In the course of an athletics career spanning 60 years, Wally Hayward excelled at distances ranging from 100 metres to 100 miles.
He competed on the track in his early twenties, represented South Africa at the Olympic Games in the standard marathon, and set world long distance records.
His defining achievements, however, were reserved for one of the greatest ultra-marathons of them all: the Comrades.
One of the world’s greatest ultra-marathons, the 90-kilometre Comrades Marathon is internationally recognised both for the body-sapping challenge it poses and the camaraderie it fosters among its thousands of participants.
Run between Pietermaritzburg, capital of Kwazulu-Natal province, and the coastal city of Durban, the race alternates each year between an “up run” from Durban and a “down run” from Pietermaritzburg.
First Comrades victory
Wally Hayward won his first Comrades Marathon in 1930, at the age of 21, in a time of 7 hours 27 minutes – then returned to racing shorter distances.
Earlier in the same year, he had won the national 10-mile championship, and over the course of the next 20 years he became national champion in distances from three miles to the marathon. He was also decorated for his actions during World War Two, being made a Member of the British Empire.
When Hayward returned to the Comrades in 1950 he was discounted as a serious contender because of his age – he was 41 years old. That didn’t stop him from taking the lead at halfway and going on to win in a record time of 6 hours 46 minutes – 41 minutes faster than his winning time two decades before.
6-hour barrier, 24-hour record
The following year, in his first attempt at the Comrades down run, he powered his way to a 6 hours 14 minutes victory, slashing 7 minutes and 57 seconds off Johannes Coleman’s 1939 record.
Hayward missed the Comrades in 1952 when he competed for South Africa at the Helsinki Olympic Games, but returned in 1953 to become the first athlete to break the six-hour barrier, in a time of 5 hours 52 minutes.
In the same year he travelled to England, where he established new records in the London to Brighton Marathon, the Bath to London 100-miler – and a 24-hour track race staged by England’s Road Runners Club at Motspur Park.
Hayward’s distance for “the day race” was 256.4 kilometres, a new world best – and a mark not bettered until two decades later, when Englishman Ron Bentley managed 259.6 kilometres.
Hayward followed that up in 1954 by breaking his own record for the Comrades up run with a win in 6 hours 12 minutes.
Barred from racing
However, a second visit to England that year cost him dearly when the South African Athletic and Cycling Association declared him a professional for allegedly accepting donations for expenses.
The rules of the race at the time meant that Hayward – having established new records for both the up and down runs and equalled the five wins of Arthur Newton and Hardy Ballington – could no longer run the Comrades.
His amateur status was only reinstated 20 years later, in 1974, by which time he professed little appetite for racing, though he attended the finish of the Comrades every year to help inspire other runners.
Saving the best till last
Then, in 1988, Hayward was persuaded by friends to take part in the race once more. The country was stunned when the 79-year-old crossed the finish line in 9 hours 44 minutes, beating more than half the field.
Hayward’s most dramatic moment, however, came the following year, in 1989, when he completed the down run at the age of 80. There was hardly a dry eye in the stadium as he staggered across the line in an obviously distressed state, making the 11 hours cut-off time by a mere 1 minute and 57 seconds.
To this day, he remains the oldest finisher in the history of the Comrades Marathon.
The Wally Hayward medal
Wally Hayward died in May 2006 at the age of 97. In November, the Comrades Marathon Association announced that a new medal, the Wally Hayward medal, would be presented to runners for the first time in 2007.
The medals are awarded to those runners who fail to earn Comrades gold medals – awarded to the first 10 men and women finishers – but still come in under the six-hour barrier first broken by Hayward in 1953.
“The late Wally Hayward was one of the greatest ever Comrades runners, with seven finishes, including five wins,” association chairman Dave Dixon said in announcing the new medal.
“He had a remarkable Comrades career that spanned 60 years, and is still the oldest person ever to finish the race.
“In creating this medal, the Comrades Marathon Association salutes a man who epitomized the spirit of the race and inspired thousands of men and women to run it.”
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