1926 - 1929

1926 - 1929: The return of 'Greatheart' Newton

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THE SMALLEST FIELD YET

 

Prospects for the Comrades Marathon were looking bleak. With the smallest field yet, the 1926 “UP” run only attracted 24 starters. Newton did however enter at the last minute, and traveled from Bulawayo. His preparation was not what it should have been. The Natal Witness still viewed Newton as the main contender for the ‘26 race and published its selection as : 1 - Newton, 2 - Phillips, 3 - Sutton.

Only a few minutes before the start Newton, who had been sitting in a motor car discussing the National Flag Question with a pressman, put away his pipe and leisurely joined the bunch of thinly clad athletes. Phillips, the other favorite for the race, extinguished his cigarette and removed his overcoat revealing the black and gold colours of his Comrades Club. Although Newton was to run for Bulawayo Harriers, his former Comrades Club was still by far the best represented.

After the starter called the roll, the small field set off and Harry Philips took an early lead up Berea Road. Imagine if you will if the roll was called today, how long it would take.

Phillips again took an early lead. He led the field at Berea Road. Newton worked his way through the field with his unpretentious jog-trot and was soon in second place. By the time the leader reached Drummond, he was a full 10 minutes ahead of Newton and looking strong. Over the Inchanga Bank the race took on a different look. Newton was steadily closing on Phillips. However, the lead built up in the early stages of the race where just too much for Greatheart, and for the first time in the race’s history, the winner was a Martizburg man.

By all accounts Philip’s run that year was indeed great. Not only did he beat his great friend and rival, but he also lowered the record for the “Up” run by 36 seconds. Newton’s run was also a brave attempt. Although he could not have done all of the training he would have liked, he did manage to close the gap in the closing stages of the race. The end result will show that he only finished 4 mins. 14 sec’s behind Phillips.

By the time the 1927 race entries closed, Phillips announced his retirement having achieved his main ambition. This left Newton as the main favorite for the “Down”.

Newton wasted no time in taking the lead and he seemed intent on running a different race this year, leading from the start. Newton did run into trouble, and by the time the lead bunch reached Cato Ridge, Newton was showing real signs of distress. The easy swing-trot seemed belabored, and he was forced to stop. Steytler, who had been following him closely passed Newton in fine style and by the time the leader pack reached Drummond, Steytler had a six-minute lead on Newton. At the Railway Bridge just after Drummond, Ron Sutton caught Newton who seemed to really be in big trouble at this stage. At Botha’s Hill, Ron Sutton took the lead, and for the first time it seemed that the great Sutton Family of Maritzburg would triumph.

Newton however was not known as “Greatheart” for nothing and soon showed signs of recovery. He was closing on a toiling Sutton. Steytler by this time had retired. By HillCrest, Newton was again in the lead and never looked like giving up the position until he reached Durban.

It was his fifth win, an achievement so rare that only a small handful of elite's would ever boast of such an achievement in the future. The 1927 race would be a sad occasion for the crowds, for Arthur “Greatheart” Newton was to leave the shores of South Africa to settle in Britain. There he would notch up a number of world records and achieve other great victories.

Such was the man, he would not keep his prizes, because he felt he had an unfair advantage over his rivals. This was so because he could put far more into his training than anyone else and preferred that the accolades went to the second placed athlete who could not devote so much time to the task as him. Ah, how times have changed. Or was it just that when we come to judge who was the greatest of them all, the name of “Greatheart” will be there, as the number one not only for his great running ability but for his humility.

Even this great runner had certain things to say about the punishing course. Of Inchanga he said that unlike the Bank of Monte Carlo, the Inchanga Bank was more apt to break the man. Of Polly Shorts, he suggested a name change : Jolly Longs.

1928, Newton was out, Phillips too, the press was punting the Sutton Family as hot favorites. Again the field was small, with only 34 starters lining up in Durban on Empire Day. A feature of the field was its youth. With out the class of Newton, the race was slow and indeed it did end up as a Sutton “one, two” with Frank Sutton winning in the relatively pedestrian time of 7hr. 49min. Ron was not far behind and came second in 7hr. 57min.

The last race of the 20’s attracted only 29 starters, and not one of those under the start banner in Commercial Road that morning had ever finished in the first three. The Suttons were gone and the race was wide open.

The Comrades Marathon as a race was beginning to deteriorate, Vic Clapham’s hand was not in it anymore, and the lack of his organisational flair and his zeal was keenly felt on that cold Empire Day. No timekeeper was appointed, but a farcical situation was avoided, thanks to the Natal Mercury sports writer, who brought and used his own stopwatch.

The race went to a 20-year-old novice, Darrel Dale. He was the first novice since 1922 to win. Darrel was a bank clerk, who a few years previously, was stopped from doing any sport at school because of a suspected weak heart.

Fred Wallace, the second man home finished 18 minutes behind the winner and was a novice Comrades runners as well.

Thus ended the first decade of the Comrades, small beginnings, dusty roads and small fields.

When one looks at the numbers of participants, it would seem that after 1922, where the race attracted over 100 entrants and 89 starters that would be competitors took fright at the enormity of the task. Certainly judging by the times, the race became the reserve of more dedicated runners, and the Comrades Marathon was not something to be trifled with. Certainly, the 1922 race must have been a turning point. The biggest field of the decade with many practical jokers in the pack. It is also worthy to note here that over 70% of the field did not finish on that day. When one compares that with the drop out rate in later years, it was a huge number. In later years during the 20’s the dropout rate rarely was greater than 45%.

In 1924 one edition of The Latest reported “It is surprising how this strenuous race has caught on, to do the 54 miles within 12 hours does not appear to be a very difficult task, but dozens fail each time, it must be far more difficult than many imagine. That is why, no doubt, a Comrades Medal is so keenly sought.”

Yet a year later in 1925, the same paper reported : “when the six prize winners lined up at 4:30 p.m. to receive their prizes from the Mayor, all looked as fresh as crickets, which shows that a run of this description has no ill effects on a well trained athlete”.

HALL OF FAME

RESULTS :

Year

First

Time

Second

Time

Third

Time

Medals

1921 - Down Run   

W. Rowan

8hr59*

H. Phillips

9hr40 

J.A. Annan

10hr10 

16

1922 - Up Run

A. Newton  

8hr40* 

H. Phillips

9hr09

W. Rowan

9hr13

26

1923 - Down Run

A. Newton

6hr56*

N. Nel

7hr48

A. Purcell

8hr17

30

1924 - Up Run

A. Newton

6hr58*

G. Shackleford 

8hr13   

C. Strasburg  

8hr48

16

1925 - Down Run

A. Newton

6hr24*

H. Phillips

7hr05

G. Shackleford  

7hr17

23

1926 - Up Run

H. Phillips

6hr57*

A. Newton

7hr02

R. Sutton

8hr09

14

1927 - Down Run

A. Newton

6hr40

F. Sutton

7hr15

W. Sutton

7hr52

21

1928 - Up Run

F. Sutton

7hr49

R. Sutton

7hr57

F. Hendriksen

8hr19

13

1929 - Down Run

D. Dale

7hr52

W. Wallace

8hr10

A. Marie

8hr17

19

* = Record

Holder of record at end of the decade

Down                   Arthur Newton                  6hr24min45sec             1925

Up                        Harry Phillips                   6hr57min46sec             1926