It all began with the vision of World War I veteran Vic Clapham: He wanted to create a living memorial to the soldiers who lost their lives in the war and to the camaraderie he experienced on the battlefield. He chose the 90 km stretch of tough hills and valleys between Pietermaritzburg and Durban – the Comrades Marathon – as a fitting tribute to celebrate the human spirit over adversity.
The first race took place in 1921, and it has been run every year since, except from 1941 to 1945 when it was stopped during the Second World War. Forty- eight runners entered, but only 34 had the heart to race – not surprising as the course was tarred only the last few kilometers into Durban. Bill Rowan became the inaugural winner, clocking 8:59 to win by 41 minutes ahead of Harry Phillips. Of the 34 starters, only 16 completed the race.
Over the years several people have left their stamp on the race:
1922 is one of the most storied races in the history of the Comrades: Bill Payn, a Springbok rugby player, hosted Arthur Newton (a six-time winner) 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 invited Payn for a chicken curry. After eating he continued on to Drummond. A spectator en route helped him keep his energy up by providing him with oranges, peach-brandy, water and tea. He finished eighth. The next day, Payn took part in a club rugby match, but because his feet were blistered from the long run in rugby boots, he played in his running shoes.
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.
The race of 1931 is memorable because of the efforts of runner-up Noel Buree. The taxi he had ordered to pick him up at Scottsville failed to arrive so he borrowed a bicycle to get to the start. En route he suffered a puncture and eventually arrived just in time for the start of the race. After a huge tussle with Phil Masterson-Smith, Buree was finally beaten into second place by a mere two metres. Masterson-Smith, only 19 at the time, remains the youngest winner in the history of the Comrades Marathon.
In 1948 a rousing Comrades tradition was born when race official Max Trimborn, instead of firing the customary starter’s gun, gave a loud imitation of a cock’s crow. That tradition continues to the present day – with Trimborn’s voice, recorded on tape, played over loudspeakers.
In 1962 the race attracted foreign entries for the first time: British runner John Smith won the up run in under 6 hours and, as he watched the stragglers come in hours later, he 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.
During the 1980’s, the sight of blonde-haired Bruce Fordyce effortlessly pulling away from the field in the second half of the race played a big role in attracting more runners, as well as some of the world’s best ultra-marathoners, into the race. The legendary Fordyce won the Comrades in 1981 and again in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 (5:24.07 down run), 1987, 1988 (5:27.42 for the up run), and 1990, recording a total of nine wins. He missed only 1989, when he sat the race out – but another significant milestone was achieved that year when Sam Tshabalala became the first black winner of the Comrades.
The 75th anniversary of the Comrades Marathon in 2000 was the largest ever staged, with a massive field of 23,961 and, in 2010, on its 85th anniversary, the race gained a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the ultra marathon with most runners.
Today, 97 years and 92 races later, the Comrades Marathon remains the world’s oldest and toughest race. It is as famous for the challenge it poses as for the race day camaraderie it fosters: Year after year, the grit and goodness in humanity comes to the fore, reminding us that through adversity there is hope and love.