Comrades Marathon – now in the past

To “celebrate humankind’s spirit over adversity” – Vic Clapham and the Comrades Marathon by Jako Bezuidenhout, (PhD in History from Rhodes University)

You may suspect that the Comrades Marathon is different, but at the start you are certain… From dawn until the sun sets in Durban, we are the children of the road, to be succoured, encouraged, praised, protected. Today there can be only one outcome, each runner a winner, each a hero… Tim Noakes, Lore of Running

The Comrades Marathon for 2020 has been cancelled. For the first time since the end of the Second World War the gruelling ultra-marathon between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, the oldest and arguably one of the toughest in the world, has been called off. The announcement made by the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) signalled the end of an uninterrupted period of 75 years of Comrades. However, just because the physical race has been abandoned, does not mean that the purpose for why it began in the first place should not be commemorated. This week we remember the first Comrades Marathon held on 24 May 1921.

At the start of the 1920s, the world was still reeling from the most destructive war it had ever seen. The First World War, also known as the “Great War”, lasted more than 4 years and claimed the lives of an estimated 15 to 22 million people. Another 23 million soldiers were physically wounded, not to mention the millions of young people who would live with the psychological scars of war for the rest of their lives. An entire generation of young men and their families from countries across the globe were affected. Vic Clapham was no exception.

Vic Clapham

Clapham was born in London in 1886. He and his family moved to the Cape Colony in South Africa immediately before the South African (Anglo-Boer) War. After the war, Clapham moved to Natal where he worked as an engine driver. When the First World War broke out on 28 July 1914, the 27 year-old decided to enlist in the South African Union Defence Force (UDF). South Africa under General Louis Botha had allied itself with its colonial master, Great Britain. It remains unclear as to which unit Clapham was assigned to, though some sources claim that he was attached to the 8th South African Infantry Regiment (8 SAI) of the 2nd South African Infantry Brigade. What is clear is that Clapham was sent to East Africa as part of an Allied army to contain and occupy German forces there so that they could not be deployed to the apparently more important European theatre.

However, the German Schutztruppe under the cunning Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, proved to be a formidable and elusive foe for the British and South African forces. Instead of keeping the Germans occupied, the Allied troops were outsmarted by Lt.-Col. Von Lettow-Vorbeck. Apart from ferocious set-piece battles and skirmishes such as at Salatia Hill and Kilwa, soldiers were also subjected to adverse weather conditions, tropical diseases and the dreaded tsetse fly, to name only a few afflictions. Of this campaign the South African soldiers would sing:
A shocking land is German East
Accursed alike by man and beast
A land of rains ‘til comes a break
With days and nights so hot you bake!
From base to base in quest of foe
We wretched fed-ups come and go,
With scrubby chins and dirty knees,
And toe-nails mined by jigger fleas.

The campaign was fought at great cost. Of the 200 000 Allied troops who participated in the East African campaign, over 10 000 died and many thousands more were incapacitated. In 8 SAI, Clapham’s purported unit, only 15 officers and men out of a regimental strength of 1 059 had not been admitted to hospital during the last phase of the campaign.

Clapham himself was apparently never wounded in the war but he was moved by what he had seen. After the war, he conceived an idea to remember those soldiers who had died and suffered. It was first intended to be a reunion for veterans but was not limited to them. The idea was based on the assumption that if infantrymen could endure forced marches over vast distances, trained athletes could cover the distance between the two cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban without great difficulty. He felt that the best way to honour his fallen comrades was to hold a race that would test the limits of the body and mind, giving the participant a glimpse into their suffering. By finishing, the participants triumph, showcasing the sheer courage of the human spirit. In this way, Clapham hoped that the Comrades Marathon would become a “living memorial” to those who fought and died in the “Great War”.

In 1919, Clapham asked permission to stage the proposed 56-mile (approximately 89 km) race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. However, administrators at Natal Athletics thought Clapham was mad to suggest such a concept. He persisted and continued to submit applications throughout 1919 and 1920. With no favourable response, Clapham turned to a veterans’ organisation called the Comrades of the Great War to assist him. Initially, he was unsuccessful here as well but in 1921 the Comrades of the Great War joined with the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Association to form the British Empire Services League of South Africa (BESL SA). Clapham approached the BESL SA and they eventually agreed to fund the race. Incidentally, the BESL SA was later renamed the South African Legion of Military Veterans and is today regarded as the oldest veterans’ organisation in South Africa. The South African Legion has continued its association with the Comrades Marathon over the years, encouraging participants to wear a Remembrance Day Poppy in an effort to ensure that the original purpose of the marathon be remembered.

Clapham aptly named the race the “Comrades Marathon” as a mark of respect to the veterans’ organisations, as well as honouring his comrades-in-arms. Initially, 47 people entered the race, but only 34 arrived on race day. The route started in Commercial Road (today known as Chief Albert Luthuli Street) outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall and continued for 89.929 km towards Durban where it finished in West Street (today known as Dr Pixley Kaseme Street) outside the Durban City Hall. A limit of 12 hours was given to the runners to finish the race. In contrast to today’s route, only the last few kilometres of road in Durban were in fact tarred. The rest of the route was sandy dust roads.

On 24 May 1921, Clapham’s dream became a reality. At total of 34 registered and 4 unregistered “scantily clad men” stood outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall in “a single line” across the road. At 7:10 a single gunshot echoed down the street signalling the start of the first ever Comrades Marathon.

The small, solitary bus of runners made their way down Commercial Road towards the south-eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg. The first man to cross the bridge at the Umsinduzi River was Butcher Purcell, followed by Harry Phillips (36) and Bill Rowan (26). The dusty road meandered over and around hills all the way to Durban. At Cato Ridge, Purcell, Phillips and Rowan were still leading the charge together, but by the foot of Inchanga, Purcell had fallen behind considerably. As Phillips and Rowan left the halfway mark at Drummond, Rowan took the lead.

Followed by a convoy of bicycles, motorcycles and cars, Rowan passed through Gillits and Pinetown, steadily increasing the distance between himself and Phillips, who was suffering from a persistent knee injury. Rowan finally made it to West Street, Durban covered in brown dust, striding over the finish line outside City Hall. His time was 8 hrs 59 mins at an average speed of 6 mins/km. It remains the slowest winning time of a Comrades Marathon. Despite his injury, Phillips pushed on and finished second at a time of 9 hrs 40 mins. Incidentally, Harry Phillips would represent South Africa in the Marathon at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. It is at these same Olympics where British track athletes Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell would compete, serving later as inspiration for the 1981 Oscar-winning film, Chariots of Fire.

Of the 34 starters at the first Comrades, only 16 finished the marathon. All 16 men were awarded silver medals for finishing the race. It was decided that the direction of the route would alternate every year, from Pietermaritzburg-Durban (the “down run”) to Durban-Pietermaritzburg (the “up run”).

In the years following that historic day, the Comrades Marathon evolved into a world-class event, attracting runners from all over South Africa as well as the rest of the world. It also introduced a number of runners whose performances would become legendary. For example, in the 1930 “up run” a 21 year-old novice by the name of Wally Hayward, entered for the first time. Hayward found himself in the lead when he reached Pinetown. He started pulling away from the rest of the field and built an 11 minute lead by the time he passed through Hillcrest. He easily navigated Botha’s Hill and arrived at Drummond in 3hrs 20mins. He climbed Inchanga without much trouble but at Harrison, he was showing signs of cramp. He struggled on bravely until Cato Ridge where the cramp forced him to stop for treatment. He continued on but was restricted to a walk. Meanwhile, his competition was catching up to him. Hayward was still leading when he reached Camperdown in 5h 13mins 25secs, but Herbert Philip ‘Phil’ Masterton-Smith was closing in on Hayward and almost succeeded. However, the lead was just too great. Hayward crossed the line in 7h 27mins 26 secs, a mere 37 seconds ahead of Masterton-Smith. But Masterton-Smith, considered also to be a remarkable athlete, would go on to win the following year.

It would be another 20 years before Hayward competed in his second Comrades – winning that one as well. From 1950 to 1954 Hayward won every Comrades Marathon except in 1952 when he chose not to compete so that he could represent South Africa at the Helsinki Summer Olympics. In 1951 and 1953 Hayward broke the “down run” record and became the first person to run it under 6 hours. In 1954 he broke the “up run” record and became the oldest man to win the race at 45 years of age. This particular record would be broken by the Belarusian Vladimir Kotov (48) in 2004.

Astonishingly, Hayward returned to the Comrades in 1988. He beat half the finishers in a time of 9hrs 44mins. However, his most dramatic moment at the Comrades was still to come. In 1989, he returned to complete the “down run” at the age of 80 years old. If successful, Wally Hayward would become the oldest finisher in the history of the Comrades Marathon. By the second half of the race, Hayward was visibly distressed and it was feared that he would not make the 11-hour cut-off. Then, suddenly a “deafening roar” reverberated throughout Kingsmead Stadium, the finishing point. As the seconds raced by, Hayward doggedly edged towards the finishing line with spectators and fellow runners urging him on. He managed to cross the line with 1 minute and 57 seconds to spare. It was a phenomenal performance that topped a remarkable Comrades career that spanned almost six decades.

Arguably the most dramatic finish in the history of the race came in 1967, involving Manie Kuhn and Tommy Malone. Even before the race, pundits had predicted that the winner would either be “Malone or Kuhn”. It was an ideal day for running, cloudy and mild and remained like that for the entire day. The field left Pietermaritzburg with local runner, Eric Rencken, in the lead, followed by a large group of runners that included Malone. The pace-setters were Malone, Craig Morrison, Phil Hargreaves, Tim Blankley and Rencken. Heading towards Inchanga, Blankley went slightly ahead and led the tightly packed bus of runners down into the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

At Drummond, Blankley, Malone, Morrison, Hargreaves, Baker, Craig and Kuhn were all officially given the same time of 2hrs 51mins. On the approach to Botha’s Hill, Morrison and Malone went to the front and opened up a commanding lead. By the time they got to Gillits, Malone had gone into the lead and was drawing away from the rest of the field. He checked in at Pinetown in 4hrs 30mins with Kuhn behind him in a time of 4hrs 32mins. At this point, Malone was running effortlessly and spectators were already saying that the outcome was certain. Even though Kuhn stayed within striking distance of Malone over Cowie’s Hill and through Westville, by Tollgate he had not managed to make a dent in the 2-minute difference between the two runners.

From Tollgate the final major downhill eases into Durban, thus it was thought that Kuhn would be unable to close the gap. However, urged on by his home crowd, Kuhn began to chip away at Malone’s lead. The 3 000 spectators gathered at the finish line were told that Malone was less than 140 metres away. More people crowded together to see the winner cross the line. A few moments later, Malone appeared, approximately 70 metres from the finish. The next moment, Kuhn turned into the home straight, a mere 20 metres behind Malone. Glancing back, Malone realised that Kuhn was closing in fast so he attempted to sprint for the line. But this sudden change of pace precipitated a vicious cramp in his right leg, causing him to stumble and fall less than three metres from the finish. Kuhn, drawing on all his remaining energy, rushed past Malone as the stricken athlete desperately attempted to lunge for the line. But this was in vain. Kuhn snatched victory by the narrowest of margins: just one second.

In many ways the Comrades pushes the boundaries of societal norms. In other ways, it reflects them. The first woman to run the race was Frances Hayward (apparently no relation to Wally) in 1923, but her entry was refused. She decided to run unofficially, completing the event in 11hrs 35mins. Although she was not awarded a Comrades medal, the other runners and spectators presented her with “a silver tea service and rose bowl”. In 1935 Robert Mtshali became the first black man to complete the Comrades finishing in 9hrs 30mins. Like Hayward, Mtshali also had to run unofficially due to his physiological appearance. However, the Comrades also sometimes defied society. In 1975, in the 50th Comrades, the organisers decided to open the field up to anyone who could compete, regardless of their race or gender.

That year 1 500 entrants were allowed to race, with 18 black and 2 female runners included in the field. Vincent Rakabele would become the first black runner to win a medal during this race, finishing 20th overall in a time of 6hrs 27 mins. Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Cavanagh became the first official female winner in a time of 10hrs 8mins. Cavanagh successfully completed 6 Comrades (she ran 4 of them unofficially between 1970 and 1973). Sadly, Cavanagh died on 27 January 2020 at the age of 89.  

Over the years, the race has taken on its own set of traditions. Since its inception, it has officially started with the firing of a gun by either the Mayor of Pietermaritzburg or Durban, depending on the start venue, while his/her counterpart of the finish city would receive an official letter of greeting by the winner. A past runner, Max Trimborn, introduced the custom of crowing at the start of the race. A recording of his ‘cockcrow’ is played at the start of every race. More recently, runners have sung their own rendition of Shosholoza to signal that the race is about to start. Similarly, the strains of Vangelis’ epic Chariots of Fire has become associated with both the start and finish of the race. At the finish, the Chairperson of the CMA fires a gun to designate the 12-hour cut-off of the race. The custom is that the Chairperson will have his/her back turned to the field to ensure that his/her sympathy for late stragglers delays the firing of the gun. Immediately following the final cut-off at 17h30, a lone bugler plays the Last Post, a subtle acknowledgement of the race’s origins as a living memorial.

Up until 1962 almost every Comrades had been run on 24 May (Empire Day). From 1962 to 1994 it was run on 31 May (Republic Day). When Republic Day was scrapped in 1995, the race date was changed to 16 June (Youth Day). In 2007, the ruling African National Congress’ Youth League (ANCYL) pressured the organisers into changing the date once again as it misguidedly felt that the race diverted attention from the significance of Youth Day. The race date was therefore changed to the weekend before or after that public holiday.

Since 1921, the Comrades Marathon has become a virtual fixture in the world’s sporting calendar. However, due to the advent of the Second World War the race was cancelled for the first time. Many would-be participants were called to join their units, which left race organisers no choice but to call it off. The sad irony is that an event that was meant to memorialise the horrors of war was ultimately overshadowed by it. This time, it would be even more destructive. When the Comrades eventually resumed in 1946, the true cost of the war became apparent. Only 8 runners took part in that first post-war race. It was also learned that two previous winners had been killed in action. Phil Masterton-Smith (30), winner of the 1931 Comrades, was killed in North Africa in 1942 and Frank Sutton, winner of the 1928 Comrades, drowned when his troopship was torpedoed near Durban in 1944. Their deaths and the deaths of so many others reinforced the need to hold the Comrades as a living testament to the fallen.

It seems that over the years, the true purpose of the Comrades may have been lost. As the race grew into its own and became more commercialised, it evolved into something else. In recent decades, top ultramarathon runners from around the world have been drawn to take part due to the prestige associated with winning the oldest ultramarathon in the world. In 2010, the 85th Comrades attracted 14 343 athletes, earning it a place in the Guinness World Records for the ultramarathon with the most runners. In 2019 alone, a total of 21 625 runners from across the world took part. As a result of its popularity, the race has created a bustling revenue stream, not only for the organisers but also for sponsors, local businesses and entrepreneurs who have come to rely on the influx of runners and spectators to sustain their livelihoods. Therefore, the announcement on 14 May 2020 that the 95th Comrades Marathon was be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic not only brought the severity of the crisis home to the running community, but also to those who depended on the race for their economic wellbeing. No matter what happens in the future, the race will never be the same again.

The cancellation has also made it apparent to so many people how integral the Comrades has become in their own lives. Personally, I have never run a Comrades Marathon, but I grew up in a house of runners. Both of my parents ran a total of 5 Comrades between 1986 and 1994. Indeed, they ran with Wally Hayward in 1988 as well as in his final race in 1989. To this day they often regale me with stories from their “Comrades days”. As they got a bit older (and wiser), they chose to rather watch the race from the comfort of their living room than to subject themselves to “such inconceivable torture”.

Even so, during a live broadcast both of them would be overcome by nostalgia. Each time the name Polly Shortts is mentioned, my parents would visibly cringe as they remember that dreaded hill. Or when the runners pass Tollgate on their way to Durban, both of them would sit back in relief, knowing that the worst is over. Each place name along the route reminds them of at least one story. These stories are as diverse as the emotions experienced by those who run a Comrades.

Some of them are hilarious, like the time when, during an “up run”, my dad and a friend encountered a distressed and demoralised runner who was suffering from low blood sugar at “little Polly’s”, just before ‘Polly’s’. The man was in tears when he was informed that the main challenge was yet to come! My dad and his friend offered him a Bar-One to increase his blood sugar, but this turned out to be a mistake as the man happened to be a life insurance agent. Needless to say, knowing that the man was now jovial enough to pitch to them different “policy plans”, they increased their pace and left him with other (unsuspecting) runners! Other stories are much sadder, like the collective agony everyone would feel for those runners who would fall short of the cut-off time. However diverse these stories were though, all of them were interwoven by a common thread: fraternity and courage.

My parents’ stories of Comrades have left a deep impression on me. They are an eternal source of inspiration, a reminder of what magic the human spirit is capable of. In 1962, the English runner John Smith won the “up run” in under 6 hours, missing out on the course record by 33 seconds. Watching the stragglers stumble towards the finish hours later, Smith commented to former winner Bill Cochrane that these stragglers were getting as much applause as he had received. Cochrane allegedly replied: “You are now witnessing the spirit of the Comrades.” Cochrane was right. Each individual story of every runner finishing the race is an inspiration, no matter what time they finish.

In many ways, Vic Clapham was wrong to think that an ultramarathon would serve as a living memorial to his brothers-in-arms. Indeed, it only took 20 years for the race to be threatened by yet another war. In addition, a lot of its original meaning has been lost through years of commercialisation. However, it can be convincingly argued that while it has lost a lot of its original purpose, the Comrades today has come to mean different things for different people. For most runners, it represents a personal challenge, to prove something to themselves. To others, it is in remembrance of a loved one or in the name of a charitable cause. In this way then, Clapham’s vision of more than a century ago has been realised. The purpose of Comrades transcends the physical realm of the race. The true triumph of the human spirit is to endure in times of adversity. To overcome. Together.


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