After 90 years the Comrades spirit lives on

2011-05-27 00:00

TUESDAY, May 24, marked exactly 90 years since the first Comrades Marathon in 1921. On that day Vic Clapham saw his dream of a lasting, living remembrance of the spirit of camaraderie between the soldiers of the WWI come to fruition. Over subsequent conflicts and battles, Comrades remains a timeless reminder of the spirit generated in all conflicts and the extent one person will go for another.

Wednesday, May 25, was also a special day in the history of Maritzburg and the Comrades Marathon.

Exactly 80 years ago in 1931, on Empire Day, May 24 fell on a Sunday so the race was delayed from the Christian Sabbath to Monday, May 25.

It was a down run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban and the 11th running of the race. There were 65 official entrants who lined up for the race plus three unofficial walkers, a skater, who would fall and retire from the race, and Geraldine Watson running unofficially as the first woman to complete Comrades.

Wally Hayward had won the previous years up-run, but had returned to shorter distances, leaving no clear favourites. In their favour, however, was that for the first time the whole race would be run on tar.

The people of Pietermaritzburg were pinning their hopes on Phil Masterton-Smith, a youngster who the previous year had finished just 37 seconds behind Hayward. The lanky Noel Burree, the Colenso town clerk, arrived in the nick of time, just as the clock chimed six, after having to borrow a bicycle to pedal to the city hall as his taxi had failed to arrive on time at the Scottsville guesthouse. That warm-up may have proved to be a godsend later in the day.

While Burree was mixing it up front with the leading 15, Masterton-Smith was well off the pace and slumming it back in the twenties.

At Drummond the Natal Carbineer had moved into seventh position, seven minutes behind Burree, who went through halfway in 3:17. The second half saw tables turn with Masterton-Smith taking the lead going down Fields Hill. Burree clawed back to close the gap as they approached Durban with only 40 metres separating them at Tollgate, and by the time they hit the track at Hoy Park, Masterton-Smith’s leading margin was two seconds.

At 19 years of age, Masterton-Smith was and remains the youngest winner of the Comrades Marathon in a time of seven hours, 16 minutes and 30 seconds.

Although he returned in 1932, he could only finish sixth. and in 1933 the Depression saw him in Cape Town with insufficient funds to get a train to the start of the race. As a result he took 10 days to cycle to Pietermaritzburg before running the Comrades, where he would finish 10th.

This year four runners are re-enacting the feat and have already covered the distance from Cape Town to Lady Frere, which is around 1 200 km of the 1 730 km journey they need to complete to reach Pietermaritzburg tomorrow morning.

By the time they arrive they will have faced the many passes and climbs of the Eastern Cape and Transkei and will have put around 150 km behind them each day.

The toll of such a ride is hard to express, but it says much for Masterton-Smith’s fitness that he was able to complete the 1933 race in eight hours and 10 seconds. By comparison one of the 2011 quartet, Paul Blake, is already fending off a knee injury and, in spite of the most modern equipment and better roads, none of them consider themselves capable of getting close to the eight-hour mark on Sunday.

That said, they will succeed in highlighting Masterton-Smith’s exceptional achievement and raise a mammoth amount of funding for the Comrades Marathon Amabeadi-beadi charities.

It is a worthy cause that, as with Vic Clapham’s initial intention, sees runners putting in their efforts to aid others.

Thankfully, in a time where so many, even those in the highest of offices, are intent on feathering their own nests at the expense of others, the intent of Comrades has survived.

By the end of this, the 90th year in the history of the event, over 130 000 individuals will have experienced the dedication, discipline and determination required to conquer the Comrades route. And you can be sure that every single one of them, somewhere and sometime, has been exposed to, and been grateful for, the camaraderie that boosted them through the depths of self-questioning and doubt that seeks to prevent their victory in the Comrades Marathon. The spirit of Comrades lives on.

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