1986 and that was 33 years ago and since then nobody has come close to 5 wins let alone 9 of them. There have been a couple of 3 time winners since then but 3 is a long way short of 9!

Will we see any other runner achieve this? It’s always possible – anything is possible but if that happens it’s going to be a fairly long time away because 2019 was the start of the new “cycle” with both the winners in 2019 notching up their first wins and those few runners with 3 wins already before 2019 are going to have to work hard to better that to push those up to 4 and beyond.  

Whilst Bruce and the 5 wins group had very special achievements there have been other “very special feats” at Comrades and it’s also some of those I want to look at briefly as well.

I’m going to start by going way back to the first few Comrades. The man whose name will go down in history is Bill Rowan, winner of the first Comrades in 1921. He did a time of 8:59 which by today’s standards is pretty slow but there is a medal named after him if any runner can break 9 hours (they were introduced after I ran my sub 9 races), and that medal is symbolic of the fact that they have run a time faster than the first winner. I wonder how many runners even realise that.

Was 8:59 a very special feat in 1921? When one considers that it had never been done before, and to win a footrace over 54 miles on roads like those they had to use which were dirt almost the entire way, one has to say it was a “Very Special Feat”.

That was the only Comrades that Bill Rowan ever won but that doesn’t matter because he will forever be remembered as the first winner. Rowan ran again in 1922 and finished 3rd after having travelled from what was then known as the Belgian Congo to get to Comrades.

What was so special about those early Comrades that, incidentally, had a 12 hour time limit for the first few years? Well firstly, most of the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban was dirt. It was quite a long time before we saw tarred roads all the way from start to finish. That in itself must have been pretty tough running.

Take a look at photographs of the clothes they wore and at the shoes and you’ll understand why these were very special feats.

Bill Rowan running gear when he won in 1921

 

It’s not only Bill Rowan, the first winner of Comrades we need to salute. I wrote a blog some time ago in which I said that winning this race is no easy job although to the untrained eye it may look that way. The history of the race has literally dozens of names of runners who would dearly have loved to have been amongst those winners that some refer to as “The Winners’ Club” and some of those who didn’t quite manage it were exceptional runners in their own right but on the day, there was always someone better and membership of “The Winners’ Club” never came to them and many of those runners have been forgotten.

Amongst the men who have won, it’s a touch over 50 of them in total and 30 women have yet to win the women’s race.

Go through the list of 5 time gold medal winners who have their name and race number in perpetuity but don’t feature amongst the winners. Most people don’t have the slightest idea who they are, but having said that, to come away from Comrades with a gold medal is a very special feat.

 Arthur Newton in the 1920s

 

Make no mistake, these were all very special feats, but what of those less known that could be called “very special feats”?   An example was the 1940 win by Allen Boyce who finished just under 2 hours ahead of the 2nd placed runner. It’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever see that again.

Another very special feat was by Wally Hayward in 1953 when he became the first man to run Comrades in under 6 hours. That was a Down Run and it was another 7 years before Jackie Mekler became the first person to run the Up Run in under 6 hours. Jackie did that in winning the 1960 Comrades.

Jackie Mekler becomes the first man to run the Up Run in under 6 hours

 

Those two gentlemen who were the first to break 6 hours are sadly no longer with us but they achieved very special feats with those first ever sub 6 hour runs.

As far as the women were concerned, we had to wait 36 years after Wally Hayward did it for the first woman to run the Down Run in under 6 hours and that was Frith van der Merwe in 1989 but it was 59 years after Jackie Mekler broke 6 hours before we had our first woman to run the Up Run in under 6 hours when Gerda Steyn did this in 2019.

Frith van der Merwe after becoming the first woman to run under 6 hours

 

Some might be tempted to say that Frith’s sub 6 hour Down Run in 1989 was no big deal but it’s worth remembering that on the Down Run only three women in the history of the race have run under 6 hours and prior to 2019 no woman had run the Up Run under 6 hours until Gerda Steyn did it with a brilliant run in 2019 so Gerda’s run is certainly a very special feat and is certainly a very big deal when you realise that she is the only woman to have run under 6 hours on the Up Run.

                           Gerda Steyn on her way to the first woman to run sub 6 hour Up Run

 

Alan Robb with his 4 wins was the first man under 5 hours 30 in 1978 and he finished some 19 minutes ahead of the second placed man.

Alan Robb coming home to win

 

David Gatebe was the first, and at this stage, only man under 5 hours 20 and that was in 2016. Whilst Alan Robb’s 5 hours 30 has been broken again on both the Up and the Down runs, Gatebe’s 5:20 hasn’t yet been equalled, or bettered, in either direction and Gatebe himself hasn’t come close to that time again. 2016 just happened to be “his day”.

David Gatebe the only person to go sub 5:20 for the Down Run

 

As I said at the start, merely finishing Comrades is a feat but the performances I have outlined lift it a notch higher and allow me to include the words “Very special” in front of the word “Feats” and these are but a few of more I could mention.

There have been blind runners who have finished having to be led the entire distance either following something like a handkerchief tucked into the waistband of the shorts of the runner in front of the unsighted runner or a cord held between the blind runner and his “guide”. One of the best known unsighted runners was the Late Ian Jardine who was led mainly by Gerry Treloar,   Ian Jardine finished Comrades 14 times whilst unsighted.

Ian Jardine (left) being led by Gerry Treloar during a Comrades

 

We have seen runners having to crawl on all fours across the finishing line when their legs simply “gave in” when they were in sight of the finish line – and still finish in the gold medals.

Another very special feat was Tilda Tearle who won the race in 1993 but then went on to get a triple green number for finishing over 30 Comrades but there are also two men who have won and gone on to notch up a total of ridiculously high finishes. Alan Robb who was 4 time winner has a total of 42 medals to his credit whilst Bruce Fordyce has 30 in in his collection.

Whilst we’re looking at Very Special Feats, let’s not forget Barry Holland and Louis Massyn.  Both have run 47 consecutive Comrades. The question on everybody’s lips is who will get to that magical 50 medals first but quite honestly, I don’t think that matters. The fact that they have both run 47 consecutive medals goes way beyond simply “A Very Special Feat”

                                                   Barry Holland                                            

                                       Louis Massyn                       

 So whilst we salute each and every person who has completed Comrades within the time limit which is now 12 hours, as a feat, do yourself a huge favour and have a look at Comrades history if you want to add the “very special feats” to those of the ordinary runner.

But make no mistake, just to finish Comrades is a feat but train properly and run properly on race day, and it can be a great day out as well as a feat to brag about.

4 November 2019

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

COMRADES – MODEST TO MEGA

One dictionary definition of the word modest states “Moderate or limited in size” and whilst Comrades had started in 1921 and was very modest, it had many exciting tussles by those runners winning in those early days and we had the first three of the five time winners in Arthur Newton, Hardy Ballington and Wally Hayward all by the early fifties as well as the slowest winning time set by Bill Rowan in 8:59 when he won the first Comrades in 1921.

bill rowan (2)

We’ve seen a couple of very close finishes. Phil Masterton-Smith beat Noel Burree by 2 seconds in 1931 and Manie Kuhn beat Tommy Malone (who had won in 1966), by just one second in 1967. The biggest winning margin was set by Allen Boyce by almost 2 hours in 1940 but it was really only in 1959 that the transformation to what we have today slowly started.

It was in 1959 that entries went to 100 for the first time and spectators at the finish to around 200.  It was also around that time that we started to see spectator interest from parts of South Africa other than the Durban and Pietermaritzburg areas of this “thing” held annually. 

Runners had been travelling to Natal to take part in Comrades from the early days and there had been non Natal winners (Bill Rowan was the first one) but interest was fairly low.  The same spectators in small numbers came out every year to watch what was simply called “The Marathon” by locals.

It was the sixties when the changes really started to happen and by the end of that decade entries were up to 1000 although it was fairly lonely running at times.

COMRADES 1968

I don’t remember exactly where this photograph was taken but it was during my first Comrades in 1968 and not too many other runners around me.

It was also in the sixties that we saw the first foreign runners in the form of a team of four Englishmen running for the Road Runners Club in England up against a South African team.  The fairly small band of Comrades supporters had always regarded Comrades as a South African owned event so it was a major dent to the ego when Englishman John Smith won the race.

JOHN SMITH 1962

He led the rest of his English team to four of them in the top five with Jackie Mekler, the sole South African in the top five. Jackie himself told me years later that he misjudged that race very badly and ran like a novice and by that time he already had a couple of wins to his credit!

It wasn’t until the early seventies that interest from the UK was seen again when a team from Tipton Harriers arrived and against all odds, Mick Orton won the race beating Savages favourite Dave Bagshaw who had won the previous three races.

DAVE BAGSHAW

Bagshaw was a superb runner and his wins in 1969, 1970 and 1971 during which he set a course “record” twice showed just how good a runner he was.

Orton was back again in 1973 to defend his title but failed dismally in his attempt to repeat his win, so Comrades became the property of South Africa again when Dave Levick was first home. Levick, from UCT, was also the first university student to win Comrades.

Orton, incidentally had something like an 11 minute lead going through Pinetown with about 20km left to run. He was caught and passed by Gordon Baker and with just a few Kms left it looked as though Baker was going to get that elusive win. He was in the lead and could virtually “smell” home but it was Levick who came through to win, leaving Gordon Baker with yet another gold medal to his collection. In 9 Comrades, Baker had 8 gold medals but was never able to achieve his dream of a winner’s medal.

Orton, after his 11 minute lead with about 20km to go, finished in 5th place.

The 50th Comrades in 1975 was certainly the year that changed everything.

The first thing that troubled the organisers was whether the “old road” could handle more than 1500 runners. It was (and still is) narrow and with seconds’ vehicles on the road, it was a major problem. Organisers limited the field to 1500 with the requirement that novices had to qualify with a marathon time of 3:30 or better. Interesting that we all thought we would have to qualify in under three and a half hours so most of us ran our best marathons at that time.  I ran my three best times when I thought I would have to qualify in under 3:30.

That wasn’t the only thing that happened in 1975. Organisers approached the SAAAU, the controlling body of athletics in South Africa at the time and after numerous discussions, the powers that be allowed Comrades to be open to all races instead of only white males between 18 and 65 as had been the case previously and also to women.

The one thing very few of us could understand and it still remains a mystery to me, is why black runners were required to wear ethnic tags denoting “Zulu” or “Xhosa”, etc.  An embarrassment to everybody.

Comrades survived the seventies and the second half of the decade saw the race dominated by Alan Robb who was the first person to finish the Down Run in under 5:30.

ALAN ROBB 1978 FINISH

All the while the entries grew and at the end of the seventies the roads really were too busy, but there were no further limit on the number of runners, so only one other thing could be done.

Get rid of vehicles from the road and so we saw the introduction of refreshment stations and after a few years a total ban on motor vehicles except those with special permission to be there such as the media.

By this time TV was becoming firmly entrenched in South Africa and in the second half of the seventies, the SABC staged a race in central Johannesburg that was screened live and the numbers of runners started to explode as the sport sparked the imagination of “ordinary people” who took to the roads. 

Then came the eighties and the Fordyce era and Bruce’s persona did a huge amount to swell the fields even more but as we were still in isolation the runners were all South African.

FORDYCE

The early nineties saw the start of the political change in the country and in 1993, the German runner, Charly Doll took advantage, came to Comrades and won it.  1994 and American, Alberto Salazar did the same thing. 

NICK IN COMRADES

After that for a few years South Africans claimed the race back with wins by Shaun Mieklejohn in 1995 and Charl Matteus in 1997 but then came the late nineties and the wave of runners from Eastern Europe and particularly Russia dominated.

By the time 2000 arrived, Comrades had moved another step forward with the appointment of a woman, the late Alison West as Chairperson and marketing got under way for the 2000 Comrades.  The finish was moved to Scottsville racecourse in Pietermaritzburg to accommodate the numbers expected and numbers there were.  

24,000 people entered “The Millennium Run” and at the same time the time limit for the race was increased to 12 hours to allow as many people as possible to finish and earn that precious medal.  Russia’s Vladimir Kotov won the 2000 event and the Russian dominance continued for years.

The race has continued to grow and for the 2019 race there have been 25,000 entrants. The entries sold out in 6 days, such is the popularity of Comrades now.  The 12 hour time limit has given the “ordinary” runner who could never have dreamt of running and finishing Comrades in the 11 hour time limit as it was previously, the opportunity to be part of it.

I’ve seen all but three Comrades Marathons since 1956 and I have watched the race grow and the changes taking place as we moved into the modern era of online entries, the Expo and highly professional refreshment stations providing virtually anything and everything a runner might want. That’s a far cry from the early days when runners had their own seconds and when those seconds were stuck in traffic jams which has always been the case on Comrades day.

I remember in my first Comrades in 1968, my second arranging to meet me in Westville for my first drink – if he could get there, but if not it would have to be in Pinetown.  20Kms to my first drink but I didn’t think anything of it. That’s the way things were then.

So Comrades has gone from a very modest race in 1921 with just 16 finishers of the 34 who started to what we have today where we expect around 19,000 or even 20,000 to start this year.

We have seen the time for the first Comrades which was a Down Run, won in 8 hours 59 minutes to the fastest time for the Down Run set in 2016 by David Gatebe in 5:18:19 and that’s going to take some beating.

DAVID GATEBE

That’s an indication of the way the race has changed and grown.

The medical facilities at Comrades have gone from none in the early days to the biggest temporary medical facility in the world outside of a war, disaster or conflict zone and with radio contact between ambulances on the road and the finish medical facility. The medical facility at the finish has around 45 Interns, 20 or more medical doctors, over 10 specialists and over 20 nurses working in the tent and that’s apart from the medical staff on the road.

Old Mutual Underprivileged Runners Project 2017

Comrades has certainly gone from “Modest to Mega” but was it better back then when things were a lot more “personal” because of the size of the fields or is it better now?  The answer to that is easy.

Yes it is – and the reason I answer that way is because each Comrades is unique. Each with its own stories of the heroes and heroines who win and the “gladiators” who finish a lot further back.

We look forward eagerly to the 2021 race which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Comrades in 1921, but that’s not the only thing we have to look forward to.  2025 will be the 100th running of this amazing “happening” (the race wasn’t run during the Second World War) that we call the Comrades Marathon. 

A “happening” because for the vast majority of the runners it isn’t a race against anyone else. They race against themselves and the clock and it matters not where anyone else finishes. The average runner leaves the racing to the fantastic runners up at the front. Those who re-write the history books every year.

For the rest of the field, it is an event that is much more than just another road race. In many instances it’s a life changing experience that can’t be explained to anyone who has never run it.

For the last 5 years Comrades has been in the hands of its Race Director Rowyn James who has done a fine job with this very special event.

Photo Rowyn James for souv mag

The advantage that Rowyn has is that he is a 15 time finisher of the race himself and he knows what the runners want from every facet of Comrades.

They train for months and complete hundreds of kilometres in training and in races just so that they can go home with that precious medal.

20151130_163928

That’s the “happening” that’s gone from “Modest to Mega in the last 100 years.

 

 

February 2019

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

COMRADES MARATHON HOUSE

There can’t be very many runners of Comrades who don’t know about Comrades House, but what exactly is Comrades House and how did it come about? I certainly didn’t know enough about it to write about its beginnings so I turned to one of my good friends on the CMA Heritage and Traditions committee and also who is the Convenor of the International Bus Tour portfolio, Brian Swart, to go and do a bit of research into how it all came about and to put it all down so that anybody visiting Comrades House would know the story of this magnificent old building.

My thanks to CMA for the information given for this article and for the photo of Comrades House which is reproduced in this article. My thanks too, to Brian Swart to the time he spent writing the article which follows.

  

FROM SMALL BEGINNINGS

THE HISTORY OF COMRADES MARATHON HOUSE

by

Brian Swart

Once upon a time, there was a patch of open grassland and trees where a kaleidoscope of creatures frolicked in the sun.

It was little more than a staging post… way, way out in the country… a distant two kilometres from the heart of the city… a place of comfort, in out-of-the-way Maritzburg, where tired travellers rested their weary bodies, and exhausted horses, as they made their way to and from the bustling cities of Durban and Johannesburg.

Today… …

It is the home of the Comrades Marathon Museum… a truly Grand Old Edwardian building…. standing tall and proud above the surrounding buildings. It is a fitting tribute to the biggest, and greatest, ultra-distance road race in the world.

Number 18, Connaught Road, Pietermaritzburg.

 

It was a nondescript, undeveloped stopover point, inhabited solely by wild animals and visited occasionally by commuters in ox wagons in days when travel was possible only along wagon tracks cut through the undergrowth. Later, during the 1860s, they would traverse the bumpy, dusty, dirt road in the luxury of modern, fast stagecoaches until near the turn of the century. It is a by-gone era when pioneer travellers would have sought, and expected, nothing more than a suitable place to unhitch their wagons and draft animals in the wild, indigenous bush. The first building to be erected on the property was still more than forty years away.

The first owner was a Dr W. O’Brien who, in 1903, paid the astronomical sum of £200 for the two-acre tract of virgin land. It is not known when the first building was erected on the property, except that it was built by Michael Henry Guttridge. A fire in the Pietermaritzburg Estates Department, in 1921, ensured that the many early developmental details of the property were, forever, to remain a mystery.

The first eighty years of the 1900s saw numerous changes in ownership, and major building extensions, until the Grand Old Edwardian, that had emerged, was acquired by the Comrades Marathon Association on 4 June, 1986.

The story of the Comrades Marathon House, however, had its roots firmly secured in the fabric of South Africa’s sporting culture, many years earlier. During the late 50s, the 60s and early 70s, the Comrades Marathon was a simple, unsophisticated club event, organised by a handful of members of Collegians’ Harriers Athletic Club in Pietermaritzburg. As the world-wide running boom gathered momentum during the ensuing two decades, the parallel interest in the Race dictated that the acquisition of additional organisational skills were inevitable, to mark time with the phenomenal growth of the Race which led, ultimately, to the formation of the Comrades Marathon Association in 1982.

As the growth continued unabated, it became mandatory that dedicated premises would be required for both storage purposes and the burgeoning administrative duties. In 1985, the Comrades Marathon Association established its headquarters in a large, but basic, storeroom above a supermarket in Alexandra Road. However, in a very short while, it became apparent that those premises would soon prove to be inadequate.

And so… the search commenced.

Two buildings in Pietermaritzburg were evaluated and considered and, for valid reasons, rejected. These decisions have, in retrospect, proven to be both fortuitous and correct in every respect. The one property was in Loop Street (now Jabu Ndlovu Street); the other in Pietermaritz Street. The rampant expansion, in recent years, of the inner city area, and surrounds, would have rendered either venue completely unsuitable, and untenable, for the administration, and survival, of the Comrades Marathon. The search, however, continued and then, in the peaceful residential suburb of Scotsville… Number 18, Connaught Road was discovered.

It was old and dilapidated but, beneath an unsightly veneer, stunningly beautiful. The graceful old house was in need of major reconstruction and refurbishment but its potential was, clearly, unsurpassed.

The Committee was convened. The advantages and disadvantages, the financial aspect and all possible scenarios, were considered and inevitably… a bold step was taken.

An architect was commissioned, designs were accepted, plans were passed and the redevelopment project gradually took shape until, finally, the Comrades Marathon had its own home when, on Wednesday, 16 March, 1988, the Comrades Marathon House and Museum was officially opened.

The task that faced the team undertaking the redevelopment project was all of daunting, enormous and, above all, challenging. The exercise was, essentially, one of blending the ‘olde’ with the new, which was where the three aspects of the ambitious plan revealed themselves.

 The outcome of the 1921 fire meant that the exact age of the building was not known and, at an estimate, must have been in the vicinity of seventy-five to eighty years old when acquired by the Comrades Marathon Association. Over such a long period, numerous extensions to the original building had been carried out, at different times and with building materials that were concurrent with the era in which the extensions were effected, creating the ‘unsightly veneer’ that was apparent at the time the initial inspection of the property was undertaken.

The main shell of the building, whenever it was erected, was built with beautiful old ‘Maritzburg Reds’; bricks, made from local rich, red clay, with which many historic buildings in the city are built.

When the work commenced, walls subsequently built with newer, darker bricks had to be demolished. Steel window frames, that had replaced the original sash windows, were removed. Concrete beams, that had replaced original carved wooden beams, were broken down and the dilemma facing the architect was where to locate ‘olde’ materials to restore the building to its former glory.

The ingenuity of the team came to the fore when sufficient quantities of Maritzburg Reds and discarded sash window frames were located during visits to scattered demolition sites, builder’s supplies merchants and numerous other, similarly, obscure sources, over an extended period.

After many months of toil, patience and, at times, moments of true genius, the culmination of a dream was unveiled; a majestic monument to the Comrades Marathon of which both the Comrades Marathon Association and the City can be, justly, proud.

Outstanding craftsmanship and the exquisite, aesthetic beauty of its red clay brickwork, blended to create an architectural tapestry that led to the house, justifiably, being listed as a National Monument.

Initially, the refurbished building housed both the administration office, on the top floor, and the museum at ground level. Despite the substantial increase in available floor area of the new premises, the inevitable, once again, slowly and assuredly, reared its unwanted head; more space would be required. In time, the two houses, adjacent to the original house, were acquired for administration purposes, leaving the main Comrades Marathon House, exclusively, as the home of the Comrades Marathon Museum.

Inexorably, time marches on and, as it does, it demands that progress marches alongside it. The new millennium has made its presence felt. Man has to move in concert with it and the Comrades Marathon cannot afford to be left trailing in its wake. It must walk boldly into the future and, as an initial step in that direction, the Grand Old Edwardian, and the Museum, is undergoing extensive renovations that will ensure that it takes its rightful place, amongst the finest, in the hi-tech world of the twenty-first century.

Once upon a time, there was a patch of open grassland and trees where a kaleidoscope of creatures frolicked in the sun.

There was just a rickety, little old farmhouse standing there… where travellers unhitched their wagons, locked their oxen and horses in the stables and slept peacefully overnight, while the stars kept a silent vigil above.

Today… …

In that same place, we can gaze with pride and awe upon the grandeur of the… Comrades Marathon House.

 

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

89 WONDERFUL KMS TO DURBAN

In May 1921 one man with a somewhat crazy idea saw his dream of a foot race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban become reality and at the end May every year we see the running of the Comrades Marathon. 90 of them are behind us now and we look ahead to 2025 to the 100th race, something that the man who came up with this crazy idea could not possibly have dreamt about.

That man in 1921 was Vic Clapham

It’s the road followed by the runners that I want to more or less look at. Comrades is run in alternate directions each year unless there’s a reason to change that and have two races in the same direction in successive years but this is not all that usual but as the original race was a “down run” I’ll look at that direction and as the next race we have in 2016 is a Down Run that’s another good reason to look at the Down Run in this chapter of The Marathon.

The “down run” starts outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall which still claims to be the biggest red brick building in the southern hemisphere. Originally built in 1893, the Pietermaritzburg City Hall was badly damaged by fire in 1895 but rebuilt to its former glory in 1901.

The city hall organ is one of the largest pipe organs in the southern hemisphere. It has 3806 pipes ranging in size from 11 metres down to the thickness of a knitting needle.

If you look carefully at the photograph of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall you will see towards the left, the permanent structure that marks the start of the first Comrades in 1921.

Most people believe that the city got its name from two famous Voortrekker leaders, Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz but there is another thinking that it was named after Piet Retief alone.  Retief’s middle name was Maurits and there is therefore some who think that the city started off as Pieter Maurits Burg – but who knows? However in 1938 the city fathers took the decision that the second part of the city’s name should honour Gert Maritz. Interestingly, history tells us that neither Retief nor Maritz ever actually got to the city. Retief killed by Dingane and Maritz died of an illness in the Estcourt area.

We leave Pietermaritzburg and make our way onto the “old road” which until the new highway was built, carried the traffic to Durban. Perhaps one of the most famous – or is that notorious – landmarks on the road must be “Polly Shortts” which – particularly on the Up Run – has been the undoing of many a runner. Polly Shortts is named after a farmer who lived nearby in years gone by, and whose help was often sought when, after heavy rain, the road up the hill became muddy and impassable and one can imagine that, when you consider almost 2km of an extremely steep hill in the days before tarred roads that Mr. Shortts’ tractor was needed.

Not too far after Polly Shortts we dip down to a little river and we find the Tumble Inn and in the days when Comrades started at 6am it wasn’t uncommon to see spectators having dragged double beds onto the route and would be watching the race as the runners went by, from the comfort of their beds, glass of champagne in hand. Naturally very warmly dressed as at that time on a winter’s morning it was very “fresh” in that part of the world.

Tumble Inn Teapot is situated on a Stud Farm in Ashburton. It’s a quaint little farmhouse offering a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy a timeout with the girls, a quick snack with hubby or a get together with the moms group! It sits at the bottom of a little hill that runners in the “old days” used to incorrectly call Mkondeni which is actually a suburb of Pietermaritzburg. The modern runner calls it “Little Polly’s” and again, on the Up Run, not a very pleasant little climb.

Nothing much to see as we climb up through suburbs to reach the N3 as it’s still dark on the Down Run and to the turnoff to the Lion Park and apart from the game that obviously includes lions you will find elephant and various antelope and certainly worth a visit.

But let’s move along the road back onto the Comrades route as we head to the highest point between Pietermaritzburg and Durban at Umlaas Road we get to the highest point on the route between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

That’s right. You have been running for 20kms UPHILL to reach the highest point on the route of the DOWN RUN! You have been warned and it’s mainly in the dark so you can’t clearly see that it’s uphill.

After that it’s on through to Camperdown and

then to Cato Ridge and then onto the “old road” proper and the crowds start to gather to give you that much needed encouragement.

Along what is known as “Harrison Flats” and the turnoff to Nagel Dam and into the start of the Valley of 1000 Hills but for a better view of the Valley we need to travel a bit further along the route and to resist the temptation to stop on Comrades Day to look at the view which is really quite spectacular.

On from the turnoff to Nagel Dam a few kilometres further we reach the Entambeni School for the Disabled who have long been recipients of part of the charity from Comrades for many years. The children are out in numbers at the side of the road cheering the runners on race day.

Another couple of kilometres and we get to Inchanga. At the top more fantastic views this time towards the N3 down far below with scenic KZN in the background and ahead lies the little village of Drummond that is the official half way in Comrades and the point where the dreams of many runners are shattered when they are pulled off the road because they couldn’t make the cut off in the required time. Drummond comes alive on Comrades day as hundreds of spectators gather to see the runners and that dreadful gun the signals the half way cut off time.

But Drummond hasn’t always had its tarred roads for runners to use.

About a kilometre on the Durban side of Drummond, a couple of really important things.  Firstly a really nasty little climb out of Drummond that doesn’t really have a name that can be mentioned in polite circles and at the top of that is the famed “Arthur’s Seat” a seat carved out of the bank which is reputed to be the spot where the great Arthur Newton took a breather every year during his races in the 1920’s and runners are encouraged to stop and put a flower on the seat and greet the “spirit of the great man” with “Morning Arthur” if they want him to help them in the second half of the race. You can laugh about this if you wish but even the great Alan Robb greets Arthur Newton every year!   Are you prepared to take a chance and do the second half without Arthur’s help?  I certainly wouldn’t!

A few hundred metres further is possibly the best view of the breath taking Valley of a Thousand Hills and it’s also there that we find the Comrades Wall Of Honour that any runner who finishes the race can buy a plaque and have his or her name put up of the wall for all to see for all time.

The Valley of 1000 Hills is one of those few holiday destinations that has something for everyone. Unspoilt nature, wildlife, magnificent scenery, wining and dining, and warm country hospitality just a half an hour’s drive from the centre of Durban. The area is named after the thousands of hills which tumble down to the mighty Umgeni River, which flows from the Drakensberg Mountains to the Indian Ocean.

The old joke goes about sending mother in law for a one week holiday on each hill! Unkind and old but still used by many a downtrodden son in law.

Then on, into Botha’s Hill village, and another of the “big five hills” and some famous landmarks, probably the best known is the old Rob Roy Hotel that has now become a retirement home and one can but envy the views that the residents have with a different view over the Valley of 1000 Hills.

Not much further along the road is one of KZN’s most famous boys’ school, Kearsney College that excels in virtually every area. The classroom and the sports fields.

Comrades Day and it’s usual that the boys from Kearsney will be sitting and watching the runners go by and cheering for most of the day.

The beautiful entrance to Kearsney College seen in the autumn and incidentally, Kearsney College was founded in 1921, the year in which Comrades was first run.

Down the valley and into Hillcrest which about 30 years ago was no more than a village that has exploded into a good sized town offering everything from shopping to accommodation.

Leave Hillcrest and make your way through the leafy suburb of Winston Park and through into Kloof (heaven help you if you don’t pronounce it “Clue-oof” if you visit KZN). It is here in the Old Main Road that hundreds of spectators set up their areas to watch the race and cordon them off the day before Comrades to see the runners come through. The braai and beers forming as important a part of the day as do the runners.

After Kloof, it’s the drop down Field’s Hill into Pinetown and into the Josiah Gumede Road (formerly The Old Main Road) and well known to all Comrades runners since 1921.

Pinetown was a quiet little family type town until the early eighties but over recent years has boomed into a commercial hub. It has a rich history and as one travels through the centre of the town and you reach the Municipal Buildings one will find the stumps and bails on the commonage between the Pinetown Civic Centre and the Library alongside Old Main Road (now Josiah Gumede Road) to commemorate the founding of the Pinetown Cricket Club in 1878, when the first match was played there.   Please don’t stop there on Comrades day to look at the wickets as that will serve only to waste valuable time.

The wickets are some 20kms from the finish of Comrades on the Down Run and on your left hand side!   Interesting that when they were set up such cricketing greats as the late South African and Australian captains, Jackie McGlew and Richie Benaud were at the ceremony. There was also a small boy watching all this who grew up in Pinetown and who would many years later go on to run in Comrades Green Number 482 – but that’s another story altogether!

Leave Pinetown and it’s up and over Cowies Hill where at the top there is a fantastic view back over the town. On the Down Run it’s a tough climb but once you reach the top of Cowies Hill you know that most of the really hard work has been done and now it’s just “vasbyt”.

Cowies Hill has always been a very nice suburb of Pinetown with lovely houses and gardens. A sought after suburb.

Then it’s into Westville. Westville is an area near Durban and is some 15 km from Durban itself. Formerly an independent municipality governed by a Town Council, it is now part of the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, which also includes Durban. The town was laid out on the farm Westville (named in honour of Martin West, who was the first British lieutenant-governor of Natal) and it was formed in 1847. It developed from a settlement of German immigrants who arrived in 1848, and was proclaimed a borough in 1956.

When you get to the bottom of Cowies Hill on the Durban side the distance marker boards suddenly start to get invitingly low in terms of distance to go and it’s not long and suddenly you are into single figures as you reach 45th Cutting and you are now on the very outskirts of Durban and home is a mere 8kms away.

From 45th Cutting it’s a climb up from the traffic lights, over the top and down to what Durbanites call the Western Bypass and then it’s along a bit and the final little climb to the Tollgate Bridge.

Then it’s just 5kms home and it’s all downhill and flat running through the city centre to the finish at Kingsmead after you have spent the day running through some of the most beautiful parts of South Africa. A part of the country that thousands of runners who live the dream of a man who started this magical experience called The Comrades Marathon in 1921 have experienced.

It’s estimated some 300,000 runners have travelled this Old Road to Durban or from Durban over the years since 34 hardy souls set off to create history from outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall on 24 May 1921.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

TOMMY MALONE AND THE 1967 COMRADES FINISH :

I have known Tommy Malone for a long, long time and I have read many stories of that Comrades in 1967 when Manie Kuhn beat him by just one second to record the closest finish in Comrades history and it’s unlikely that closest finish will ever change.

Of the many stories and not so much film footage I have seen of that finish I have yet to see the entire story from Tommy’s side anywhere and I have always thought that was strange, but when you know the man as I do, it’s not really surprising because he is a modest man who I doubt would try to make excuses and who has accepted that he was second and beaten my Manie Kuhn.

This is perhaps one of the most famous and talked about photos in Comrades history and the saddest part of it is that Tommy Malone is better known for coming second in 1967 than he is for winning the 1966 Comrades by the biggest margin since the sixties.

There have been many comments by many people about what was thought to have happened ranging from cramp to a car having hindered his entrance to the narrow run in at the Drill Hall where the race finished on those days on the down run. Having finished there myself a couple of times, I know it was a narrow entrance and in those days no such thing as road closures.

This has all bothered me for a many years so I sat with Tommy and asked him if the story from his point of view has ever been told and recorded and it seems that only bits and pieces have been told. When he told me this, I asked him if he would mind telling me the story of what actually happened as he saw it.

This is Tommy’s story. It is not an excuse. It is not a “blame anyone story”, it is simply what happened on 31st May 1967 as seen by the man who finished second.

I asked Tommy to go back on that Comrades Day and to tell me the story from there so here it is.

A group of runners went through Drummond together and on that nasty little hill coming out of Drummond, Tommy made his break from the pack and regarding himself as strong on the hills set out to tackle Alverstone and Botha’s Hill and the little climb into Hillcrest by which time he was out in front and alone. Remember that in 1967 there were only about 600 entries, so being alone during the race was quite common.

Down through Kloof, into Pinetown, up over Cowies Hill and down the other side and into Westville and then it happened. He was hit by severe cramp in his right calf muscle that brought him to a walk. His seconds were quick to react and they ran to a house alongside the route and asked whether the people living there had hot water to ease the cramp. They got the hot water, put it on his calf and it did no more than burn his leg.

His seconds asked him if he was able to run for another hour because that was all that was necessary to get to the finish. Tommy wasn’t sure but off he went.

In those days the run into Durban was very different in that it went passed the Mayville Hotel and down to the bottom of the long climb up passed Westridge Tennis Stadium and Tommy went up there but with his leg bothering him fairly badly because of the cramp. Over the top of Tollgate and the downhill run of around 5Km to the finish and someone shouted to him “If Kuhn had roller skates he couldn’t catch you”. Tommy now happy that despite the pain in his leg he was going to be OK.

Did that comment cost him the race? Who knows?

What Tommy did tell me was that the cramp was certainly taking everything out of him and he was tiring but he made his way towards the finish at DLI which was inside Greyville Racecourse. To get there, the runners had to go round the outside of the racecourse, a sharp left under a subway and then another sharp left into the fairly short run to the finish line.

There have been stories over the years that the baton containing the traditional mayoral message between the mayors of the start and finish cities, was handed to Tommy at Tollgate but this isn’t correct. It was handed to him as he was about to turn into the finish run in by an official who was quite happy in the knowledge that he had given it to the man who was going to win.

At the entrance to the finish a taxi was offloading spectators who wanted to see the end of the race and Tommy had to run around the front of it to get into the grounds and this probably added about 5 seconds to his time.

Did this cost him the race? Who knows?

What we don’t know is whether Manie Kuhn had to run around the taxi as well. If he did, the slight detour they then both had to do, balanced out.

Tommy, with the mayoral message in his hand made his way to the finish with about 50 metres to go and the idea that he was well clear of Manie who he believed was about two minutes behind him when he heard someone in the crowd yell “Come on Manie”. His immediate thought was that somebody was trying to pull the “proverbial”. He looked around and Kuhn was coming at him, as he described it to me, “like a steam train”.

Instinctively and sub consciously he surged forward and the calf muscle objected and gave in completely and down he went. He was fairly slow in getting up and whilst doing so turned round to see Manie bearing down on him.

Did that slow getting up and looking round cost him the race? Again, who knows?

When he did get up he tried to reach the finish line and down he went again and Manie Kuhn “flew” passed him to win the 1967 Comrades. The record books show he beat Tommy by one second but if you look at footage and the photo above that’s questionable if it was actually as much as that and modern technology could perhaps have shown it to be closer than that, but something else we’ll never know so we have to be content to settle for one second.

Not that it matters though. Tommy maintains that Manie won the 1967 Comrades, and as far as he’s concerned, there’s no doubt about that. Many people have asked him over the years whether, if roles were reversed, he would have helped Manie across the line to record a dead heat but as Tommy said to me “A Comrades win was at stake here” and if the roles were reversed, he would have done exactly as Manie had done.

One other story that I have read which is also not correct, is that after the loss in 1967, Tommy didn’t return to run Comrades for another four years, so distraught was he at the result. That’s not correct at all. Two weeks after Comrades, both his Achilles tendons gave in completely and it took several doctors and other medical people four years to get the very painful problem sorted out. Eventually Tommy was able to come back and run the 1971 Comrades and his aim now was to get his green number which he did in 1980 but give up being competitive? Not a chance. Maybe he was no longer able to win Comrades but his remaining eight finishes to get that green number were all silver.

A final bit of interesting information is that his race number – 62 – has gone green twice. Tommy turned it green in 1980 and some years later, his daughter, Amanda started running Comrades and in Tommy’s number 62 and in 2015 she turned the number green a second time.

So there you have it. Comrades 1967 according to Tommy Malone.

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

ARTHUR NEWTON’S MISSING COMRADES CLOCK :

 

I spoke in my previous chapter about one of the big things that happened to me whilst on the Comrades Committee in 1979 was the “finding” of Noel Burree who had finished second in 1931 but I also was fortunate enough to have “found” something else as well during my year on the committee.

We have just a few weeks to go the 90th Comrades and I am sure that a lot of runners will be visiting the museum at Comrades House and if you had no plans to do so, change your mind and don’t miss it.

The clock presented to Arthur Newton by the Natal Witness in the early twenties is now on display in the Comrades Museum has had an interesting journey since being presented to the great man but not very many people know the story of that clock and how it eventually ended up in the Comrades Museum.

Photo courtesy of movies.org

Newton was a farmer in the Harding area in southern KZN and at some time – and it seems nobody is sure when – after winning it, he presented the clock to the Harding Town Board so that the clock could be on permanent display in the Harding Town Hall.

As far as we know it was there for many years until the Town Hall was destroyed by fire in the late sixties and one of the very few things saved from the fire was the Arthur Newton clock.

Whilst the Town Hall was being rebuilt the clock was simply put on top of a filing cabinet in the office of the Town Clerk and after the Town Hall was completed the clock was overlooked and left on top of the filing cabinet for around 10 years.

During the seventies I had been appointed as District Manager of the then, SA Eagle Insurance Co and part of my “district” included Harding and as SA Eagle were the insurers of the Harding Town Board it was my job to visit the Town Clerk on a routine basis.

On one of these visits, the Town Clerk was called away from his office for a short while and I spotted the clock on top of the filing cabinet and decided to take a look at it. There were files and papers scattered around the base but I was able to see an inscription plate on the base and when I moved the papers was thrilled to see what the clock was.

When the Town Clerk returned to his office I asked him if he knew exactly what the clock was and he shrugged his shoulders and said it had been there for years and he had no idea at all. By this time the clock was not working and whether it stopped during the rescue from the fire, again nobody knows.

As he had no idea where the clock had come from or its history, and didn’t really seem to care, I asked him if I could have the clock as I was a member of the Comrades Marathon Committee (which he knew anyway) and was given an immediate answer of “NO, it belongs to us”. After some begging and pleading he agreed that it could be “lent” to Comrades so I left with the precious clock in my car. Some years later the Harding Town Board eventually gave the clock to Comrades.

When I got back to Pietermaritzburg, I had absolutely no idea what to do with the clock and spoke to Mick Winn who was both Collegians Harriers and Comrades Chairman at the time and he too had no idea, so the clock was put on top of the safe in my office as this was long before the establishment of any sort of Comrades Museum.

What I did do however, was to see the editor of the Natal Witness as it was they who had originally presented the clock to Arthur Newton way back in the twenties and I told them about my find. They were very excited and sent a photographer round to my office to take photographs of the clock (with the prettiest girl in my office looking at the clock) and the story appeared in “The Witness” the following day.   At the same time I spoke to a friend of mine, Rod Webbstock, who was a watchmaker in Pietermaritzburg to ask him if he thought he could get it going again and what it would cost to do so.

Armed with an approximate cost I then went back to the editor of “The Witness” and suggested to him that it might be a good idea, as they had originally presented the clock that they should pay for it to be repaired. Without hesitation they agreed so the clock went off to Rod Webbstock’s workshop and he started working on it and eventually he got the clock working again. Whilst it was working it never kept accurate time though and stopped working when it felt like it and had to be persuaded to start up again.

After the repair it was returned to my office and spent quite a time sitting on the safe in the corner of my office. I was transferred away from Pietermaritzburg in August 1979 after that 1979 Comrades when I was on the organising committee and not knowing what to do with the clock I gave it to Mick Winn and he put it in his office at the pharmacy. There was still no museum. So it was relegated to once again spending its days on top of a cabinet.

Sometime later the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg gave a small corner of the museum to Comrades for the start of the Comrades Museum and the clock was one of the items that went there from Mick.

Later with the establishment of the CMA and the purchase of what is now Comrades House and the establishment of the Comrades Museum the clock found its new permanent home and it still stands there. Unfortunately the clock stopped working again in the years that followed between its repair by Rod Webbstock and the establishment of the Comrades Museum in Comrades House. On one of my recent visits to the Comrades museum I was told that the organisers have found somebody they think can repair it.

I look forward to seeing the clock returned to its former glory but if you visit the Comrades Museum at any time be sure to take a look at Arthur Newton’s missing clock. It’s had a very interesting life and if you get there before Comrades, I’m sure that Arthur Newton would be thrilled if you stop at Arthur’s Seat just before Drummond to give the customary greeting of “Morning Arthur” and put a flower in the seat, that you spend an extra few seconds there telling him you have seen his clock.

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

NOEL BURREE – 2nd IN COMRADES & WITHOUT A DRINK FROM START TO FINISH :

 

In 1979 I was voted onto the Comrades organising committee and it’s one of my regrets that I was only able to serve one year before being transferred away from Pietermaritzburg by my employers. Serving on the Comrades committee albeit only for a year was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.

I was friendly with chap by the name of Pat Fletcher who was one of the managers at Wesbank and they had agreed to organise one of the refreshment stations I mentioned in my previous blog and he asked me whether it would be possible for Wesbank to have the loan of all the Comrades trophies to be put on show at their stand at the Royal Show in Pietermaritzburg that year. The Comrades committee agreed subject to trophy cabinets being made with armour plate glass to stop any possibility of a “smash & grab” and all was agreed.

The Royal Show started and on one of the show days I decided to go along to the Wesbank stand to see what had been done with the trophies.

Whilst I was standing there chatting to Pat I was aware of an elderly couple behind me looking at the trophies and I heard the wife say to her husband “There is the trophy your name should be on dear”.

I immediately stopped talking to Pat and turned my attention to the couple standing at the trophy cabinet. I told them I could not help overhearing the comment that the elderly lady had made to her husband and was interested to know which trophy they were talking about.

“That one there” she said pointing to the Anderson Trophy for the second person home.   “That’s interesting” I replied. “What year was that?”

The old man then chipped in and said “It was 1931 – a long, long time ago young man” (which I was at that time)!

Having more than a passing interest in Comrades it didn’t take me more than a few seconds to put a name to the person who had finished second in 1931 in what is still the second closest finish in the history of the race.

“Noel Burree finished second that year – but I thought he was dead” I said inserting my foot ever so gently into my mouth.

“No I’m not dead” the old man said very seriously.

While I was trying to figure how best to correct the embarrassing situation I had caused, Ronnie Borain who wrote for the Sunday Tribune came strolling past. Precision timing!

I called Ronnie and introduced him to Noel Burree and he made me promise that no other media person should get the story. This was before my days with Radio 702 so no problem there.

The Sunday following the day I had met Noel Burree the lead story in the Tribune was his and his 1931 run.

What had happened is that Burree had been living in the caravan park at Ifafa beach down the South Coast for years and every year without fail he had hitched his caravan to his car and had towed it to Pietermaritzburg to watch Comrades – and nobody knew he was there!

A day or two after “finding” him I went along to the Pietermaritzburg Caravan park to visit Mr & Mrs Burree and spent a fascinating afternoon with them while he told me the story of that run when he lost to Phil Masterton-Smith by 2 seconds.

The morning of the race he was due to be given a lift to the start, but the person with whom he had arranged this, didn’t arrive. He then found a bicycle but it had a flat tyre.

“What did you do?” I asked the “Old Man”

“What could I do” he replied “I ran to the start and arrived just in time to see the rest of the runners disappearing along Commercial Road in the direction of Durban”

We chatted a little more about how he had made up the distance and how the race had gone and then he told me that he had another problem at Drummond. The person who was to give him his drink wasn’t there.

I asked him when he had last had a drink. “That was to have been my only drink during the race” he said.

So what did he do, I wanted to know.

“I had no choice. I just had to run on and I had to finish the race without anything to drink”

He had actually run an entire Comrades and finished second after having run to the start without a drink along the road.

Noel Burree was an instant V.I.P. at Comrades in 1979 and for several years after that.

A charming and humble man and one of the stories of my involvement in Comrades I will always hold very near and dear.

 

Posted in ALL MY BLOGS, UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

COMRADES REFRESHMENT STATIONS ARE BORN. :

This is not the story of the Comrades Marathon. It’s not the story of the guts and the glory of the road. This is the story of refreshment stations but not as we know them today.  It’s the story of how they came about.  How they started and of how we knew nothing about them. 

It’s also my story.  My story of my involvement with Comrades over 60 years, the years that bring us to the 90th running of the race in 2015 and 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 then.

1975, the Golden Jubilee had been a success in every way and we even saw a few of the old winners sitting at the finish line. In a previous chapter I mentioned Mick Winn who was Chairman of Comrades at the time of the Golden Jubilee and Mick himself was a pretty good runner.

Before I move on to the following years, one story about Mick came back to me as I sat down to write this chapter about how refreshment stations were born.  Mick, in 1975, wanted to run the race with it being the 50th but he had a problem in that the official luncheon for the dignitaries was at 1pm.  That was 7 hours into the race and Mick had to be at that luncheon.  Talk about the horns of a dilemma!

Run the 50th Comrades or be at the function which was his job as Chairman. I have never asked Mick how long it took him to make a decision but when the decision had been made, he ran the 50th Comrades and he was at the luncheon!

He crossed the finish line around 6:40!

Anyway let’s move on and 1976 saw the emergence of a new hero when Alan Robb won his first of four Comrades.

I on the other hand had a shocker and wracked with pain from cramp I managed to finish, doing the second half slower than Alan had run the entire race!

1977 and I ran my 10th and number 482 became mine forever and I decided to call it a day. That of course changed a few years later.

Nothing much happened in 1978 to make it stand out for me but 1979 was probably one of the highlights of my long association with Comrades. I found myself on the Comrades committee which at that time consisted of just five people. The biggest regret I have is that I was only able to serve for one year before my employers transferred me away from Pietermaritzburg.

Along I went to my first committee meeting and discussion revolved around the fact that following a part ban on seconding vehicles because of traffic volumes, that 1979 should be the year of a total ban other than those vehicles with express permission to be on the road. The discussion went along well and then I was told that I was responsible for refreshment “tables” (I don’t think they had the exalted title of “stations” at that time), and I was given a few rather tatty files used by the chap who had organised a few of these tables the year before with the partial ban. It actually turned out that they weren’t much use to me anyway.

I didn’t have a clue where to start. One thing that was sorted and a major relief was that Coca Cola had confirmed that they were on board for the drinks. The water was easy. A couple of tankers took care of that. Coke also confirmed that they would provide paper cups, not only for the Coke but also for the drinking water. This was long before the advent of water sachets.

The drinks and something to put the drinks into was sorted. Now remained just one little problem. The people to work on the refreshment tables – and reaching into the memory bank, I seem to remember there were going to be 22 of them. An obscure number but that’s what we arrived at. We worked out that given the number of runners we expected that we would need about 30 people at each table. 660 people! Where on earth was I going to find 660 people to get out of bed at some unearthly hour so give sweaty runners a drink.

The way to do it was obviously to approach companies to use their staff. Not only that but to provide their staff with T shirts at their cost branded with the company logo, as well as something to feed these brave souls. I thought that this wouldn’t be too difficult a task. 22 companies wasn’t that bad. One was already sorted when I told my staff what they were going to be doing on Comrades.

I then contacted my colleague at the Durban Branch of SA Eagle (I was manager of the Pietermaritzburg Branch) and talked him into it. Eventually and somewhat reluctantly he agreed and SA Eagle in Durban went on from the 1979 Comrades to be the first company to look after a refreshment station at Comrades for 20 consecutive years.

After a lot of hard work I managed to find the 22 companies to engage in this new thing in Comrades and in fact in road running in South Africa as I can’t remember any other race doing this. If I am wrong, forgiveness please.

What we then did was to get as many of them as possible together to teach them what they had to do and how much to pour into each cup whether Coke or water, which would be at different tables at the refreshment station.

Probably the most fun we had in staffing the tables was after I had approached a good friend at Wesbank, Pat Fletcher who was the ABM. He was very keen but he had nowhere near the 30 people needed so every lunchtime and any other time he was free, Pat would prowl Church Street in Pietermaritzburg and stop every pretty girl he saw and ask them if they would like to join the Wesbank table which was going to be at the top of Polly’s (and was for many years). Surprisingly it didn’t take Pat too long to find his “Wesbank Girls”, nor did he get any slaps across the face or any other part of his anatomy and got from each of them, their T shirt and shorts sizes, again without any smacks – and then he ordered one size smaller for each of them!

The big day came and as soon as the runners set off towards Pietermaritzburg, so did I to check that the plan and reality were in line. Perfect, until I was very close to Drummond and found a lot of crates of Coke, lots of paper cups and water – and no people!

Instant panic. Where was I going to find the company that had agreed to be there at that time of the morning. I had phone numbers but we had no cell phones in 1979!  I drove on towards Drummond not feeling great at all when my headlights picked up a very sad and cold and worried looking bunch of people. They told me in panic that the Coke truck hadn’t arrived and what were we going to do?

After I had reunited those people with the crates of Coke I made my way to the finish in Pietermaritzburg. As it turned out that was my only problem of the day and bonus was seeing my Collegians Harriers team mate Piet Vorster come across the line to win.

And so the birth of refreshment stations along the entire route.  Today Comrades runners could simply not survive without them and I am extremely proud to have played such an crucial role in the birth of the refreshment stations. 

Posted in UNOFFICIAL HISTORY

1975 AND COMRADES CHANGES :

The 50th Comrades was run in 1975 and still known as “The Golden Jubilee” and a huge amount of fanfare came with the announcement of a “special medal” to celebrate this.

If there are those who consider this to be a political blog, it’s certainly not the intention. It is merely the story of a part of Comrades in which I was involved and at which I was present.

 20150309_173534

The Golden Jubilee wasn’t the only thing that happened for the 1975 race and in fact it had all started in the second half of 1974 when the organisers decided to take a proposal to Collegians Harriers, to whom Comrades belonged in those days to get permission from the South African Amateur Athletics Union (SAAAU) that the race should be open to all races and also to women. The rules were clear. People of colour and women were not permitted to compete in the same athletics events as men.

Shock and horror!

It’s interesting however that I had attended the SA Games in Pretoria in 1973 and a man who later became a great friend, Titus Mamabola, took part in the 5000 metre race at Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria in those games. I also remember a huge number of totally unnecessary comments from the spectators aimed at Titus. Titus, incidentally, the grandfather of 2012 Comrades winner, Ludwick Mamabolo.

The decision on whether to take the opening of Comrades to SAAAU or not, would only be taken if the members of Collegians Harriers agreed to this at the AGM. The decision by the Comrades Committee who wanted to open the race was by no means the final decision and was purely a recommendation.

I remember that AGM having more members attend than any other open meeting of the club as the news of this shocking proposal was by now public knowledge. It’s important to remember that this was in late 1974 and deep in the Apartheid years and in fact almost two years before the Soweto uprisings that I have always believed led to the eventual change in South Africa.

Anyway back to the AGM and all went smoothly and according to plan as any AGM should with confirmation of minutes and of the finances and the Chairman’s report. For the record the Chairman of Collegians Harriers and the Comrades Committee was the same person and he was Mick Winn who in later years went on to become Chairman of both Natal Marathon Runners Assoc and also of SARRA (South African Road Running Association).

After all the mundane general meeting stuff had been concluded, Mick put the Comrades and Collegians Harriers proposal to the floor. What followed was an explosion that could have been heard hundreds of kilometres away.

As I said this was 1974 and Apartheid years and everywhere one went one was bound to meet a person whose thinking was decidedly right wing and this is where the problems were. I have always believed that had Collegians not had a Chairman as strong as Mick, the meeting was destined to get completely out of control. Eventually the proposal was put to the vote and sanity prevailed and the decision taken that this be taken to SAAAU.

The fact that Collegians members had agreed didn’t by any stretch of the imagination mean that the race would be opened. The final decision on that rested with SAAAU. Again after a lot of talking and debating it was agreed that the race could be open to all races and not only to all races, but to women as well. That decision came with a ruling that most of us couldn’t understand at the time and in fact I still don’t.

The powers that be, agreed to allow the race to be open to all races provided that black runners wore “ethnic tags” on their vests denoting whether they were Zulu, Xhosa, etc. Didn’t understand it then and still don’t but Comrades was open. One would have expected then that this rule would be followed through to “Woman” or “Indian” or “Coloured” but that didn’t happen.

The next big problem facing organisers was the fact that with the race now being open and also the 50th that the roads wouldn’t be big enough to handle the expected fields. That was the official reason given so it was decided that the entries would be limited to 1500. Initially the rumour flew around that everyone had to qualify but then we heard that it would only be novices!!

The huge fields expected didn’t happen and 1686 runners entered and this was pruned to 1500. Of the 1500 only 20 entries were from black runners.

The qualifying time to be able to enter Comrades 1975 was a 3:30 marathon. I wasn’t on the Comrades organising committee at that time so I have no idea where both the rules about limiting the number of runners and the qualifying came from!

Both the limit on runners and qualifying requirements were scrapped for the 1976 race and although qualifying was introduced some years later, that was for a different reason altogether.

The big day came for the 50th Comrades and it was won by Derek Preiss in a time of 5:53:50. Preiss incidentally had won Comrades in 1974 as well and was the last person to do so in over 6 hours. He crossed the line in 6:02:49 in 1974, just a few minutes ahead of a 20 year old novice by the name of Alan Robb who finished in third place. 

There had been unofficial black runners since as far back as the 1930’s but the first official black winner of a Comrades medal was the late Gabashane “Vincent” Rakabaele who finished in 20th position. He finished 4th the following year and 8th the year after that. Rakabaele passed away in late 2009 but sadly very few people even remember his name despite the fact that he made such an impact on the race in the 1970’s.

There was also another category of runner competing for the first time and they were the women runners. There had also been a fair number of unofficial women runners over the years and in fact it was one of these brave ladies who ran regularly in the 1930’s, Geraldine Watson who donated the trophy for the last official finisher, but the first woman to win an official Comrades Marathon medal was Betty Cavanagh who came home in a little over 10 hours.

The Cavanagh Marathon still held every year in Estcourt was named after the Cavanagh family, Betty and husband Tony.

1975, the year that changed it all.