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home > community > viewpoint > the comrades: south africa's gem

The Comrades: South Africa's Gem
On Monday June 17th, the 71st Comrades Marathon will be held in Durban, South Africa. &quot;Marathon&quot; is actually a misnomer, as the run is over 56 miles in length. Last year, I had the unique opportunity to run the Comrades. I've devoted my column this week to the Comrades, both a historical look at the race, and a<a HREF="don0611a.htm"> first person account</a> of my experience in 1995. Look for results of the 1996 Comrades next Week on CR. 1995 American male and female ultra runners of the year Tom Johnson and Ann Trason will both be competing.

The Comrades: South Africa's Gem

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By Don Allison
Posted Tuesday, 11 June, 1996

It is its nation's premier road race, a tradition laden event having been held for the greater part of a century. The winners of this prestigious race through the years are literally a who's who in running, including several larger than life legends. The course is as famous as those who have run it, a hilly point to point route between a small burgh and a city on the ocean. The course also features several well known landmarks and fearsome hills. In recent years the event has grown in stature, drawing a top international field in search of prize money.

It is the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. While similarities with the Boston Marathon are striking, the differences stand out as well. For anyone who has participated in Boston, generally believed to be the mecca of road running, the Comrades is a revelation. Even having run it, it is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the race in South Africa. For mostly political reasons, it may not have a worldwide presence yet, but one day very soon it will.

The marathon distance of 26 miles 385 yards is as old as ancient Greece. Throughout the twentieth century, dramatic races have increased its popularity, resulting in exponential growth, primarily in the past two decades. Once thought to be virtually an unconquerable distance, millions of runners worldwide have now completed it, in cities and towns across the globe. Nearly every big city now hosts a marathon, from New York to London to Beijing. But as it has always been, the marathon nearly every runner longs to run is Boston.

In the shadow of the giant marathon, races beyond 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers) have garnered little attention. Like the marathon in the early part of the century, ultra distance races have mainly been the province of eccentrics looking to test the upper limits of human endurance. In the USA, ultras are a homey affair. Even the largest events only have a few hundred runners. In a short period of time, the faces become familiar and a casual sense of comradarie exists. There is little room for personal competition; the immense distance of the runs and the small number of participants spreads the field in short order.

Then there is The Comrades. 54 to 56 miles in length (depending upon that year's course). For tradition, crowd support, and media coverage, Comrades can match any road race in the world. An ultramarathon? How can this be so? It's hard to say, other than that South Africa loves to run, and The Comrades is its race. It is a testimony to the power of the human spirit and will that over 10,000 runners make it to the finish line each year. What a small band of ultrarunners in the USA have come to learn, South Africa has made almost commonplace.

Like Boston, Comrades' popularity has been fueled primarily by history and media attention. The race has been lucky to have had several legendary winners, from Arthur Newton in its first year to world record setter Wally Hayward in the 30's and 40's, to Bruce Fordyce, a nine time winner in the 80's. In Boston terms, Newton was Clarence Demar, Hayward Johnny Kelley (he ran Comrades 37 times), and Fordyce Bill Rodgers. In reality, among the general public Fordyce commands the stature of Michael Jordan rather than Rodgers. Women's course record holder Frith Van der Merve is the Comrades' Joan Samuelson. The race is a front page story in virtually every South African newspaper and a major national network devotes 11 hours of live TV time to the event.

The course runs between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, but changes direction each year, one of Comrade's unique characteristics. The "down" run from Pitermaritzburg, held in odd number years, is gradually uphill to halfway, then sharply downhill into Durban. The "up" run from Durban is uphill at the start and flat to gradually downhill to the finish. Each direction requires different strengths and exposes different weaknesses. While the up run features a strong constitution, a set of steel quads is mandatory for success in the down direction.

Where Comrades truly separates itself from the world's other top races is in its love affair between the race and its runners. All participants are made to feel integral to the race's success, not simply an interchangeable part in an organizational machine. The race number each runner is assigned is for life. Each year a new bib is issued containing the same number, the runner's name, and the number of Comrades completed. Oh, how important that last piece of information is! For anyone to have completed even one Comrades is a monumental achievement. Incredibly though, many South Africans make the race an annual pilgrimage, in hopes of someday joining the hallowed "green number" club.

A green number in Comrades signifies having completed the race ten times. This status is quite obviously hard earned and highly coveted. A yellow number is issued in a marathoner's tenth Comrades. A special chute is set up at the finish line, where upon finishing, the runner is escorted to a separate chute where a race official presents a handsome cloth green number to the athlete. Having attained this status, a runner is accepted into the race for life. Special privileges and gear is available for these runners only. In effect, the race is taking these runners in as partners and giving them equity in the event. It's a wonderful tradition that greatly enhances the stature of the race.

Another unique tradition is the earning of finishing medals. Gold medals (solid gold!) are awarded to the top ten finishers, sliver to runners under 7 1/2 hours, and bronze to finishers under 11 hours. Elite runners are often referenced by their total of golds, and silver clearly earmarks sub elite status. Only 5% of the field earns silver, on average. The bronze is also highly respected, in part because a portion of the field that embarks at the 6 a.m. start does not reach the finish by the 5 p.m. finish.

And the race does indeed FINISH at 5 p.m. At EXACTLY that time, an honorary race official (normally a former winner) stands with his back to the runners and fires a gun to signify the end of the race. Runners falling even meters short of the clock at this point go unrecognized. The stadium doors are closed then, annually leaving hundreds of heartbroken runners behind. While this tradition may seem harsh, it creates a clear, unequivocal goal for many "backmarkers".

And make no mistake about it, 11 hours for the 90km course is a solid achievement. Without a strong training base, this mark can be difficult indeed. Some of Comrades's most dramatic moments have occurred as runners have desperately lunged for the finish line in the final seconds before either 7 1/2 and 11 hours expires on the clock.

1995 marked the 70th running of the Comrades, a race originally established to honor Comrades in arms from world War One. In 1995, 13,500 pairs of Comrades in legs made the down run from Martizburg to Durban. Only 183 of the 13,500 were from outside South African borders, a testimony either to a residual from its past political strife or the prolific nature of its runners. While several of the 183 were top internationals seeking victory, as so often happens, the winner turned out to be a local who regularly trains on the mountainous course. Shaun Mikeljohn's 13th Comrades proved to be the lucky one, as he finished in 5:34:02, a mere 50 seconds over countryman Charl Mattheus. And oh yes, it was his sixth gold. Germany's Maria Bak enjoyed her first look at the Comrades course, easily winning the women's race in 6:22:57. 750 earned silver, 9750 more bronze in what is billed as " the world's greatest road race." Dissenters? Surely none among this group.



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