BILL PAYN ACCORDING TO BILL PAYN

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 “Under the Baobab Tree” 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”

APRIL 2021

2021 A VERY IMPORTANT COMRADES YEAR

As we move ever closer to getting rid of the year many of us will remember as the year that never was, when the world was effectively turned upside down and so many things we held near and dear to us, had to disappear forever and we had to change, and we all had to learn to make adjustments to the way we live and in many cases with difficulty, we will breathe a collective sigh of relief hoping that 2020 has gone forever but I fear we haven’t seen the last of it.

Some things are slowly returning to the way they were before we heard about Covid but some never will. Some still need to be changed and a lot of thought still has to go into the way many things have to change.

One of the things that nobody has yet come up with an answer to it seems, is the question of the big city marathons around the world where thousands of people run shoulder to shoulder for most of the way and the concept of “social distancing” is virtually impossible. We saw a recent example of what happened to the London Marathon where, usually around 40,000 people or more took to the streets of London and “owned” the city for a day in April every year.  The race was moved to November and to an elite only runners’ race in a multi lap (some 19 laps) in a park in London.  It was a good race if one happened to be watching it on TV but it simply wasn’t the London Marathon.  

Let’s look closer to home however and at Comrades. When entries opened for the 2020 Comrades they were capped at 27500. We don’t yet know what the organisers have in mind for the numbers for the 2021 race or even if there will be a race in 2021. The media launch hasn’t yet happened and entries are expected to open early in the new year and both those happenings have been delayed because of uncertainty.

Every day we hear horror stories of the rise in Covid infections from around the world and who knows what is going to happen in South Africa by June 2021, the provisional date set for Comrades 2021. Remember that this time last year, none of us had even heard of Covid and now, less than a year later, it controls our lives.

Comrades 2021 is a very important one because it is exactly 100 years since those 34 tough runners lined up outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall to run the first Comrades mainly on dirt roads to Durban and just under 9 hours later Bill Rowan put his name into the record books as the first person to win the race in what remains the slowest time in the history of the race.

The interesting thing is the number of runners to strive to win for themselves a “Bill Rowan Medal” for finishing the modern Comrades in under 9 hours and many of those achieving this have no idea why the medal is so named – and sadly most of them don’t care!

Since then, Comrades has written itself a glorious history and culture, much of which is celebrated in various ways still and runners through the years use much of the events of bygone years to measure their own performances and even as recently as 2018, we saw the introduction of the Robert Mtshali medal named after the first black runner of Comrades and now awarded to all runners who finish between 9 & 10 hours. Robert Mtshali ran his Comrades in 9 & a half hours in 1935 so long before Comrades was opened to all races (that happened in 1975), a medal honouring the achievement of a man in 1935 is now awarded so it took 40 years after Mtshali ran his Comrades for the race to be opened to all races and to women.

Comrades organisers have now put up a plaque at Comrades House in Pietermaritzburg to honour Robert Mtshali.

Ask many of the runners who won a Robert Mtshali Medal since it was introduced how it came about and when Mtshali ran and they won’t have a clue.  That is so sad!

These are just two of many little bits of history that go to make Comrades what it is and hardly a year goes by that something doesn’t happen to add to the magic that makes this event so very special and now with the cancellation of the 2020 race because of the global Covid pandemic it joins the 5 races of World War two as the only times the race has had to be cancelled since it’s inception and some months ago I asked Race Director, Rowyn James whether the centenary of the race would be celebrated even if the race itself can’t be held and he assured me that it would.  

Many of us will be very disappointed if there is no actual race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban on the second Sunday of June in 2021 but there can still be reason to celebrate the centenary and it can still be done with all the glitz and glamour we would expect.  One should just look at the Comrades Race the Legends that Comrades put together in June 2020 that took place instead of the actual Comrades and what an amazing success that was to realise just what can be done if necessary.

A huge part of the centenary celebration, I would think, will take in the history of the race and if runners really want to feel part of it they would need to learn as much as they can about this incredible event. There are, sadly, many who regard Comrades as “just another race on the calendar”.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is startline-1925-e1605857271100.jpg
THE START OF THE 1925 COMRADES

Let me assure you that Comrades is not just another Road Race. It’s more than that. Way more and if we end up without an actual race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, my guess is that the Comrades organisers will still give us plenty to celebrate for the centenary of this amazing event but to get the full benefit please learn as much as you can about it.  It will give you so much more if you do.

CLIVE CRAWLEY – COMRADES RACE #1

Fairly early during the morning of the 8th of June 2020 my phone rang and it was Comrades Chairperson, Cheryl Winn to give me the very sad news that the first person I had ever met in the Comrades world shortly before I ran my first Comrades in 1968, Clive Crawley, had passed away early that morning.

This is the obituary sent out by the Comrades Marathon Association in memory of an amazing man and true friend I had had for over 50 years.

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The Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) is saddened by news of the death of Clive Crawley. He was 89 years old. Clive was the holder of Comrades Race Number 1 since taking on his very first Comrades Marathon in 1957, having been a member of Savages Athletic Club for just about his entire running career.

 

Clive was the first runner to have earned Quadruple Green Number status in the 1998 Comrades Marathon in a time of 8:36:22, followed shortly thereafter by his friend and fellow teammate Kenny Craig in a time of 10:15:46. Clive went on to successfully complete an epic 42 Comrades Marathons, with 2 Gold, 21 Silver and 19 Bronze medals, with his Gold medals having been achieved in the 1961 and 1965 Comrades Marathons

 

His best time however of 6:11:19 was achieved in 1971 when he finished in 10th position, during which time Gold medals were awarded to only the first 7 positions.

 

For nearly one and a half decades after retiring from the race in 2000, Clive was a regular at the Green Number facility, handing out Green Numbers to new inductees onto the Green Number Roll of Honour, inspiring runners to even greater heights and continually motivating people to give of their best.

 

Kenny Craig, a very close friend of Clive says, “Fellow Comrades Green Number runner, Lolly Thomson, who remains a good friend of Clive’s wife Trish, was the first to hear the sad news. I was the second. From what I hear, it was a very sudden death and it has come as a huge shock to us.”

 

Kenny adds, “In my 20’s, I must admit that I never really knew him. He was a bank manager when we first started running together. Then it so happened that in 1963, I needed a bank loan of R200 to buy a house, which was a lot of money back then. He approved it without thinking about it. I was baffled and he then turned to me and said, ‘You are a runner, I can trust you.’ We got to know each other over the ensuing 6 decades and ran together every Tuesday and Saturday.”

 

Kenny concludes, “Of all the hundreds of athletes I have run with, he was the oldest survivor. I’m glad I spoke to him on his 89th birthday on the 30th of April. I feel richer for the time spent with Clive, when he lived in Himeville and then in Stellenbosch. It was fun to run with a thorough gentleman and a true legend. When he turned 60 years of age, we ran 60km. On his 70th birthday, we ran 70km. And then when our running days were over, we cycled that many kilometres. Clive lived a life worth living.”

 

CMA Chairperson, Cheryl Winn says, “We are deeply saddened by the news of Clive’s passing. His Quadruple Green Number achievement of 42 Comrades finishes, especially being the first to achieve such a milestone, best time of 6:11:19, and distinct honour of being the holder of Green Number 1 for perpetuity, is nothing short of phenomenal. Clive’s impact on the race and the inspiration he held for so many Comrades runners has left a void that few could ever fill.”

 

Cheryl adds, “Our thoughts and well wishes are with his family, especially his wife Trish, also a proud Green Number runner. We wish you strength during this difficult time and thank both Clive and Trish for their huge contribution to the Comrades Marathon and running in general. For many years Clive served on the old Natal Marathon Runners Association, a forerunner of today’s KZNA and numerously represented KZN over various distances and age categories.”

 

CMA Board Member, Isaac Ngwenya says, “Clive was a compassionate, caring and wonderful human being. He put runners first and made time for people no matter how busy he was. His organising of the Sani Stagger Race, together with his wife Trish was impressive. There are many notable things about this gentleman that we will reflect on in the years to come and remain deeply appreciative of. I can say that he was someone worth knowing and he will undoubtedly be missed by all. May his soul RIP.”

 

Former CMA Green Number Convenor, Eileen Hall says, “Clive would be at the Green Number facility all day long, handing out Green Numbers. He would take pride in motivating and inspiring runners, with no wish to sit at the VIP facility or anywhere else. Such was his dedication to the runners and taking joy in chatting to Green Number inductees.”

 

Eileen adds, “As a runner, I remember following him, wondering how he got to become Comrades Runner Number 1. He would turn around and say, ‘Please don’t follow me, I’m struggling.’ Only later did I get to know him. I found him to be a dedicated person and a humble human being. He was a reliable and deeply respecting individual, not one to brag of his epic achievements, someone who was a very fastidious and special person who lived for Comrades. We will miss him!”

 

CMA Elder, Poobie Naidoo says, “Clive was an amazing, kind and friendly person who made time for people. He was committed to his running and shared a deep and relentless passion for the Comrades Marathon. It was inspirational to see how much he lived to run Comrades every year. Our heartfelt condolences to Trish and the family. May the Almighty give them courage and strength during this sad time.”

 

Former CMA Board Member, Alen Hattingh says, “RIP Clive Crawley, Comrades Legend Number 1. Clive ran 42 Comrades with a best of 6:11. He was the first man to reach 40 Comrades together with Kenny Craig. We will remember him fondly and miss the inspirational and motivational way in which he touched people’s lives.”

 

CMA Race Director, Rowyn James says, “I got to know Clive through his wife Trish during her days as the Sani Stagger organiser and more recently during my tenure here at Comrades Marathon. Clive was always willing and prepared to assist with the handing out of Green Numbers at the finish for which he will be fondly remembered and dearly missed. I always valued being able to tap into and call on the wealth of wisdom, experience and knowledge that Clive possessed. Rest well Clive, on a race well run.”

 

Fred McKenzie of Westville Athletics Club says, “The last time I chatted to Clive was when receiving my Green Number back in 2013. He was a legend and inspired many of us to aim high and achieve more. I was definitely in the company of legends back then. Our sincere condolences to Trish and his family. May he RIP.

 

Former CMA Board Member, Terence Hoskins, “It is very sad to hear of Clive’s passing. He was a legend and a true inspiration. May his soul rest in peace.”

 

Comrades Coach, Lindsey Parry says, “Such sad news. Another giant of the Comrades Marathon has fallen. It is fitting that later this week we will celebrate the Legends of Comrades of which Clive certainly is one. Rest in Peace Clive, one of the Comrades Pioneers.”

 

Comrades International Brand Ambassador, Artur Kujawinski says, “It’s very sad to hear of Comrades Green Number Legend passing away. May he rest in peace.”

 

Nedbank Running Club Manager, Nick Bester says, “It was always a pleasure to see and talk to Clive and his wife. The last time I saw Clive was at the Sani to Sea mountain bike race and we had a beer together. The Comrades family has lost a true gentleman and great ambassador.”

 

CMA Marketing Coordinator, Sifiso Mngoma says, “Heroes come and go, but legends are forever. Heartfelt condolences for a fallen Comrades Legend. May his soul rest in peace.”

 

NN Ngcobo of KwaMashu Striders Athletic Club says, “On behalf of the KwaMashu Striders Athletic Club, I would like to send my deepest condolences to the family, relatives, friends and all the athletics members. We pray God guide them and heal their wounds in the name of Jesus Christ.

 

PDAC Secretary Colleen McCann says, “The members of Pinetown & District Athletics Club convey their deepest condolences to the family of Clive Crawley on his passing. We share your sadness as we remember Clive.”

 

Emmanuel Lushaba says, “May you rest in peace Clive, we will always remember you and the effort you have shown us in this Long Run.”

 

CMA Novice Hospitality Convenor, Peter de Groot says, “Clive was a true gentleman and a legend who inspired so many of us. I was honoured to receive my Green Number from him in 2006. At the Novice Hospitality facility, we were also privileged to have him so enthusiastically sharing his experiences and his passion for the Comrades with the novices. He will be missed. RIP Clive. Heartfelt condolences to his wife and family.”

Victor Msimango of RBM says, “Sad news indeed, may His soul rest in peace.”

 

Mtunzini Athletics Club Chairman, Paul Mannix says, “Our sincere condolences to the Crawley Family. So many of our runners were inspired by Clive’s accomplishments. May he rest in peace.”

 

Gordon Pillay of Protea Striders Athletic Club says, “Our condolences go to the family of Mr Clive Crawley. Rest in peace and God be with you. From all members of team Protea Striders Athletic Club, we salute you.”

 

CMA Bailer Bus Convenor, Danny Nel says, “My condolences to the family and friends.”

 

Umgeni Water Athletic Club Chairperson, Philani Khumalo says, “Words do not suffice to express our heartfelt sorrow as the running community for the passing of Clive, the legend. Each and every athlete was inspired by what has been achieved by this noble man in athletics. Such a milestone; having run and finished 42 Comrades Marathons was truly amazing!  

Clive’s resilience and perseverance was witnessed in his 70s when he persistently participated in The Ultimate Human Race. He has indeed inspired a lot of athletes, even the generations to come will be encouraged by his great achievements. Our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends.”

 

Former CMA Chairperson, Barry Varty says, “Whereas the future is speculative, the past is factual history. The Comrades Marathon history records the absolute achievements of all who have completed this most admired and cherished South African athletic event. Since it’s inception in 1921, the Comrades Marathon has inspired thousands, and in addition to every winner, many runners have become idols and role models within the Comrades Family and can be aptly referred to as Legends. As a novice, Clive Crawley was my idol.

It was just a matter of time until I met him, where after we became personal friends. Clive provided a comprehensive set of Comrades Marathon news clip scrapbooks. These were copied and added to the ongoing accumulations of history data. The attributes of Clive Crawley, and his contribution to the Comrades Marathon in so many ways, is rightfully recorded in the annals of this iconic event. RIP Clive Crawley. Comrades Marathon idol, role model and legend.”

Rest well my friend, you’ll be missed. Thank you for your friendship of over 50 years.

 

9 June 2020

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 2021 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 that 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

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

LSD – COME BACK ALL IS FORGIVEN

In recent years, whilst the top runners have stuck with the concept of Long Slow Distance (LSD) – and slow is releative to your race speed – as part of their training for races especially like Comrades, however, the idea of spending hours out on the road for the “ordinary” runner, the runner who is going to get home between 9 and 12 hours simply doesn’t appeal and even at peak Comrades training time you’ll find many of the “ordinary” runners taking part in half marathon races rather than LSD and those who claim to do LSD are running 20 -25km and claiming that’s LSD.

The result is that LSD training has lost a lot of ground in recent years.  I was talking to a coach very recently who said that LSD should be present in every runner’s training whether fast or slow.  He went on to say that the latest research into polarised training (also known as 80/20 training) is that 80% is at extremely slow pace and 20% at maximal. It can’t make you slower  as was the original thinking. What it does is it saves you from being tired on the fast stuff all the time – these are the words of a coach and not my words and I stress once again that I am not a coach.

He went on to say that the “easy” runs that most follow are not easy enough and have a negative effect so to the average runner the message is clear. Get out there for Long Slow Distance and you’ll feel the difference.  OK! So you don’t get a medal at the end of it but it makes life so much easier in the longer term.

I’m delighted to see that almost every coach I hear talking and many clubs that organise club runs, are putting in long runs which are generally gentle and enjoyable and are not intended to be races.  

When I last wrote about LSD, I spoke to a couple of top runners. Bruce Fordyce said that a long slow training run should be about an hour slower than would been a race over the same distance.

Bruce Fordyce in one of his 9 wins

This doesn’t really work too well if you are a 4:30 marathon person. An hour longer and it’s going to be a long day but I would think this would work well for anyone who is a 3:30 marathon runner and faster.

2018 women’s winner Ann Ashworth, when I asked her about long slow training runs felt that it can be measured if the running is at “conversation speed”. 

This means that whilst you are out there on the road with others on a training run, you should be able to hold a comfortable conversation with your fellow runners.  If you can’t do that then you are in effect running at race speed.  This also works well if you are genuinely running at training pace and not race pace – some might say that in their opinion it’s the same thing.

So that takes care of the “slow” part of LSD but how far is the “long” part of  Long Slow distance?  I think this depends to a very large degree on what you’re training for.  If it’s a half marathon and that’s your limit there isn’t really any LSD involved in your training.  If you read the autobiography of that great Comrades man, the late Jackie Mekler, his idea of a long training run (and it probably wasn’t that slow as he was a top runner) was to go out on a Sunday morning and do the better part of 100km training runs.  

Jackie Mekler wearing his famous race number 9

I had the privilege of running many times with Dave Bagshaw in long slow runs and on those runs, Dave did run slowly and quite a few of those runs were with the Ian Jardine group I mention later and we did around 4 hours for our 32kms every week..  If you’re not sure who Dave Bagshaw is, he was the second man after Arthur Newton 40 years earlier, to win three Comrades in three successive years and most of that was on LSD.

Dave Bagshaw coming in to win his first Comrades in 1969

Incidentally, after Dave Bagshaw did his “hat trick” of wins only three more male runners have achieved that and just three female runners have done it.  You’ll find the details in my article titled COMRADES – “THE HAT TRICK CLUB”

If Comrades is what you have in mind, take the advice of your coach (if you have one) or of your club.  What generally happens is that many people start to look at qualifying for Comrades in November with races like the Kaapsehoop Marathon which many will tell you is not tough or the Soweto Marathon which,  whilst it is without doubt a great experience to take in the streets of South Africa’s biggest “township” is a very tough (and hot) race so be prepared. Almost certain that it’s unlikely to be your fastest marathon time.

Many people will tell you that Comrades training starts proper in March although many will have been running regularly at distances of 30kms before then but in March the distances slowly start to increase as you head towards April and that’s the big distance month.  I remember that the year I ran my best Comrades (it was only 8:29 which is not spectacular if you normally run silver or faster) during April I did about three runs of 50km or more and ended it up with a very long run over the first weekend of May.

I’ve heard some runners saying that they regard 15 or 20kms as LSD.  It really isn’t  because by April your long mid-week runs are often that distance.  

Another mistake that many “would be” Comrades runners make is that during that crucial month of April they are running in half marathons as their long training runs.  If you’re running 20kms to get to the start of the half marathon and then the half marathon, that’s probably great but the half marathon itself is not going to be what you need on the second Sunday in June.  Remember that on that day you have 90kms to do and even if by some kind of miracle your legs are happy with short run training (even if it’s a race), there’s a good chance that somewhere around 60kms your head will start to tell your legs that its had enough.

If that happens, you’re in for a very long and probably painful last 30kms and 30kms after you’ve already done 60, is fairly heavy going

Some people enjoy the “camaraderie” in a race but try  spending the better part of anything up to 6 or 7 hours with a group of good mates whilst out on a long training run. It’s amazingly good fun and makes running very enjoyable.  I have many very fond memories of the days when I ran 32km every Sunday with the famous blind runner of the 1950s and 1960s, Ian Jardine and his group on part of the Comrades route.  We started at the top of Botha’s Hill and ran to what is now Inchanga Caravan Park and back and that was until the beginning of March when after that it was increased week by week. 

LSD became part of my life for many years and I ran my best of 8:29 using the same method of training and my distances grew each Sunday as I felt myself getting stronger and stronger.

I mentioned training over the Comrades route as often as I could for my first 8 Comrades but I was fortunate to have lived near the route and got to know it extremely well and I also think that’s important and for that reason, I publish my detailed route description every year in the hopes that it will assist those who don’t have the good fortune to be able to train on the route itself.

In my first Comrades in 1968, I eventually reached the finish in 10:25 in around position 320 – something of a change from the position you would find yourself in today with a time of 10:25! 

Coming in to finish my first Comrades in 10:25. Alone on the track!

One of the things of which I am still proud today were my splits for that first Comrades and I put that down firmly to LSD. First half 5:10 and second half 5:15. Whilst 10:25 can’t be regarded as a spectacular time by any stretch of the imagination, when I look at the way some runners today who battle to get to the finish in 12 hours really struggle, that 10:25 was OK.

Incidentally even my best run when I did my 8:29, my splits were pretty even because I had the strength to maintain my speed and for that I thank my LSD training.  I have always believed that is the key to Comrades. Get stronger both physically and mentally and that’s what I firmly believe LSD will do for you but you must do it properly.

One thing that is very difficult though, is to try to do LSD on your own.  I ran many long runs of up to 50kms on my own and it’s not easy.  I found that having friends around me and even if we heard the same jokes every weekend and laughed at those jokes every weekend, it was that, that made my running so very enjoyable.

Then of course, there’s the other aspect of it.  It’s a lot cheaper to do a long training run with friends using either shops or service stations to buy your drinks (or if you are fortunate enough to get your life partner to get out of bed and do the seconding) than it is to run in races every weekend that some people do.

Over the last couple of years, a few women runners I know have said that from a security point of view they would rather be in a race with lots of people around them than on a training run with just a few others.  I fully understand their concern and it’s for that reason that I say “hats off” to those clubs that are organising long and seconded  training runs over weekends.  It’s a huge job to do that and if your club is one of those doing that, support them. They deserve the accolades. 

Get to understand the importance and the role of LSD and then go and thoroughly enjoy yourself doing them.

October 2019

DAD, I’M READY. WATCH ME FROM ABOVE

“Dad I’m ready. Watch me from above. Watch me from up there”.

COMRADES STARTLINE 2019 AS JENNA LOOKS UPWARDS

 

These are the dramatic words spoken by Jenna Challenor seconds before the start of the 2019 Comrades and a moment captured in this photograph.

Always a self-confessed “Daddy’s Girl” Jenna lost her father tragically late last year and as he was her hero, she looked up to the skies on Comrades morning and said these words with a smile on her face.

She certainly was ready and first time out at Comrades, Jenna took home the gold medal for finishing in 6th place on the 10th of June 2019.

I had the chance to sit with Jenna and to try to find out a little bit more about her.

Jenna Challenor      

 

DJ:      Are you a Durban girl born and bred?

JC:      Yes. Born and bred, I love Durban and have lived here my whole life. I was very privileged to go to Durban Girls’ College and had the absolute best time at school. I’d go back there any day 😉 and am so grateful to my Dad for all he did to send me to this prestigious school. I actually had my 20 year school reunion there a few weeks ago and – wow – since I was there, there has been a lot of development and I must admit I felt a little hard done by – hahaha! They have an amazing new aquatic centre, a beautiful gym above it, and a full size astro turf to name a few upgrades. We had awesome facilities back then too and were very spoilt but nothing like the facilities there now.

 

DJ:     Were you involved in a lot of sporting activities when you were at school or did that only come later?

JC:      I was a sporting all-rounder at school and having two older brothers with whom I had to keep up, made me very competitive. I did everything they did, from judo to gymnastics, ballet, swimming, hockey, running, you name it I did it. I was even put in a bin and used as their cricket wickets often and I was just happy to be involved- haha! I was competitive on the beach in life saving. I loved it, it was the absolute best way to grow up in Durban, learning about the ocean, whilst doing sport with your friends, on the beach.

 

DJ:      Am I getting it wrong but didn’t you represent South Africa at lifesaving?

JC:      Yes, I did lifesaving “nippers” when I was young and then juniors and seniors. I represented Durban Surf at World Champs in 1998 in New Zealand and that’s when I met my husband, we were in the same team (lucky me). I was 16 then and Durban Surf won the World Champs that year. When I was growing up I regarded myself more as sporting all-rounder. I played provincial hockey, I ran provincially at both athletics and cross country but I never focussed on one sport. I was in the swimming team too, did some diving, and a little netball too. I never had a coach for running so I just did what I thought should be done and ran on fitness I got from other sports. A coach only came much later in life.

 

DJ:      With all these sports there must have been one that you preferred above the others

JC:      It was definitely running but I did also loved hockey. In KZN there’s not a lot of opportunity for track athletics so it was cross country mainly. My passion was definitely there, I wasn’t a track athlete.

I was also very fortunate that my parents never put any pressure on me or tried to push me in one direction. They were supportive and happy for me to do whatever sports I wanted to do and I think that with two older brothers, I learnt to push myself hard to keep up. I thank them for never being easy on me and for their torturous ways – they made me tough.

 

DJ:      A question you perhaps won’t like, but with all your sporting success, how was the classroom and results there.

 JC:      I was by no means super academic but I did alright in the classroom. I was never an academic or “A” student but I worked hard and had pleasing results as a “B” student and I was happy with that.

 

DJ:      After school you went and studied to become a teacher didn’t you?

JC:      Yes, I got a B.Ed foundation phase degree. I was offered a scholarship to go and run in America when I was in matric but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to make running my life so we didn’t pursue that and I decided that I would rather stay here and study and see what lay ahead. I did the usual varsity thing. After school, I didn’t concentrate too much on running. I did a bit of social running and I took a break from competitive running. It was only after the birth of my first daughter that I decided to get back into competitive running.

 

DJ:      You must have taken a break from running during your pregnancies?

JC:      NO, actually not. I ran during all of my pregnancies right up to the day I was in labour, although I was VERY careful using a heart rate monitor and I didn’t race. My soul focus was a healthy baby and just keeping sane with a bit of running. A funny story; When I went into labour and went to hospital for the birth of my first daughter I wasn’t quite ready so the doctor said I should walk around the parking lot. My immediate reaction was “Oh! You are kidding me” so I went down to North Beach and ran 7kms along the promenade and then went back to the hospital in the hopes that the run would speed things up! It didn’t, 36 hours of labour and eventually an emergency C-section, but I got a beautiful healthy baby girl. The best day of my life.

 

DJ:      So how long were you out of running whilst all the babies were arriving?

JC:      I absolutely loved the “new born” stage with my children and didn’t rush that stage to run. They grow up so fast. I got back into running after, Nicolette, my first baby, only to decide 15 months later that I wanted another one. After Rylee, my second, I started running seriously again and I think this is where I was noticed for the first time since school. 15 months later I did want another   baby, but my husband was hearing none of it, hence the big gap to my third, Tao. I had to beg for her for 4 years but I did get my way eventually – hehe! One positive, the big gap did give me more time to get my competitive running established.

 

DJ:      In the middle of all this sport there was also a period of photography. Tell me about that.

 JC:      When I was teaching I started photography as a hobby at the pre-school where my kids were. It was mainly self-taught with some professional guidance from Brett Florence. My focus was family photography and new-born shoots and I built a photographic studio at home. Teaching, photography, running and two children became too much so I decided to resign from teaching and do my photography which gave me the flexibility to run more and make sure I was there for my children.

THE VERY CLOSE CHALLENOR FAMILY ON THE TRACK

 

DJ:      How long have you been a professional runner?

JC:      Well, I guess with working I was considered a semi-professional runner but I would say it was after my third daughter was born in 2012. She is 7 now so I have been a professional athlete for 7 years. Soon after she was born I was back into my running seriously and the time was right to start running professionally.

 

DJ:      So you were over 30 when you started running professionally. That’s a bit late isn’t it?

JC:      Well yes, before that I was semi- professional as I was still teaching and doing photography. With three births it was a bit stop-start. After my third in 2012, it was “babies done, time to run” and I really put my head down and decided I wanted to give it a full go and that’s when I guess I turned pro. I tended to do things the other way round in life. I had my daughters very young and now I’m running professionally. It is a juggling act as a mum but it’s also so awesome because I am a young mom and they are now able to train with me and share in my passion, they are my biggest fans along with my incredible husband who dreams my dreams as big as I do. He is the reason I am able to run as a mom of three children.

A huge part of what inspires me to run now, is the ability to inspire women, especially moms, to do things for themselves and to show them that sport doesn’t have to stop after having children. If I can do it with 3 children so can they, I believe a little ME time doing what I love makes me a better mom.

 

DJ:      With everything you’re involved in, where do you find the time for your own training?

JC:      Where there is a will there is always a way, everyone has their things. I train around my children. My first session is always at 4:30 in the morning. I then get the girls ready for school, drop them off and go to my second session, well – after a cup of coffee of course! That’s about 2 hours. I start fetching children at 12.30. Tao is first then we go to her extra murals (either gymnastics, ballet or swimming). At 2pm I fetch the other two from school , take them home to eat lunch then I will drop them wherever they need to be (running, hockey, swimming ,matches etc.) and I will do my third session while they train, before I fetch them again. It works but I have a strict schedule and can’t fit much more into my day and by 7pm I am shattered. My husband helps a lot and my mom in law where she can, so I am very blessed.

 

DJ:      From the point of view of your own running, do you coach yourself or do you have a coach?

JC:      Yes I do have a coach but he prefers to be low key, all the same I’m honoured to call Ernie Gruhn my coach, my friend and a person who believes in me and pushes me to be the best that I can be. He is a very special person to me and my family.

Jenna with her coach Ernie Gruhn

I started training with Ernie just before World Half marathon champs in 2014 and it was one of the best decisions of my running career. He has taught me the value of consistency and has given me belief in my abilities and myself.

 

DJ:      I’ve read someplace that a lot of your Comrades inspiration has come from Bruce Fordyce with encouragement from him.

BRUCE AND JENNABruce Fordyce and Jenna

JC:      Yes, Bruce is a really good friend and I have had a lot of encouragement from him. He has nagged me to run Comrades for many years but I didn’t really know when the right time was so I worked my way up through the distances until a started looking at ultras. I also only ran my first marathon in 2014 when my last born daughter turned two. I have run 5 marathons in total and raced 3.

I still run so passionately and competitively because I believe our children are influenced by what they are exposed to and I want to show my children life through sport, how amazing it is and to teach them to be grateful for their health and mobility and never to take it for granted. I always tell them that sport takes you places, opens doors, creates opportunities and makes you so many friends.  

My girls have already experienced doors opening through sport with their sports bursaries to Epworth High School in Pietermaritzburg, a school we simply couldn’t afford to send them to without the bursaries and that is credit to them and what they have put into their sports.  I also want them to do ALL sports right now and to choose the sports they like the most and not just run because I do.

Of my three daughters, it’s the middle one who is absolutely besotted with running, she’s is 12 now and doing very nicely but I follow a LESS IS MORE philosophy with her while she is so young. My oldest also loves sport, she is a very good swimmer and her passion is surf life-saving like her dad. They both also enjoy hockey, paddling, biathlon and triathlon. Rylee wants to be a professional athlete like mom one day, Nix says she definitely doesn’t want to, it’s far too much hard work – classic, I love their honesty.

 Sport definitely has the power to change people- I love how, in a race or on a run no matter what religion or race we are, we are all equal, all friends, supporting each other doing what we love with so much passion.

 

 DJ:      Apart from people like Bruce has any other runner inspired you?

 JC:      Yes. Without doubt it’s been Helen Lucre, she helped me a bit when I was younger and I always loved hearing about her running and Comrades days. Sadly though I don’t think that Helen has had as much recognition as she perhaps should have had. The trouble is that people don’t seem to know much about Helen because of the fact that she was at the top in the mid-1980s when road running and even Comrades didn’t have the exposure it has today. She was a really good runner and a very humble athlete who won Comrades three years in a row as well as many other races.

 

 DJ:      Over the last couple of years you have emerged as a better than average ultra-distance runner and it was probably in Two Oceans in 2017 that people first started to take notice of you as an ultra-runner when you finished 2nd.

Jenna takes 2nd place at 2017 Two Oceans

JC:      It’s definitely the longer races that I’m enjoying now. I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to run ultras, I couldn’t do it when my daughters were younger, I felt it wasn’t fair on them or me but they are older now so now I can.

All I wanted from Comrades this year was to simply love it and I did just that. I loved every step of the way – ok, except perhaps the last 2kms which were hard. I love running so much, to me it’s more than just winning. If I run a race and finish 4th/5th or 6th like I did at Comrades this year, but I enjoy it, have fun and feel good, it’s a win for me and it’s the reason I RUN. Comrades was next level, I LOVED the crowds, they were ABSOLUTELY awesome and it’s an incredible feeling to race in my hometown. I literally smiled and waved to friends from start to finish.

Jenna comes home 6th in COMRADES 2019. Note the rose she’s holding

 

DJ:      Tell me about the Olympics. A few years ago you qualified to run the Olympic Marathon but injury stopped that from happening and now the rules have been changed in terms of the times you would need to run to qualify. Right now, you’re about 7 minutes short of the new qualifying time. Are those 7 minutes too big an ask now?

JC:      It’s every athlete’s dream to run the Olympics and I was really sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to run in the Olympics because realistically it’s probably the only opportunity I would have had. I dream big but I’m not unrealistic, if Olympics came to me I would take it with open hands but I’m not focussing only on Tokyo next year, and to be honest, I think it’s just too far for me to take 7 minutes off my time and I feel at my age its too late to focus on marathons now.

 

DJ:      Is there going to be a big focus on Comrades next year. Are you planning to run again?

 JC:      I don’t think I’m going to change what I’ve been doing. I’ve been having so much fun and I’m just so grateful to be running again after my stress fracture don’t think I’m going to change what I’ve been doing. I’m just so grateful to be running again after my stress fracture last year and yes I’d love to try the Down Run. It’s a totally different race being a Down Run and longer than the Up Run but I definitely want to line up for it, all going well. It’s a long way away still. I don’t want all my eggs in one basket. I will race other races too.

 

 That then is Jenna Challenor. Wife, mother and runner and 6th in Comrades and a gold medal in her first Comrades run in 2019 and a gold medal in both 2017 and 2019 at Two Oceans.

I think we can expect more medals in that gold colour from this lady!

 ******************************************

 A FINAL WORD by Jenna

A little girl. A big dream. A COMRADES ROSE            

For as long as I can remember I have said I WILL RUN Comrades and I will get that red rose (given to the first 10 men and first 10 women just before the finish line). The day before a race Brett often gets me roses, this time he arrived home and said “I didn’t buy you roses, go out and get your own tomorrow!

 10 September 2019

THE LADIES OF COMRADES

SINCERE THANKS TO THE COMRADES MARATHON ASSOCIATION FOR THE PHOTOGRAPHS

It was in 1975 during the running of the Golden Jubilee Comrades that women were permitted to run officially for the first time and since then we’ve seen some fantastic performances.

Before we move forward from 1975, let’s first go back to the days when women were not permitted to run officially but some ran as unofficial competitors. One small thing though before we move onto the stories, you will notice that the heading of this article refers to “ladies”.   Many years ago when I was still a radio reporter covering road races around South Africa and a couple in Europe, I referred to the “ladies” and I was severely taken to task and told in no uncertain terms by a race official (can’t remember who it was) who said to me that there were no ladies in any road races and that they were women.

Women were running and I should stop referring to anything other than women. I did have a major problem with that as I had been using the term “ladies” for quite a few years and even in this article I keep swapping between “women” and “ladies

The first woman to finish Comrades – in an unofficial run – was Frances Hayward in 1923. It was the third running of Comrades and the second Down Run. She took 11:35:28 seconds to do the distance and she managed an unofficial 28th position of the 30 men who finished. “After the race, Miss Hayward said:  

Frances Hayward – first woman to run Comrades – 1923

“Now that I’ve done it, I think it’s too much for women.  I think it’s the last 10 miles (16km) that kill” 

It seems that nothing much has changed since then in terms of those last 16km!

The difference then is that the route between Pietermaritzburg and Durban was almost all dirt road!

1928 saw the time limit lowered to 11 hours (it had previously been 12 hours) and it stayed at 11 hours for many years only changing for the first time in 2000 to 12 hours.  It then went back to 11 hours for two years but was soon changed again to 12 hours where it remains today.

It was almost 10 years before we saw a woman completing Comrades in both directions when Geraldine Watson was the first woman to do this.  She won the Down Run in 1931 and then the Up Run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg 1932 and was then back again for the Down Run in 1933 when she ran her best time of 9:31. I can’t find any record that she ran again after 1933.  

Geraldine Watson. The first woman to run 3 consecutive Comrades – 1931-1933

For many years The Geraldine Watson Trophy was awarded to the last runner home in the time limit.

After Geraldine Watson it was a fairly long time before we saw women running again as they were still unofficial. I remember Maureen Holland, with whom I did a fair amount of running in the late 60s and early 70s, being the first woman home in three consecutive years but not recognised because she was still unofficial.

Interesting that for quite a while she was reflected in the results on the Comrades website but her name has since been removed as all her runs were prior to women being allowed to run officially.

In 1975, Comrades organisers approached the controlling body of athletics in South Africa to have the race open to all people irrespective of race or sex. I was a member of Collegians Harriers at the time and Collegians were the custodians od Comrades before the formation of the CMA and the heated arguments at the Harriers AGM about whether the approach to the controlling body should be made. Eventually sanity prevailed and permission for the race to be open was given.

Two women started although the first woman home that year was declared to be unofficial after a problem with her entry. That year, novices had to qualify in a marathon in under 3 hours 30 and there was something wrong with the qualifying. Whether she didn’t qualify or not I don’t remember. Elizabeth Cavanagh finished in 10:08:00 and goes down in the record books as the first official women’s winner.

BETTY CAVANAGH FINISHING IN 1975

From 1976 to 1978 it was Lettie van Zyl who won three in succession.  In 1977, she broke the Up Run time set two years before and then set a best time (record) for the Down Run in 1978, the year incidentally, that Alan Robb became the first runner to finish Comrades in under 5 hours 30 minutes.

lettie van zylLETTIE VAN ZYL – winner 1976-1978

 

Two years later in 1980 on the Down Run and we had started to see bigger fields, it was Isavel Roche-Kelly after whom the women’s medal introduced in 2019 is named who set a new best women’s down run time of 07:18:00 and in doing that was the first woman to earn a silver medal (no gold medal for the winner at that time) for finishing in a time under 7hr 30min.

isavel roche-kellyISAVEL ROCHE-KELLY

Isavel won again in 1981, this time in 6:44:35, the first woman under 7 hours. Sadly Isavel was killed in a cycling accident in Ireland soon after this.

The interesting winner of the ladies race in 1982, was Cheryl Winn, the last lady to get a silver for winning and who many years later went on to become the Chairperson of the Comrades Marathon Association, the first time that the winner of either the men’s race or the women’s race achieved the distinction of being elected as Chair of Comrades.

                                                                    CHERYL WINNING                                    CHERYL WINN COMING IN TO WIN 1982                                                                      

It was Lindsey Weight who was first home in both 1983 and 1984. In 1983 (an Up Run) she ran 7:12:56 and in 1984 it was 6:46:35 to set a new Down Run best time.

LINDSEY WEIGHT (2)LINDSEY WEIGHT WINNING 1984

 

1985 saw the next of the multi winners of the lady’s race when Helen Lucre won in 6:53:24, beating the winner of the two previous races, Lindsey Weight who had to be content with 2nd place. Helen went on to win the next two races in 1986 in 6:55:01 and 1987 in 6:48:42, the second lady to win three in a row after Lettie Van Zyl did it a decade previously

 In 1988 we saw Frith van der Merwe home first in 6:32:56, a new best time but the best was yet to come for Frith because in 1989 history was made for the ladies when Frith ran the first sub six-hour women’s Down Run in a record time of 05:54:43 to finish in 15th position overall. That time still stands as the best Down Run by a woman 40 years later. Frith went on to win three times in total but they weren’t in successive years.

FrithVanDerMerwe_1989ComradesVictory-768x253 (2)FRITH VAN DER MERWE AFTER HER 1989 WIN

 

In 1991 Frith was again on the winner’s podium for the last time when she came home in 6:08:19, the second fastest Down Run time by a woman after her own run two years earlier. In 1997, Ann Trason, the America runner was the second woman to go under 6 hours on the Down Run with her 5:58:25.

Only three women have run under 6 hours on the Down Run, the third one being Tatyana Zhirkova, the Russian runner in a time of 5:58:50. That was in 2005 and there have been no women under 6 hours on the Down Run since then. The first woman to go under 6 hours on the Up Run was still 14 years away but more on that later.

The 1990s saw the first of the Russian women winners when Valentina Liakhova won in 06:41:23 in the Up Run of 1994.

It was the Russian twins, Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva, however, who captured the imagination of the running world and the public and still today people ask if “the twins” are running. Elena won a total of 8 Comrades while her sister managed 1st place in 2007 and 2009 but several 2nd place finishes behind her sister.

THE NURGALIEVA TWINSTHE NURGALIEVA TWINS

 

By the time we got to the “Twenty-teens” we started to see South African women dominating Comrades once again after a spate of foreign, mainly Russian, winners in the 1990s and early “noughties”.

The first of the “good” Up Run times by a South African was in 2015 when Caroline Wostmann ran 6:12:22 to win comfortably although that was almost exactly three minutes slower than the best Up Run time set by Elena Nurgalieva. It was 9 years before Elena’s time for the Up Run was improved by Caroline from the 6:09:24 the Russian had run in 2006.

CAROLINECAROLINE WOSTMANN – WINNER IN 2015

Caroline once again looked set for the win to make it two in a row in 2016 but just a few kilometres from the finish, the cramps that had been bothering her all day started to make their presence really felt and at one stage her legs gave in completely and she ended up on all fours in the road just a few kilometres from home.

This gave the lady in second place, Charne Bosman the opportunity to pass Caroline to take the win in 6:25:55, so two South African lady winners in two years.  Charne, incidentally has been a women’s gold medallist every year that she’s run the race since her first Comrades in 2013. 

CHARNE BOSMAN – 2016 WINNER

 

In 2017 it was the American distance runner, Camille Heron who won in 6:27:35, not an especially fast time given that the previous Up Run in 2015 had been 6:12 but Camille had led the race from start to finish and was some 4 minutes ahead of second placed Alexandra Morozova, the Russian runner.

camille finishCAMILLE HERON – 2017 WINNER

 

In 2018 it was the turn of Ann Ashworth who was home first in 35th position overall in a time of 6:10:04 and that was on the longer Down Run route with a new finish at the Moses Mabida Stadium in Durban. This time it was close to 91km and the third longest Comrades in the history of the race.

ANN ON THE ROADANN ASHWORTH NEARING THE FINISH IN 2018

 

Some 5 minutes behind Ann in second place was Gerda Steyn who had been the pre-race favourite in many circles for the 2018 Comrades but nobody had taken much notice of Ann in the build up to Comrades when she deliberately kept a low profile.

Gerda’s turn to make history was still to come and she didn’t have to wait too long.

It came in 2019 when she was the first woman to get home on the Up Run in under 6 hours, running a 5:58:53 and finishing in 17th place overall. She ran a near perfect race to take that win. I had the opportunity to chat to Gerda after the race and you could be forgiven for thinking she hadn’t run at all. That’s how fit she was and an indication of what a brilliant run she had.

gerda winsGERDA STEYN WINNING COMRADES 2019 IN UNDER 6 HOURS

 

It’s not only the ladies themselves where the interest lies because the Comrades medals won by women has an interesting history too.

When women first ran officially from 1975 they could only earn a bronze medal but that had all changed by the time Frith van der Merwe ran that brilliant Down Run in 1989.

From 1979 to 1982 a Silver Medal was awarded to the 1st Woman (the last winner to get silver was Cheryl Winn in 1982) then in 1983 a gold medal was introduced for the first lady home but it wasn’t until 1988 that gold medals were given to the first 3 women and in 1995 this was increased to the first 5 Women and eventually in 1998 gold medals went to the first 10 women home to match the number of gold medals earned by the men.

The Isavel Roche-Kelly medal was introduced in 2019 for any women who finished outside the top 10 but broke seven and a half hours. This in effect means that no woman can win a silver medal any longer with the very special medal now recognising the feats of the women.

There has twice been the debate as to whether a woman could earn a gold medal that would usually go to a man if she happened to finish in the top 10 overall. The first time this debate raged was in 1989 when Frith van der Merwe finished in 15th position overall and then again in 2019 when Gerda Steyn ran herself into the history books with her sub 6 on the Up Run and 17th position overall.

Whilst I use the word “overall” it’s actually incorrect as technically, Comrades is made up of two separate races, the men’s race and the women’s race which for the sake of convenience are run at the same time.

Most of the big city marathons around the world have two distinctly separate races but the time limit for Comrades and the hours of daylight on race day, makes that virtually impossible and possibly dangerous because of traffic, hence the two races being run together.

One very promising thing with the ladies is the improvement we’ve seen and are continuing to see in women’s running in South Africa, firstly that South African women are once again winning Comrades but also in the times being run, not only in Comrades but in standard marathons as well.

I have little doubt that the time will come when we see women in the top 10 overall at Comrades and I can only hope that the race organisers will have made it completely clear if that happens that there are two separate races and that 10 gold medals will go to the first 10 men even if more than one woman happens to beat one or more men and finishes in the overall top 10, but also gold medals to the top 10 women in their race.

 

1 August 2019

MY MEMORIES OF JACKIE MEKLER

I was deeply saddened on the morning of the 1st of July 2019 when I heard the news that Comrades great and 5 time winner, Jackie Mekler, had passed away at the age of 87.   What made it even worse was that I had spent time with him at Comrades this year less than a month earlier.

JACKIE MEKLER    Jackie Mekler. Superb athlete and absolute gentleman

 

Jackie had been my hero when I was a child and when I was a teenager watching Comrades in those early days of the late 50’s and early 60’s and when he won his 5th Comrades in 1968 it was the year I ran my first one.  By winning that year, Jackie became only the 4th runner to win Comrades five times and I remember clearly where I was at the exact moment that happened.

JACKIE IN No 9Jackie in Comrades wearing his famous race number 9

I had come through Drummond and over Inchanga and was heading towards the Enthembeni School when a spectator at the side of the road shouted “He’s coming in. Jackie’s coming in to win Comrades”.

I stopped where this spectator was and whilst I didn’t have a clue who the spectator was, I stood with him and listened on his portable radio to the commentary by the SABC’s Michael Toms of Jackie Mekler coming in to win his 5th Comrades.  I looked at my watch and it was just after 12 noon.

My hero had done it!  He had joined that elite group of Newton, Ballington and Hayward as the only runners to have won 5 Comrades.  It would be another very nearly 20 years before anyone else achieved that when Bruce Fordyce won his 5th in 1985.  We all know that Bruce went on to win 9 of them, 8 in succession.

It was a special day for me, the 31st of May 1968. Jackie Mekler had won his 5th Comrades and I had finished my first one – albeit it almost four and half hours later. For some strange reason, and I have never known why, I felt a special bond between Jackie and me and I still do because of the 1968 race, despite the fact that it was still many years before I would meet him in person.  I mention this about Jackie Mekler  that I published in January 2016.

The following year in 1969, Comrades was one of very mixed emotions for me. I took a little under 2 hours off my time of the previous year and I was thrilled beyond description, and Jackie Mekler was tipped by those “in the know” to win his 6th that would have put him as the man with the most wins ever.  

That 6th win didn’t happen for him though, as Jackie had problems on the road that year in what was his last competitive Comrades, and he had to be content with his 3rd place.

My mixed emotions, apart from my own run, were because whilst I had wanted to see Jackie get his 6th win, Comrades 1969 was won by a friend of mine, Dave Bagshaw, with whom I had done quite a bit of running because he was a regular visitor to Ian Jardine’s Sunday morning group and that’s where I ran my weekly long runs.

Dave had won in 5:45:35 to set a new best time (record) for the Down Run, the first of his three successive Comrades wins.  He set a new best time for the Up Run in 1970 as well and just missed beating his own Down Run time in 1971.

Fast forward to the 90’s and I had, by that time, stopped running having been forced to do so because of a back injury that turned out to be permanent, but what had happened after my 14th Comrades was that I had become involved with Radio 702 and I was a regular at road races all around South Africa, giving details of road races that were being held.  I had got onto 702 by pure accident (but that’s a story I have already told elsewhere) and through hard work I had managed to get 702 (and not me) to the point of being regarded, in many places, as the voice of road running, particularly in Gauteng, but Comrades every year was the highlight for me on radio.

This had come about mainly because we were virtually everywhere reporting races but at the same time I got to know a lot of the top runners and at some stage during the 90’s an absolute thrill when I was introduced to the man who had been my hero in the late 50’s and into the 60’s, Jackie Mekler.

My initial thought was that he wouldn’t really have too much interest in me. After all, I was a very mediocre Comrades runner (although all 14 were under the time limit of 11 hours at that time and 9 of them had been under 10 hours and 2 of those 9 were under 9 hours) but instead I found a genuine, sincere and humble man who had time for everyone he met and I have always regarded myself as a friend of Jackie’s after that first meeting as I saw him regularly almost every year after that.

Jackie never, in my opinion, regarded himself as anything special because of his 5 wins but in my eyes and in the eyes of many people involved with Comrades, he was something very special.  He will always be remembered, not only for his 5 Comrades wins but also as the first man to break 6 hours on the Up Run

JACKIE 1968 WINJackie Mekler breasts the tape in 1960 Comrades – the first man under 6 hours on the Up Run

When I got to the 60th  Comrades I had attended in 2018, I phoned Jackie to ask him how many he had attended as I was keen to find as many of the people as possible who had attended as many, if not more than me.  I thought that Jackie could well be one of those bearing in mind that he ran his first one in 1952 finishing in 7th place that today would have won him a gold medal but in those days he was the first person outside the six gold medals awarded then.  I had attended my first one in 1956 so that in effect gave him a four year start on me.

I chatted to Jackie about what I was looking for and he told me that he honestly didn’t know how many he had attended as he was not at Comrades at times during the 1950’s (some of the reasons given in his autobiography) despite coming back for his second run and first win in 1958.  He said simply to me that he thought I had been at more of them than he had which disappointed me because I would very much like to have been 2nd or 3rd behind him in the number attended and to be able to say that only Jackie Mekler and maybe one other had attended more Comrades than I had. 

It turned out that Brian Swart who is very well known in Comrades circles has in fact attended 4 more than I have but whether Jackie attended more than I did, I don’t know.

I saw Jackie at Comrades 2018 and he congratulated me on being at my 60th race and I hadn’t said anything more to him about the matter. I was absolutely “gobsmacked” that the great man of Comrades should have remembered such an insignificant thing.

Fast forward another year to about early May 2019 (I am not sure exactly when it was) that Jackie phoned me to ask if I would help him with making known, through my activity on Twitter and any other social media, the fact that his autobiography titled “RUNNING ALONE” would be launched at Expo for Comrades 2019 after he had spent the better part of over 30 years writing it! 


I told him it would be an honour to do so and that I had a friend who writes under the name of “The Running Mann”, Stuart Mann, and I would get him involved as he has a large following on both Twitter and with his blogs.

Our conversation ended with two things I’ll never forget. The first of them was when Jackie asked me if I would be attending Comrades 2019 and when I said that I would be there, his response was “enjoy your 61st”.   Why and how Jackie remembered that is beyond me yet he did but that’s was just the kind of person he was.

The other thing he said just before our conversation ended was that with the book launch he was worried, and in his words “I wonder who even remembers Jackie Mekler”.   I assured him that many, if not most runners remembered him and one of the things that had kept his name known was a race in Pretoria named after him.

I then called Stuart who said that he would be thrilled to help although he had never actually met Jackie.  He managed to put that right at Comrades 2019 and one of Stuart’s prized photos was taken with Jackie at his book launch at Expo.

JACKIE AND STUARTStuart Mann, The Running Mann, with Jackie at Comrades Expo 2019

All of Jackie’s successes in the running world are told in his book and he won at almost every distance from 10km to 100 miles and at one time he held the world records for both 30 miles and 40 miles and it’s a book well worth reading if anyone has any interest in road running.

The book launch at Expo 2019 was very successful and when I asked Jackie on Comrades day whether most of the buyers had been older runners and former runners, I was very surprised when he told me that a large number of books had been bought by people who had probably not even been born when he won his 5th Comrades.

This thrills me as I am one of those “older former runners” who has a passion for the history of Comrades and the fact that so many young runners have an interest in Jackie Mekler and his achievements makes me very happy.

jackie mekler at expoWith Jackie at his book launch at Expo 2019

 

I spent some time with Jackie, both at Expo and also on Comrades day and on Comrades day we were chatting about nothing in particular and everything in general and I spent a good time with him.

Just three weeks later, my hero and my friend had gone.

Goodbye Jackie Mekler. You were a great athlete and an even greater gentleman.

I’m going to miss you at Comrades every year.  R.I.P.

 

9 July 2019

COMRADES – “THE HAT TRICK CLUB”

In the build-up to Comrades 2019, and in my blog about three time winner, Dave Bagshaw, I happened to mention what I regarded as a Hat Trick, the fact that he had won three Comrades in three successive years and that only five men and three women in total in the history of the race have been able to do this.

Shortly after I published the blog that mentioned the “hat trick”, I received a Whatsapp message from Bruce Fordyce to tell me that he had enjoyed reading the article about Dave Bagshaw (whom he knows) and that he felt proud to be a member of “The Hat Trick Club” – and so the term was born!

In the run up to the race itself, I referred to “the Hat Trick Club” quite a few times on Twitter and especially speculation as to whether we would see a 6th male member of this exclusive “club” if Bongmusa Mthembu won his third Comrades in as many years. Sadly Bongmusa had to settle for second place after a brilliant and tactical run by Edward Mothibe saw Edward take the win.

So for the next few years anyway, “The Hat Trick Club” will still have just 5 men and 3 women members but who are they and what makes winning three Comrades in three successive years so special?

In a previous blog some time ago, I made reference to the fact that winning Comrades is something very special irrespective of the number of Comrades a runner may have won and that there is a very long list of runners who had finished high up in the final positions but who couldn’t actually win the race and amongst them some extremely good Comrades runners.

I thought then that it would be a good idea to look at the members of this exclusive “club” that Bruce Fordyce dubbed “The Hat Trick Club” and how proud he was to be a member of that club.

So who are the members of this “club”?

The first person to win three Comrades in three successive years was Arthur Newton but he went beyond a hat trick of wins with four wins in four years in 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1925. 

There are some who might say that given the small fields in the early days of Comrades that this wasn’t a special feat but as I’ve said there is a long list of runners who were good but just not good enough to pull off the win.  Bear in mind that even Newton was beaten when he finished 2nd in 1926 and beaten by a runner who had finished in second place a few times so the argument that one runner had to be dominant with those small fields doesn’t actually work.

ARTHUR NEWTON RUNNINGArthur Newton in action

 

The runner who beat Arthur Newton in 1926 was Harry Phillips and not only did he beat Newton who finished second that year, but he also set a new “best time” (record) for the Up Run but he could only manage that one win in the years he ran Comrades.

In the first Comrades in 1921, Phillips finished second to Bill Rowan some 40 minutes behind Rowan.

Phillips was again 2nd in 1922 this time behind Arthur Newton. He was again 2nd to Newton in 1925 and he managed just that single win despite what were epic battles against Newton and it was those wins that set Newton apart in the 1920’s and gave him the 4 successive wins and the first “hat trick”.

We had to wait virtually 40 years before anyone achieved three wins in three successive years again and bear in mind some of the great Comrades runners like Hardy Ballington, his younger brother Johnny who had 5 gold medals and a best position of 2nd in 1949 but never won, Wally Hayward who ended up with 5 wins in total but no hat trick (to be fair he never ran three years in a row), Gerald Walsh with two wins and a heap of gold medals, Gordon Baker with 9 starts and 8 gold medals some of which were for 2nd place and Jackie Mekler who won 5 times but not three in three years.

All of these great runners were around in the years before we saw the second person to win three times in three successive years.

It was Dave Bagshaw in 1969, 1970 and 1971 when we saw our second Hat Trick of wins. Dave Bagshaw had his first win and as a novice also broke the record.

BAGSHAW 4Dave Bagshaw crossing the finish line in 1971

 

In 1970 Bagshaw won again and again broke the record and then his third win came in 1971 when he was just short of his own record so a hat trick of wins for him despite some intense competition from people like Dave Box, Manie Kuhn and even Jackie Mekler. Dave Bagshaw was the favourite to win his fourth Comrades in 1972 but he had to be content with second place when he was beaten by Mick Orton.

 

Next to get a hat trick of wins was Alan Robb who won in 1976, 1977 and 1978. Robb was beaten in 1979 by Piet Vorster but won again in 1980 beating Bruce Fordyce in a huge battle for the win.

ALAN ROBB 1978 FINISHAlan Robb crossing the finish line in the 1976 Down Run

 

The three wins had given him his hat trick and it was in 1978 on the Down Run that Robb became the first runner to run Comrades in under 5 hours and 30 minutes.

 

1981 and enter Bruce Fordyce. Bruce actually did a “Double Hat Trick” when he won 8 Comrades in successive years from 1981 to 1988.

Bruce Fordyce crosses the finish line in one of his many wins

 

I have little doubt that he would have made it a “triple hat trick” had he run the race in 1989 but he didn’t run in 1989 after having run (and won) a 100km race against a number of foreign so-called 100km specialists earlier in 1989 in Stellenbosch. He then came back in 1990 to win his 9th Comrades.

 

We then had to wait another 20 years for the next, and at this stage, last member of the “Hat Trick Club”. In 2009, 2010 and 2011 it was Zimbabwean, Stephen Muzhingi who was first home in those three years.

stephen muzhingiStephen Muzhingi in full cry

 

Muzhingi was a better than fair runner with a collection of gold medals for finishing in the top 10 both before and after his hat trick of wins.  He won gold medals in 2007 and 2008 before his first win and in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 after his third win so he in effect earned his green number in two ways. Three wins and five golds.

 

There are also three members of “The Hat Trick Club” in the women’s section of Comrades.  The first of them after women were official entrants in 1975 was Lettie van Zyl.

She won in 1976, 1977 and 1978 but before that, Lettie van Zyl had initially been the first woman finisher in 1975. She clocked 8:50 but she wasn’t recognised as the women’s winner when it was discovered she hadn’t met the qualifying standards.

Those who were around then will remember that for novices in 1975 it was a requirement that they qualify by running a standard marathon in 3 hours 30 minutes.

lettie van zylLettie van Zyl three time winner in 1976, 1977 & 1978

 

The honour of being the first official woman finisher in 1975 then went to Elizabeth Cavanagh in 10:08.   Interesting that whilst Lettie was achieving her hat trick of wins, Alan Robb achieved his hat trick in the same three years.

 

Then it was almost 10 years before our next women’s hat trick member came along. New Zealander turned South African Helen Lucre won in 1985, 1986 and 1987.

 

The interesting thing about Helen is that she only started running towards the end of 1979 after she settled in Pretoria and started running just to keep fit but by the time she finished her running career, she had won every major race in the country. She was also instrumental in starting what has now grown into the Spar Ladies race and also spent many years in road running administration.

 

The last of the women’s hat trick winners – but with four wins in succession – was one of the famous Russian twins, Elena Nurgalieva who managed four wins in four years in 2010, 2011, 2012 & 2013

 

She had a total of 8 wins and although she didn’t emulate Bruce Fordyce with his 8 wins in 8 years and 9 wins in total, her Comrades runs were an incredible performance nonetheless.

 

So in both the men’s and women’s races, our chances of another member, either male or female – of “The Hat Trick Club” is going to have to wait until, at best, 2021 because for both the winners in 2019 it was a first win and either of them would need to win the next two Comrades.

 

I said at the start of this article that we must never and can never take away anything from any winner of Comrades, it’s a fantastic achievement in anybody’s language but three wins in three successive years is very special and not easy to achieve when you consider that only 8 runners have managed it since that first Comrades in 1921 and we have now had 94 Comrades Marathons.

I mentioned the fact at the start that some people might say that it was easier to achieve a hat trick of wins in days gone by with smaller fields but it should never be forgotten that even though the winning times may have been slower than those being recorded in recent years, the competition up front was as intense as it’s ever been and irrespective of when the three wins in three successive years were run, it was a massive achievement.

 

 

June 2019