Covering the Comrades for over a decade

2013-06-07 00:00

HATS off and well-done to all who ran the 2013 Comrades Marathon. Sitting in the shade of a large jacaranda tree in Inchanga, I could only marvel at the scene, as hundreds and hundreds of runners, of all shapes and sizes, passed slowly by.

I looked on with admiration as they trudged wearily on their way to the finish, some 30 kilometres away. As far as the eye could see, they resembled a gigantic shongalola, shuffling along in the humid conditions and running into a strong wind.

It took me back to 1949, when, as a Merchie Mud Rat, I watched Reg “Froggy” Allison charge down Commercial Road, on his way to victory in Durban. On that day, I never would have imagined that sometime in the future I would be involved in covering the great race. Seventeen years later, as a sports writer for The Natal Witness, I covered the first of 11 consecutive marathons.

Media coverage in those days was easy. The fields were small and we were able to drive to the front of the race to check on the leading runners, then turn back and pick up the stragglers. I covered Jackie Mekler in his last two victories in 1963 and 1964, and witnessed the great rivalry between him and Manie Kuhn. On one occasion, I drove past and saw Kuhn lying under the shade of a tree, covered in a blanket. There was not a car or spectator in sight, only his seconders looking on anxiously. He eventually recovered and ran on to finish second. The wee Scot, Tommy Malone, brought the small field home during the following year’s up-run. The next year saw the dramatic finish between Malone and Kuhn. With the finish in sight, Malone stumbled and fell. He recovered and staggered towards the tape, but Kuhn sprinted past him to win in what was, and still is, the closest Comrades finish.

Mekler was back to win in 1968. Thereafter came three successive wins by another Englishman, Dave Bagshaw, who worked for a large shoe company in


Three runners from the English club Tipton Harriers, set their sights on the great race. Their training was done at the Umbilo and Congella clubs, and I was sure that most of their training was done sitting round the pub. I laid a bet with one of the runners, Mick Orton, that the trio wouldn’t finish the run and we settled on a case of beer. I could hardly believe my eyes when Orton crossed the finishing line ahead of the rest of the field at Collegians Club in Pietermaritzburg. He looked as if he had been out for an afternoon’s stroll and had hardly raised a sweat.

“Where’s my beer?” he asked, and I had to carry a case out to him at the finish, as he waited for his team-mates to run into third and fourth position.

Another English runner appeared on the scene during my coverage of the race. After boxing as a professional for only one fight in the UK, which earned him in the region of £2, John Tarrant arrived on the scene. He was completely ignored by the Comrades hierarchy because of his non-amateur status. When he crossed the finishing line at Collegians, the officials turned their backs on him.

He ran again some time later, but was labelled the “ghost runner” by the media for his habit of gate-crashing races from which he was barred, due to his status as a professional sportsperson, and consequently wore no number on his white vest.

My final coverage of the Comrades was to be in 1973, and my selection of Dave Levick as the winner proved correct.

The entries had shot up to the 1 000 mark by the time my run had come to an end, but I still continued to follow the great race on TV in the comfort of my armchair and watched the entries soar to record numbers.

I am certain that Vic Clapham, who organised the run in the early 1900s, peers down through the pearly gates of heaven with great pride at what he created —the greatest ultra-marathon in the world.

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