WHAT started out as a fitting tribute to fallen war heroes has grown considerably in stature over the last century and earned worldwide recognition as the “Ultimate Human Race”.
On May 24, 1921, 34 runners participated in the first-ever, nearly 90km long, Comrades Marathon, which was run on mostly dusty roads from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
Vic Clapham, a World War I operative, gathered fellow veterans to run in memory of soldiers who died in combat, and, at the same time, subjected the human body and spirit to a stern examination.
The test was too tough for some as only 16 entrants crossed the finish line within the 12 hours time limit.
Apart from World War II interruptions, the Comrades has been run 94 times, with the starting and finishing posts alternating annually between the same two cities.
Presently, the world’s population is locked in an ongoing battle with the Covid-19 virus. The fight began in earnest early last year and has caused the 95th running of the ultra-marathon to be halted once again.
This year’s race was scheduled for June 13 but was cancelled in February.
However, the pandemic did not prevent the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) from staging an event, for a limited number of guests, to commemorate the marathon’s 100th anniversary at their Pietermaritzburg headquarters, on Monday.
As part of proceedings, a re-enactment of the 1921 race was staged, using 34 runners, which included past winners and top medal achievers, like Bruce Fordyce, Andrew Kelehe, Charne Bossman, Tilda Tearle and the 2019 Men’s winner, Edward Mothibi.
The Msunduzi municipality also got into the spirit of the occasion and has pledged to rename Connaught Road to Comrades Marathon Road.
The Comrades has been transformed from when Bill Rowan took the honours after a road trip that lasted almost 9-hours in 1921.
Nearly 20 000 runners, including many overseas athletes, have been pitching up for races in recent years and the number of spectators, who line the streets from start to finish, has also grown considerably with time.
The race attracts huge TV audiences, and the opportunity to associate themselves with the Comrades brand has been grabbed by various corporate companies.
With cash incentives getting progressively bigger, especially for the top performers, the runners too have pumped up their performances.
It has become a norm for the winner of the Men’s race to finish in around the 5 and half-hour mark, while the best ladies are able to complete the journey within six hours.
What makes those performances remarkable is the race’s testing route, which is lined with energy-sapping dips and climbs.
For many, just completing a Comrades run is reason enough to celebrate.
Polly Shortts remains a great leveller, especially on the up-runs. It presents a steep 2km incline for runners, approximately nine kilometres before the Pietermaritzburg finish line.
Bruce Fordyce, easily one of the greatest Comrades runners, having won the race nine times, seemed to find an extra gear when he had negotiated Polly Shortts in his heydays.
Given all his accomplishments and the outstanding times he posted when he was at his peak in the 1980s, Fordyce became a huge Comrades drawcard those years.
In the 1920s Arthur Newton was the dominant force having won the race five times.
Wally Hayward was another who achieved five wins. His first came in 1930, in his first attempt at the race, and the balance came in the early 1950s, including his 1953 effort which became the first occasion a runner posted a time inside six hours.
The 1975 race was a groundbreaking event as it was the year that black runners were officially allowed to compete.
Robert Mtshali was the race’s first black runner in 1935 and he finished in a time of 9 hours and 30 minutes, but his participation was not recognised because of the politics of that era. However, the race’s organisers have since commissioned a bronze medal in honour of his run.
1975 was also the year when women were allowed to compete for the first time.
Sam Tshabalala, from the little known township of Zamdela in the Free State, who hoped to buy a house for his family with the prize money, duly won the race in 1989 and became the first black runner to do so.
Benoni school teacher Frith van der Merwe won the ladies section in 5 hours and 54 minutes and became the first female to run below six hours.
Russian twins Olega and Elena Nurgalieva are counted among some of the best female performers. The sisters bagged 10 wins between them.
Zola Budd-Pieterse was best known for her exploits as a middle-distance runner but she participated in 2012 and 2014 marathons. She won the female veteran’s 40-49 age category in 2014 but was later stripped of the honour because she allegedly ran without the required tag.
With so much history and tradition attached, Cheryl Winn, the Comrades Marathon’s chairperson, said they were hugely disappointed that the race will not be run for a second year in a row.
But was confident there could be a race in 2022.
She based her optimism on the world-renowned New York, Boston and London Marathons due for postponed starts, later this year.
Winn said they would closely monitor and take lessons from those race organisers.
Winn said they incurred huge costs when last year’s run was cancelled at the eleventh hour, and the second wave of the coronavirus, which hit the country late last year, snuffed 2021 race hopes.
She is convinced there would be a deluge of entries the next time the Comrades occur. Fordyce concurred.
“It will be back, without masks and normal numbers. I suspect when we open next year, it will come back stronger. We might be over-scribed.”
Fordyce said the event was “close to my heart, whether I’m involved or not”.
“It’s in our DNA as South Africans.”
As a good runner at school, the “magic” of the race drew him to it.
Whenever Fordyce hears Vanjelis’ hit, Chariots of Fire, he gets the Comrades feeling.
The sound of music and running the Comrades also inspires kwaito star Kabelo Mabalane.
He has fond memories of watching the race as a youngster with his granny. Fordyce's performances in the 80’s impacted him.
“My love for it started then.”
Mabalane, who debuted in 2004, has since completed 12 runs, was a speaker at Monday’s event.
As a recovering drug-addict who has kept clean for nearly 20-years, running helped him fill a void in his life.
“I’m a better father, husband and performer because of running.”