It’s Wednesday the 24th of May 1922, the day of the second Comrades Marathon, this time an Up Run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. The start is to be at Toll Gate and it will finish at the Royal Showgrounds in Pietermaritzburg.
The day turned out to be a mild to warm winter’s day and there was a huge increase in the number of runners, up from the 34 who had started in 1921 to 89 in 1922 but over 100 entries!
There were a couple of interesting entries not least of which was Bill Rowan who had won the first Comrades in 1921 and who was, at that stage, living in what was then the Belgian Congo and had travelled to Durban seeking to repeat his win of 1921. There were others who attracted interest as well and two of them were Arthur Newton, a farmer from the Harding area in Southern Natal who subsequently went on to win that year and four times more and who carved a name for himself as one of the great names of ultra-distance running.
Also lining up at the start was Durban schoolmaster, Bill Payn who by that stage had played rugby at the highest level and who decided to tackle this new challenge. Payne had no intention of challenging for the win and was there to challenge himself as so many others have done since then.
A great deal has, over many years been spoken and written about the Comrades in 1922 run by Bill Payn, the schoolmaster from DHS in Durban and I have no doubt that those who have told these stories have added a little bit extra to make his run that much more entertaining and haven’t worried too much if it was totally accurate or not.
I have read many accounts of that somewhat different Comrades Marathons run by Mr Payn that day but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I came across an account of his run as told by Bill Payn himself. At first I didn’t know if it was true and if it was, how accurate it was as it was taken from a book titled “Where the Baobab Grows” the story of DHS written by Jeremy Oddy.
My first job was to try to track Mr Oddy down and to find out if the book is still available. I searched all the usual places like Amazon but no luck and finally decided that the book is no longer available. The next problem I had was to see if I could track down the author. That proved to be a lot easier than I thought and after a couple of years of searching the internet I eventually discovered that Mr Oddy is alive and well and living in Durban just down the road from Durban High School that is such a passion to him.
A couple of long and very interesting phone calls and I had the permission I needed to reproduce Bill Payn’s story as told by the big man himself (and I believe he was a big man) of how he handled the Comrades Marathon on that mild to warm winter sunshine day of the 24th of May in 1922.
Here is Bill Payn’s story and note how he describes the size of the field that day. There were 89 starters! I wonder what he would say if he could see the start today?
“I’m not sure how many victims lined up at the starting place at Tollgate that May morning at 5 o’çlock but it was a huge field. To give some idea of its magnitude it is sufficient to state that my number was 111. Shall I ever forget that infernal run? It was not very long before I realised that as I was prey to a consuming thirst I could not refuse any man who offered me any drink along the way. Long before I got to Hillcrest I was painfully aware that rugby boots were not ideal footwear. When I got to Hillcrest my feet were giving me so much pain I took off my boots to make an inspection in loco. Things were pretty gloomy and I was not a little perturbed at the undulation of blisters that had formed.
Some kind person handed me a pot of brilliantine with which I anointed my feet and I then repaired to the hotel and knocked back a huge plate of bacon and eggs washed down by three cups of coffee.
Pushing on, I arrived at the top of old Botha’s Hill cutting where I found “Zulu” Wade looking a trifle distressed and sitting by the side of the road. He had a henchman on a motorcycle in attendance on him, and this good fellow was nourishing Wade from a hamper, the piece de resistance was a curried chicken and a huge snowdrift of rice.
We shared it equally, threw the lot down the hatch and then slugged along in happy companionship to Drummond, the half-way house of our Calvary. Here we bent our steps to a pleasant oasis – the pub – and according to Harold Sulin, I had a dozen beers lined up on the counter. Zulu and I were determined, not so much to celebrate, but to drown our sorrows. But Harold Sulin said “Bill, what are you doing here? There are only five runners ahead of you.”
I looked at my number 111 and wondered what had happened to the rest of the field. Zulu’s sorrows, I noticed, had gone down for the third time so he wished me Godspeed and I set out alone for ‘Maritzburg.
Somewhere along Harrison Flats I noticed a frail little woman with pink cheeks, holding a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other. “It’s peach brandy” she volunteered, and I gulped down a full tumbler of the brew. In a second I realised I had swallowed a near lethal dose of the rawest liquid I had ever tasted. I am still convinced that this charming woman must be given full credit for inventing the first liquid fuel for jet engines.
Fortunately I was facing ‘Maritzburg and I was propelled along my way. I was too far gone in my cups to ponder whether this assistance was compliant with the laws of amateur marathon running.
When I passed over the Umsindusi Bridge in ‘Maritzburg I was hailed by my wife’s family who were having tea on the verandah. I joined them in their tea and cakes. Whilst we were thus happily engaged, two of my “hated rivals” went past and so it was that I ended in 8th position. In the changing room of the showgrounds, I discovered that the soles of my feet were two huge pads of blood blisters. My brother-in-law, Wilfred Hogg, with an uncanny insight into my most immediate needs gave me a bottle of champagne for which I was most grateful”.
And so the story of Bill Payn’s Comrades Marathon as told by Bill Payn himself.
He finished, as he says in 8th position of the 26 finishers and in a time of 10:56. The time limit in 1922 was 12 hours.
The following day when most modern day runners can be found hobbling around the Durban beachfront in varying degrees of stiffness, Bill Payn played rugby in “takkies”. Comrades veteran, the late Vernon Jones, who knew Bill Payn well said “He was the greatest teacher ever at DHS and had a wonderful influence on countless people. There has never been another Bill Payn. His funeral created the biggest funeral in Durban’s history. Nothing you can say about him is too much.”
Bill Payn played rugby in 52 matches for Natal and twice for the Springboks. In addition he represented Natal at cricket against the MCC, boxed for Natal against Oxford and Cambridge in 1923 and won the Natal Senior Heavyweight title, played Baseball for Natal against Transvaal in 1930 and got his Natal colours for shot put in athletics.
A report of his death in the Daily News was headlined “A WONDERFUL PILGRIMAGE ON EARTH HAS ENDED”