In memory of Dave Bagshaw (1949 to 2021)
1969 – down-run The last race of the decade was under threat long before the entries were closed. Never before in the history of the Comrades was there so much uncertainty about the future of the event. There were rumblings in previous years, but with the massive fields topping the 500 mark, the race was becoming unmanageable. This was placing an ever-increasing burden on the traffic authorities. Two years previously the authorities were keen to stop the race. Once again the problem had reared its head. The format of the race had to change or it would die.
The organisers recognized there was a problem and in 1968 cut-off times were introduced at Drummond – 12h30 and Cato Ridge – 14h30. This did ease the problem, but it was only a matter of time before further big changes would have to be made. In the end the 1969 race did go ahead with very little, if any changes to the format.
By now the fields were becoming huge, almost 800 entries were received. The race at the front end was going to be absorbing. Jackie Mekler had entered, hoping to go one better than the other Comrades Greats, notching up a sixth win. Manie Kuhn, the winner of the most exiting duel in the history of the race was at the start, as was teammate Dave Box. Box had the credentials, for now he was the holder of the world 100-mile record. The “ghost” runner, John Tarrant was also at the start hoping to prove himself.
One other runner that was tipped for gold, perhaps not to win, was English immigrant, Dave Bagshaw. He had recently won Gold at the South African Games for the marathon event. He was a novice to the race and was not rated for a win. The sentimental favorite was Mekler.
As the field emerged from the frosty dawn, sun rising over the Valley of a Thousand Hills, it was Tarrant, the “ghost” runner who took the lead, setting a record breaking pace. By the time he reached Camperdown he was four minutes clear of any of his rivals and was widening the gap with every stride. On the Inchanga Bank, Dave Box broke from the chasing pack and closed in on Tarrant.
Dave Bagshaw was running with Box, and here was his dilemma: as a novice he was not too sure what to expect. He did have some experience of the race however, because he had seconded Gomersall in the previous year.
Go with a chasing Box or stay with Mekler? In the end he decided to go with the chaser, though conscious of leaving five times winner Mekler behind to his own devices.
Drummond came and went with Box and Bagshaw closing in on a tiring Tarrant. It was on the steep winding hills out of Drummond that the two caught the “ghost” runner and sped off to Durban.
Bagshaw noticed that Box drew back a little. Now he was concerned. As a novice he was not all that sure what to do. Hang in there with his more experienced club mate or go. It was at the Botha’s Hill Hotel that the final answer came. He left his ailing Savages partner and raced home to Durban.
Dave Bagshaw was making the entire running now. About a kilometre after taking the lead, he passed Vernon Jones standing on the side of the road. The Jones family shouted out their encouragement, but as Dave remembers, Vernon was strangely quiet. It was only after the race did Dave Bagshaw learn that Jones had considered his tactics suicidal at the time and his wife Eileen instructed him to be quiet so as not to sow the seeds of doubt in a now rampant leader.
By the time he reached Pinetown, he was just outside Gomersall’s record. Onward he was driven to the stadium. By that stage he knew the spoils of victory would be his. Box and Mekler could not catch him.
He later admitted that at some point he decided not to worry about the big guns around him. “I ran my own race that day, I rather thought that the likes of Mekler and Box should worry about how they were going to catch me.”
The wiry Englishman, not only won the race that day as a novice; he also set up a new record of 5:45:35. He was the first runner to go under 5:50:00. And so as the sun set in Durban, another decade of Comrades running closed. Ian Jardine announced his retirement from the race at the age of 67.
Bagshaw went to a tailor a few days after the event. As he was measuring up the new Comrades champion for a suit, he remarked on his small waist. “Gosh, you are thin,” said the tailor, “you should have competed in the Comrades Marathon.”
“I did,” said the modest Bagshaw. “Is it?” quipped the tailor. “Did you finish?”
“Yes”, said Bagshaw, “I finished.”
“So tell me what time did you do?”
“Yus, you must have won the thing then.”
Dave Bagshaw left the shop with a free tie and a very embarrassed tailor standing at the door.