A Brief Look at the Ultimate Human Race: 96 years of hardship and glory

The most amazing ultramarathon in the world has just finished at the Scottsville Racecourse in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

The race alternates between “up” and “down” runs each year – this year was the “up” and covered a distance of 86.7 kilometres.  The “down” is generally slightly longer – around 89 km.


The race had its usual mix of high excitement, euphoria, drama, uphills, downhills and tears.

The Durban Mayor fired the starter gun at 05:30 am.

There’s always a sort of boat-shaped podium or platform for certain of the race officials to stand in near the start, right in the centre of the route which runners need to pass either left or right of, giving it the illusion of a small craft sailing upstream as thousands of runners cascade past it on each side.

As the day progresses the runners can enjoy the majestic scenery but part of its beauty comes from massive hills such as Inchanga: a monster of a mini-mountain which takes one’s breath in more ways than one.  It offers some awesome views just before halfway on the Up run.

Passing through Drummond with the fearsome Inchanga starting a little way ahead

The last major obstacle on the Up run is the long gradient known as Polly Shortts which crests at the entrance to Pietermaritzburg.

A few hundred metres before the finish, runners passed under a short tunnel -luckily, one with a light at the end of it – possibly the much anticipated and coveted medal gleaming in the distance!

Bongmusa Mthembu notched his second Comrades victory in 2017

Being a “veteran” of ten Comrades, I greatly respect the course and can’t wait to be a part of it again.  Truly there is no finish line when it comes to running.  There never comes a time you want to pack away your shoes and call it a day, because once the race has captured your heart you always want to return for more – pleasure and pain, euphoria and endurance.

I will always regret pulling out in 2014.  My mind wasn’t focused on that day.  Maybe it was because the organizers slipped up that year.  One of the highlights at registration a day or two before the race is getting your “goodie bag”.  But that year, they had too many goodie bags at Maritzburg and ran out of them at the Durban Expo, even though they know months in advance where you choose to register, which can be at either place.  You state it in your entry form, which means they already know by the end of November the previous year where you have chosen to register for the race!

Of course, being a bit later than usual for the start also didn’t help matters, with numerous well meaning hands trying to lift me over the zoo-like bars which separate the gigantic herd of runners from the “normal” public who have come to gape at them at the start…  although fortunately we’re far from being an endangered species.

We athletes come in all colours of the rainbow – there’s plenty of pink, green, red and a smattering of spots and stripes although the colours can be hard to make out once we’re past the incredibly bright TV lights at the City Hall and start trampling the darkened streets beyond.

Once the starter gun goes off we’re free as we begin our journey together as Comrades.  The race brings people from many nations and all ages together as we all reach into the utmost depths of our mind to motivate us to move when protesting legs screech in frustration as they try to put the brakes on.

By the time the sun finally rises the huge multi-hued anaconda is spread out over many kilometres.

The route is scenic but tough and always demands respect

The race began in 1921, the dream of a certain Colonel Vic Clapham who wanted a special way to commemorate the suffering he and his comrades went through during the dark days of World War I.

It took a while for the authorities of the day to approve this outlandish idea of his.  Luckily they eventually relented and allowed the race to take place.

Vic Clapham wouldn’t recognize what his race has become.  From a field of 34 who faced starter’s orders on 24 May 1921, the race has grown to 20 000 and is known and loved throughout the world.

The runners were told that refreshments could be had from certain hotels along the route.  Names of the winners were written on boards outside the newspaper offices.  Large crowds gathered to read them. Even radios were scarce at the time and trunk calls could take hours to relay, so news was almost as slow as horseback  – a far cry from today where we’re accustomed to immediacy in everything.

Due to some technical hitch the first race only started at 07:10 am.

Bill Rowan won that inaugural race in a time of 08:59 – hence today’s Bill Rowan medal which is given to finishers between 7:30 and 9 hours.

Harry Phillips came in 41 minutes later to secure second place.  A total of sixteen runners finished.

The first “running great” who won the race five times was Arthur Newton, a pipe-smoking farmer from Harding, known as the Greatheart, who won from 1922-1925 and again in 1927.

Arthur Newton

The late great Arthur is said to watch the race from an embankment near the halfway mark called Arthur’s Seat, and many a runner takes a flower to give him as they pass to ensure the second half of their run goes smoothly.

Initially, Arthur began running to publicize his protest at the way his farm was neglected during his absence fighting World War I

good morning Arthur

The runners of yesteryear would be amazed at how “soft” we’ve become over the years.  Seconding became an integral part of the race while the fields remained small and an athlete could count on meeting a friend with some refreshments along the way.

It would be interesting to speculate how they would fare with all the support and water points along the route.

They were accustomed to wearing army boots or canvas takkies.  They would be confused to see the huge range of choices in today’s specialist running stores.

They would think we’re nuts if they walked into the Expo and viewed the plethora of assorted dietary supplements, all hyped up as essential to a serious Millennial runner’s wellbeing.

Comrades is one of the things in life which can’t be described unless you’re been there and tasted it.  It’s a day like no other, which is why it’s survived so many challenges and grown despite them all.

It’s a symbol of unbreakable spirit.


Published by: envirozentinel63

Diagnosed with asperger syndrome. Keen runner and writer who wants to share the ups and downs of all my many experiences and maybe reach out to someone who needs encouragement.

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