South Africa is world’s endurance race capital

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Runners set a competitive pace on their way to the finish line. (Image: Comrades Marathon)


• Comrades Marathon Museum
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2011 Comrades draws big names
Living on in the Comrades spirit
South Africa’s toughest endurance challenges
Running is in her blood
The pain is soon forgotten
Sport in South Africa

Lucille Davie

South Africa is arguably the world’s toughest endurance race capital, where thousands of athletes of all ages and abilities turn up to compete in some of the most gruelling races on the planet.

The numbers are astonishing: the Cape Argus Cycle Tour attracts 35 000 cyclists each year, to ride 109km through some of the peninsular’s most spectacular scenery. Some 20 000 runners sign up for the brutal Comrades Marathon every year, a running race of 90km between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. The Midmar Mile, which has a Guinness World Record, has 20 000 swimmers splash into the water outside Pietermaritzburg each year, to swim a mile, or 1.6km.

Yet other races, like the 2 300km mountain bike Freedom Challenge and the 240km Berg River Canoe Marathon, attract a handful of elite extreme athletes, keen to pit themselves against the unforgiving elements and huge distances, and test their mental and physical ability to the limit.

The Dusi Canoe Marathon, the Comrades Marathon, the Midmar Mile, the Cape Epic, the Freedom Challenge, the Berg River Canoe Marathon, and the Cape Argus Cycle Tour – all are tests of extreme ability and endurance, and attract men and women, and in some cases, children, of all abilities. And more and more international athletes are discovering the country’s top races.

The Comrades Marathon

The Comrades Marathon, with the tagline “Hard is what makes it great”, has been going for 93 years. The first race was run in May 1921 and it has been run every year since then, except from 1941 to 1945, during World War 2. It started outside the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg with 34 runners, and ended in Durban, a run of some 90 kilometres along the back roads of the province. It alternates each year, one year up from Durban, the next down to Durban. The race is done in one day – in other words, it is just more than two marathons, run back to back, within a cut-off time of 12 hours.

Despite its toughness, with some spirit-breaking hills, it attracts more than 20 000 runners, most of whom are South Africans. But in the past 15 years foreigners have discovered it, and have been taking the medals. In 2013, runners from almost 66 countries entered, with 1 400 foreign runners hitting the tar.

Women were only allowed to run the race from 1965. South African Frith van der Merwe still holds the women’s record, winning in an astounding five hours, 54 minutes, and 43 seconds, in 1989. The Russian twins Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva have dominated the podium since 2003, taking first place. In the most recent Comrades, on 1 June 2014, British-born Canadian runner Eleanor Greenwood won the women’s race. Elena Nurgalieva came in second, followed by Olesya Nurgalieva in third place.

In the men’s race, this year’s down run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban was won by Bongmusa Mthembu, from the KwaZulu-Natal village of Bulwer, followed by Ludwick Mamabolo and Gift Kelehe – all three of them South Africans.

Heroes all

Like the Dusi, the Comrades has its hero – a lean Bruce Fordyce, who won the race for eight consecutive years, then missed a year but came back to take the title for a ninth time in 1990. A Russian, Leonid Shvetsov, raced the fastest time in 2007, in a remarkable five hours, 20 minutes, and 49 seconds.

It’s a race that runners finish and swear they won’t do again, but such is its spirit and comradeship, they line up the next year to beat their personal barriers to cross the finish line again. Some 112 000 people have looked into their souls doing the race over its history.

It was the dream of Vic Clapham, on his return from World War 1. “A soldier, a dreamer, who had campaigned in East Africa in that terrible war approached the League of Comrades of the Great War with a vision that would result in the world’s greatest ultra-marathon eighty years later,” explains the Comrades website.

“He felt that if infantrymen, drafted into the armed forces from sedentary jobs, could endure forced marches over great distances, trained athletes could cover the distance between the two cities without great difficulty.”

The league helped families torn apart by war, but also gave soldiers a place to rekindle the camaraderie shared on the battlefield. After he was turned down by the athletics bodies in Pietermaritzburg, Clapham approached the league, but it thought that the race would be “far too strenuous for even a trained athlete and turned his proposal down”.

The first ultra-marathon

Undaunted, he applied to the league again in 1919, and again in 1920. It was only in 1921 that he was given a loan of one pound, and made plans for the run. “Vic Clapham endured much from his critics, but in that year he forged ahead with his plans and under the doubtful watch from the League of Comrades of the Great War, founded the Comrades Marathon.”

He announced the event through a letter in the local newspaper. He got donations for prizes, and told potential entrants to collect their entry forms from his home in Pietermaritzburg or from the office of the secretary of the league in Durban.

“And so one of the great athletics events of our time was born on Empire day, May 24th 1921. The camaraderie had as its basis the memories of that terrible war three years previous. Traditions would grow and survive even into the present day,” records the website. And indeed, even today, runners famously stop and help struggling comrades along, particularly in the final kilometre into the stadium, sometimes sacrificing their own personal goals of crossing the line in a particular time.

In 1923 the first woman, Frances Hayward, a typist from Durban, entered to run the race but her entry was refused. Undaunted, she arrived at the start in a green gymnasium costume and ran anyway. She finished 28th in a time of 11hours, 35 minutes, but her time was not recorded and she did not receive a medal. “Sadly being an unofficial entrant, she was not to enjoy the coveted Comrades Medal. Her fellow runners and spectators held a shilling collection to buy her a prize. A hundred pounds was collected with which a silver tea service and rose bowl were purchased and presented to her. That evening, after the race, she went to the theatre.”

It took another 42 years before women were officially welcomed to run, in 1965, and now some 22 percent of the field is women.

Determined runners

The race has nurtured some amazing athletes. Arthur Newton, a 39-year-old farmer from Harding in KwaZulu-Natal, won the up race in 1922 in eight hours 40 minutes. He said after his win: “It came as a surprise to myself. I rather thought I could run into third or fourth place, but certainly I did not expect to win, and still less to cover the course in under nine hours, 15 minutes.” He modestly added: “It isn’t my fault I won. If Phillips and Rowan hadn’t cut such a terrific pace at the start they both would have finished in front of me, because they are better runners.”

The next year he brought his time below seven hours by coming in at six hours and 56 minutes, surprising the officials, who thought it would be another hour before the winner would cross the line. Newton managed to bring his time down even further, and in 1925 he ran the race in six hours and 24 minutes. He was 42 at the time. But he left South Africa in 1925. “During 1925 Newton left South Africa in protest. Some of his farmlands were being expropriated at below market prices and the softly spoken, pipe smoking champion was lost to South Africa.”

What makes this time more remarkable is that in the 1920s athletes were running in unsuitable shoes, often canvas, and there were no water stations along the route. They were told to get refreshments at hotels they passed.

Another memorable runner was Wally Hayward. He won the race on his first attempt in 1930 at the age of 21. He went on to win again four more times, 20 years later, breaking the records for the up and down runs. Then in 1988, at the age of 79, he returned, beating half the field in the up run. His final run, at the age of 80, took place in 1989, when he staggered across the finish line with just under two minutes to spare. He is the oldest finisher of the Comrades Marathon. He died in 2006.

Then there’s Dave Rogers. He did his first race at the age of 18, and at 71, entered to do his 46th race this year. He says he continues to do the race because of the “camaraderie amongst fellow runners during training and the race, and the satisfaction of having overcome the challenges that one always encounters during such endurance events”.

His best time was five hours and 52 minutes, but these days he times his race to finish within 10 minutes or so of the cut off. As to how long he will continue doing the race, he says: “The older one gets the more uncertainty there is, so it is really in the hands of the good Lord, but it would be nice to dream that I could keep running for another decade or so.”

He continues to run the race for the same reason as everyone who does it: “It keeps one fit, healthy and motivated, but the most important thing is that I enjoy it.”