THE WORLDS GREATEST ULTRA-MARATHON BY CMA MUSEUM CURATOR, ROXANNE THOMAS
Back in 1921, when founder Vic Clapham held the first Comrades Marathon, those 34 participants would have had a difficult time imagining the magnitude of the event that they had just helped to create. In fact, it wasn’t until 1959 that the Comrades Marathon would see more than 100 people line up at the start. Even those 103 that began the race in 1959 were a huge increase to the mere 19 who were brave enough to attempt the 1936 leg of the race.
From the 1960’s, with the idea of exercise and healthy living starting to become a mainstream following, the race began to really grow in earnest, with the end of the decade seeing a starting line-up of 703 runners.
The 1970’s must be viewed as the decade where the biggest transformations took place, moulding and transforming the Comrades into the race we know and love today. It all began with the first starting line-up of over a thousand in 1971 (1061 starters).
The increasing numbers of runners was beginning to create havoc on the roads as every runner required a seconding vehicle to provide their refreshments along the route.
This brought about the need to introduce refreshment tables to help runners whose seconders were stuck in traffic and couldn’t get to them. In 1974 the first refreshment station went up at the halfway mark and by 1979, these refreshment stations were upped to 50 and all seconding vehicles were banned from the route. Gone were the days of choking exhaust fumes and having to negotiate cars, as well as fellow runners.
1975 was a pivotal year as the decision to open the race up to all, regardless of race or gender, was made. This, for many, can be viewed as the turning point that has made this event such a unified force of good in our country.
Another ground-breaking moment of the 1970’s was the introduction of the first medical tent in 1977, something we couldn’t even dream of doing without in today’s races. By the end of the decade, starting figures had climbed to 3001.
1980 must have come as a big surprise to race organizers as the number of starters rose by over a thousand in just a year, seeing 4208 runners lining up outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. With these new massive fields, the last race day registration took place in 1982, as signing in 4887 people just before the event began must have been a feat in itself.
So 1983 ushered in the pre-race Comrades Expo that is now world-class; as well as the first intermittent television coverage of the race. This was so well received that the next year a full-length broadcast was shown, cementing the Comrades as an annual event for all South Africans – whether you were on the road or in the comfort of your own home.
The impact of these broadcasts cannot be underestimated as it saw starting numbers soar from 7435 in 1984 to 9058 in 1985. The Comrades Marathon was now established as South Africa’s most cherished marathon. By the end of the decade, numbers were peaking over the ten thousand mark and the new decade ushered in a starting line-up of 11,779 runners from all races and walks of life.
The year 2000 will always be indelibly marked on the pages of history as the starting line-up spiked to 23,961 people, thus securing the Comrades Marathon as the World’s Largest Ultra-Marathon.
From that point numbers stabilized back down to the lower ten thousands with a steady and gradual rise occurring again from 2010 (16,482 starters) and in that year, made it into in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the highest number of recorded finishers in an ultra-marathon.
The 2018 Comrades Marathon once again saw a surge in entries with our normal 3-month entry period filling in just 3 weeks! It was with this in mind that a decision to raise the entry cap from our standard 20 000 to 25 000 for 2019 was made.
The team at the office are in awe of the commitment our runners show every year, with over 60% of the entry cap being taken up in the first day of entry opening. Fifteen thousand entries in one day will be marked in the pages of our history books as one of the most phenomenal demonstrations of what this race has come to mean to our runners. The total cap was reached by the close of Thursday – only a week after opening of entries.
To those who have committed themselves to the 2019 leg of the race, we wish you all the best in your training over the following months and we cannot wait to see if that Guinness record starting line-up of the year 2000 is about to broken. Sizonqoba – Together We Triumph!