Comrades’ first female winner crosses her final finish line

2020-01-29 13:36
The late Betty Cavanagh.PHOTO: JONATHAN BURTON

The late Betty Cavanagh.PHOTO: JONATHAN BURTON

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Betty Cavanagh has run her last race. The sports trailblazer and first official female winner of the Comrades Marathon died on Monday afternoon in Pietermaritzburg, The Witness learned on Tuesday. 

She was 89.

The much-revered Cavanagh had been living at the PFRA Old Age Home in the city and passed away at a local hospital on Monday due to age-related problems affecting her heart and lungs.

She won the Comrades women’s race in 1975 when the major sporting event opened up to participation of both women and people of all races.

Cavanagh successfully completed six Comrades Marathons. She also ran four races unofficially, between 1970 and 1973.

She was known for inspiring many women to take up running and participate in the Comrades.

Together with her husband Tony, she initiated long distance training sessions, motivated other athletes and was part of a growing ultra-running community.

Her most notable recent public appearance was the opening of the revamped Comrades Marathon Museum in 2016, when she donated her 1975 Comrades winner’s jacket to the museum.

Tributes poured in for Cavanagh on Tuesday and she was described as having inspired women and paving the way for current female ultra-running champions.

Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) chairperson Cheryl Winn said Cavanagh had been a pioneer and an inspiration to many people.

“As the official winner of the 1975 Comrades Marathon, Betty Cavanagh’s name was the first to be engraved on the coveted Comrades Marathon Bowl.

“She and her fellow female pioneers such as Lettie van Zyl, Mavis Hutchinson and even others before them, such as Francis Hayward (1923) and Geraldine Watson (1931/2) were the inspiration, not only to my generation of women who gradually began competing in greater numbers in the late 1970s and 80s, but were also the genuine trailblazers who paved the road for the likes of Frith van der Merwe, the Nurgalieva twins and Gerda Steyn, as well as the record number of 6 476 women who have entered the 2020 Comrades Marathon,” she said.

She said Cavanagh and her husband Tony made a significant contribution to athletics in general, and in particular to ultramarathon running in KwaZulu-Natal.

Veteran athlete and local sports shop owner Poobie Naidoo said: “We will always remember the lovely lady that Betty was — a kind, gentle but also strong and determined individual who made time for people and embodied grace and gratitude. Our deepest condolences to the family and all who knew her.”

Jay Reddy of KwaZulu-Natal Athletics said, “It is indeed a sad loss for the athletics fraternity. We celebrate her life and her historical and iconic contribution to the Comrades Marathon and sport in SA.”

Cavanagh’s official personal best Comrades was achieved in 1978 in a time of 9 hours and 53 minutes. She held six bronze medals.

CMA board member Isaac Ngwenya said her training route became the well noted ultra, and on completing it, all runners were assured of successfully finishing the Comrades.

“At the Cavanagh Marathon, Betty and Tony [her husband] were always at the finish handing out medals and cheering runners and to welcome their daughter Kath, who was always with us at the back to ensure that all strugglers made it,” said Ngwenya.

The funeral service for Cavanagh will be held on Saturday at 10 am at the St Vincent Catholic Church in Pelham. 

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  comrades marathon

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