1976 - 1979

1976 - 1979: Alan Robb Scores a Hat Trick

2nd screen

 

AN HISTORIC YEAR

 

1976, an historic year in the lives of most South Africans, and so too for the Comrades Marathon.  Firstly, long before the dawn of that fateful year, a “Save the Comrades Marathon” symposium was convened by the Sunday Tribune in October 1975.  The popularity of the race had the potential to kill the race, and as most at the meeting realised, the significance of the race to the country as a whole.  The race had come to mean so much to the nation, physically to some, spiritually to many and now racially, and thankfully, the symposium was a success and all agreed that the race must go on.

The ranging shots having been fired, everyone got down to work and the staging of the 51st Comrades Marathon, this year a down run.  The course was over two kilometers longer than the last down run in 1973.  But to facilitate the large crowds, the race would finish at the Old Kingsmead Cricket stadium.  This meant that the runners would once again follow the in-town route to the finishing post, which Newton, Ballington and all other “down” winners from the ‘20’s to the 60’s followed.

A new innovation, which would provide for much lively debate in years to come, was the introduction of commercial advertising and sponsorships. In 1976 a brand of cool-drink was included on the race numbers.  Traditionalists were alarmed, and some athletes refused to wear their numbers, while others cut the offending advertising off.

Sadly four months before the start of the race, Ian Jardine, that tenacious, courageous blind runner passed on at the age of 74.

The pre-race speculation was intense, for in the Two Oceans only months before, Gabashaene (Vincent) Rakabele made history.  From a star-studded field including Derrick Preiss and Alan Robb, the slightly built, sports ground attendant from Lesotho, Vincent won the race.  But Cavin Woodward also attracted the attentions of the press as a pre-race favorite.  The 28-year-old from England held the world records for 50 and 100 miles and was the latest winner of the London to Brighton.  Certainly Woodward was up beat about his chances.  “I am going all out to win.  Not only is that my attitude in all my races, I feel obliged to give my best for the people back home.  My motto is to run as fast as I can for as long as I can…”

Alan Robb was seen as a real threat and Derrick Preiss, now winner of the 1974 and 1975 races was looking to make it a hat trick.

So as tradition would have it, Max crowed, the gun went off and the race began.  Right from the beginning it was Woodward that was determined to stamp authority on the race, and left town at “one hell of a pace” according to the radio reports.

Camperdown, the sun beginning to climb and it was Woodward a full six minutes ahead of any rival.  The next bunch included Preiss, Rakabele and Robb.

At Drummond, Woodward was in full flight, still six minutes ahead of the chasing bus.  But sooner or later the cracks were to show.  Word started to get back to Woodward’s pursuers that he was tiring, and that the leading gap was slowly closing.  Approaching Hillcrest, with yet another climb, Preiss, Rakabele and Robb broke away from the others and set about overtaking Woodward.

Rakabele, Preiss and Robb reached the top of Field’s Hill together, only for Robb to run into a race marshal who was in the way.  Then deeper tragedy struck, Derrick Preiss felt a sudden pull at the back of his left knee and with that recurring hamstring injury, and he was unable to stride out, his hopes of a hat trick were now dashed.

Preiss’ setback came as a shock to Rakabele who had paced him through the entire morning.  Now he set off in search of Robb as his pacesetter.  Rakabele fairly chased Robb across the Pinetown Flats.  Soon it was the turn of Rakabele to falter and he began to limp.  Sadly, a race that could have ended with the first black winner was not to be.  The battle that day was fierce for the top placings, with only four minutes separating the first five through the three-quarter mark.  Woodward, never-say-die, was battling on determinedly, but now was not looking a likely winner.  For it was Robb, efficient, machine-like, who looked like the winner.  He took the lead and raced off to Durban.

At Westville, Robb now well ahead of his second rival, Rakabele, had a second shock, with neither marshals nor visible signboards to guide him, - a serious oversight on the part of the organisers – the leader took the wrong turning.  After some 400 meters he was told by an onlooker that he was on the wrong road so he stopped to turn back, but his attendant told him to carry on, as he would join the highway further on. 

By the time Robb turned into Old Dutch Road, a sure winner, not withstanding all the mishaps along the way, the question asked of many was, can he beat the record.  But that was not to be.  Alan Robb finished and won in grand style.  The time on the clock was 5:40:43.  Only 1 min 34 secs outside Dave Levick’s record run.

Given that the course was over two kilometers longer and the mishaps along the way, most in the know took note; here was a real talent, the reign of Robb had begun.

Gabeshane (Vincent) Rakabaele, strongly favored as a winner, received a tremendous ovation from the big, predominantly white crowd, when he ran into the stadium. He finished only a second behind Ashworth to become the first black athlete to ever to have won a gold medal. Eighth placed Rakabele, achieved much in 1976 to put black athletics on the map, a win at Two Oceans earlier in April, a sub-six run in Comrades and the reward of gold. The depth of black athlete's talent was encouraging. Of the twenty entrants all finished, with three in the top twenty. Lawrence  Hlope 15th  in a time of 6hr 10 min and Zwelitsha Gono 20th in 6hr 13.

The times in South Africa were a-changing, before the year was finished there were unparalleled riots in the townships, Soweto became a household name across the world.  There were petrol restrictions, and for some the isolation of South Africa would prove to be heart breaking.  Alan Robb after his fine Comrades win was sent by the organisers to run in the London-to-Brighton.  But, alas, before the race, thanks to racial sport politics, South Africa was expelled from international competition and Robb was denied the opportunity of officially competing.

Life nevertheless went on as did the Comrades Marathon, and by the time entries closed for the 1977 race, there was a record field despite the petrol restrictions.  For the first time ever in the history of the race, entrants topped the 2000 mark.  History will record one novice to this batch of 914 was that of one Bruce Noel Stevenson Fordyce.  But more about him later. An upper age limit of 65 years was imposed a few years earlier, and sadly this kept the familiar light frame of Liege Boulle from competing. Sadly, the first woman to have run the Comrades, Francis Hayward died earlier that year at the age of 85.

Of the top twenty to have finished the 1976 race, seventeen were back.  The war-horse, Rakabele now a proud gold medallist was there, as was Robb.

Always it is Fields Hill on the up run that gets any runner, in the front of the race or as a back packer, it is unwise for experienced runner or novice  to show his hand here. For in 1977 it was Dave Wright that made his move on the notorious hill. He was closely followed by quite a large bus that included Robb, Rakabele, Gordon Shaw and Tim Blankly.

Botha's Hill came and went,  and it was still Dave Wright in front with Robb, Rakabele and Steve Atkins chasing. By the time the leader reached Drummond, the positions were unchanged, but coming out of the valley that is Drummond, Atkins began to fall away from Robb and Rakabele. Meantime out in front now looking quite relaxed, Wright leaned into the test of Inchanga.  That cruel hill finally proved to be a stern test for Wright that day and while he still held the lead on Harrison Flats, he was beginning to show all the signs of weariness.

Near Cato Ridge, it was all to change. Robb and Rakabele had caught up to a tired Wright. As they passed, Wright touched Robb and then Rakabele on the shoulder, wished them luck, and the duo pressed on to Pietermaritzburg.

Now out in front, Robb and Rakabele were really flying. Rakabele was known for his tactic of shadowing Robb in the long race. And it was along here that Robb stopped briefly along the side of the road. Vincent had the opportunity to go, but as the story goes, he waited with Robb to finish his ablutions and then carried on to Maritzburg, as Robb's shadow.

At Tumble Inn Robb put in a surge that left the little Lesotho runner with no answer. Robb struck and any chance of an exiting duel between these two evaporated into the hot, dry Natal air. From that point onwards it was Robb all the way, he strode over Polly Shorts and raced at phenomenal speed to the finish. Robb stormed across the line in the record-breaking time of 5:47:09. The 23-year-old bank official thus joined the Comrades Greates who had won the race in successive years, Newton, Ballington, Hayward, Walsh, Mekler, Bagshaw and Preiss.

It was over 10 minutes before the second man crossed the line, It was Steve Atkins, and looking much the worse for wear he collapsed into the arms of and ambulance attendant. One minute later a rather fresh looking Dave Wright broke into an impromptu dance, something between a tango and a waltz, before he crossed the line. This was much of a tradition with Wright and he earned the name: Dancing Dave Wright. Rakabele came in fourth, and although he showed a lack of pacing judgement, had a fine run and was now the owner of two gold medals.

After the race, Robb commented" I had intended going hard from Camperdown, but then I started at Polly's. I wasn't really worried about Dave Wright. Rakabele's shadowing me probably gave me added drive because he always runs behind me like that. I was just determined to really push him this time".

By 1978 Robb had become a household name in South Africa. The pundits reckoned he had all the makings of a truly great runner, technique, stamina and the right psychological make-up. Robb, generally a modest man took the unusual step of predicting a time of 5:35 for a finish. This would break the record. "I think it is a good idea to go in with a positive approach. If I get the record, it will be the cherry on the top. Robb gave notice early on of his intention and was one of the first entries received by the organisers that year. Clearly a win this year will put him up there with Newton and Bagshaw, the only two who can boast a hat-trick of wins. Not even Hayward or Mekler could boast that feat.

That year the entries were huge, 3094 and counted among them was former Springbok fast bowler, Peter Pollock and former Springbok rugby center Wilf Rosenberg. Neither a heart attack nor slowly developing blindness was going to stop 46-year-old Ron Clockie from competing. "This is actually a fight against myself, because I have always wanted to finish 15 Comrades" He had partnered the blind competitor, Ian Jardine in years gone by, and now he was to have a sighted runner, Max Braughton, tied to him and showing him the way.

Thankfully the weather was cool that year. The race quickly took shape and by the steep decent into Drummond was encountered; the leaders were Wright, Atkins and Robb. By the time they reached Drummond, the trio were running together, and were about seven minutes adrift of Mick Orton's time to that point when he did his record breaking run.

Coming out of the valley, on the Alvestone hill, Robb made is move. Robb raced down Botha's Hill and up to Hillcrest. The tall, droopy-mustached runner looked almost as fresh as when he started. Robb fairly exploded down Fields Hill and barring any mishaps, by the time he was striding along the Pinetown Flats, all the calculations looked like a possible finish in under 5:30. Now running through a corridor of cheering spectators, neither without faltering nor with the suggestion of a bad patch, Robb raced to TollGate. Now on the outskirts of Durban, a certain winner, for the second man Wright, was fifteen minutes behind him, the question burned, "how much will he knock off the record?"

By the time Robb ran into the Stadium at Kingsmead, the 10 000 strong crowd at the finish were cheering wildly. Never before in the history of the race had a runner come home so early. And now Robb, calm and business like in his manner, much like the Newton of old this modest but determined runner crossed the line in a blazing 5:29:14. When Robb crossed the line on that day, the second man was still at Mayville, over four kilometers back.

The weather was kind that day, and as a result 95% of the field finished in 1978. It is worthy to note from the results that among the finishers were Peter Pollock in 9:48 and Wilf Rosenberg in 9:25. After the race Rosenberg commented, the Comrades isn't a race, it's murder. During my rugby years a learned to play through pain and injury, but never have I pushed myself to these boundaries of exhaustion. Getting my medal was truly a great moment". Happily that entrepid blind runner, Ron Clokie finished with 13 minutes to spare. The results also Tim Noakes, sports science supremo finishing to claim a late silver in 397th position and Brice Fordyce finished his second run in a time of 6:11 to claim 14th position.

What a race, what a day, the Comrades Marathon has surely entered into a golden age.

The entries were coming in at a fairly regular stream for the 1979 race. No one dared look further than Robb for the winner. Barring any upsets, this would be the man to beat. Then the entry of a dark horse did appear that of perhaps the most talented athlete South Africa has ever seen, Johnny Halberstadt. Halberstadt's entry had the road running fraternity buzzing with excitement. He was an exceptionally gifted athlete, who held every record worth mentioning on the road and on the track. Halberstadt even boasted a sub 4-minute mile. Halberstadt, outspoken, controversial and gifted was a professional to the core, didn't do things by halves and quickly assembled around him a team of helpers, a chiropractor and top athlete and friend Bernard Rose. "I'm interested in Comrades because we can't go overseas anymore," said the irrepressible Halberstadt and later" If Robb is only five minutes ahead of me at halfway, he won't have it sewn up yet"

The start in Durban, 31 May 1979, Republic Day, was the exciting affair that the public had now become to expect. The entries were at a record 3410; the crowd at the start was huge. As he had done regularly for over the previous 40 years, 77-year-old max Trimborn once again attended the start. Now and old man with thinning white hair, his cock crow elicited a crowing response, the gun was fired and the human river set off to the Midlands the last race of the '70's was to be an exciting affair.

By the time the runners reached 45th Cutting, Halberstadt had given notice of his intentions, was in the lead and making the entire running. Steve Atkins was hanging in with him. On Field's Hill it was still Halberstadt showing the rest the way to Maritzburg. Halberstadt had averaged 16.6 kilometers to the hour at this early stage of the race. Comrades cognoscenti were beginning to question the wisdom of this. Halberstadt was flaunting the first dictum of Arthur Newton: "take it kindly: it's safer to run within your ability"

Drummond, and Halberstadt set up a new record to the halfway 2:45:30. Then came Piet Vorster, Atkins and Robb was further back clearly not looking at all comfortable. By the time the leader, Halberstadt reached Cato Ridge, it looked like he was going to upset the Comrades apple-cart completely and that he would easily break the record.

Very often pride does come before the fall. The Comrades is oftentimes a stern teacher of respect. At the highest point in the race, the rampant Wanderers star was brought back to earth. First forced to walk, and then to lie down, the Halberstadt express clearly was in trouble. Vorster, running an unbelievable race capitalised and moved quickly into the lead. Then Wright passed the ailing Halberstad, reduced to lying on the side of the road and shivering while his attendants rallied around. In the end he lost a full 8 minutes, but always the competitor, he got up, and in true Comrader style ran back into the race.

Meantime ahead, Vorster pushed on, and by the time he reached the Mpusheni Bridge, was well clear of his pursuers, and braced himself for the formidable Polly Shorts. Halberstadt came back into the fray and soon caught Write. By the time the leader had crested Polly's the order was Vorster, Halberstadt and Write. Piet Vorster, a Maritzburg athlete entered Jan Smuts Stadium in fine style, and finished in a record breaking 5:45:02. Thus clipping 2 mins 7 sec off Robb's "Up" record.

To tremendous applause, Halberstadt entered the stadium five minutes later. Undismayed by being relegated to second place, the irrepressible Halberstadt wouldn't admit that his early excesses were his undoing, "It was just inexperience. I diluted my body salts, and drank too much water."

For Piet Vorster it was a remarkable day, he did not want to run the race, messed around and arrived at the start late. "After all the arguing with my brother Hannes and my second Mike Walsh, as to whether I should run or not, we got to the start late and I had to dash around to book in by 6 a.m., I finished booking in just as the runners made off"

The big surprise of the day was third placed Bruce Fordyce. "I still can't believe that I had so much to give towards the end. I must come back next year. Sure I'm pleased to have come third, but given a little experience I'm sure I could do better"

Prophetic words indeed. The 1970's saw the Comrades grow into the biggest Ultra Marathon race in the world. Mick Winn may have his dream after all, 5000 entrants. As the sun sets on another exciting decade, the future of this great race seems assured.

The Women’s Race in the 1970’s

When the organising committee allowed women to run in the race for the first time, there was to be a cruel twist of fate that would only allow half of the women entrants to run officially. This was so because in the 1975 Jubilee Year when the momentous decision was taken, the field was restricted in total to only 1500 runners. The cold, calculating logic of the computer did the work and consequently of the four entrants only two were allowed to run. Of the four, three were seasoned campaigners and the two who were selected to pioneer official participation were Liz Cavanagh of Nongoma who had finished the race four times and Mavis Hutchinson, fondly known as the “Galloping Granny” who had also finished the race on four previous occasions. Lettie Van Zyl sadly was not picked but had completed the Comrades on two previous occasions, this was especially sad since, like the Cavenaghs, she and her husband were a popular distance running team. Earlier in that year grandmother Mavis Hutchinson ran the 1600 kilometres from Pretoria to Cape Town in 23 days to mark the occasion of the Cape Town Festival.

The story of the three women who ran proved the computer wrong. Unable to compete officially because the computer considered her qualifying times not good enough, Lettie van Zyl – wife of Flippie – was first by far. She crossed the line in 8:50; undoubtedly the fastest run ever by a woman for the up run, and close to Maureen Holland’s unofficial down record of 8:35 for the 1971 race.

Lettie was mistakenly handed a silver medal as she crossed the line, but smiles soon turned to tears when she was obliged to hand it back because she was not an official competitor. She had run a great race, finishing strongly and without any signs of distress well ahead of many of her men compatriots. It must be said though that the organising club, Collegians Harriers rose to the occasion later, and at prize giving, awarded her “colours” and permitted her to wear the coveted Comrades Marathon Blazer.

And of the official entrants, Mavis Hutchinson faded at about halfway and it was left to the entrepid Elizabeth Cavenagh to be the only official women finisher in a time of 10:08. She took 1038th position, jointly with her husband Tony. Small beginnings, perhaps, but women were now officially part and parcel of the Comrades marathon, this was a big step for equality.

The restrictions of numbers were lifted in 1976 and for the first time Lettie van Zyl was allowed to enter officially. Her fitness was in doubt however, since a pre-race injury seriously curtailed her training. Never the less, she started the race, and in a time of 9:05, she won her first official race. Lettie Kleynhans followed her in a creditable time of 9:35.

To encourage women’s running, the Rose Bowl was introduced in 1977. Of course, Lettie van Zyl was the firm favourite for a win. However, in the early stages of the race it was a 26-year-old novice, Thea Claasen of Pretoria who headed the leader board through Drummond. In the end youth yielded to experience and it was 43 year old, bespectacled Lettie Van Zyl, the darling of the roads, for it was a fine run when she beat nine hours for the up run clocking in at 8:58.

In 1978, again it was Lettie van Zyl. She had secured her hat trick of wins, and her time of 8:25 broke the unofficial “down” record of Maureen Holland by 12 minutes. Sue Wagenar, a novice finished in 8:43 to claim second place.

While the total race numbers grew exponentially, the women’s race showed slow growth in those early days, and entries in the 1979 race totalled only 17. Among those starters was novice, Cheryl Jorgenson, later to become Cheryl Winn, wife to Mick, a great stalwart of the race. She herself was to make significant contributions to the race administration in later years.

Of the heroines, 29-year-old Jan Mallen of Johannesburg became the first woman in the history of the Comrades marathon to be awarded an official silver medal. Running strongly, she came smiling up the final strait to finish in 8:22:41. the first woman home and the winner of a silver medal newly awarded for that honour., and the women’s trophy, the Rose Bowl. A novice, she turned the tables on another newcomer, Moira Hornby, of Hillcrest, who was two minutes ahead of her at halfway. Both were chased home by a hard running Lettie van Zyl. After Mallen’s fine win that year, Hornby came home in 8:29 and van Zyl in 8:32.

And thus ended the first decade of woman’s official running of the Comrades. One may well stand on the Incahnga Bank and ponder what all the fuss was all about in the earlier years. One thing is for sure, when the chips were down the fairer sex proved themselves many times over to also be the stronger and most determined sex.   

HALL OF FAME

RESULTS

Men's Race

Year

First

Time

Second

Time

Third

Time

Medals

1970 - Up Run

D. Bagshaw

5hr51*

D. Box

5hr58

H.E. Renken

6hr10

636

1971 - Down Run

D. Bagshaw

5hr47

D. Levick

5hr48

G.R. Baker

5hr57

925

1972 - Up Run

M. Orton (UK)

5hr48*

D. Bagshaw

5hr53

D. Box

5hr59

973

1973 - Down Run

D. Levick

5hr39*

G.R. Baker

5hr42

J.P. McBrearty

5hr46

1221

1974 - Up Run

D. Preiss

6hr02

J. Sutherland

6hr04

A.G. Robb

6hr06

1158

1975 - Up Run

D. Preiss

5hr53

G.W. Shaw

6hr03

J. Sutherland

6hr06

1241

1976 - Down Run

A.G. Robb

5hr40

C. Woodward

5hr49

D.A. Rogers

5hr52

1408

1977 - Up Run

A.G. Robb

5hr47*

S. Atkins

5hr57

D.R.H. Wright

5hr58

1678

1978 - Down Run

A.G. Robb

5hr29*

D.R.H. Wright

5hr48

S. de Koning

5hr49

2598

1979 - Up Run

P.F. Vorster

5hr45*

J.P. Halberstadt

5hr50

B.N.S. Fordyce

5hr51

2824

* = Record

Holder of record at end of the decade

Down                    Alan Robb                5hr29min14sec             1978

Up                        Piet Vorster             5hr45min02sec             1979

RESULTS

Women's Race

Year

First

Time

Second

Time

Third

Time

1975 - Up Run

E. Cavanagh

10r08*

       

1976 - Down Run

A. Van Zyl

9hr05*

A. Kleynhans

9hr35

L. Oberholzer

9hr53

1977 - Up Run

A. Van Zyl

8hr58*

S.D. Claassen

9hr18

M.J. Duyvejonck

9hr51

1978 - Down Run

A. Van Zyl

8hr25*

S.D. Wagner

8hr43

J.P. Clarke

8hr53

1979 - Up Run

J.R. Mallen

8hr22*

M.L. Hornby

8hr29

A. Van Zyl

8hr32

* = Record

Holder of record at end of the decade

Down                    Lettie Van Zyl          8hr25min                         1978

Up                        Jan Mallen               8hr22min                         1979