1960 - 1965

1960 - 1965: Comrades Comes of Age

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1960'S - THE ULTIMATE COMRADES DRAMA. THE END OF JACKIE MEKLER

 

Forty years on, the race had come of age, it had provided the watching public with interest and it had provided more than enough challenge to participants. The decade of the 60’s was a time of Rock and Roll, the new South African Republic and it was a time when crucial turning points were reached. From humble beginnings, who would believe that meetings would be held at high level in the Natal Traffic Department offices to discuss the possible termination of the race? This, ironically, because of the tremendous popularity of a race that seems to have captured the imagination of a nation.

The 1960’s also produced, as has almost every decade before, a Comrades immortal. At the start of the “Up” run in 1960, stood the quietly confident Springbok runner, Jackie Mekler. The 28-year-old printer from Johannesburg had all the credentials. He had served his apprenticeship under the great Wally Hayward. He had shown his mettle as a champion and had won the race in 1958.  In that warm late autumn dawn, as Gerald Walsh led the runners out of Durban, Jackie Mekler in close attendance, a new era was dawning, that of a new champion, The era of Jackie Mekler.

It did not take long before Jackie made his move in that race and he took an early lead in Westville. By the time Mekler reached Pinetown, he had given notice of his intentions, and was 3 mins. 25 sec ahead of Wally Hayward’s record.

Soon Hillcrest was reached, and Mekler was striding majestically ahead of the Hayward schedule. A full five minutes ahead of Hayward’s time at that point, Mekler was setting a blistering pace. The pundits and the cognoscenti alike began to sit up and take notice. Would this small, quite, red hared champ do it? It was clear that if Mekler continued at this pace the record was in danger. That was not the question here, could the Comrades “sound barrier” – up in under six hours be achieved? At this pace it all seemed possible.

By the time Mekler reached Drummond, the question was not whether Mekler would win; it was by how much would he beat the record. At that stage he had 7mins 40sec on Wally Hayward’s time and he was looking relaxed and confident. It was almost ten minutes before the next runner reached halfway, that was Gerald Walsh.  

Camperdown, and the record was still in danger, Mekler was six and a half minutes ahead of the record at that point. Running well within himself he took a drink from one of his attendants and reeled of the last few kilometers before Polly Shorts.

As Mekler crested Polly Shorts without a falter it became evident that he was on the verge of accomplishing what was always thought impossible – up in less than six. Mekler was almost thwarted barely 750 meters from the winning post.

As he entered the Collegians Club grounds he gashed his leg on a board placed across a ditch for the runners to cross. The board was tilted up-wards by a traffic policeman riding a motorcycle just in front of Mekler to clear the crowds away. The board caught Mekler a painful blow on the leg and he ran the final circuit with blood streaming from his leg.

But Mekler was too near his final goal to worry about that, and the long striding Transvaaler breasted the tape in the record breaking time of 5hr 56min 32 sec. It was with out doubt the greatest feat in the history of the race to date. Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, and now in 1960 Mekler had achieved a similar feat. He finished five miles ahead of is next rival, Gerald Walsh.

After the race Mekler admitted he did not really have his eye on Hayward’s record until after Drummond. Asked how long he trained for this race, he replied “About 15 years”.

That year, Mekler also went to England to compete in the London –to-Brighton and there, finished in the record breaking time of 5hr 25 min 56. It rounded off a great season for him.

The “Down” race in 1961 attracted a record crowd and a huge field. For the third year in succession the field topped the 100 mark, and this time it was a record-breaking 148 starters who were sent away in the cold, dark Maritzburg morning. Mekler was there and was the hot favorite. Some of the race’s excitement was robbed, however, by the withdrawal of Gerald Walsh the night before because of illness.

Some of the old faces were in the lead bunch as they passed Umlass Road. One runner who was not an old face was the 22-year Keith Pierce from Johannesburg. He took on the great Mekler, chased his lead, and by Drummond, over took him. Pierce looked confident, as he sped off up Alverstone.  Things took a bad turn for Mekler, and at Botha’s Hill he was forced to retire with a badly inflamed leg.

Pierce was now in the lead, a complete novice, and was looking like a winner. Further back it was left to Claasen and Steyn to contend with second and third position. The Comrades Marathon is a cruel master at times, and it demands an apprenticeship to be served. That was to be the lesson of the day for the leader.

It would be experience that would in the end be the victor and indeed the teacher. Pierce had set a furious pace in the early stages of the race and now was to pay the price. At 45th Cutting, right at the boundary of Durban the final collapse came.  Overcome by heat and exhaustion, he collapsed and it was left to Claasen and Steyn to fight it out for the lead.

It was beginning to look almost like a Burree-Masterson-Smith dual all over again. Claasen had the stronger finish, with second place 2 minutes behind went to Steyn. The day ended proving that there is no substitute for experience.

In 1962 a dream came true. For many years the organizers were hoping to entice an overseas team to run the Comrades.  A party of four, representing the Road Runners Club of England traveled out from England as the first foreign team ever to run the race. Such a visit had been mooted for years, and now it had come true. As a side issue the British runners competed against a team representing the Marathon Runners Club of South Africa. The British team consisted of 30-year-old John Smith, Tom Buckingham, Don Turner and Ron Linstead, who were recognized as the four best long-distance runners in Britain at the time. The South African team was selected from Jackie Mekler, George Claasen and Peter Clough, all of Germiston Callies, and Frikkie Steyn and Fritz Madel of Durban Athletics.

It was Mekler who set the pace right from the start, with the British team close in attendance. Things were not going to go the way of the South Africans on this first encounter. Classen soon retired, just after Kloof, with leg trouble.

Mekler had set an incredibly fast pace, but by the time he reached Inchanga, the early excesses began to take their toll and Mekler began to tire. Word got back to the British, and near Camperdown John Smith drew slowly away from his compatriot, Buckingham and began to close on his quarry, a tiring and ailing Mekler.

It was near Umlass Road that Smith took Mekler and ran on effortlessly to Polly Shorts. Smith then lengthened his stride and the distance between himself and the South African grew. Now the all-absorbing question was how the Englishman would deal with the hill before him – Polly Shorts?

By the time he reached the base of the hill he was full five minutes ahead of Mekler and running with strong, springing strides. He shortened his stride and took the hill with comparative ease. From then on it was plain sailing for the small Englishman. It was obvious that a somewhat jaded Mekler would never catch him now. Excitement ran high, however, as Smith raced against the clock to beat 6-hours and possibly to break Mekler's record.

Smith achieved the former, clocking 5hr 57 min 05 sec., but failed by a mere 33 seconds to establish a new “Up” record. However, he did become only the second runner in the 41-year history of the race to break 6 hours for the “Up” run. The 200 strong crowd, which packed the finishing area, gave the British visitor a standing ovation.

It was not a great day for the South Africans, the British had come to our shores and they had triumphed. Of the first five positions, four had gone to the British team.

Commenting on the race afterwards Mekler said: “By filling four of the first five places the British runners shattered South Africa’s complacent attitude of invincibility over the Comrades course. I think the visitors were underrated because of South Africa’s long string of successes in the London-to-Brighton, where our top men have always beaten the “locals”. Then the feeling was that the tortuous hills and the merciless heat would be too much for the visitors. England succeeded primarily because each and every one of their runners was superbly fit following months of intensive preparation”

John Smith happened to be standing at the finish line around 3 o’ clock with previous winner Bill Cochran, watching the struggling back markers come home. “I thought I won the race – these chaps finishing now are getting as big a cheer a I.”  “You are now witnessing the spirit of the Comrades” replied Cochran.

In 1963 Mekler returned form Athens only the night before the race. He was firm favorite for a win and as he stood in the biggest field ever, 224 runners he was quietly confident. By the time he reached Cato Ridge, Jackie Mekler was in the lead and was making all the running. To see the diminutive red hared runner out front was becoming quite a common sight.

Mekler ran through the half way mark at Drummond in record time, and it was clear to all that the wiry Transvaaler had his sights on the “Down” record. It was after Drummond, however, that De Villiers, the surprise man of the race began to gradually creep up on a flagging Mekler.

By the time the two runners reached Kloof, De Villiers was only 50 seconds behind Mekler. At Pinetown the race was beginning to take its grim toll on Mekler, but he hung on determinedly to his lead, in spite of the sound of De Villiers’ wet sandshoes squelching along the road only 30 yards behind.

Mekler, probably feeling the effects of the flight, had now fallen 1 min 15 sec behind Hayward’s 1953 time. The prospects of a new record seemed to be slipping from his grasp.

It was on the back end of Cowies hill that Mekler dug deep into his reserves. He took a drink from his supporters, looked around and headed for Durban, a look of steely determination in his eye.  Slowly he drew away from De Villiers, and turned on the pace. Making up vital seconds, which would bring him level with Hayward’s 10-year-old record.

At Tollgate it was touch and go whether the 31-year-old Springbok would break the record. There was no time for a breather or a slackening of the pace. Tired and aching muscles had to be driven relentlessly as he made his way down Berea Road and Old Dutch Road to the finish.

The huge crowd cheered him all around the field and on to the winners tape. Mekler had won the race for a third time, and to crown it all, he did break Hayward’s record by 1min 10sec, to finish in 5 hrs 51 mins 20 sec. Mekler became the first runner since 1954 to hold both the “Up” and the “Down” record.

Obviously near the end of his tether, De Villiers plodded wearily up to the finish line to fill second spot in the magnificent time of 5hr 58min 45sec. He had made a great challenge, perhaps a little too soon, to take on his more experience rival. He hung on bravely to take second place when he realized he could not take on a revitalized Mekler.

By the time the entries closed for the 1965 “Up” run, Mekler was the pundit's choice. But there was a solid base of top runners who would give Mekler the race of his life. Proven rivals such as Mercer Davies, Charlie Chase, Frikkie Steyn, Manie Kuhn and Nick Raubenheimer.

But it was Jackie who made the running and by the time the lead bunch reached 45th Cutting, he was already in the lead. At Pinetown Mekler was a minute ahead of Manie Kuhn, although the time was much slower this year. Perhaps Mekler was conscious of the suicidal pace set in the ’62 “Up” when he lost to the Englishman, Smith.

On the long trudge up Botha’s Hill, Kuhn crept closer to the leader and Mercer Davies began to look threatening. By the time the lead bunch reached Drummond they had drawn well clear of the rest of the field. Besides Jackie Mekler, Kuhn, Chase, Davies, Madel and Pierce were all there.

Finally it was Mekler who proved his strength and appetite for hills on the punishing switchbacks of Polly Shorts. He ran into Maritzburg to take his fourth title. Certainly it was slower than previous runs, and he seemed a little displeased with himself, but Mekler was a clear winner to the wiry figure of Manie Kuhn by a full 10 minutes.

All afternoon the runners trickled home, some alone, some in groups. Among them were men who had thrown away their shoes and struggled on barefoot, determined to complete the course. In all 204 runners crossed the line, almost making a mockery of the once formidable hills between the coast and the capital.

Of the finishers, the evergreen Liege Boulle, now 55 claimed his 24th medal. Liege, who first entered in 1933 finished 58th in a very respectable time of 8 hr 48 min.

There was also a touch of irony on this day. Vernon Jones was among the huge throng that claimed Comrades glory. He was awarded his green number for 10 runs. This was indeed a far cry from the day that he was asked by the organizer and founder, Vic Clapham, to run in 1936 just to make the numbers look more respectable on the start line. 

The 40th running of the event in 1965 attracted a record field. The race was showing an unprecedented growth trend in numbers, and by the cut-off date a staggering 433 entries had been posted. The start hosted 387 starters, the organisers were taken by surprise, never had such a huge field assembled to run such a long race. 

The weather was atrocious as well. It was the wettest and coldest Comrades in living memory, but spirits were high, as was the interest in the race. Jackie Mekler was looking to win his fifth race. But there was an interesting runner in the pack in the person of Bernard Gommersol. A British athlete sent out by the Road Runners Club of England to try and emulate the feat of his fellow countryman, John Smith in 1962.

In that field was 39 year old Mavis Hutchinson, a mother of six. Her husband was also in the field together with her 18-year-old son. Barring the weather, all was set for a cracking race.

By the time the lead bunch reached Cato Ridge, it was Manie Kuhn who was in the lead by about 3 minutes. Next came Mercer Davies, Jackie Mekler and the Englishman, Bernard Gomersall. The weather was cold, but the pace was hot on that day.

By the time the leaders reached Drummond, Kuhn was only 2mins 50sec off Mekler’s 1963 record to halfway. Then came Davies, Gomersall and Mekler.

Mekler was having a bad time of it, all the way from Inchanga to Botha’s Hill, Jackie was struggling. Gomersall was running close to the champ, was he playing a waiting game and getting ready to strike later on? Was he really fading? Bernard Gomersall had to decide whether to stay with Mekler or push on and run with Mercer Davies. Gomersall chose the latter, and gave chase.

Soon enough he caught Davies, and together they wore down the lead built up by Kuhn. An ailing Mekler was fading from the picture. By the time the leaders reached Kloof, Gomersall, judging his race perfectly, took the lead. “Where’s Mekler?” asked the crowd. Jackie was looking grim and drawn as he ran through Kloof station in fourth place.

Gommersall, in spite of the miserable weather, was right on line for the “Down” record, for by the time he reached Pinetown, he was 5 min 35 sec ahead of Mekler’s 1963 time.

From Pinetown it was Gommersall all the way. Striding powerfully he pulled away from the field, followed by the biggest procession of cars in the history of the race. As he headed towards Durban on the right hand side of the road, the cars crawled along in low gear, four deep and stretched back for more than two kilometers, on the left-hand side.

By the time Bernard Gomersall crested TollGate it was all over bar the shouting. He was home and dry as a clear winner. His time was phenomenal, and there were as many eyes on him as there were on the clock to see if Mekler's record would be claimed by this Englishman.

Gommersall was given a great ovation when he breasted the tape to win the 1965 Comrades and repeat John Smith’s victory of a few years earlier. Another roar went up a few moments later when it was announced that he had broken Mekler’s record by a mere 11 seconds. His winning time was 5hrs 51mins 09secs.

Mekler heard the roar of the crowd as he plodded on to the finish. “Gosh, so he beat the record," said Mekler a little sadly. But being the sport that Mekler is, wasted no time in heartily congratulating the winner.

Mekler had no reason to complain. He ran a great fight-back race and on the stretch between Pinetown and Durban made up four minutes on Gommersall. He finished second in 5hr 56min 19sec. And in the process, became the first man to break the 6-hour mark twice in the “Down” run.

Asked afterwards about his run, Gomersall commented that the weather conditions were just perfect for him. The Englishman must have been the only one of the 282 finishers who did. It rained the whole day and the whole way. Even to this day there are some that will recount the 1995 run and will remember the appalling conditions.

Of all the brave runners on the course on that day, the blind Ian Jardine epitomized the very heart and soul of the race. At the age of 63 and now totally blind, Jardine earned his number, 26, in perpetuity for 10 finishers. It was to be many years later that an organization was named in his memory that catered for blind runners. He has been the inspiration to many that are less fortunate. Thanks to Jardene Joggers, blind runners to this present day participate in the Comrades and find victory in their adversity.

Mavis Hutchinson, who nearly gave up at Hillcrest, plodded on to become the third woman in history to complete the race. Because she was an unofficial entrant the results will not show it, but she finished 220th in 10:07. What about Mr. Huthinson? The results do not show his name either. That was because he failed to finish. He now fixes supper for the whole family.  Her son Jessie did finish, however, in a time of 8:25. This also won him the Lyle Lightbody trophy for the youngest competitor to finish.