The Comrades Marathon logo
|Location||Durban/Pietermaritzburg, South Africa|
|Distance||Ultramarathon (90 km)|
|Official site||The Comrades Marathon|
The Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon of approximately 89 km (approx. 56 miles) which is run annually in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It is the world's largest and oldest ultramarathon race. The direction of the race alternates each year between the "up" run (87 km) starting from Durban and the "down" run (89 km) starting from Pietermaritzburg.
The field is capped at 23,000 runners, and entrants hail from more than 60 countries. In all but three runnings since 1988, over 10,000 runners have reached the finish within the allowed 11 or 12 hours. With increased participation since the 1980s, the average finish times for both genders, and the average age of finishers have increased substantially.
Runners over the age of 20 qualify when they are able to complete an officially recognised marathon (42.2 km) in under five hours. During the event an athlete must also reach five cut-off points in specified times to complete the race. The spirit of the Comrades Marathon is said to be embodied by attributes of camaraderie, selflessness, dedication, perseverance, and ubuntu.
The race is run on the roads of KwaZulu-Natal Province, marked by "The Big Five" set of hills. On the up run they appear in the following order: Cowies Hill, Field's Hill, Botha's Hill, Inchanga, and Polly Shortts.
Athletes currently have 12 hours to complete the course, extended from 11 hours in 2003. There are a number of cut-off points along the routes which runners must reach by a prescribed time or be forced to retire from the race. A runner who has successfully completed nine marathons wears a yellow number, while those who have completed ten races wear a green number, permanently allocated to the runner for all future races.
Medals are awarded to all runners completing the course in under 12 hours. Medals are currently awarded as follows:
- Gold medals: The first 10 men and women.
- Wally Hayward medals (silver-centred circled by gold ring): 11th position to sub 6hrs 00min
- Silver medals: 6hrs 00min to sub 7hrs 30min.
- Bill Rowan medals (bronze-centred circled by silver ring): 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min.
- Bronze medals: 9hrs 00min to sub 11hrs 00min.
- Vic Clapham medals (copper): 11hrs 00min to sub 12hrs 00min.
Prior to 2000, only gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded. The Bill Rowan medal was introduced in 2000 and named after the winner of the first Comrades Marathon in 1921. The time limit for this medal was inspired by Rowan's winning time in 1921 of 8hrs 59min. A new copper medal, the Vic Clapham medal (named after the race founder), was added in 2003. This medal coincided with the increase in the time allocation for completing the event from sub 11hrs to sub 12hrs. The Wally Hayward medal, named after five-time winner Wally Hayward, was added in 2007 for runners finishing in under 6hrs.
The Comrades was run for the first time on 24 May 1921 (Empire Day), and with the exception of a break during World War II, has been run every year since. The 2010 event was the 85th race. To date, over 300,000 runners have completed the race.
The race was the idea of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the war. Clapham, who had endured a 2,700-kilometre route march through sweltering German East Africa, wanted the memorial to be a unique test of the physical endurance of the entrants. The constitution of the race states that one of its primary aims is to "celebrate mankind's spirit over adversity".
From 1962 to 1994 the race was run on Republic Day, 31 May. After this public holiday was scrapped in 1995 by the post-apartheid South African government, the race date was changed to Youth Day on 16 June. In 2007, the race organisers (controversially) bowed to political pressure from the ANC Youth League, who felt that the race diverted attention from the significance of Youth Day, and changed the race date to Sunday 17 June for 2007 and 15 June for 2008. In 2009 and 2010 the date was changed (to 24 May and 30 May respectively) to accommodate football's Confederations Cup (2009) and World Cup (2010) in South Africa.
Forty-eight runners entered the first race in 1921, but only thirty-four elected to start. The course at the time was tarred only for the final few kilometres into Durban. A time limit of 12 hours was set and Bill Rowan became the inaugural winner, clocking 08:59 to win by 41 minutes ahead of Harry Phillips. Of the 34 starters, only 16 completed the race.
Arthur Newton entered and won the race for the first time in 1922. He went on to win the race five times and emerge as the dominant Comrades runner of the 1920s. When he completed the down run in 06:56 in 1923, there were only a handful of spectators on hand to witness the finish because so few thought it possible that the race could be run so quickly. The first woman to run the race was Frances Hayward in 1923, but her entry was refused, so she was an unofficial entrant. She completed the event in 11:35 and although she was not awarded a Comrades medal, the other runners and spectators presented her with a silver tea service and a rose bowl. In 1924 the Comrades had its fewest starters ever, just 24. Four years later, in 1928, the time limit for the race was reduced by an hour to 11 hours.
In the 1930s, Hardy Ballington emerged as the dominant runner, recording four victories in 1933, 1934, 1936 and 1938. The winner of the 1930 race, Wally Hayward, became one of the greatest legends of the Comrades Marathon, winning a further four times in the fifties, and becoming the oldest man to complete the race in 1989. In 1932 Geraldine Watson, an unofficial entrant, became the first woman to complete both the up run and the down run.
After Ballington's domination of the 1930s, Comrades was stopped during the war years from 1941 to 1945. In 1948 a Comrades tradition was born when race official Max Trimborn, instead of firing the customary starter's gun, gave a loud imitation of a cock's crow. That tradition continues to the present day with Trimborn's recorded voice played over loudspeakers at the starting line.
In the 1950s, a full twenty years after he won the race for the first time, Wally Hayward recorded his second victory and followed that up with wins in 1951, 1953 and 1954. He represented South Africa at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, where he finished tenth in the marathon. Hayward retired from the Comrades after establishing new records for both the up and down runs and equaling the five wins of Newton and Ballington. In 1958, the race was won for the first time by Jackie Mekler, who went on to win the race five times, finishing second twice and third twice.
In the 1960s, Comrades grew considerably, from 104 starters in 1960 to 703 starters in 1969. Due to the bigger fields, cut-off points were introduced at Drummond and Cato Ridge. Mekler became the first man to break the six-hour barrier in 1960, finishing in 5:56:32. The 1961 winner was George Claassen, a school principal and father of well-known Wynand Claassen, Springbok rugby captain during 1981-83. Claassen junior also finished the Comrades ten times in later years.
In 1962, the race attracted foreign entries for the first time as the Road Runners Club of England sent over four of the best long-distance runners in Britain. English runner John Smith won the race, an up run, in under six hours, missing out on the course record by 33 seconds. Watching the stragglers come in hours later, Smith commented to former winner Bill Cochrane that the other people completing the race were getting as much applause as he had received. "You are now witnessing the spirit of the Comrades," replied Cochrane.
In 1965, English runner Bernard Gomersall broke Mekler's down run record with a time of 5:51:09.
In 1967, Manie Kuhn and Tommy Malone were involved in the closest finish in the history of the race. Malone appeared to be on his way to a comfortable win and was handed the traditional message from the Mayor of Pietermaritzburg to the Mayor of Durban at Tollgate with a lead of two minutes over Kuhn. He entered the stadium in the lead with only 80 metres left to go. Suddenly Kuhn appeared only 15 metres behind and closed in quickly. Malone put in a burst for the line, but with only 15 metres left he fell to the ground with cramps. He attempted to get up again, but with the line within reach Kuhn flew past to grab victory. The mayoral message was forgotten as both runners embraced.
The Comrades had over 1,000 starters for the first time in 1971, with over 3,000 in 1979. The race was widely broadcast on both radio and television. The race was opened to all athletes for the first time in 1975, allowing blacks and women to take part officially. In 1975, the Golden Jubilee of the Comrades, Vincent Rakabele finished 20th to become the first black runner to officially win a medal. Elizabeth Cavanaugh became the first women's winner in a shade over 10 hours.
1976 saw the emergence of Alan Robb, who won the first of his four Comrades titles. Robb repeated his win in 1977, 1978 and 1980, including breaking the tape in Durban in 1978 in a record 5:29:14, almost 20 minutes and four kilometres ahead of runner-up Dave Wright.
During the 1980s the Comrades began with a field of 4,207 in 1980 and topped 5,000 for the first time in 1983.
In 1981, University of the Witwatersrand student Bruce Fordyce won the first of his eventual nine Comrades titles. An outspoken critic of apartheid, Fordyce and a number of other athletes initially decided to boycott the 1981 event when organisers announced that they would associate it with the 20th anniversary of the Republic of South Africa. Fordyce ultimately competed wearing a black armband to signal his protest. He repeated his victories in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 (a record 5:24:07 down run), 1987, 1988 (a record 5:27:42 for the up run), and 1990.
In 1989, Sam Tshabalala became the first black winner of the Comrades.
In the same year Wally Hayward entered the race at the age of 79 and finished in 9:44:15. He repeated the feat in the 1989 Comrades, where he completed the race with only two minutes to spare and at the age of 80 became the oldest man to complete the Comrades.
During the 1990s the size of the starting fields was in the region of 12,000 to 14,000 runners. In 1995 prize money was introduced, attracting more foreign competitors. The traditional race day of May 31, formerly Republic Day, was changed to June 16, the anniversary of the Soweto uprising.
In 1992 Charl Mattheus, crossed the finish line first, but was later disqualified after testing positive for a banned substance. He claimed it was contained in medicine he had taken for a sore throat, but Jetman Msutu was elevated to the winner, thus becoming the second black winner of the Comrades. In a sad twist for Mattheus, the substance for which he was banned was later removed from the IAAF's banned substance list since all evidence pointed to it having no performance enhancing properties. Mattheus also suffered much negativity in the public eye but later managed to redeem his clean image with an emphatic faultless win in the 1997 down run beating a strong local and international field.
The 75th anniversary of the Comrades Marathon in 2000 was the largest ever staged, with a massive field of 23,961. An extra hour was allowed for bronze medal finishers to celebrate the milestone. In 2010, on its 85th anniversary, the race gained a place in the Guinness World Records as the ultramarathon with most runners. 14,343 athletes, the largest field since the turn of the millennium, finished in the allowed 12 hours.
Identical twin sisters Olesya and Elena Nurgalieva won a combined ten Comrades titles from 2003–2013, while three-time champion Stephen Muzhingi became the first non-South African winner from Africa in 2009. Stephen Muzhingi also became the first athlete to win three races in a row (2009, 2010 and 2011) since Bruce Fordyce won three in a row in the eighties (1981, 1982 and 1983). Russian runner Leonid Shvetsov set both down and up course records in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
South African supremacy over the men´s race was restored when Ludwick Mamabolo won the down run in 2012. His win was followed up by three successive South African triumphs in the following years. Among the ladies the Nurgalieva twin´s hold on the race was finally broken in 2014 when Eleonor Greenwood, GBR, won the downrun after a spectacular finish, taking the lead just 2 km before the end. In 2015 Caroline Wostmann became the first South African lady to win Comrades in 17 years.
As with every ultramarathon, there are potentially lethal health risks involved in extreme physical events. In the history of the Comrades, there have been 7 deaths up to the 2007 event. In a survey among a sample of 2005 participants, 25% reported cramps, 18% nausea, 8% vomiting, 13% dizziness, 3% diarrhoea, 23% pain, excluding the expected sore legs, and 14% reported fatigue of such a nature that they believed themselves to be incapable of continuing the race. Among silver medalists there was a higher incidence of cramps (42.9%), nausea (21.4%) and diarrhoea (7.1%), though a lower incidence of pain and fatigue than the average runner.
Cheating in the race
In 1993, Herman Matthee, a runner from Bellville athletics club finished in 7th place, amongst the top ten gold medal winners. He was later stripped of his gold medal, when video evidence and eye witness testimony indicated that he started the race at Kloof, and completed less than 30 km of the 90 km down run. As his surname resembled that of top runner Charl Mattheus, he was often mistaken by the public as being the same person. In a Comrades first, the 11th-place finisher, Simon Williamson, was months later officially elevated to tenth place and awarded the last gold medal by the then South African president FW de Klerk. Williamson had passed another runner, Ephraim Sekothlong, in the last 100 metres to claim 11th spot and unknowingly, a gold medal.
In 1999, the Motsoeneng brothers from Bethlehem, Free State, who strongly resembled one another, performed an act of cheating during another down run. By exchanging places with his brother at toilet stops and aided by car lifts at various stages, Sergio Motsoeneng finished ninth. This came as a surprise to Nick Bester and other athletes behind him, who could not recall being overtaken. They were exposed when television footage revealed them to be wearing watches on different arms, and a time pad reading that confirmed that one of the brothers was still trailing Bester at Botha's Hill. The brothers performed well in later years, though Sergio tested positive for a banned substance after finishing third in 2010.
Use of banned substances is claimed to be endemic among top Comrades athletes, but only a small number have been disqualified. Runners who have tested positive include Sergio Motsoeneng, Rasta Mohloli, Viktor Zhdanov, Lephetesang Adoro and Ludwick Mamabolo. Mamabolo was found not guilty due to “technical irregularities”. Erythropoietin (EPO), norandrosterone (a metabolite or precursor of nandrolone), methylhexaneamine and testosterone have been mentioned in connection with Comrades athletes.
In 2014, an analysis of negative splits by runner and statistician Mark Dowdeswell, suggested that a number of runners in the middle to back half of the field may be taking shortcuts.
|Up/Down Run||Record holder||Country||Year||Time|
|Men||Down||David Gatebe||South Africa||2016||5:18:19|
|Women||Down||Frith van der Merwe||South Africa||1989||5:54:43|
|Men's Champion||Wins||Country||Women's Champion||Wins||Country|
|Bruce Fordyce||9||South Africa||Elena Nurgalieva||8||Russia|
|Arthur Newton||5||South Africa||Maureen Holland||4||South Africa|
|Hardy Ballington||5||South Africa||Lettie van Zyl||3||South Africa|
|Wally Hayward||5||South Africa||Helen Lucre||3||South Africa|
|Jack Mekler||5||South Africa||Frith van der Merwe||3||South Africa|
|Alan Robb||4||South Africa||Maria Bak||3||Germany|
|Medal holder||Medals||Achieved in|
Winners and waypoints
|Past Comrades winners|
|Year||u/d||Time (Men)||Men's Champion||Country||Time (Women)||Women's Champion||Country|
|2016||d||5:18:19||David Gatebe||South Africa||6:25:55||Charne Bosman||South Africa|
|2015||u||5:38:36||Gift Kelehe||South Africa||6:12:22||Caroline Wöstmann||South Africa|
|2014||d||5:28:29||Bongmusa Mthembu||South Africa||6:18:12||Eleanor Greenwood||United Kingdom|
|2013||u||5:32:09||Claude Moshiywa||South Africa||6:27:09||Elena Nurgalieva8||Russia|
|2012||d||5:31:03||Ludwick Mamabolo||South Africa||6:07:12||Elena Nurgalieva7||Russia|
|2011||u||5:32:45||Stephen Muzhingi3||Zimbabwe||6:24:11||Elena Nurgalieva6||Russia|
|2010||d||5:29:01||Stephen Muzhingi2||Zimbabwe||6:13:03||Elena Nurgalieva5||Russia|
|2009||d||5:23:27||Stephen Muzhingi||Zimbabwe||6:12:08||Olesya Nurgalieva2||Russia|
|2008||u||5:24:49||Leonid Shvetsov2||Russia||6:14:38||Elena Nurgalieva4||Russia|
|2007||d||5:20:49||Leonid Shvetsov||Russia||6:10:11||Olesya Nurgalieva||Russia|
|2006||u||5:35:19||Oleg Kharitonov||Russia||6:09:24||Elena Nurgalieva3||Russia|
|2005||d||5:27:10||Sipho Ngomane||South Africa||5:58:50||Tatyana Zhirkova||Russia|
|2004||u||5:31:22||Vladimir Kotov3||Belarus/RSA||6:11:15||Elena Nurgalieva2||Russia|
|2003||d||5:28:52||Fusi Nhlapo||South Africa||6:07:46||Elena Nurgalieva||Russia|
|2002||u||5:30:59||Vladimir Kotov2||Belarus/RSA||6:14:21||Maria Bak3||Germany|
|2001||d||5:25:51||Andrew Kelehe||South Africa||6:13:53||Elvira Kolpakova||Russia|
|2000||u||5:25:33||Vladimir Kotov||Belarus/RSA||6:15:35||Maria Bak2||Germany|
|1999||d||5:30:10||Jaroslaw Janicki||Poland||6:31:03||Birgit Lennartz||Germany|
|1998||u||5:26:25||Dmitri Grishine2||Russia||6:38:57||Rae Bisschoff||South Africa|
|1997||d||5:28:37||Charl Mattheus||South Africa||5:58:24||Ann Trason2||United States|
|1996||u||5:29:33||Dmitri Grishine||Russia||6:13:23||Ann Trason||United States|
|1995||d||5:34:02||Shaun Meiklejohn||South Africa||6:22:57||Maria Bak||Germany|
|1994||u||5:38:39||Alberto Salazar||United States||6:41:23||Valentina Lyakhova||Russia|
|1993||d||5:39:41||Charly Doll||Germany||6:55:07||Tilda Tearle||South Africa|
|1992||u||5:46:11||Jetman Msutu[note 1]||South Africa||6:51:05||Frances van Blerk||South Africa|
|1991||d||5:40:53||Nick Bester||South Africa||6:08:19||Frith van der Merwe3||South Africa|
|1990||u||5:40:25||Bruce Fordyce9||South Africa||7:02:00||Naidene Harrison||South Africa|
|1989||d||5:35:51||Samuel Tshabalala||South Africa||5:54:43||Frith van der Merwe2||South Africa|
|1988||u||5:27:42||Bruce Fordyce8||South Africa||6:32:56||Frith van der Merwe||South Africa|
|1987||u||5:37:01||Bruce Fordyce7||South Africa||6:48:42||Helen Lucre3||South Africa|
|1986||d||5:24:07||Bruce Fordyce6||South Africa||6:55:01||Helen Lucre2||South Africa|
|1985||u||5:37:01||Bruce Fordyce5||South Africa||6:53:24||Helen Lucre||South Africa|
|1984||d||5:27:18||Bruce Fordyce4||South Africa||6:46:35||Lindsay Weight2||South Africa|
|1983||u||5:30:12||Bruce Fordyce3||South Africa||7:12:56||Lindsay Weight||South Africa|
|1982||d||5:34:22||Bruce Fordyce2||South Africa||7:04:59||Cheryl Winn||South Africa|
|1981||u||5:37:28||Bruce Fordyce||South Africa||6:44:35||Isavel Roche-Kelly2||South Africa|
|1980||d||5:38:25||Alan Robb4||South Africa||7:18:||Isavel Roche-Kelly||South Africa|
|1979||u||5:45:02||Piet Vorster||South Africa||8:22:41||Jan Mallen||South Africa|
|1978||d||5:29:14||Alan Robb3||South Africa||8:25:||Lettie van Zyl3||South Africa|
|1977||u||5:47:00||Alan Robb2||South Africa||8:58:||Lettie van Zyl2||South Africa|
|1976||d||5:40:53||Alan Robb||South Africa||9:05:||Lettie van Zyl||South Africa|
|1975||u||5:53:00||Derek Preiss2||South Africa||10:08:||Elizabeth Cavanagh2||South Africa|
|1974||u||6:02:49||Derek Preiss||South Africa||10:40:||Alet Kleynhans||South Africa|
|1973||d||5:39:09||Dave Levick||South Africa||8:40:||Maureen Holland4||South Africa|
|1972||u||5:48:57||Mick Orton||United Kingdom||9:26:||Maureen Holland3||South Africa|
|1971||d||5:47:06||Dave Bagshaw3||8:37:||Maureen Holland2||South Africa|
|1970||u||5:51:27||Dave Bagshaw2||10:50:||Elizabeth Cavanagh||South Africa|
|1969||d||5:45:35||Dave Bagshaw||South Africa|
|1968||u||6:01:11||Jack Mekler5||South Africa|
|1967||d||5:54:10||Manie Kuhn||South Africa|
|1966||u||6:14:07||Tommy Malone||South Africa||9:30:00||Maureen Holland||South Africa|
|1965||d||5:51:09||Bernard Gomersall||United Kingdom||10:07:||Mavis Hutchinson||South Africa|
|1964||u||6:09:54||Jack Mekler4||South Africa|
|1963||d||5:51:20||Jack Mekler3||South Africa|
|1962||u||5:57:05||John Smith||United Kingdom|
|1961||d||6:07:07||George Claassen||South Africa|
|1960||u||5:56:32||Jack Mekler2||South Africa|
|1958||u||6:26:26||Jack Mekler||South Africa|
|1957||d||6:13:55||Mercer Davies||South Africa|
|1955||d||6:06:32||Gerald Walsh||South Africa|
|1954||u||6:12:55||Wally Hayward5||South Africa|
|1953||d||5:52:30||Wally Hayward4||South Africa|
|1952||u||7:00:02||Trevor Allen||South Africa|
|1951||d||6:14:08||Wally Hayward3||South Africa|
|1950||u||6:46:25||Wally Hayward2||South Africa|
|1949||d||6:23:21||Reg Allison||South Africa|
|1941-45||Race not held due to World War II|
|1940||u||6:39:23||Allen Boyce||South Africa|
|1937||d||6:23:11||Johnny Coleman||South Africa|
|1935||d||6:30:05||Bill Cochrane||South Africa|
|1933||d||6:50:37||Hardy Ballington||South Africa||9:31:25||Geraldine Watson3|
|1932||u||7:41:58||William Savage||South Africa||11:56:00||Geraldine Watson2|
|1931||d||7:16:30||Phil Masterton-Smith||South Africa||11 hrs +||Geraldine Watson||South Africa|
|1930||u||7:27:26||Wally Hayward||South Africa|
|1929||d||7:52:00||Darrell Dale||South Africa|
|1928||u||7:49:07||Frank Sutton||South Africa|
|1926||u||6:57:46||Harry Phillips||South Africa|
|1923||d||6:56:00||Arthur Newton2||11:35:00||Frances Hayward||South Africa|
|1922||u||8:40:00||Arthur Newton||South Africa|
|1921||d||8:59:00||Bill Rowan||South Africa|
|Pietermaritzburg City Hall (d)|
|Harry Gwala Stadium (u)|
|Highest point (2,850 ft or 870 m.a.s.l.)|
|Halfway mark, Drummond|
|Kingsmead Cricket Ground (d)|
|Durban City Hall (u)|
- The 1992 race was won by Charl Mattheus, who was later disqualified for testing positive for a banned stimulant
Medals and demographics
There is a lot of prestige associated with a Comrades Marathon Green Number. As a result, many athletes aim to complete at least 10 races, which is evident as a clear peak in the distribution of medal counts. The introduction of the back-to-back medal (for running two years in succession) resulted in another peak for athletes with 2 medals.
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- Man sê hy't Matthee halfpad afgelaai, Die Burger, 1993-6-7
- Herman Matthee wil weer hardloop, Die Burger, 1993-7-23
- 'Ek sak my kop in skaamte' Motsoeneng erken Comrades-kullery Armoede en geldnood sy redes, Beeld, 1999-07-22
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- Runner History: Clive Crawley
- Runner History: Dave Rogers
- Runner History: David Williams
- Runner History: Kenny Craig
- Runner History: Riel Hugo
- Runner History: Barry Holland
- Runner History: Louis Massyn
- Runner History: Alan Robb
- Runner History: Dave Lowe
- The Green Number Effect
- The Long Run at IMDb.
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