Book review: 'Comrades Marathon: The Ultimate Human race’

2011-06-02 00:00

AMONG the myriad offerings in the Bonita’s Comrades Expo is a much-overdue 434-page gem chronicling the Comrades Marathon.

The race, which started in 1921, was first recorded by Morris Alexander in 1966 then updated in 1976 and 1985, but since then the historic trail faded.

Ironically, much of the appeal and challenge of this ultra-marathon comes from the stories, characters, and legends that have evolved over the 90-year history. As much as the race has created heroes from mere mortals, mere mortals have contributed to the race’s status. Many of the green-number brigade feel that much of this has been missing in recent years.

Over the past quarter century since the last edition, the country and race have met major challenges, more so than at any other time. This is apparent in the vast increase in participation during the mid and late eighties, the evolution of democracy, a transition to professionalism, prize money, and major sponsorship, the domination of international competition, and the 24 000 people who celebrated the turn of the millennium with the Comrades Challenge.

The danger was that this would be lost. Cameron-Dow is to be congratulated for playing his part in rescuing and recording this era.

Although missing the detail of the sub-plots and side events that characterised the Alexander editions, Cameron-Dow has managed to eke out the key components of each year’s race since 1986, and has admirably summarised the accounts of those up to 1985.

Although late starters in 1975, the women’s competition has been shown to grow in status from the first three-time winners, Lettie van Zyl (seventies) and Helen Lucre (eighties) to the record-breaking Frith van der Merwe, and the current seven-year domination by the Russian twins, Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva.

The book is well illustrated with photos of key players in each era, and is an easy and motivating read for anyone remotely interested in the Comrades Marathon. This is one book that every finisher will cherish and ideally makes a great bookcase partner with its predecessors.


• Comrades Marathon: The Ultimate Human Race by John Cameron-Dow is published by Penguin.

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