The wise wizard and the rugby player conquer the 1922 up run

2011-05-20 00:00

WHEN 19 617 runners entered the 2011 Comrades Marathon they were following in the footsteps of events of 1922, the first up run of the Comrades­ Marathon.

That year there were 114 entrants with a 22% dropout to the 89 who toed the line. The race start was brought forward to 6 am with a 12-hour cutoff time, as is the case for this year’s 86th running.

Defending champion Bill Rowan was favourite, although there were many better-prepared runners for the second running than the original in 1921. Rowan had travelled back from the Belgian Congo to defend the title and a crowd of over 2 000 came to witness the start, which was held from Tollgate on Berea Ridge, not at the now traditional start at the Durban City Hall.

The four-kilometre climb up Berea­ Road was felt to be too gruelling to be included in the first up run, something the Comrades Class of 2011 would do well to contemplate prior to setting off at a hare’s pace from the city centre.

The race was seven minutes late in starting and when the mayor fired the gun it seemed as though the runners were intent on making up time in the first 20 km. E. W. Williams was the early leader through to the Rugby Hotel in Pinetown with five others ahead of the main core.

There were 20 tail enders, including a 39-year-old farmer from Harding named Arthur Newton who, it was reported “looked probably the least likely of candidates to cover the gruelling course”.

It took Williams two hours, 27 minutes to reach Hillcrest (about 34 km) with a four-minute lead over Purcell followed by Phillips and Smith and Vahl.

At the top of Botha’s Hill, Williams withdrew with a chest pain that some mistook as being a heart seizure­, while Newton was steadily moving through the field from around 10th last to be fifth in Drummond.

Purcell was 20 minutes ahead of Newton at the top of Inchanga with Phillips lying in second, but carved this down to seven minutes by the time Purcell had reached Harrison Flats in four hours, 37 minutes. Philips had dropped back with cramps and just before Camperdown it was race number 77, Newton, who was leading the race and crossing the railway bridge (about 62 km) in four hours, 53 minutes.

Although keeping good pace on the down from Umlaas Road, Newton dreaded the two-kilometre climb up Polly Shortts hill. By shortening his stride he made slow but constant progress to the steepest point where he momentarily stopped, questioning whether to continue.

Years later he wrote: “I began to feel it was impossible to keep going. It got so bad that when I came to the steepest part, I stopped dead in a single stride, convinced at that moment that it was worse than absolute idiocy to attempt to carry on. Two seconds consideration, however, told me that it was probably as bad for those behind me, also that as I had stuck so much it probably didn’t make much odds if a trifle more were added. Without debating the point I shoved one foot in front of the other and continued the climb.”

Once over the crest of Polly Shortts and fuelled by a second half-tot of brandy, Newton moved through the city to finish in the showgrounds in eight hours, 40 minutes. Philips overcame his cramps to finish second in 9:09 with Bill Rowan third in 9:19.

It was the first of five wins by Newton who went on to become one of the greatest coaches and to be known as the grandfather of distance running.

Newton was a wisely wizard who evolved numerous strategies and coaching principles over the years, many of which would seem to have been initiated even in his very first run in 1922.

If Newton was the wizardly wise man of Comrades then Bill Payn — a school teacher, South African rugby and Natal cricket player — was the character of the 1922 race.

The Harding farmer talked Payn, who hosted Newton the night before the race, into trying the run.

Running in his rugby boots, the talented sportsman relied on his rugby fitness to cover the distance and considered the day as a jaunt, if not a picnic.

Ironically, Payn was considerably ahead of Newton in the early part of the race, before stopping in Hillcrest for a breakfast of eggs. He used the stop as an opportunity to put hair cream on his feet to reduce the blisters and chafing of the boots.

Further up the route he joined another runner, nicknamed Zulu-Wade, for a curried chicken casserole, and eight kilometres later they celebrated their arrival at halfway with a cold beer. Although Wade called it quits at the hotel, Payn got back out on the road and sustained himself through to the finish with 36 oranges, water, tea and a glass of peach brandy. Payn’s go-as-you-please approach may appear unusual today, but it saw him through to an eighth-place finish in 10 hours, 56 minutes. He was in good enough condition to turn out for a club rugby match the following day, this time in sandshoes (plimsoles).

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