A Passion for Comrades: Norrie Williamson’s Battle of the Shield

2008-06-07 00:00

Since its inception in 1921, the Comrades Marathon has been inspirational. Doubt was at first cast over the sanity of those 48 entrants, 34 of whom commenced the trek from Pietermaritzburg to Durban with only 16 completing the run.

The local journalist previewing the race could never have guessed how prophetic his words would be:

“The race is the first of its kind yet held under official recognition, and as arrangements are being made for it to be held annually, it promises to become one of the sporting events of the year and will attract competitors from all parts of the Union.”

Entries more than doubled for the 1922 up, with 89 runners facing the starter’s gun and 26 finishers. Still, that journalist could hardly have imagined that over 93 000 runners would be attracted to this oddly distanced event over the next 83 years, or that over 400 runners, half of them novices, would fly in from all over the world simply to be part of the 11 200 who will line up for next Sunday’s 86,94-km run to the Pietermaritzburg Oval.

The next half-century saw the Comrades Marathon fields gradually grow to a record 1 000 finishers for the first time in 1973. The real exponential growth came between 1976 and 1985. The combination of an international sporting ban, increased electronic media coverage and a group of highly competitive, charismatic runners resulted in a six-fold increase in finishers over the decade.

Peak attraction of 24 000 runners was achieved in the 2000 Millennium year race. Although it has been 16 years since the return to full international competition, the lure of Comrades continues to pull more than 11 200 runners to an up run — perceived as being the harder direction — and normally a thousand more to the down.

The spirit and atmosphere of Comrades has changed and given direction to many lives. My own experience is just one example.

I first read of Comrades on my immigration flight from the United Kingdom in February 1981. The race was covered in the UK Jogging magazine and before even landing I was bitten.

It was Comrades that converted me from a squat short rugby hooker to an ultra-running addict determined to chase distance challenges.

The myth, the history, the camaraderie, the passion that is Comrades stimulated a craving for information in the search of improved performance.

Ironically, the basis of most ultra-running (and distance training) knowledge is found in the words of Arthur Newton, a five-time Comrades winner who learnt his trade in 100-milers and over the same 90-km journey.

This zeal came to the fore last year when I was tipped off that a silver plate presented to “Greatheart” Arthur Newton for setting the 1934 world 100-mile record on the Bath to London road was up for auction in Bristol in UK and was expected to go for around £80 (R1 100).

It came to me as a sign that the auction date was set for February 26, my birthday. My wife, Karin, had offered to bid by telephone to the UK to secure a birthday present.

On auction day I was working in Bloemfontein on the Nedbank Series event with previous Comrades CEO Cheryl Winn, which appeared to be another appropriate alignment of the stars.

The bid opened at £70 and hesitated at £100 before they announced an “international” bidder. For every fiver that Karin put on, a local gent added a further five.

As UK determination increased and rand buying power depreciated, the bid hit £380, with auction charges taking the total to an over-valued R5 600.

The excitement of my long-awaited call was deflated when the news came, and much of the remaining day was filled with speculation as to the identity of the proud owner of the treasure.

The truth was unearthed that night when I e-mailed Ian Champion, three-time Comrades finisher and long-time organiser of the London to Brighton race.

“Did you see that Arthur Newton’s plate was auctioned today?” I asked.

And back came his reply:

“I’m sitting here looking at it on my mantelpiece — I hope it wasn’t you on that phone!”

Apologies that our mutual secrecy had tripled the value were shared, as were the details of the battle of the Bristol plate when we met for lunch two months later at the London Marathon.

Karin’s tormented decision to pull out at £380 had been well judged. Ian had over £2 000 in his kitty.

“It all makes sense,” concluded Champion. “It was bound to be you, Jackie Meckler or someone with strong Comrades or 100-mile connections — I’m just glad Karin stopped!”

On Comrades on Sunday, June 15, the pain-etched faces of runners outside Camperdown will morph through exhaustion to elation at the finish line, confirming once more that the passion for Comrades knows no boundaries.

Age can take the runner out of Comrades, but you can never take the Comrades out of the runner.

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