1975 was a momentous year in the history of the Comrades Marathon. Apart from this year marking the Golden Jubilee, the 50th running of this world classic long distance race, it was also noteworthy for the introduction of a number of innovations and indeed a substantial character change in the race.
For the first time in its long history the event was officially opened this year to runners of all race groups and to women competitors. Prior to 1975 Natal and South African Athletic Association rules prohibited women competing with men, juniors with seniors and except with government approval, blacks competing with whites. One of the obstacles to opening the race to all runners had been of one of purely organisational consideration and that was the possibility of a huge increase in the number of competitors to unmanageable proportions. The organizers, then the athletic club Collegians Harriers, were mindful of the need to transform the Comrades into a truly international event, attracting runners from all over the world, but were also anxious not to eliminate the real spirit and true meaning of the race and led committee spokesman, Bert Bendzulla to comment This spirit is not to be found among the champions, but among the many hundreds of ordinary people who run not to win, but just to complete, in the allotted time, one of the worlds toughest challenges.
1975 also saw the introduction of a field limit of 1 500 runners (since abandoned) and the necessity for runners to prove qualifying times. Thus it was that after computerised pruning of 1 686 entrants to the required 1 500 there were 18 non-white runners and two women and the fear of a huge influx of runners did not materialise. These two groups of disadvantaged runners are as much pioneers and heroes of the Comrades Marathon as those whose exploits have been sung and documented though the history of the race and their perseverance and courage in competing without any official recognition is deserving of recognition.
The first unofficial black runner to run the Comrades Marathon was one Robert Mtshali, who ran in 1935 completing the race in the creditable time of 9 hr 30 min. Councillor V.L.Shearer gave him a small presentation. Others were to follow, but not for many years. Just prior to World War 2 a separate event known as the Suncrush Marathon, was organised exclusively for black runners, but the allure was still to run the Comrades Marathon.
Zwelitshe Gono was one such athlete who started running Comrades before the days of official recognition, and despite now being the proud holder of 23 official Comrades medals, and Double Green Number, is largely unknown. He has among his 23 medals, 12 silvers, and is still a staunch Comrades runner. Well known among local Pietermaritzburg runners is Simon Mkhize, another who started running Comrades with great enthusiasm in the unofficial era and who now also carries his number in perpetuity with 15 medals to his credit, including 3 silvers. Simon seems to have retired from long distance running in recent years having last run Comrades in 1993.
The first black runner to win an official Comrades Marathon medal was Vincent Rakabaele, who in 1975 finished in 20th position in a time of 6 hr 27 min. He ran again in 1976 and 1975 finishing 4th and 8th and sparking speculation as to whether he would be the first black winner of the race, but this was not to be.
It was Sam Tshabalala who ran into the history books in 1989 when he won the down run in a time of 5 hr 35min 51 sec. This time would have secured him further wins in subsequent years, but this was sadly not to be. Sam was seriously injured in a motor accident in 1991. After the most remarkable and courageous fight-back Sam returned to again attempt Comrades in 1992, when he finished in the excellent time of 6 hr 23 min to secure a silver medal. He has continued running, achieving another 3 silver medals and is always greeted with a rousing welcome at the finish. In March of 1998 Sam was awarded the prestigious Platinum Medal by the Comrades Marathon Association in recognition of his contribution to the Comrades Marathon.
Another black winner was to follow in 1992 when Jetman Msutu was declared the winner after he had finished second to Charl Mattheus who was unfortunately disqualified.
Perhaps the best remembered of the emerging black runners was Hoseah Tjale, affectionately known in the running world as Hoss. In the 1980 event, after having run conservatively in the first half thus conserving his strength for the closing stages, he was leading the race at a crucial stage and looked a possible first black winner. He eventually finished 6th. In the next few years Hoss provided Comrades King Bruce Fordyce with possibly the stiffest challenge from any black runner, scoring two 2nd and two 3rd places. He completed a total of 13 Comrades with 9 golds and 4 silvers, a truly sterling performance.
Women runners entered the ranks of official status along with the opening of the event to all races in 1975, but here also there had been a handful of women who had tackled the grueling event without recognition. The first was Frances Hayward in 1923. She finished in a time of 11 hr 35 min in 28th position. (In the early days the time limit was 12 hours).
It was not until 1931 that another brave lady made an appearance at the start and that was Geraldine Watson, a Durban schoolteacher. She had done only 6 weeks of training and commented after the race that she had nearly given up at Kloof. She finished in a little over 11 hours. She ran again in 1932 and became the first woman to complete both an up and a down run. Halfway up Polly Shorts she went to her helper and said I feel my toe has come off in my shoe, the only sympathy she got was Well I am not going to take your shoe off so carry on Her finishing time was 11 hr 56 min. In 1933 she ran her 3rd consecutive Comrades, but this year put in 6 months of training and finished in 9 hr 31 min. Geraldine Watson participated in nearly every Comrades Marathon as spectator, competitor, helper and attendant since the 1920s. Sadly she died in 1975, the Golden Jubilee Year which marked the opening of the race to women. She donated the trophy for the last runner to finish, the Geraldine Watson Trophy.
Others who ran in the unofficial years were the well-known ultra distance runner, Mavis Hutchinson, who completed 7 Comrades. She ran for the first time in 1965 and again the following year, becoming the second women after Geraldine Watson to complete an up and a down run. Her first run inspired Maureen Holland who watched her run past in Pinetown, to attempt the race herself in 1966. Maureen went on to run a total of six Comrades and had the distinction of holding the best time for the women runners when in 1971 she completed the course in 8 hr 32 min. When asked what could possibly induce runners like herself to submit to such a grueling test as Comrades without official recognition, she replied that the training was so enjoyable, the people were so nice and that the personal satisfaction of finishing the race was inspiration enough.
Lettie Van Zyl was another who ran unofficially from 1973, and later secured 3 consecutive wins in 1976,77 and 78. Maureen Holland recalls that Lettie was an enthusiastic campaigner for the acceptance of women as official runners and was a great encouragement to others. Lettie presented Maureen with one of her own medals, engraved with Maureens name and 1971 time, a great sporting gesture.
In 1967 while waiting for her husband Tony to finish his training session at Alexandra Park, Elizabeth Cavanagh decided on an impulse to give running a go. She was still in her mid thirties and had never taken part in any sport before. She bought a tracksuit and a pair of Tigers and her running career began. She ran her first Comrades in 1970, finishing with 10 minutes to spare. She ran again in 71, 72, and 73 and in 1975 became the first women in Comrades history to earn a finishers medal. Betty has secured her Green Number by completing 10 Comrades.
These are some of the people who have made a contribution to Comrades Marathon, accepting not only the challenge of the worlds toughest road race, but also the added hurdle of having to compete as unofficial runners and complete the course to attain nothing more than personal satisfaction, an inspiringly commendable effort in the true spirit of Comrades.