“I feel proud to be running in the No 1 as I hold the record for the most number of Comrades runs. It’s a great achievement but I believe if Leige Boulle, who had run 39, was allowed to run after he turned 65 and if he had been running after the World War he could have chalked up more Comrades than most of us.”
“Leige ran in an era when there was an age restriction to run the Comrades and there were no Comrades Marathons during the World War. Hence he ended up with just 39 finishes.”
The Comrades Marathon
Vic Clapham, ex World War One veteran, was the man responsible for conceptualizing this mega endurance race. During battles, he was inspired by the camaraderie engendered among his comrades in overcoming privation. Clapham wanted to remember those who had fallen in the war by putting body and mind to the test, and triumphing. The first Comrades Marathon with 48 entrants was run on 24 May 1921. Sixteen runners completed the 87, 9km (55 mile) race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
Today the marathon is a professional mega event on the world’s distance calendar. It is a point-to-point race varying in direction with the “Up” run from the harbour city Durban on the South African East coast, winding its way up inland to the KwaZulu-Natal capital of Pietermaritzburg. Every alternate year the race changes direction for the “Down” run which is generally a slightly longer run.
The Comrades Marathon is the most popular road race in South Africa and the biggest ultra marathon in the world. With over 12 000 finishers every year the Comrades produces many individual success stories every year ranging from rags to riches stories to the overcoming of personal struggles and adversity. Comrades is the ultimate personal test of perseverance with the challenge coming from the testing route and the distance rather than from competitors who are more often than not seen as allies instead of rivals.
Since 1976 women have competed officially on the same terms as men. The small initial entry, when five finished the course, soon led to far wider participation. The introduction in 1977 of the Comrades Bowl for the first lady and with it the principal of a “race within the main race”, with the duplication of several awards, provided the incentive for ever increasing entries and in high class performances.
In l988 540 women completed the race, led home by Frith van der Merwe in the world class time of 6hr 32mins.
Over the years the Comrades has acquired its own special set of honours, awards and traditions. Since its inception the leading runner has carried a letter of greetings from the Mayor of one city to the other. Traditionally runners retain their competing numbers from one year to another; after ten successful runs it is reserved for its owner for all time and he is presented with a set of distinctive green numbers for his subsequent use.
In 1983 Leige Boulle earned his 39th medal while wearing number 141 and many others have earned ‘Double Green Numbers’by exceeding 20 medals. Earning a Green Number was at one time rated as a special distinction but in recent years it has become quite a routine achievement.
“The Comrades is the greatest race of them all” so says Creigh Kelley US Sports Specialist. “Running Comrades is like having a baby, you forget the agony very quickly”. “Then you want to do it again” said a female runner. Finally Philip Jones said “I have known no day in all my life like this”. Which neatly sums it all up.
Comrades Marathon House, headquarters of this famous road race, has a museum which celebrates a number of facets to the event. There is also a scale model of the whole course to guide prospective entrants.