The Comrades Marathon is an ultra-marathon of approximately 88 kilometres which is run annually in KwaZulu-Natal between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon race.
Runners enjoy fantastic public support along the way.
Comrades runners who complete the race 10 times, earn 5 gold medals or 3 wins are commemorated on The Wall of Honour.
Arthur’s Seat is reputed to be a favourite resting spot for Arthur Newton, 5 times winner of the Comrades Marathon. Arthur’s Seat is situated just after Drummond, the half way mark, on the Comrades route. It is a hole that is cut into the bank of the cutting. Legend has it that runners who greet Arthur or place a flower in his seat will enjoy a successful second half.
The Comrades Marathon first took place in 1921 and has been run every year since, except from 1941 to 1945 when it was stopped during the Second World War.
The race was the idea of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the war. It was to test the runners body, and runners will attest to the fact that it does. The constitution of the race states that one of its primary aims is to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”.
“In 1948, local runner Max Trimborn couldn’t contain his nervous energy on the starting line of the Comrades Race. So he cupped his hands, filled his lungs and issued a hearty rooster crow. The other runners so enjoyed this display that they demanded repeat performances in subsequent years. Trimborn obliged for the next 32, sometimes adorning himself with feathers and a rooster vest. By the time of his death in 1985, Trimborn’s crowing had been preserved on tape. These days, greatly amplified, it still starts the Comrades Marathon.”
“Bill Payn, a Springbok rugby player, ran one of the most storied races in the history of the Comrades. Payn hosted Newton the evening before the race, and after a number of stiff drinks, was persuaded to enter. He arrived on time for the start, wearing his rugby boots. At Hillcrest, he stopped for the first time to take in a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Not much further a fellow runner, “Zulu” Wade, invited Payn for a chicken curry. This they consumed and then continued on to Drummond, where they celebrated reaching the halfway mark by drinking a beer at the hotel.
Wade didn’t continue, but Payn did. A woman spectator en route helped him keep his energy levels up by providing him with oranges, peach-brandy, water and tea. He finished eighth.
The first woman to run the race was Frances Hayward in 1923, but her entry was refused, so she was an unofficial entrant. She completed the event in 11:35 and although she was not awarded a Comrades medal, the other runners and spectators presented her with a silver tea service and a rose bowl.
In 1962 the race attracted foreign entries for the first time as the Road Runners Club of England sent over four of the best long-distance runners in Britain. One of the four, John Smith, won the race, an up run, in under six hours, missing out on the record by just 33 seconds. Watching the stragglers come in hours later, Smith commented to former winner Bill Cochrane that the other people completing the race were getting as much applause as he had received. “You are now witnessing the spirit of the Comrades,” replied Cochrane. “Now days the field of foreign entrants is large.
It was only in 1975 that black runners and women were allowed to take part. At the time apartheid South Africa was banned from international competition, including the Olympics. The aim was to alter the country’s image.
Wits University student Bruce Fordyce, was to become the greatest Comrades runner of them all, winning in 1981 – although he very nearly didn’t enter. An outspoken critic of apartheid, Fordyce and a number of other athletes decided to boycott the event when organisers announced that they would associate it with the 20th anniversary of the Republic of South Africa. Ultimately, though, Fordyce ran, wearing a black armband to signal his protest – and won. Fordyce won again in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 (a blistering 5:24.07 down run), 1987, 1988 (5:27.42 for the up run), and 1990, totally dominating the race to record a total of nine wins.
He missed only 1989, when he sat the race out – but a significant milestone was achieved that year when railway worker Sam Tshabalala became the first black winner of the Comrades.
In 2023, South Africa celebrated its own runners winning both the mens’ and the womens’ races. Tete Dijane in 5:13:58 and Gerda Steyn in 5:13:58. Compare this to the 1921 winning time of 08:59!