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.

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

 

 

February 2019

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

COMRADES – THE GREAT LEVELLER :

A little over 50 years ago, shortly before I ran my first Comrades, I read an article in a Durban newspaper entitled “Comrades – The Great Leveller” and over the years since then, I have often thought about that article as various things have happened during this race.  I have seen race leaders with a substantial lead just 20km from the finish end up just scraping into the gold medals or not finishing at all and I wonder how many people, both runners and spectators have ever thought about the subject of that article?

A couple of years ago, Comrades themselves used the theme “It Will Humble You” and I wrote something at the time in which I expressed my thoughts about how this event can in fact humble one.

I was challenged by someone who said that a road race and especially Comrades, can’t humble anyone but yet the very person who challenged me has been humbled by Comrades and when I sit down and think about it, I know of many more people who have been humbled by Comrades.

I am just one of those who has been humbled by this race on more than one occasion but the biggest lesson I got was in 1976 when I was going for my best time. I had trained for it and I knew I could do it but just a few minutes over 3 hours into the race I ran into trouble in the form of cramp.

Prior to that I had never suffered from cramp (as opposed to sore and stiff muscles) while running and this was my 9th Comrades so there was absolutely no reason for it to have happened that day – but it did and I ended up running just over two hours slower than I had planned, and my second half was slower than the winner that year (it was Alan Robb who won in 5:40:39) took to run the entire race.

ALAN ROBB 1978 FINISH

If that is not being humbled I don’t know what is and I know of many runners who can tell you stories of how they “came undone” in Comrades and ended up either not finishing or having serious problems on the road and finishing a lot slower than they had planned. 

I could rattle off a long list of names but I won’t because it doesn’t take a lot of thought to go back through the history of Comrades and to find many of the people who have suffered the indignity of being humbled by this road race.

Comrades is bigger than any of us when that gun is fired to start the race.

So back to where I started when I said that Comrades can be regarded as the great leveller but what exactly does that mean?

Well, as I see it, and this can be seen almost every year when Comrades organisers take the number of people who have entered and publish the jobs and professions of the runners and how many people fall into each category and you’ll find some of the entrants are company directors or well-known surgeons or some other equally elevated profession many of which come with a reasonably high social status.

At the other end of the scale, you find manual labourers, waiters and, sadly, unemployed people but the big thing is that when that gun fires to start Comrades, every one of those people are equal and their position in life and the amount of money they have and their fame mean absolutely nothing.

On the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, the top surgeon in the country, if he’s running, could find himself spending many hours running alongside, talking to and bonding with the lowest paid person in the race and what they are in life and the status they might have means nothing at all. Not a thing and in many cases it’s probably unlikely that they’ll even bother to ask each other about their status in life. They have far more important things to think about on Comrades day.

CAMPERDOWN

They are all exactly the same as they struggle together up the hills in Comrades and as they share their thoughts about the race and stop together at a refreshment station for that well deserved drink.

It doesn’t end there though. It is completely possible that the labourer and his boss could start together but it is also completely possible that the labourer finishes a good few hours ahead of his boss. Whatever position the boss might hold in the company compared to that of the labourer means nothing – absolutely nothing – on that road when Comrades is held.

So basically what I am getting at, is that it matters not what position or so-called social status you may hold in life or how much money you might have in the bank and how fancy a house you might live in and how expensive a car you might drive, all those things mean nothing.  On Comrades day everybody is equal where all your wealth and status, or perceived lack of it, count for nothing. 

All that matters is that you all get to the finish and the fancy house in which you live and the fancy car you drive and your big salary aren’t going to help you to get to the finish ahead of the runner who has none of those things.

Go to the finish or even sit at the side of the road to watch the race and watch the runners and nobody asks them how much or how little they earn when they offer to help each other to reach their goal. Those runners are simply “comrades” together on that day.

Imagine what a wonderful place South Africa would be if everybody in the country behaved towards each other in the same way as they do on Comrades day. 

I don’t think it matters whether you’re a gold medallist or whether you scrape home just before the 12 hour gun, on Comrades day I believe everyone is equal and I think it can best be summed up by Caroline Wostmann who won the women’s race in 2015 and had that awful run in 2016 and although she finished second, something that many people would be happy to do, she said   “When I crossed the finish line I learnt that winning is not about coming first but rather about challenging yourself to the limit, pushing the boundaries and walking away from the experience a better, stronger person.”

Every runner has the same distance to cover, the same hills to climb, the same refreshment stations to use and the same stiff and sore legs.  It matters not one bit who or what you are on Comrades day or what colour skin you might have because every single person in that race (and I’m not talking about athletic ability here) is exactly the same. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that Comrades is the great leveller.

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

COMRADES – GET TO KNOW IT. :

A lot of people have asked me over the years what it is with me and the Comrades Marathon.  When I initially thought about it years ago my immediate response to myself was that I really didn’t know what it is that drew me to feel the way I do about Comrades but when I sat down and thought about it, and that was a fairly long time ago, I started to understand.

Its way more than the physical challenge it presents because one has to travel some 90km on foot within a certain time and in some sort of strange way it was a disagreement with someone about Comrades that got me thinking about all this again.  This person, who has never run the race, tried to convince me that Comrades is simply another road race and it’s a simple thing of getting from the start to the finish as fast as possible as one would any other road race.  

His thinking was that it has everything to do with the time you run and nothing else.  This could be right, if it wasn’t for one thing. It doesn’t explain why it is that a huge percentage of the field finishes in the last hour, and that, if you look at the record book, has always been the case.  To my mind it’s easy to convince yourself that time is the most important part of Comrades if you have never experienced it yourself.

Naturally time does play a part and to many people it plays a major part. I for example, always tried to run a respectable time – whatever that might be but when I look back at my Comrades performances, finishing, almost always, was the prime consideration. One of my proudest moments in Comrades was when I ran my first one and I was almost 10 and a half hours on the road that year and so it was with most of my runs and I think this is the reason why we now have so many runners who proudly own a Green Number for having run it more than 10 times.  A “respectable time” was, for me and thousands of other runners, a bonus.

My love of Comrades started 12 years before I first ran it. I was 9 years old when I saw it for the first time and it was love at first sight and I think it cast a kind of magic spell in my young mind at the time. Firstly that anyone could actually run that far was just beyond my understanding at the time so it created a mystery and magic and what 9 year old isn’t captivated by any sort of mystery and magic?

As the years have gone by, this feeling of mystery may have gone to a degree because I’ve been involved so long, but the magic spell it cast all those years ago has never left me despite the fact that the first Comrades I saw and the Comrades we have today are vastly different things altogether. 

This of course, is perfectly understandable because Comrades had to move with the times and change to fall in line with the world as we know it. Imagine if Comrades in the 21st century was still exactly as it was in 1956 when I first saw it!  As the race grew, so the need came to make changes.

The one aspect of it all that does sadden me and that’s the fact that so many modern runners don’t fully experience Comrades. Many will argue with me – and that’s fine – but I believe it’s got to do with the fact that very few have very much interest in, or know the history of Comrades.

Many “ordinary” runners will strive to get a Bill Rowan Medal for example, without really knowing who Bill Rowan was nor the significance of the requirement to break 9 hours to achieve this particular medal.  Some people have said that the lack of interest in the history of the race is because so much of it took place in those dark days of South Africa’s past but as long as there are things that people desperately try to achieve like a medal named after the first winner in 1921, I think it’s difficult or almost impossible to say that we should have no interest in “the old days” that have no bearing on the South Africa of the 21st century.

bill rowan (2)

Photo: Bill Rowan

Comrades has an amazing history and it’s difficult to ignore it because so much of what happened in the past still impacts on the race today and the Bill Rowan Medal is just one of them.

Another example is the fact that all of the 5 times and more winners of Comrades achieved this before we had our much needed political change but yet every modern day winner sets these men as the goal they would like to achieve.

Ask many modern runners, however, to name the 5 men who have won the race 5 times or more and most will only be able to give you Bruce’s name, yet most know that whilst nobody has come close to the number Bruce has won there are 4 others who have won 5 times. Then take it down to the 3 times winners and the only 4 time winner we’ve had and there will be even less knowledge of who they are and in total there are not many who fall into those categories.

My guess is that even our most recent 3 times winner’s name is not known to many of the “ordinary” runners and our latest 3 time winner, Bongmusa Mthembu, achieved his third win this year!

BONGMUSA MTHEMBU

Photo @ComradesRace via Twitter

We haven’t even mentioned the achievements of our women runners that are probably even less known.

The argument that much of what happened took place in the old South Africa doesn’t actually “wash”. For example, who was the winner who wore a black armband opposing things happening in the old South Africa at the time.  Many wouldn’t be able to tell you and that was in 1981.

How many runners can tell you when Comrades was opened to all races at a time when the country was still deep in apartheid days and some 15 years before things started to change politically in this country?  

Even when the race opened up in 1975, the field was limited to just 1 500 runners, and runners had to prove their qualifying times by running a marathon in under 3:30That meant that many potential competitors were excluded and a friend and training partner was one of them after he ran a marathon in 3:32.  He didn’t ever get the chance again to run it.

After cutting the field down from the 1 686 entrants to the allowed 1 500, only 18 “non-white” runners and two women were included in the field in 1975. The main reason was that organisers felt the roads couldn’t handle more than that in terms of traffic, etc as that was before the introduction of refreshment stations and runners each had their own seconds and the traffic congestion was horrendous.

Despite this, how instrumental was Comrades in taking the early steps towards “normalising” sport in South Africa?  

Who was Sam Tshabalala and why does his name feature in the history of Comrades and going even further back in time, who was Robert Mtshali who has only now been recognised by the organisers but who ran it over 80 years ago?  

Robert Mtshali was the first black man to run and complete Comrades way back in 1935 and he did that as an unofficial runner because black runners were not allowed to run it.  

Comrades organisers have now commissioned a bronze memorial to commemorate his run and you’ll find that at the entrance of the Comrades Museum.

ROBERT MTSHALI PLAQUE

Photo: wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Mtshali-gedenkplaket.jpg

A few years after Robert Mtshali ran and in 1940 Allen Boyce recorded the biggest winning margin of almost two hours.  Very few modern runners even know that.

Against that, the two closest wins were in 1967 by one second and in 1931 by two seconds and the man who finished 2nd in 1931 ran the entire race without a drink because his second didn’t meet him as arranged. The photo shows the mad sprint for the finish line in 1931 with Noel Burree who finished 2nd trying to catch winner, Phil Masterton-Smith.

NOEL BURREE

How many people know that Comrades almost died because of an uproar about the traffic problems it was causing and that was in the late sixties?

As recently as 1966 (and at my age that’s recent) the winner, Tommy Malone, was threatened with disqualification by an over enthusiastic race official whilst running up Polly Shortts because he was running in the middle of the road to avoid the camber.  Runners had to stick to the correct side of the road! Imagine that today! 

Fortunately Tommy wasn’t disqualified and went on to win the 1966 race and his win is still the biggest winning margin on the Up Run since then.

TOMMY WINS

These are just a few of the things that hold an incredible fascination for me and that have made my experience of Comrades more than “just another road race”.

When you consider all these things and much more about this amazing event you will perhaps get some sort of idea of what sets Comrades apart and makes it so much more than just a “another road race” but without knowing the incredible history of Comrades, I don’t think you get the full picture.  The history of each race since 1921 is on the Comrades website at http://www.comrades.com

I don’t think that you can fully experience it without that knowledge and I believe people who run it and come away with that special something it gives you, are taking away from themselves the complete Comrades experience.  I don’t think you can take what this race has to offer ordinary people unless you know all about it from the very beginning – and that was actually before Bill Rowan won the first one in 1921!

Run it without knowing it and I don’t think you have fully experienced this great annual “happening”.

August 2018