I have been privileged in the many years I have been associated with Comrades to have met most of the winners from the sixties, seventies, eighties (not difficult there with Bruce) and the nineties but missing from my list of winners I have met is 1965 winner, Bernard Gomersall who came home in record time in the wettest race in Comrades history.
Bernard is one of the elder statesmen of Comrades and is 84 on the 23rd of August which puts him second in line behind Jackie Mekler as the oldest surviving Comrades winner.
He was last in South Africa for Comrades in 2015 but one thing is certain is that when he is next here, I am going to move heaven and earth to meet him.
One man who does know Bernard very well, is my good friend, Tommy Malone who has raced against Bernard in the London to Brighton but never in Comrades and I asked Tommy if he would be good enough to contact Bernard and to get his story for me for themarathon.co
Tommy didn’t hesitate and for that I thank him.
Here’s Bernard’s story:
In my youth I was mad about sport, mainly football. I did try other games like cricket, rugby, tennis. I always wanted to be successful at some sport and the only thing that stopped me playing football for England was my lack of ability. I was useless but I didn’t know it.
I did very little running up to the age of 17. I had qualified as a soccer referee and joined the local athletic club, Harehills Harriers to help me with my fitness on the football field.
I joined in some of the events (mainly track and cross-country) but once again I was rubbish but one day going to a track event in Leeds, the tram I was travelling on was held-up to allow a road-race to pass. When I saw some of the runners go passed I thought that I could do better than that, so I joined the road section of the club and started to improve.
My first attempt at the marathon was in 1958 in Hull and I managed to do 2:44 for 6th place.
That same year Mike Kirkwood a friend of mine from Hull won the London-to-Brighton and thought that if he could win that race I was capable of running it. I had no thoughts then of ever winning the race.
In my first attempt at the Brighton in 1959 I set out to run about 7:25 for a 2nd class standard medal I managed to do 6:15 for a first class standard A medal.
It was a start.
I first heard about the Comrades in 1960 when a lad from Leeds, Dennis Stevenson, came to the club. He had lived in New Zealand and came back to Leeds via South Africa where he had run in the Comrades and finished 6th in 1958. He told me about the steep hills and the tremendous atmosphere generated by the roadside crowds. It sounded wonderful but I knew I would never ever get to see it – or so I thought.
When I was invited in October 1964 by the road-runners club to compete in the Comrades, I had a British winter to face. But this was no different to any other year. We had to train in these conditions if we wanted to have a successful summer. I trained in the cold morning and nights, before and after work, seven days a week. Long runs at the weekend and a fair amount of track work during the week.
It would not have been possible to achieve all of the results without the unselfish support of my dear wife Ruth who looked after me and our four year old daughter Bernadette. As all top marathon runners know it is the wife who makes you a top runner.
When I came to the Comrades in 1965 I must confess that I was very ignorant about any of my opponents. I had run in the 1959 Brighton when Fritz Madel won and again in 1960 when Jackie Mekler won but I was just another runner and I never got to meet them. So I went into the race knowing very little about anybody.
The celebrations of the 1965 Comrades started at 10.30 pm the night before. I had just got into bed and was about to go to sleep when I was disturbed by a noise on my bedroom roof, It was RAIN and it lasted to the following evening after the race.
I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the rain-drops on the roof. I was further encouraged on race morning by the sight of Jackie Mekler sheltering near the Pietermaritzburg city hall with a look of complete misery on his face. Everybody was complaining about the cold. I asked “What Cold”?
During the race (after about twenty miles) I removed the light sweater I was wearing leaving just the white British vest which I found warm enough, I think this finished off the opposition.
I approached the race in ’65 just the same as in England because I had the same conditions. People accused me of bringing my own weather with me. They thought it was unfair!!! I think it still goes down as the wettest Comrades in history!
I was seconded by well known Comrades personality Derek Palframan who did a splendid job on the day
It may sound very “Big Headed” but on that day nobody would have beaten me. It was my day, thanks mainly to the weather. Also I felt has though I had “feathers in my shoes”.
I came back for the 1968 Comrades but that was a different story altogether. Due to some change in circumstances I was not able to devote as much time to my preparation for the race as I had in 1965. Then, of course , there was the weather.
It was hot by my standards. I fried losing 17lbs during the race. I was well beaten on the day and finished in 7th place just outside the gold medals (there were just six in those days)
I was not as happy at the finish that time and was assisted by race official Bob Calder.
The London to Brighton was my event. It held priority over everything else I did.
My preparation for the race started three weeks after the completion of the last one and I spent eleven months working for it. No other race was important and all my the thoughts were for the race in September.
My record of four consecutive wins has not been beaten. Bruce won three on the trot and a Steven Moore from London has won it four times but it took him ten years to do it.
When thinking of the toughest opponents in the Brighton, three names come to mind. The first was Ted Corbitt of New York. He was a great athlete and an even greater gentleman. In the 1964 race he chased me all the way to the finish and was only 58 seconds behind at the end.
The other two were in the 1966 race Manie Kuhn and your good self, Tommy.. Between you, you managed to scare me almost to death. I was so afraid of the two great athletes behind me. How I managed to stay in front that day I will never know. It was the best race I ever ran in.
This photo in the London to Brighton shows 1967 Comrades winner Manie Kuhn wearing race number 45 in our lead group. Manie finished second that year. Over my right shoulder you can see John Tarrant who gained “fame” as the “ghost runner” when he came to South Africa to attempt to win Comrades and was not permitted to run officially by British athletics.
Although I had a very successful running career my best memories are of the many lifetime friends I made. I think that these a more precious than all the medals and trophies,
Today’s Comrades is so different to the event I took part in. It is so big. During my recent visits to the race I have been overwhelmed. I have enjoyed every minute. The three day expo, the meetings, the dinners but I don’t think I would like to be competing these days with so many runners, all the crush and the waiting at the start. It’s what each of us is used to and I always preferred small fields.
On 25th July 2014 I moved to the USA after living 82 years in the UK, to live with my daughter and it was the best decision I could have made. After losing my dear Ruth (we were married for 55 years) I was devastated. I was on my own with no relatives nearby. My daughter with her husband, Kevin, and two daughters Beverley and Theresa had moved back to the States in 2000. The two girls were born there in the late 80s. They were now firmly settled. She offered me a home which I eventually accepted. It took three years of paper work to obtain my entry visa, but I now have my green card and I have settled down nicely to life here.