Pictured: On 24 May 1921, the first Comrades Marathon took place in South Africa on Empire Day.
It’s an iconic event, it grips a nation, it realises dreams, and it’s a challenge undertaken by thousands. One hundred years ago the first steps were taken in what has become the Comrades Marathon, writes David Knowles.
On Thursday 24 May, 1921, Empire Day, 34 runners from 48 entrants lined up outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall to undertake a journey by road to Durban. The first Comrades Marathon had been born, and this year the race celebrates its centenary – although it would have been only the 95th edition, as there were no races from 1941 to 1945 due to the Second World War.
Many believed those pioneering runners would not reach Durban before nightfall, but the first winner of the race, Bill Rowan, a farmer from Koster, breasted the tape just after 4pm in a time of 8:59, the slowest ever winning time, the race having started some 10 minutes after the seven o’clock chimes due to some minor hitches.
Of the 34 starters 16 finished, the last few in the dark and in later years, Rowan’s name was etched into modern times with the Bill Rowan medal awarded to those finishing between 7:30 and 8:59.
And so a unique chapter in South African sport and history was born, an event acknowledged worldwide as the greatest ultra-marathon of them all; a race of character, emotion, struggle, pain, friendship and camaraderie.
It wasn’t long before legendary characters made an appearance. Arthur Newton won the race five times between 1922 and 1927, later joined by fellow five-timers Hardy Ballington, Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler and the great Bruce Fordyce – who clocked an unparalleled nine wins.
Vic Clapham, an engine driver on the South African Railways, is credited with starting the Comrades phenomenon, approaching the League of Comrades of the Great War at the end of 1918 with his idea of a race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, something initially scoffed at.
Clapham remained undeterred and was given one Pound (R2), to be refunded, for expenses, and allowed by the League to organise the race which was not to cost the League a penny.
It was an all-men affair, although as early as 1923, Miss Frances Hayward of Durban lined up unofficially and to great applause, crossed the line in 11:35, stating she thought the challenge, “too much for a woman”.
In 1935 the first Black runner, Robert Mtshali, crossed the line in 9:30, his effort also not officially recognised until 2019 when the Robert Mtshali Medal was introduced to honour his contribution to the race’s history. This medal was awarded to those finishing between nine and 10 hours.
History was being written at a rapid pace. In 1940, Allen Boyce’s winning margin of 1:50:28 over second man WD Parr remains one never to be beaten, as was the final tally of a mere eight finishers in the 1946 race.
Acknowledged by many as the greatest of them all, Wally Hayward won the race as a 21-year-old in 1930, a mere 37 seconds ahead of a fast-finishing Phil Masterton-Smith who, at 19, won the following year and remains the youngest ever winner. That 1930 finish was bettered in 1967 when Manie Kuhn pipped Tommy Malone by a second after Malone had stumbled at the finish from cramp.
Hayward was the first to break the six-hour barrier in 1953, achieving the impossible, the bar raised higher by four-time winner Alan Robb who beat the five-and-a-half-hour mark in 1978, finishing 19 minutes ahead of `Waltzing’ Dave Wright.
The 1975 race saw new ground broken as the race was open to athletes of all colour as well as women. Elizabeth Cavanagh became the first official women medalist and Vincent Rakabaele the first official non-white finisher in 20th position.
Rakabaele set the platform for the future of the race, which saw its first black winner in 1989 when Sam Tshabalala won the down run. This year also saw the women’s race change gear when Benoni’s Frith van der Merwe finished 15th overall in 5:54, a record which still stands. Gerda Steyn came close to that record in 2019, finishing the up run in a record 5:58 and 17th overall.
Fordyce, Graeme Fraser, Tony Abbott, Hosea Tjale, Bob de la Motte, Nick Bester, Helen Lucre, Lindsay Weight, Isavel Roche-Kelly, Willie Mtolo, Andrew Kelehle, the Nurgalieva twins, Vladimir Kotov, Dimitri Grishine, Stephen Mushingi, Bongmusa Mthembu… These are some of the modern names that have made the race what it is; an institution highly respected around the world – and proudly South African at that.