1966 - 1969

1966 - 1969: Records are Shattered

2nd screen

 

JACKIE MEKLER WAS BACK

 

After a fairly disappointing race in 1965 Mekler decided to retire. Both the “Up” run in 1966 and the “Down” run of ’67 were left wide open and created their own excitement without the small, red hared wizard of the road. In 1968 however, eyebrows were raised when an entry post-marked Johannesburg was delivered to the organizers. Jackie Mekler was back. He had been away for two years with practically no long distance experience to speak of in the interim. It was well known that with one more win that Mekler would align himself with the Comrades immortals, Newton, Ballington and Hayward. All of who had won the Comrades Marathon five times.

It was clear that his entry was not quixotic, and that he would have done the necessary mileage. The jackpot five was in Mekler’s sights, he was known to be a strong hill-climber, and for him it would be now or never. The opposition was strong that year. There was a small British contingent that included record holder Bernard Gomersall. His fellow traveler was John Tarrant, winner of every important ultra-distance race in Britain in 1967.

This eagerly awaited contest was, alas, spoiled when shortly before race day it was announced that the world-class British athlete John Tarrant would not be permitted to run as an official entrant. In terms of an IAAF ruling, he was banned from competing in amateur races outside Britain because apparently, some 20 years earlier he had as a teenager earned so R35 as a professional boxer.  Tarrant learned of this bombshell via the press at his Durban hotel. To the organizers, John Tarrant simply did not exist. To Tarrant this was a low blow.  After all the heavy training and the expense of a 6000-mile trip, he was not allowed to compete as an official entrant. To the sympathetic crowd he became the “ghost” runner without a number.

The race started with all the pomp and ceremony now associated with the great race. Once again large fields once again the headache of the traffic on the road. As the sun was beginning to climb, and the leader pack started to climb Fields Hill, the strain started to show, and Gomersall began to slacken.

By the time the leader pack reached Drummond, it consisted of Gordon Baker, Morrisson and Jackie Mekler, all running along quite fluidly in a small, tight bunch. On the stiff, picturesque winding climb up Inchanga, Baker made his move and pulled ahead of the other two. Tarrant was well up with the leaders.

Mekler bided his time, and just after Camperdown moved into the lead. Manie Kuhn gave chase but the pace was too much for him and without a faultier, Mekler ran the Polly Shorts stretch and widened a considerable gap on his nearest rival. Now Jackie Mekler opened his stride, and to an n ecstatic crowed raced around the field to claim the Comrades dream that evaded him in 1965, immortality.

This quite-spoken printing executive from Johannesburg had turned the tables on Gommersall. His return to the Marathon was indeed triumphant. It was strength, stamina perfect judgement but above all a great fighting spirit that earned Jacky Mekler a rightful place in the annals of Comrades history as one of the greats. He now places his name on a par with Arthur Newton, Hardy Ballington and Wally Hayward.  Jacky Mekler has gone one better than the rest though, his five victories consist four on the “Up” run. This feat is unequalled.

Fourth to cross the line on that day was John Tarrant, to tumulus applause from the crowd – and stony silence from the loudspeaker. For the 36-year-old Tarrant it was the hardest race of his life, one of great mental anguish as well as physical discomfort. : I was so worried about running I kept wondering if somebody would try to stop me from finishing the course”. He ran most of the distance without the help or encouragement of an attendant, while the heat greatly affected him. “The heat got to me, I’ve never experienced anything like it before. Everybody along the way was so kind to me. I never expected so many people to be behind me.”

The 1966 race was wide open. Jackie Mekler had announced hi retirement, there were no British “wild-cards”. A Natal favourite was one Savages runner, 32-year-old Maine Kuhn. He was third the previous year, and second in the last “Up” race.  There were others who were waiting in the wings that year, Madel, Frikkie Steyn, Charlie Chase. There were two previous winners, Mercer Davies and 48-year-old Gerald Walsh. A colorful line-up indeed, but who would be the one to wear the victor’s crown?

In that field was a production control clerk from Boksburg, perhaps underrated by the Natalians, perhaps not. The man was 27-year-old Tommy Malone. A Scots settler, he had won the 56 km Korkie marathon in record time a month earlier and had the reputation of being a strong runner with plenty of speed: whose stamina in fact belied his pale complexion and slight frame.

Manie Kuhn greeted the spectators with a big smile as he led the race through the halfway point. He was being closely chased by a number of runners. Malone was suffering a bad patch, and was struggling along some way behind.

Inchanga came and went it was here that there was a reversal of fortune, Tommy Malone, “The Flying Scotsman” started to perk up and close in on a tiring Kuhn. It was on the gentle undulations at Camperdown that Malone finally caught a tiring Kuhn. As the two ran together, it would seem as if the gods had sensed that these two runners would be tied together in some dramatic pact.

About 2 kilometers from this point, dramatically, Kuhn blacked out. He came to with an attendant patting his face. “My seconds for some time were telling me that Malone was closing in, I never realised just how close he was”

“When he came past me I was still feeling all right. I thought I would hang on to him for a while. I then just blacked out. I felt I was getting dizzy and I stopped. Then I was all give”

The Savages runner lay crumpled at the roadside for a few minutes before his seconds could get him on his feet again and send him off in pursuit of Malone, who couldn't have timed his challenge better. The Scot was in front and as he got closer to Matrtzburg, he was filled with confidence and he demonstrated his finishing burst.

And so it was, round one went to Tommy Malone, the “Flying Scot”. Manie Kuhn finished in second place 19 minutes behind his rival.

When entries closed for the 1967 race, there were record 600 names on the role. Once again there was the usual press hype, once again the usual Comrades fever. There were hot favorites for a win and much discussion. Once again there was no obvious favourite and much of the pundit’s attention turned to the first and second place from the 1966 race, Tommy Malone and Manie Kuhn.

After they crossed swords in the 1966 Comrades, the two met each other in the London-to-Brighton later that year. The result then – Gommersall first, Kuhn second and Malone third. In the scheme of things, round two to Kuhn.

An aging Max Trimbourne gave the cock-crow, the gun fired and in the cold and dark Maritzburg morning, a day that would be talked about for decades later, the runners made their historic way to the coast.

  At Cato Ridge, a fairly big bunch ran through in a very fast time. Malone was there, Kuhn just behind looking around and checking out his race schedule. Certainly this was going to be a closely contested race with no quarter asked or given.

The race was extremely close to the halfway point. By the time the leader bunch crossed the halfway line, seven of the big guns were there, all setting a blistering pace. Kuhn and Malone were in that bunch and so tight was the race at that point that they were all credited with the same halfway time 2hr 31 min.

The next runner to Drummond was a full six minutes behind the leader group. Something had to give and it was on the steep winding hills at Alvestone that Malone made his move and opened up a gap. Morrison went with him. Baker and Kuhn kept close, and Blankley, Hargreves and Craig found the pace too much and fell off the bus.

By the time the leader, now Malone reached Gillits, he was taking the race by the scruff of the neck, he was making all the running, Malone would win again. Kloof came and went it was Malone out in front with Kuhn three minutes adrift of the now rampant leader.

Pinetown saw little change, with Gomersall’s record in tact. By the time the two runners reached TollGate, two minutes separated them. Both now were beginning to toil and strain under the Durban sky. The race seemed all over for the first and second place and at Toll Gate Malone was give the tube containing the traditional message of greeting from the Mayor of Pietermaritzburg to the Mayor of Durban.

Kuhn had hometown advantage, he also had a score to settle and with a partisan Natal crowd egging him on, he dug deep and found the resources to respond. Now with each step, he began to close the gap between himself and the Scot. At Berea Road, Kuhn began to pile on the pressure and with each stride, looked anything but defeated. A little over a kilometer to go and this could be any one’s race.

Inside the stadium the 3000 strong crowd was told that the winner was Tommy Malone and that he was 180 meters from the stadium. A car just outside the gate hindered the tiring Malone as he tried to get by. A few seconds later, to great applause Tommy Malone emerged into view a mere 80 meters to go. There was much confusion at this point, Tommy Malone thought that Manie Kuhn was about two minutes behind him. However, much to the dismay of Malone and much to the delight to the crowd, Kuhn suddenly came into view a mere 15 meters behind the leader. There was less that 50 meters left of the 90-kilometer race.

Malone suddenly realized that a fast closing Kuhn was right behind him and he gave it all that he had. As Malone kicked hard a vicious cramp caught him and . . . a mere 15 meters to go the leader fell to the ground. There was a stunned silence in the stadium. It almost seemed that the moment had frozen. There captured in time and in space the ultimate drama was being played out. Kuhn tried to comprehend what had happened. Malone had all but won the race and yet here he was on the ground struggling to get up.

Malone was down. His legs would not respond. He tried to get up; it was a valiant attempt. The crowd was a dull throb in his ears, all he was aware of as he tried to lunge for the line was the white vest with “Savages” written on it. His attempt was in vain. The crowd had never witnessed such a finish. Round three, the final round went to Manie Kuhn.

In this life there must always be winners and losers. That day belonged to both of these protagonists. So much the pity that there had to be a winner. The 1967 results will show a second separated the first and second place. One second that was an eternity, some would even believe that it was less than a heartbeat that separated these two.  The mayoral tube lay on the ground, all but forgotten. The two Comrades just held each other.

The last race of the decade was under threat long before the entries were closed. Never before in the history of the Comrades was there so much uncertainty about the future of the event. There were rumblings in previous years, but with the massive fields topping the 500 mark, the race was becoming unmanageable. This was placing an ever-increasing burden on the traffic authorities. Two years previously, the authorities were keen to stop the race. And once again the problem had reared it head. Clearly the format of the race had to change or clearly the race would die. The organizers recognized there was a problem and in 1968 cut-off times were introduced at Drummond (12h30 and at Cato Ridge 14h30). This did ease the problem, but it was only a matter of tome before big changes would have to be made. In any event, the 1969 race did go ahead with very little, if any changes to the format.

By now the fields were becoming huge, almost 800 entries were received. The race at the front end would be absorbing. Jackie Mekler entered, hoping to go one better than the other Comrades Greates and to notch up his sixth win. Manie Kuhn, the winner of the most exiting duel in the history of the race was at the start, as was teammate Dave Box. Box had the credentials, for now he was the holder of the world 100-mile record. The “ghost” runner, John Tarrant was also at the start hoping to prove himself.

One other runner that was tipped for gold, perhaps not to win was English immigrant, Dave Bagshaw. He had recently won Gold at the S.A. Games for the marathon event. Dave was a novice to the race and was not rated for a win. The sentimental favorite was Mekler. The start of the 1969 race provided the watching public with an interesting race.

As the runners emerged from the frosty dawn, the sun rising over the Valley of a Thousand Hills, it was Tarrant, the “ghost” runner who took the lead and was setting a record breaking pace. By the time he reached Camperdown, he was four minutes clear of any of his rivals and was widening the gap with every stride.

On the Inchanga Bank, Dave Box broke from the chasing pack and closed in on Tarrant. Dave Bagshaw was running with him. Here was his dilemma: as a novice he was not too sure what to expect. He did have some experience of the race however, because he had seconded Gommersall in the previous year. But Bagshaw was in experienced company and he was aware of that. Well, happily for the day’s proceedings, Bagshaw went with Box, although conscious of leaving five times winner Mekler to his own devices.

Drummond came and went, with Box and Bagshaw closing in on a tiring Tarrant. It was on the steep winding hills out of Drummond that the two caught the “ghost” runner and sped off to Durban. Bagshaw noticed that Box drew back a little. Now he was concerned. As a novice he was not all that sure what to do. Hang in there with his more experienced clubmate or go. It was at the Botha’s Hill Hotel that the final answer came to Dave Bagshaw. He left his ailing Savages partner and raced for Durban.

Dave Bagshaw was making the entire running now. About a kilometer or so after taking the lead, he passed Vernon Jones standing on the side of the road. The Jones family shouted out their encouragement to Bagshaw, but as Dave remembers, Vernon was strangely quiet. It was only after the race did Bagshaw learn that Jones had considered his tactics suicidal at the time and his wife Eileen had instructed him to be quiet so as not to sow the seeds of doubt in a now rampant Bagshaw.

By the time Bagshaw reached Pinetown, he was just outside Gommersall’s record. Onward he was driven to the stadium. It became obvious that the spoils of victory would go to Bagshaw. Box and Mekler would not catch Bagshaw who was striding out confidently in front. He later admitted that at some point he decided not to worry about the big guns around him. “I ran my own race that day, I rather thought that the likes of Mekler and Box should worry about how they were going to catch me”.

Dave Bagshaw, the wiry Englishman, not only won the race that day as a novice; he also set up a new record of 5 hr. 45min. 35. He was the first runner to go under 5hr 50min. And so as the sun set in Durban, another decade of Comrades running closed. Ian Jardene announced his retirement from the race at the age of 67.

There were some happy postscripts to this era: Dave Bagshaw went to a tailor a few days after the event. As he was measuring up the new Comrades champion for a suit, he remarked on his small waist. “Gosh, you are thin," said the tailor, “ you should have competed in the Marathon”.

“I did," said the modest Bagshaw. “Is it?” quipped the tailor. “Did you finish?”

“Yes”, said Bagshaw, “I finished”

“Is it? So tell me what time did you do?”

“Five-forty-five”

“Yus, you must have won the thing then”

“I did”.

Dave Bagshaw left the tailor with a free tie and a very embarrassed tailor standing at the door.

Another time, another place was the Comrades winners reunion in 1983. Inevitably the talk centered on the Malone, Kuhn tussle. As the Beer flowed, it was decided that evening to settle the matter once and for all. After dinner all the living winners of Comrades to date were invited to attend the race around the car park outside. It was Fordyce and Bagshaw who were appointed as officials. In the early hours of the morning Tommy and Manie set off, while the officials retired to the bar for another drink while waiting their return. The competitors re-entered the car park from different directions, neither having completed the agreed course. So it was left to Fordyce and Bagshaw to declare the race null and void. And so be it, a great Comrades argument will always remain unresolved.

The growth of the race during the sixties was surely nothing short of miraculous. The Comrades Marathon’s future was assured. For when was all said and done, the traffic wheel had turned full cycle, eliciting from the Provincial traffic Chief the comment that “the race seemed to have a mellowing effect on motorists not connected to the event. No one lost his temper, although there were a few minor delays in places. If that what the Marathon does to motorists, I’d like to see it run more often”.

HALL OF FAME

 RESULTS

Year

First

Time

Second

Time

Third

Time

Medals

1960 - Up Run

J. Mekler

5hr56*

G. Walsh

6hr31

G.N. Claasen

6hr34

80

1961 - Down Run

G.N. Claasen

6hr07

F.C. Steyn

6hr09

T.N. Allen

6hr22

98

1962 - Up Run

J. Smith (UK) 

5hr57

J. Mekler

6hr04

W. D. Turner

(UK)

6hr08

109

1963 - Down Run

J. Mekler

5hr51*

P.R. de Villiers

5hr58

F.W. Madel

6hr08

149

1964 - Up Run

J. Mekler

6hr09

J.D. Kuhn

6hr19

D. Chase

6hr36

204

1965 - Down Run

B. Gomersall

(UK)

5hr51*

J. Mekler

5hr56

J.D. Kuhn

6hr04

282

1966 - Up Run

T. Malone

6hr14

J.D. Kuhn

6hr31

F.W. Madel

6hr33

261

1967 - Down Run

J.D. Kuhn

5hr54

T. Malone

5hr54

G.R. Baker

6hr02

415

1968 - Up Run

J. Mekler

6hr01

J.D. Kuhn

6hr03

G.R. Baker

6hr11

435

1969 - Down Run

D. Bagshaw

5hr45*

D. G. Box

6hr57

J. Mekler

6hr01

586

* = Record

Holder of record at end of the decade

Down                    Dave Bagshaw                  5hr45min35sec             1969

Up                        Jackie Mekler                     5hr56min32sec             1960