The latest edition of the world’s greatest ultra-marathon takes place on Sunday. Catch up on the history of the Comrades Marathon – along with some fascinating facts and anecdotes – of a race that’s internationally recognised for the body-sapping challenge it poses and the camaraderie it fosters among its thousands of participants.
The world’s greatest ultra-marathon, 90 kilometres long, the Comrades is a South African institution, internationally recognised for the body-sapping challenge it poses and the camaraderie it fosters among its thousands of participants.
Run between the capital of the Kwazulu-Natal province, Pietermaritzburg, and the coastal city of Durban, the race alternates annually between the “up run” from Durban and the “down run” from Pietermaritzburg.
Unique test of endurance
The race was the idea of First World War veteran Vic Clapham, who wanted a living memorial to those South African soldiers killed in the war. Clapham, who had endured a 2 700-kilometre route march through sweltering German East Africa, wanted the memorial to be a unique test of the physical endurance of the entrants.
The constitution of the race states that one of its primary aims is to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”.
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.
Forty-eight runners entered the first race, but when the starting shot was fired, only 34 had the heart to tackle the daunting task – not surprising when one considers that the course was tarred only for the last few kilometres into Durban.
A time limit of 12 hours was set and Bill Rowan became the inaugural winner, clocking 8:59 to win by 41 minutes from second-placed Harry Phillips. Of the 34 starters, only 16 completed the race.
Why the second Comrades was special
The second Comrades Marathon was special for three reasons. Firstly, it was the first time that the event was run on the more difficult “up” course from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.
Secondly, Arthur Newton entered for the first time and won, going on to win the race a further five times to emerge as the dominant runner of the 1920s. When he completed the down run in 6:56 in 1923, there were only a handful of spectators on hand to witness the finish because so few thought it possible that the race could be run so quickly.
Thirdly, 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 next day Payn took part in a club rugby match, but because his feet were blistered from the long run in rugby boots, he elected to play the match in his running shoes.
Between the wars
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 1926 the number of Comrades starters dropped to just 24. Four years later, in 1928, the time limit for the race was reduced by an hour to 11 hours.
Just as Arthur Newton proved the dominant Comrades runner of the 1920s, so Hardy Ballington became the dominant runner of the 1930s. Ballington recorded victories in 1933, 1934, 1936 and 1938 as the Comrades failed to attract more entrants, dwindling to an entry of only 19 runners in 1936.
However, the winner of the 1930 race, Wally Hayward, was to become one of the greatest of the legends of the Comrades Marathon.
The race of 1931 went down in history because of the efforts of runner-up Noel Buree. The taxi that he had ordered to pick him up at Scottsville failed to arrive and he borrowed a bicycle to get to the start. However, en route he suffered a puncture, eventually arriving just in time for the start of the race.
After a huge tussle with Phil Masterson-Smith, that saw the lead change hands a number of times in the closing stages, 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 1932, Geraldine Watson, an unofficial entrant, became the first woman to complete both the up run and the down run.
Ballington set an ‘up’ run record in 1936, winning by more than an hour in a race that featured the fewest entries in Comrades’ history.
After Ballington’s domination of the 1930s The Comrades was stopped during the war years from 1941 to 1945. During that time two previous winners of the event, Phil Masterson-Smith and Frank Sutton, were killed.
In 1948 another 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.
Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler
In 1950, a full 20 years after he won the race for the first time, Wally Hayward recorded his second victory and followed that up with wins in 1951, 1953 and 1954. He might have won in 1952 as well, but chose to rather represent South Africa at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.
Ironically, it was only in the year after Hayward retired from the Comrades, after establishing new records for both the up and down runs and equalling the five wins of Newton and Ballington, that the effect of his wins on the public imagination was felt, and the field more than doubled to 100 athletes.
In 1958 another giant of the Comrades won the race for the first time as Jackie Mekler registered a comfortable victory by 45 minutes over second-placed Andy Greening. Mekler went on to win the Comrades Marathon five times, finishing second twice and third twice.
The 1960s proved to be a significant time for the Comrades as the size of the field grew considerably, from 104 starters in 1960 to 703 starters in 1969. Due to the bigger fields, cut-off points were introduced for the first time at Drummond and Cato Ridge.
Mekler provided a milestone in 1960 when he became the first man to break the six-hour barrier, finishing in 5:56.32.
First foreign entries
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.
In 1965 the English again stole the headlines when Bernard Gomersall broke Mekler’s down run record with a time of 5:51.09.
The closest finish
Two years later, Manie Kuhn and Tommy Malone were involved in the closest finish in the history of the race. Malone appeared to be on his way to a comfortable win and was handed the traditional message from the Mayor of Pietermaritzburg to the Mayor of Durban at Tollgate, with a lead of two minutes over Kuhn. He entered the stadium in the lead with only 80 metres left to go.
Suddenly Kuhn appeared only 15 metres behind and closing in on his rival quickly. Malone put in a burst for the line, but with only 15 metres left he fell to the ground with cramps.
He attempted to get up again, but with the line within reach Kuhn flew past to grab victory. The mayoral message was forgotten as both runners embraced.
First official black, women runners
During the decade of the ’70s, the Comrades continued to grow. In 1971 there were over 1 000 starters for the first time, and by the end of the decade in 1979 the 3 000 mark was topped.
For the first time the race was widely broadcast on radio, and television, only recently introduced to South Africa, became the most important communicator of the race, with television images of straining, sweating athletes adding much to the Comrades mystique.
Maybe even more significant was that the race was opened to all athletes for the first time in 1975, thus allowing black athletes and women to take part officially for the first time.
1975 was the Golden Jubilee of the Comrades, and Vincent Rakabele celebrated the opening of the event to black athletes by finishing 20th to become the first black runner to officially win a medal. Elizabeth Cavanaugh became the first women’s winner in a shade over 10 hours.
Alan Robb; Bruce Fordyce
The following year another era began when Alan Robb won the Comrades for the first time. Robb repeated his win the following year, then won again in 1978, breaking the tape in Durban in an unbelievable 5:29.14, finishing almost 20 minutes and four kilometres ahead of runner-up Dave Wright.
During the 1980s the Comrades continued to grow at a rapid rate. The decade began with a field of 4 207 in 1980 and topped 5 000 for the first time in 1983. By 1986 the magical 10 000 mark was bettered and just two years later over 10 000 athletes completed the race.
Wits University student Bruce Fordyce, runner-up to Robb in 1980, was to become the greatest Comrades runner of them all, winning the next year, 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 another significant milestone was achieved that year when Sam Tshabalala became the first black winner of the Comrades.
Frith van der Merwe
When slightly built schoolteacher Frith Van der Merwe won the 1988 Comrades in a time of 6:32.56, it was considered a fine performance. It was, however, but a pale imitation of the fireworks to come in the down run in 1989.
In that year Van der Merwe ran an incredible 5:54.43, completely obliterating the women’s record and finishing fifteenth overall. Only once since has an athlete come within four minutes of that time.
In the same year Wally Hayward reappeared, entering the race at the age of 79 and finishing in 9:44.15. That effort put him ahead of almost half the field.
During the 1990s the size of the starting fields was in the region of 12 000 to 14 000 runners. In 1995 prize money was introduced for the first time, attracting more foreign competitors, while the traditional race day of May 31, formerly Republic Day, was changed to June 16, the anniversary of the Soweto uprising.
The year 1991 signalled the end of an era as Fordyce was beaten for the first time in over a decade, with Nick Bester taking the line honours.
Controversy dogged the race in 1992 when Charl Mattheus crossed the finish line first but was later disqualified for using a banned substance. He claimed it was in medicine he had taken for a sore throat, but the rules were strictly adhered to and Jetman Msutu was elevated to the winner, thus becoming the second black winner of the Comrades.
German runner Charley Doll claimed victory in 1993 and afterwards declared the Comrades the greatest ultra-marathon in the world. He also predicted that the event would draw more and more foreign runners.
First Russian winner
A superb field was assembled in 1996, and for the first time the event had a Russian winner as Dmitri Grishin flew to an up run win in 5:29.33. Mattheus finally landed the elusive title in 1997, but Grishin took possession of the title again in 1998 when he once more tamed the up run, winning in a record time of 5:26.25.
Poland’s Jaroslaw Janicki stunned the field in 1999 by claiming victory in the down run. His future success in the race, in which he became a regular top 10 finisher proved his win was no fluke.
The 75th anniversary of the Comrades Marathon in 2000 was the largest ever staged, with a massive field of 23 961. An extra hour was allowed for bronze medal finishers to celebrate the milestone.
Vladimir Kotov of Belarus won the men’s race and established a new record of five hours, 25 minutes and 33 seconds. Maria Bak took her second win in the women’s race in a time of six hours, 15 minutes and 35 seconds.
In 2001, when the event reverted to the 11 hour time limit, the race entry returned to more normal levels of just over 14 000. A policeman from the Cape, Andrew Kelehe, second in 1999, made it memorable as he surged to the title, beating off a powerful foreign challenge to land South Africa its first win in five years.
In 2002, Belarussia’s Vladimir Kotov, the winner of the 2000 up run, fought off the challenge of veteran Willie Mtolo to win it again in 5:30.58 and claim the R150 000 prize money. Mtolo, who struggled badly towards the end, held off Jorge Aubeso Martinez to take second, just 15 metres ahead of the Spaniard. Martinez, however, took home R50 000 for finishing third and an additional R20 000 for being the first runner through the halfway mark at Drummond.
Victory in the women’s race in 2002 went to Germany’s Maria Bak for the third time, despite the fact that she suffered a nasty fall in the final two kilometres. Russians Natalia Volgina and Marina Bychkova finished second and third respectively.
Russian women dominate; Kotov settles
In 2003 a South African emerged victorious on the down run again, as a humble Fusi Nhlapo took a popular victory only weeks after losing his job; the winner’s money was most welcome. His winning time was five hours, 28 minutes and 52 seconds.
The women’s race was dominated by the Russian sisters Oelysa and Elena Nurgalieva. The 27-year-old twins ran together until about 15 kilometres from the end, when Elena pulled away to take the win by four-and-a-half minutes.
In 2004, Vladimir Kotov became the oldest ever winner of the race, taking victory on the up run for the third time running at the age of 46. Shortly before the race, Kotov became a South African citizen, having settled in Cape Town.
Elena Nurgalieva successfully defended her women’s title and she did it in style, breaking Ann Trason’s record with a time of six hours, 13 minutes and 23 seconds. Nurgalieva was in no doubt afterwards that the up run is a far tougher challenge than the down run.
Surprise South African winner
In 2005, Kotov and Nurgalieva returned to defend their titles, but neither was successful. Kotov came home in fourth spot as South Africa’s Sipho Ngomane shocked the field to record victory in 5:27.10. He had run the Comrades only once previously, finishing 389th in 2003.
In the women’s race, former world 100 kilometres champion Tatiana Zhirkova won in the third-fastest time ever for a woman, 5:58.50, for a decisive victory over Oleysa Nurgalieva and her twin, Elena, who finished second.
In 2006, Oleg Kharintonov broke the stranglehold of three-time up-run champion Vladimir Kotov to claim his first Comrades Marathon title in his sixth attempt at the race – he had previously placed twelfth, fourth, second, third and second.
Elena Nurgalieva claimed the women’s title for the third time, recording an up-run record of 6:09.23 to better her own record by two minutes and 22 seconds.
21-year-old record falls
In 2007, Bruce Fordyce’s 21-year-old record for the down run finally fell – and it did so in spectacular fashion. Russia’s Leonid Shvetsov shattered the mark by more than three minutes with a stunning time of five hours, 20 minutes and 49 seconds.
For the fourth time, a Nurgalieva took victory in the women’s race, but this time it was Olesya who won, clocking six hours, 10 minutes and 11 seconds to finish 29 seconds ahead of her sister Elena. Farwa Mentoor, South Africa’s best woman performer for the sixth year running, finished fourth.
Up run record beaten
Leonid Shvetsov was at it again in 2008, destroying his opposition as he won by almost 14 minutes over second-placed Jaroslaw Janicki and set a new up run record of 5:24.48 to better the record set by Vladimir Kotov in 2000.
In the women’s race, Elena Nurgalieva claimed victory once again, overcoming an early tumble and testing, hot conditions to win in 6:14.36, over five minutes slower than her record run of 2006.
Riana van Niekerk, the first South African finisher in sixth, behind five Russians, ended Farwa Mentoor’s six-year run as the top South African performer.
First Zimbabwean winner
Stephen Muzhingi became the first Zimbabwean winner of the Comrades in 2009 in the second fastest time ever recorded: five hours, 23 minutes and 27 seconds. Shvetsov, going for his third win in succession, was struck by cramps nine kilometres from the finish and had to settle for second.
Charles Tjiane secured third place and was the first South African to finish as local athletes filled the rest of the top 10 places.
Olesya Nurgalieva successfully defended her ‘down’ run title, finishing a minute and two seconds ahead of her sister Elena, the previous year’s ‘up’ run champion. Her time was six hours, 12 minutes and 12 seconds. 2005 winner Tatyna Zhirkova finished third to give Russia a cleen sweep of the podium positions.
Farwa Mentoor, in fifth, was the leading South African.
Huge field for 85th anniversary
A massive entry of 23 565 was received for the 85th edition of the race, which took place a little earlier than usual, to make allowance for the Fifa World Cup, on 30 May 2010. The race was once again a “down” run so that the big entry could be accommodated at the finish in Durban.
Zimbabwe’s Stephen Muzhingi repeated as the men’s champion, winning in 5:29:01. South Africans Ludwick Mamabolo and Sergio Motsoeneng finished in second and third as local athletes finished in eight of the top 10 places.
Elena Nurgalieva won her fifth Comrades title as she edged out her sister Olesya for the women’s title in a time of 6:13:03. Olesya finished only a second later. Marina Myshlyanova made it a Russian 1-2-3 again. Farwa Mentoor, in fifth, was the leading South African.
Muzhingi proved to be a formidable competitor on the “up” run too in 2011. He paced himself well and pulled clear 14 kilometres from the end before going on to victory in 5:32.45.
His win marked the first time since Bruce Fordyce in the 1980s that a male runner had won the Comrades three years in succession.
South Africa’s Fanie Matshipa claimed second place in 5:32.29, with Claude Moshiywa taking third.
Elena Nurgalieva overcame a fall after 27 kilometres, and a race she described as her toughest yet, to lift the women’s title for a sixth time. Her winning time of 6:24.11 was her slowest winning time so far.
Olesya Nurgalieva claimed second, only 24 seconds behind her twin sister, with American Kemi Semick in third.
Farwa Mentoor, the first South African finisher, in fifth place, became the first woman to win 10 gold medals.
In 2012, Ludwick Mamabolo became the first South African men’s winner since 2005 when he won the “down” run in 5:31:03. Bongmusa Mthembu made it a South African one-two.
“Up” and “down” run record holder Leonid Shvetsov placed fifth and three-time defending champion Stephen Muzhingi sixth.
Elena Nurgalieva ran the women’s race without her twin sister Olesya at her side after Olesya recently gave birth, but that wasn’t enough to keep the Russian star from a seventh win.
She crossed the finishing line in 6:07:12, with British athlete Eleanor Greenwood second in 6:08:24.
Kerry Koen, in seventh place, was the leading South African runner.
Four-time champion Alan Robb completed his 39th Comrades Marathon and nine- time winner Bruce Fordyce his 30th. Afterwards Fordyce said he planned to retire from the race.
SA ‘up run’ champ
Claude Moshiywa ended a 21-year “up run” drought for South Africa when he convincingly captured the title in 2013 in a time of 5:32:08.
Sweden’s Jonas Buud claimed second and Lesotho’s Mpesela Ntlosoeu third as South African athletes made up half of the top 10 finishers.
Elena Nurgalieva extended her remarkable record in the Comrades Marathon with an eighth victory in 6:27:08, finishing 58 seconds clear of her sister Olesya. Irina Antropova finished third to make it a Russian 1-2-3.
The first South African finisher was Charne Bosman, who came home in fifth place in her very first attempt at the race.
Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See Using Brand South Africa material.