13 June 2005
The Comrades Marathon has honoured the “forgotten heroes” of the world-famous ultra-marathon – hundreds of black runners and women who had to run the race “unofficially” prior to 1975, when it became SA’s first major sporting event to open to people regardless of race or gender.
Up until that time, Natal and South African Athletic Association rules prohibited women competing with men, and – except with government approval – black people competing with white.
The Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) held a civic reception outside their offices in Pietermaritzburg on 10 June to honour the “forgotten Comrades” – chief among them being Robert Mtshali, who in 1935 became the first black runner to attempt, and complete, the gruelling ultra-marathon.
CMA acting CEO Cheryl Winn, speaking ahead of the event, said: “We are going to honour all those who missed out.
“Seventy years have passed since Robert Mtshali became the first black man to ‘unofficially’ complete the Comrades Marathon, and we’ve commissioned a bronze memorial to commemorate his run, which will permanently occupy pride of place at the entrance of our Comrades Museum.”
The museum’s Forgotten Comrades exhibition, also opened on 10 June, focuses on the many men and women who ran the race unofficially before 1975.
Even when the race opened up in 1975, the field was limited to just 1 500 runners, and runners had to prove their qualifying times. That meant that many potential competitors were excluded.
After cutting the field down from the 1 686 entrants to the allowed 1 500, only 18 non-white runners and two women were included in the field in 1975.
First black winner
The first black runner to win an official Comrades Marathon medal was Vincent Rakabele, who finished in 20th place in 1975 in a time of six hours and 27 minutes. Rakabele went on to finish fourth in 1976 and eighth in 1977.
However, it was a long wait for the first black winner of the event. That honour went to Sam Tshabalala in 1989, when he won the down run in 5:35:51.
Sadly, Tshabalala was badly injured in a motor accident in 1991. Only after a courageous battle did he make his comeback in 1992, claiming a silver medal. He has since claimed a further three silvers, and in 1998 was recognised for his contribution to the famous race when he was awarded the prestigious Platinum medal.
Jetman Msutu became the second black winner in 1992 when he was promoted to first place after Charl Mattheus was disqualified.
Maybe the most recognised and loved black contender never won the race. Hoseah Tjale had the misfortune that his career coincided with that of the legendary Bruce Fordyce. While Fordyce racked up the wins, “Hoss” was consistently among the great men’s challengers, twice finishing second and twice claiming third with his awkward, shambling running style.
By the end of his Comrades career, Tjale had won nine gold medals and four silvers.
The first woman to complete the Comrades – in an unofficial run – was Frances Hayward in 1923. She took 11 hours, 35 minutes and 28 seconds to complete the distance, which was good for 28th place.
Geraldine Watson became the first woman to complete both an up and a down run, first doing the Pietermaritzburg to Durban race in 1931, and then the Durban to Pietermaritzburg run in 1932.
Today, the trophy that goes to the last runner to finish is named after Watson.