Rest in peace Comrades runner number 666: Graeme Fraser had a golden period in the 1980s

2014-06-20 00:00

IT was with sadness and fond memories that I heard of the passing of Graeme Fraser (65) this week, a man who can claim his place in Comrades Marathon history as one of this province’s finest athletes on that long road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

He never won the race but finished his Comrades experience with 12 medals, of which six were gold, four silver and two bronze. His golds were all in succession as he reached his peak from 1981 to 1987.

A powerful runner, Fraser ran nine of his Comrades in the brown and white vertical stripes of Hillcrest Villagers Running Club, a club of which he was a founder member in 1977.

He had a mission for the club, to make it one of the strongest in the province, and with the calibre of athletes it attracted, his dream was realised in his golden Comrades years.

While Bruce Fordyce dominated the race in the 1980s, there was always the wholehearted challenge coming from Fraser and his partner in crime, Tony Abbott.

The pair became a feature of the Comrades and with the likes of Pinetown’s Boysie van Staden, Yellowwood Park’s Arthur Lemos, plus Piet Vorster, Hoseah Tjale and Danny Biggs in the mix, there was always pre-race talk that perhaps one of these could topple Fordyce.

They never did, but Fraser and Abbott were an item in the mid 80s, consistently up with the leading bunch, always in the reckoning to perhaps take the honours.

Fraser had a sequence of finishing sixth, third, third, seventh, 10th and sixth, with Abbott grabbing four consecutive golds (1980-83), finishing fifth, third, fourth and fourth.

As a youngster harbouring thoughts of running the race one day, the two Hillcrest stalwarts became role models. They were local, they were strong, they challenged Fordyce year after year and above all, they were Comrades gold medallists.

They carried the hope of the province on race day and man, they gave a good account of themselves. To a young boy watching roadside, they were superhuman and when news of their training schedule did the rounds, it seemed inconceivable the pair would consider a training run from Waterfall to Pietermaritzburg or the Lion Park.

Only when I took on the run, did I understand how it all fell into place but the only time I could reach any platform near to what they had done, was to imagine running with them on a training run.

Fraser’s best Comrades time was 5:41:55 in 1982’s down run, when he finished third behind Fordyce and Robb after their legendary dice.

The following year, Fraser again filled third spot after being in second for much of the race. Fordyce won again but Fraser was reduced to walking near the finish at the then Jan Smuts Stadium (now Harry Gwala) and was overtaken just before entering the final lap by Gordon Shaw.

He earned his first gold in 1981 when he finished sixth on the up run and his final top 10 finish was in 1987’s up run.

When Hillcrest Villagers was founded, one of the club’s goals was to claim the much sought after Gunga Din trophy at Comrades, a team trophy awarded to the club which gets four runners over the line with the best combined time.

Led by Fraser and Abbott, Hillcrest Villagers were the dominant club for three consecutive years, claiming the prize in 1981, ’82 and ’83. While they were the constant in the team, they were backed up by the likes of Derrick Tivers, Errol Ackerman and Ian Edwards and in today’s age of professionalism, their feat is unlikely to be repeated, their achievements and names forever remembered on the club’s honours board.

In later years, meeting and chatting with Fraser on his running days and his Comrades exploits was a trip back to what was possibly the golden era of Comrades. He ran because he wanted to and he did harbour thoughts of winning the race. He came so close but it was just not meant to be.

A few years ago, on chatting with Fraser, the inevitable question popped up as to where Abbott was. Fraser replied he was in England but was due to pop out for a visit soon.

As that young boy who had watched the pair in the 80s, I enquired whether Fraser could let me know when his buddy arrived and I could chat to the two of them together.

Time went by and the thought faded until out of the blue, Fraser phoned to announce Abbott was in town. They were meeting at a spot in Kloof for a drink and I was welcome to join them.

They arrived late but I waited, not wanting to miss the chance. It was an evening to rank with the best and the true meaning of friendship was clear to see.

Fraser had brought his favourite picture, one of Abbott greeting him at the finish of the 1981 up run, when Fraser finally cracked a gold medal.

Abbott had finished third and as Fraser came in sixth, Abbott ran to greet him, the pair crossing the line with their arms around each other.

Fraser said the picture took pride of place in his lounge, a moment he would never forget.

For that young boy, now a man, that’s how I will remember Graeme Fraser. A Comrades runner par excellence who settled for nothing but the best, gave his all and valued his friendships.

Rest in peace Comrades runner number 666.

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