This blog is mostly about bikes and cycling, but not always. In between my early cycling years (which lasted until my late teens) and when I rediscovered cycling in my mid-30s, I was a runner, and completed about 100 marathons and ultra-marathons. And the biggest of them all was the Comrades Marathon, an epic 54-mile race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. Every years thousands of runners take part in the event, which has become intricately interwoven into the fabric of South African running – and has become part of my family history.
Forty years ago, on May 31 1974, I ran my second official Comrades (I ran my first one unofficially two years earlier while doing my national service). For my family May 31 is significant not so much because of that race (I finished 55th, my best Comrades position, although not my best time) but because while I was running my father, Edmund, who was seconding me along with my mother and two of my sisters, died of a heart attack in Hillcrest, about 20 miles from the start. The picture here was taken on Fields Hill, which just a few miles before Hillcrest. I had no idea of what had happened and, in the age before mobile phones and constant communication, my family weren’t able to contact me for several hours. They decided that, more than anything, my father would have wanted me to finish the race, so they let me continue.
Although I was concerned about not seeing my family for such a long time, I knew that the traffic on the route was always horrendous and, in any case, the particular strains and stresses of running Comrades were foremost in my mind. In those days there was no official seconding, and because we had previously experienced traffic problems, I dragooned a friend, Glen O’Brien, to second me on a motorbike. Glen worked really hard to keep me fed and watered and, most of all, motivated as I began to tire. I also remember running for long stretches with Mickey Pretorius, a former champion boxer, who was wonderful company on the road.
My family finally caught up with me on Polly Shorts, that dreaded long hill just before the finish in Maritzburg, but it was only on the finishing line that they told me of the events that had taken place earlier.
This year two of my nieces, Kirsty McAdam and Lauren von Gogh, ran their first Comrades, a tribute to the grandfather that they never met. I wish that I had run with them, but these old bones complain too much, and so I was with them only in spirit. But I’m really pleased that they ran all the way together, finishing in 11 hours and 20 minutes. I know how hard the race is, and I can only praise them for their efforts. And my thoughts go also to all the wonderful Comrades that I have met and run with in South Africa, and who gave me such wonderful support and camaraderie when I really needed it. South Africa, for all its faults, then and now, has surely has bred the most wonderful running fraternity in the world. Kirsty, Lauren and Comrades all, I salute you.
P.S. You might have noticed in the photograph that I was wearing a black band on my right wrist, which was part of a Wits University protest against the exclusion of black runners from the race. Many of us students were abused and reviled for doing so, and the authorities were scathing about the protest, in spite of it being relatively low-key and non-confrontational. Whatever they thought, it was effective because the following year, for the first time, black runners were allowed to participate officially. Two years later women were allowed to compete too, all part of South Africa’s slow liberation.