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to take place and as a result very few continued training and because a lot of the men who were expected to enter had withdrawn and left to join their units at training camps at various centres around the country the field was left to just 23 who set off on the Up Run that year.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.