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Comrades Marathon

What better subject for our Centre of Attention article this month than The Comrades Marathon - „The Ultimate Human Race“ - due to be run this year on Sunday 9th June. „Comrades Fever“ affects many South Africans but particularly those from KZN who are immensely proud to host this internationally recognised and admired Ultra Marathon. I met with Roxanne Thomas, the curator of the Comrades Museum, to find out some lesser known facts about this incredible race.

The race was conceived by Vic Clapham who thought that a race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban should take place to honour those South Africans who had died during WW1. He convinced The League of the Comrades of the Great War (an association formed in 1917 to uphold the rights and offer support to ex-servicemen and their families) to assist with a loan to help pay for the first race. This was given on the stipulation that, if anyone should die as a result of their exertions, the League itself would hold no responsibility. The first Comrades was run in 1921 with 34 white, male participants! (Fast forward to 2010 when 14 343 runners of all ethnicities and gender FINISHED the race, a Guiness World Record!)

It was difficult for Vic Clapham to convince people that men were capable of such distances, but for a woman of the 1920’s, running was considered a huge danger to one‘s health and many doctors thought that such a shock to the system would render a woman sterile! This did not deter Francis Hayward who, on only the third running of the race in 1923, took her place in history as the first woman to complete The Comrades Marathon. Well-supported by her fellow competitors and spectators alike, she crossed the line in 11h 35m, unofficially in 29th position, in a field of 68 starters. Her run was not recognised, and she received no medal (all finishers were awarded silver during the 1920s), but the citizens of Durban were so impressed by her performance that they pooled together and presented her with a silver rose bowl as congratulations.

Francis lead the way for other women to break with social and gender limitations and compete in the race – women such as Geraldine Watson (from 1931); Mavis Hutchison (from 1965); Isavel Roche-Kelly (from 1980 - the first woman ever to beat the seven and a half hour mark on the Down Run and then the following year, the 7 hour mark on the Up Run!!); and Frith van der Merwe (from 1988 - who in 1989, was the first woman to break the 6 hour mark and finished in 15th place overall.)

There is not much record of Robert Mtshali‘s first run in 1935 but he unofficially finished in 26th position in a time of 9h 30m, „ and was met with a great cheer at the finish and awarded a small presentation by the mayor of Durban Cllr. V.L. Sheerer.“ Another brave man, John Mkwanyana, applied to run in the 1961 Comrades but was refused because of the laws or the country at that time. By agreement with his club, he ran unofficially, waiting at the start until all the registered runners had gone, yet still finishing in 8h 15m, unofficially 30th overall out of 156 entries. John applied to run the next year but was not allowed to - who knows what this potential star could have achieved had it not been for the severe discriminatory laws of the time?

From the mid 60s, more and more women and people of colour would unofficially take part in the race. This forced the issue of colour and gender to the fore. In his post-race speech in 1974, the Chairman of Collegian Harriers said this. “We must ensure we do not eliminate the real spirit and true meaning of the race. Unlike other sporting events, this spirit is not found among the champions but among the many hundreds of ordinary people who run not to win, but to just complete, in the allotted time, one of the world‘s toughest challenges. This is what the Comrades is all about and we must not lose sight of it.” 1975 was the first year that women and runners of colour were officially allowed to compete.

The slogan for this year’s Comrades is SIZONQOBA – TOGETHER WE TRIUMPH and to honour those pioneers of breaking the gender and colour barriers, the Comrades Marathon Association has introduced two new medals. The Isavel Roche-Kelly Medal will be awarded to female runners who finish from 11th place to under 7 hours 30 minutes; and the Robert Mtshali Medal to be awarded to runners who finish between 9 hours and sub 10 hours.

I would highly recommend a visit to the Comrades Museum in Pietermaritzburg. It has fascinating exhibits and memorabilia that are of great interest, even to non-runners. For bookings call 033-8978650 or email

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