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

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COMRADES – MODEST TO MEGA

One dictionary definition of the word modest states “Moderate or limited in size” and whilst Comrades had started in 1921 and was very modest, it had many exciting tussles by those runners winning in those early days and we had the first three of the five time winners in Arthur Newton, Hardy Ballington and Wally Hayward all by the early fifties as well as the slowest winning time set by Bill Rowan in 8:59 when he won the first Comrades in 1921.

bill rowan (2)

We’ve seen a couple of very close finishes. Phil Masterton-Smith beat Noel Burree by 2 seconds in 1931 and Manie Kuhn beat Tommy Malone (who had won in 1966), by just one second in 1967. The biggest winning margin was set by Allen Boyce by almost 2 hours in 1940 but it was really only in 1959 that the transformation to what we have today slowly started.

It was in 1959 that entries went to 100 for the first time and spectators at the finish to around 200.  It was also around that time that we started to see spectator interest from parts of South Africa other than the Durban and Pietermaritzburg areas of this “thing” held annually. 

Runners had been travelling to Natal to take part in Comrades from the early days and there had been non Natal winners (Bill Rowan was the first one) but interest was fairly low.  The same spectators in small numbers came out every year to watch what was simply called “The Marathon” by locals.

It was the sixties when the changes really started to happen and by the end of that decade entries were up to 1000 although it was fairly lonely running at times.

COMRADES 1968

I don’t remember exactly where this photograph was taken but it was during my first Comrades in 1968 and not too many other runners around me.

It was also in the sixties that we saw the first foreign runners in the form of a team of four Englishmen running for the Road Runners Club in England up against a South African team.  The fairly small band of Comrades supporters had always regarded Comrades as a South African owned event so it was a major dent to the ego when Englishman John Smith won the race.

JOHN SMITH 1962

He led the rest of his English team to four of them in the top five with Jackie Mekler, the sole South African in the top five. Jackie himself told me years later that he misjudged that race very badly and ran like a novice and by that time he already had a couple of wins to his credit!

It wasn’t until the early seventies that interest from the UK was seen again when a team from Tipton Harriers arrived and against all odds, Mick Orton won the race beating Savages favourite Dave Bagshaw who had won the previous three races.

DAVE BAGSHAW

Bagshaw was a superb runner and his wins in 1969, 1970 and 1971 during which he set a course “record” twice showed just how good a runner he was.

Orton was back again in 1973 to defend his title but failed dismally in his attempt to repeat his win, so Comrades became the property of South Africa again when Dave Levick was first home. Levick, from UCT, was also the first university student to win Comrades.

Orton, incidentally had something like an 11 minute lead going through Pinetown with about 20km left to run. He was caught and passed by Gordon Baker and with just a few Kms left it looked as though Baker was going to get that elusive win. He was in the lead and could virtually “smell” home but it was Levick who came through to win, leaving Gordon Baker with yet another gold medal to his collection. In 9 Comrades, Baker had 8 gold medals but was never able to achieve his dream of a winner’s medal.

Orton, after his 11 minute lead with about 20km to go, finished in 5th place.

The 50th Comrades in 1975 was certainly the year that changed everything.

The first thing that troubled the organisers was whether the “old road” could handle more than 1500 runners. It was (and still is) narrow and with seconds’ vehicles on the road, it was a major problem. Organisers limited the field to 1500 with the requirement that novices had to qualify with a marathon time of 3:30 or better. Interesting that we all thought we would have to qualify in under three and a half hours so most of us ran our best marathons at that time.  I ran my three best times when I thought I would have to qualify in under 3:30.

That wasn’t the only thing that happened in 1975. Organisers approached the SAAAU, the controlling body of athletics in South Africa at the time and after numerous discussions, the powers that be allowed Comrades to be open to all races instead of only white males between 18 and 65 as had been the case previously and also to women.

The one thing very few of us could understand and it still remains a mystery to me, is why black runners were required to wear ethnic tags denoting “Zulu” or “Xhosa”, etc.  An embarrassment to everybody.

Comrades survived the seventies and the second half of the decade saw the race dominated by Alan Robb who was the first person to finish the Down Run in under 5:30.

ALAN ROBB 1978 FINISH

All the while the entries grew and at the end of the seventies the roads really were too busy, but there were no further limit on the number of runners, so only one other thing could be done.

Get rid of vehicles from the road and so we saw the introduction of refreshment stations and after a few years a total ban on motor vehicles except those with special permission to be there such as the media.

By this time TV was becoming firmly entrenched in South Africa and in the second half of the seventies, the SABC staged a race in central Johannesburg that was screened live and the numbers of runners started to explode as the sport sparked the imagination of “ordinary people” who took to the roads. 

Then came the eighties and the Fordyce era and Bruce’s persona did a huge amount to swell the fields even more but as we were still in isolation the runners were all South African.

FORDYCE

The early nineties saw the start of the political change in the country and in 1993, the German runner, Charly Doll took advantage, came to Comrades and won it.  1994 and American, Alberto Salazar did the same thing. 

NICK IN COMRADES

After that for a few years South Africans claimed the race back with wins by Shaun Mieklejohn in 1995 and Charl Matteus in 1997 but then came the late nineties and the wave of runners from Eastern Europe and particularly Russia dominated.

By the time 2000 arrived, Comrades had moved another step forward with the appointment of a woman, the late Alison West as Chairperson and marketing got under way for the 2000 Comrades.  The finish was moved to Scottsville racecourse in Pietermaritzburg to accommodate the numbers expected and numbers there were.  

24,000 people entered “The Millennium Run” and at the same time the time limit for the race was increased to 12 hours to allow as many people as possible to finish and earn that precious medal.  Russia’s Vladimir Kotov won the 2000 event and the Russian dominance continued for years.

The race has continued to grow and for the 2019 race there have been 25,000 entrants. The entries sold out in 6 days, such is the popularity of Comrades now.  The 12 hour time limit has given the “ordinary” runner who could never have dreamt of running and finishing Comrades in the 11 hour time limit as it was previously, the opportunity to be part of it.

I’ve seen all but three Comrades Marathons since 1956 and I have watched the race grow and the changes taking place as we moved into the modern era of online entries, the Expo and highly professional refreshment stations providing virtually anything and everything a runner might want. That’s a far cry from the early days when runners had their own seconds and when those seconds were stuck in traffic jams which has always been the case on Comrades day.

I remember in my first Comrades in 1968, my second arranging to meet me in Westville for my first drink – if he could get there, but if not it would have to be in Pinetown.  20Kms to my first drink but I didn’t think anything of it. That’s the way things were then.

So Comrades has gone from a very modest race in 1921 with just 16 finishers of the 34 who started to what we have today where we expect around 19,000 or even 20,000 to start this year.

We have seen the time for the first Comrades which was a Down Run, won in 8 hours 59 minutes to the fastest time for the Down Run set in 2016 by David Gatebe in 5:18:19 and that’s going to take some beating.

DAVID GATEBE

That’s an indication of the way the race has changed and grown.

The medical facilities at Comrades have gone from none in the early days to the biggest temporary medical facility in the world outside of a war, disaster or conflict zone and with radio contact between ambulances on the road and the finish medical facility. The medical facility at the finish has around 45 Interns, 20 or more medical doctors, over 10 specialists and over 20 nurses working in the tent and that’s apart from the medical staff on the road.

Old Mutual Underprivileged Runners Project 2017

Comrades has certainly gone from “Modest to Mega” but was it better back then when things were a lot more “personal” because of the size of the fields or is it better now?  The answer to that is easy.

Yes it is – and the reason I answer that way is because each Comrades is unique. Each with its own stories of the heroes and heroines who win and the “gladiators” who finish a lot further back.

We look forward eagerly to the 2021 race which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Comrades in 1921, but that’s not the only thing we have to look forward to.  2025 will be the 100th running of this amazing “happening” (the race wasn’t run during the Second World War) that we call the Comrades Marathon. 

A “happening” because for the vast majority of the runners it isn’t a race against anyone else. They race against themselves and the clock and it matters not where anyone else finishes. The average runner leaves the racing to the fantastic runners up at the front. Those who re-write the history books every year.

For the rest of the field, it is an event that is much more than just another road race. In many instances it’s a life changing experience that can’t be explained to anyone who has never run it.

For the last 5 years Comrades has been in the hands of its Race Director Rowyn James who has done a fine job with this very special event.

Photo Rowyn James for souv mag

The advantage that Rowyn has is that he is a 15 time finisher of the race himself and he knows what the runners want from every facet of Comrades.

They train for months and complete hundreds of kilometres in training and in races just so that they can go home with that precious medal.

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

 

 

February 2019

COMRADES – GET TO KNOW IT. :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bill rowan (2)

Photo: Bill Rowan

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

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

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

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

BONGMUSA MTHEMBU

Photo @ComradesRace via Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROBERT MTSHALI PLAQUE

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

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

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

NOEL BURREE

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

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

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

TOMMY WINS

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

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

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

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

August 2018

TO WIN COMRADES :

The more I have written about Comrades in this blog and in other articles over the years and the more I have spoken to winners over the years the more I have realised just what an enormous achievement it is to win Comrades.

Think about this. At the time I write this, we have had 93 Comrades Marathons starting with that very first one way back in 1921 and we have had just 51 different men’s winners.

Pause for a moment to let that sink in.  In 92 races we have had 51 different winners. That tells us just what an enormous achievement it is to win Comrades. Only 51 men have been able to win this race.

Obviously there have been the multi race winners but that takes nothing away from those who are single race winners when you think of the very long list of those who would dearly love to win this race but have just not been able to do so.  Those who have had to be content to go home year after year with a gold medal but no winner’s medal.

Make no mistake though, to go home with a gold medal is still something pretty special.

The trouble is, that whilst it is very special to win a gold medal or a collection of gold medals people tend to forget the person who finishes second, no matter what the sporting event is.

To demonstrate what I mean, Hardy Ballington, who was a five time winner and who is remembered for that achievement, had a younger brother John, who won 5 gold medals in Comrades with a best position of second in 1949.  Does anyone remember that?  

He wore race number 26 and that was long ago reallocated to the late Ian Jardine who turned it green so even the “honour” of getting a green number for John’s five golds for the number he wore was lost because things were different.

Green numbers were first introduced in 1972 so John Ballington’s number 26 had been reallocated long after he stopped running and long after the concept of permanent numbers for 5 gold medals was even thought of.

I have tried to find somewhere that John Ballington’s 5 gold medals are recognised and I haven’t been able to do so.  He wasn’t a winner – he came second and had a collection of gold medals!

I think also of that fantastic runner from Collegians Harriers in Pietermaritzburg, Gordon Baker. Many runners from the modern era won’t even know the name.  Gordon ran Comrades nine times and won eight gold medals but just couldn’t win the race itself.  The result is that today he’s basically forgotten by most people except those of us who knew him from way back when. 

I have been privileged to have met many of the winners since the sixties and when you speak to these chaps they’re ordinary people and most of them quiet and unassuming – until you see a few of them gathered together and you realise that there’s a bond that holds them together.

That bond that says “We’ve won Comrades” and they don’t have to actually say a word, it’s just there.  A magic in the air that you can feel and almost touch. 

I heard Bruce Fordyce recently refer to the Winner’s Trophy jealously as “Our Trophy” and he made it clear that they don’t actually want just any name on that trophy and if your name is on there you have to earn the right to have your name there and he wasn’t being big headed about the way in which he said it although he had every right to be so. 

It’s a very special club and not just anyone can join and from what I’ve seen as an outsider looking in, it doesn’t matter how many Comrades they’ve won to be recognised by the members of that “special club” they all seem to be equal in each other’s eyes.  All that matters is that they’ve won.

I have had people tell me that it was easier in the “old days” to win Comrades when the fields were smaller and slower but I think that’s rubbish.  Maybe the fields were smaller and slower but there were challenges of different sorts that made winning just as big an achievement as it is today.

Some of the biggest winning margins were recorded in “the old days” when the fields were very small but so too were the two closest finishes in the history of the race when fields were much smaller than they are today so that sort of throws that argument out the window.

I remember that after the 2016 Comrades I organised a dinner with Alan Robb and Tommy Malone and the reason for the dinner is that it was 60 years since the year I had first seen Comrades, 50 years since Tommy had won his Comrades and 40 years since Alan had won his first Comrades so I thought that it had some significance – the 40 – 50 – 60 year celebration.

TOMMY MALONE 1966 FINISH

It was a very pleasant evening indeed and with Tommy’s daughter and son-in-law who were also present and who have also run, there was a total of something around 80 Comrades medals between us but the focus was on Tommy and Alan who were winners. The rest of us didn’t really count.

At my 70th birthday party last year the theme was Comrades Marathon (could there have been anything else) and amongst the guests there were a total of exactly 100 Comrades medals and that included two winners.  They were the two people on whom the attention was focused. The rest of who had run just happened to be there and it was my birthday party!

Winning Comrades is a huge achievement.

I have seen 59 Comrades Marathons at the time of writing this and I am looking forward to seeing my 60th in June this year and recently I was given an old DVD of the 1979 and 1982 Comrades which were won by the late Piet Vorster and Bruce Fordyce respectively.

win (1)

I sat watching this DVD and I was reminded again of the speed at which those two guys had to run to win Comrades.  It’s simply mind blowing and I have seen a lot of Comrades and I still marvel at the speed at which the front runners go and for the distance at which they have to run it.

For many years when I was reporting the race for 702 Talk Radio I was on the road alongside the front runners and it was fascinating to see the strategies  and to watch as one by one they faded and the favourites came through. Then you would hear comments such as “Fordyce is starting to make his move” or “Fordyce is starting to come through”. 

bRUCE WINS

Bruce was an amazingly strategic runner and from where I was, it always looked to me – and I may well have been wrong – that he let the others come back to him.  Sure he seemed to increase his speed a bit in the second half but the others did most of the work for him – or so it seemed as I watched and I have heard him say this in talks he has given. He let them come back to him.

I remember one year I had that great athlete Sydney Maree as a passenger in the 702 car with me and we were on Harrison Flats following the leader who was on his own out in front and Sydney said to me “Do you think he’s looking good”.

I said “Nope. He’s just blown. Watch. In about 1km he’ll be walking and in 2km he’ll be out”.  That particular runner was another who thought he was going to win when he was some 30km out but who wasn’t even going to go home with a medal of any sort and he didn’t!

It’s a huge achievement to win Comrades and not just anyone can do it!

After the 2016 Comrades when David Gatebe became the first person to run under 5:20 and we were told that his average speed was 3 minutes 33 seconds per km for the entire 89kms someone asked me at what speed I had run in my best Comrades.  Not knowing the exact distance of the 1975 race when I ran my best time of 8:29 I guessed it was around 5mins 50secs per km and I am pretty damn proud of that. It was a huge effort for me.

DAVID GATEBE

But when you think of David Gatebe’s 3:33 per km you suddenly realise just what an incredible achievement it is to win Comrades.  At my best I wasn’t able to run even one km at David’s speed let alone 89 of them one after the other!

So before you watch Comrades from in front of your TV and grab for another beer as the winner comes in and you salute him as though what he’s done was no big deal or you hear about his win when you still have the better part of 40km still to go on your journey to Moses Mabhida Stadium on the 10th of June, pause for just a moment to consider exactly what this man and all the winners before him have done.

It’s one hell of an achievement.

Will this year’s winner become the 52nd winner or will the number remain at 51 because on the day, there is nobody new who is able to qualify to get his name on the trophy that Bruce Fordyce jealously regards as “Our Trophy”?

And rightly so. It’s very special that trophy.

 

April 2018

BERNARD GOMERSALL COMRADES CHAMPION 1965 :

I have been privileged in the many years I have been associated with Comrades to have met most of the winners from the sixties, seventies, eighties (not difficult there with Bruce) and the nineties but missing from my list of winners I have met is 1965 winner, Bernard Gomersall who came home in record time in the wettest race in Comrades history.

Bernard is one of the elder statesmen of Comrades and is 84 on the 23rd of August which puts him second in line behind Jackie Mekler as the oldest surviving Comrades winner.

He was last in South Africa for Comrades in 2015 but one thing is certain is that when he is next here, I am going to move heaven and earth to meet him.

One man who does know Bernard very well, is my good friend, Tommy Malone who has raced against Bernard in the London to Brighton but never in Comrades and I asked Tommy if he would be good enough to contact Bernard and to get his story for me for themarathon.co

Tommy didn’t hesitate and for that I thank him.BERNARD GOMERSALL COMRADES CHAMPION 1965.docx

 Here’s Bernard’s story:

In my youth I was mad about sport, mainly football. I did try other games like cricket, rugby, tennis. I always wanted to be successful at some sport and the only thing that stopped me playing football for England was my lack of ability. I was useless but I didn’t know it.

I did very little running up to the age of 17. I had qualified as a soccer referee and joined the local athletic club, Harehills Harriers to help me with my fitness on the football field.

I joined in some of the events (mainly track and cross-country) but once again I was rubbish but one day going to a track event in Leeds, the tram I was travelling on was held-up to allow a road-race to pass. When I saw some of the runners go passed I thought that I could do better than that, so I joined the road section of the club and started to improve.

My first attempt at the marathon was in 1958 in Hull and I managed to do 2:44 for 6th place.

That same year Mike Kirkwood a friend of mine from Hull won the London-to-Brighton and thought that if he could win that race I was capable of running it. I had no thoughts then of ever winning the race.

In my first attempt at the Brighton in 1959 I set out to run about 7:25 for a 2nd class standard medal I managed to do 6:15 for a first class standard A medal.

It was a start.

I first heard about the Comrades in 1960 when a lad from Leeds, Dennis Stevenson, came to the club. He had lived in New Zealand and came back to Leeds via South Africa where he had run in the Comrades and finished 6th in 1958. He told me about the steep hills and the tremendous atmosphere generated by the roadside crowds. It sounded wonderful but I knew I would never ever get to see it – or so I thought.

When I was invited in October 1964 by the road-runners club to compete in the Comrades, I had a British winter to face. But this was no different to any other year. We had to train in these conditions if we wanted to have a successful summer. I trained in the cold morning and nights, before and after work, seven days a week. Long runs at the weekend and a fair amount of track work during the week.

It would not have been possible to achieve all of the results without the unselfish support of my dear wife Ruth who looked after me and our four year old daughter Bernadette. As all top marathon runners know it is the wife who makes you a top runner.

When I came to the Comrades in 1965 I must confess that I was very ignorant about any of my opponents.  I had run in the 1959 Brighton when Fritz Madel won and again in 1960 when Jackie Mekler won but I was just another runner and I never got to meet them. So I went into the race knowing very little about anybody.

The celebrations of the 1965 Comrades started at 10.30 pm the night before. I had just got into bed and was about to go to sleep when I was disturbed by a noise on my bedroom roof, It was RAIN and it lasted to the following evening after the race.

I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the rain-drops on the roof. I was further encouraged on race morning by the sight of Jackie Mekler sheltering near the Pietermaritzburg city hall with a look of complete misery on his face. Everybody was complaining about the cold. I asked “What Cold”?

During the race (after about twenty miles) I removed the light sweater I was wearing leaving just the white British vest which I found warm enough, I think this finished off the opposition.

I approached the race in ’65 just the same as in England because I had the same conditions. People accused me of bringing my own weather with me.  They thought it was unfair!!!  I think it still goes down as the wettest Comrades in history!gomersall comrades 1965

I was seconded by well known Comrades personality Derek Palframan who did a splendid job on the day

It may sound very “Big Headed” but on that day nobody would have beaten me. It was my day, thanks mainly to the weather. Also I felt has though I had “feathers in my shoes”.

I came back for the 1968 Comrades but that was a different story altogether. Due to some change in circumstances I was not able to devote as much time to my preparation for the race as I had in 1965.  Then, of course , there was the weather.

It was hot by my standards. I fried losing 17lbs during the race. I was well beaten on the day and finished in 7th place just outside the gold medals (there were just six in those days)GOMERSALL COMRADES 1968

I was not as happy at the finish that time and was assisted by race official Bob Calder.

The London to Brighton was my event. It held priority over everything else I did.

My preparation for the race started three weeks after the completion of the last one and I spent eleven months working for it. No other race was important and all my the thoughts were for the race in September. GOMERSALL BRIGHTON 3

My record of four consecutive wins has not been beaten. Bruce won three on the trot and a Steven Moore from London has won it four times but it took him ten years to do it.

When thinking of the toughest opponents in the Brighton, three names come to mind. The first was Ted Corbitt of New York. He was a great athlete and an even greater gentleman. In the 1964 race he chased me all the way to the finish and was only 58 seconds behind at the end.

The other two were in the 1966 race Manie Kuhn and your good self, Tommy.. Between you, you managed to scare me almost to death. I was so afraid of the two great athletes behind me. How I managed to stay in front that day I will never know. It was the best race I ever ran in.

GOMERSALL & KUHN IN BRIGHTON

This photo in the London to Brighton shows 1967 Comrades winner Manie Kuhn wearing race number 45 in our lead group.  Manie finished second that year. Over my right shoulder you can see John Tarrant who gained “fame” as the “ghost runner” when he came to South Africa to attempt to win Comrades and was not permitted to run officially by British athletics.

Although I had a very successful running career my best memories are of the many lifetime friends I made. I think that these a more precious than all the medals and trophies,

Today’s Comrades is so different to the event I took part in. It is so big. During my recent visits to the race I have been overwhelmed. I have enjoyed every minute. The three day expo, the meetings, the dinners but I don’t think I would like to be competing these days with so many runners, all the crush and the waiting at the start. It’s what each of us is used to and I always preferred small fields.

On 25th July 2014 I moved to the USA after living 82 years in the UK, to live with my daughter and it was the best decision I could have made. After losing my dear Ruth (we were married for 55 years) I was devastated. I was on my own with no relatives nearby. My daughter with her husband, Kevin, and two daughters Beverley and Theresa had moved back to the States in 2000. The two girls were born there in the late 80s. They were now firmly settled. She offered me a home which I eventually accepted. It took three years of paper work to obtain my entry visa, but I now have my green card and I have settled down nicely to life here.

 

September 2016