The Comrades Marathon owes its beginnings to the vision of one man, World War I veteran Vic Clapham. After the outbreak of the Great War 1914-1918, Clapham signed up with the 8th South African Infantry which marched 1700 miles through East Africa.
After witnessing the hardship, and death of his comrades which he wanted to create a memorial to the suffering they had gone through and the lives lost. And more importantly to that which left a most last impression on him: the camaraderie that he experienced despite such deprivations.
Clapham approached the League of Comrades of the Great War for support of his dream, to stage a race between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban, a fitting setting for a memorial of physical and endurance and stamina. After his application was refused in 1919 and 1920, finally in 1921 the League relented and the Comrades Marathon was born on a loan of 1 pound for expenses that Mr Clapham had to repay.
The first Comrades Marathon took place on 24th May 1921, Empire Day, starting outside the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg with 34 runners. It has continued since then every year with the exception of the war years 1941-1945, with the direction alternating each year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, the so called up & down runs. Today the race boasts a field capped at 18 000 runners.
The race has gone through changes throughout the years; the cut off time changing from 12hrs to 11hrs and back again more recently. Women and non-white runners were first officially allowed to participate in 1975, and the race has become more inclusive every year. Runners completing 10 runs receive a Green Number, and keep their race numbers for perpetuity, the first to ever be awarded one, being Liege Boulle. The race abounds in tradition with Shosholoza and Max Trimborn’s recorded cock-crow being played at every race start.
Over the years a number of runners have left their stamp on the race: 9 time winner Bruce Fordyce; 8 time winner Elena Nurgalieva; 5 time winners Arthur Newton, Hardy Ballington, Wally Hayward, and Jackie Mekler; 4 time winner and first to break 5hrs 30 Alan Robb, and 3 time winner Frith Van Der Merwe who after over 20 years still holds the fastest ever time in the women’s race.
With 88 years under its belt the Comrades Marathon is the oldest Ultra Marathon in the world, it remains one of the toughest road races on the planet and each year reminds us that through adversity there is hope. Year after year the goodness in humanity comes to the fore – making Comrades the Ultimate Human Race.
The Comrades Marathon medal has remained true in size and design since its inception in 1921. There are some that speak slightingly of its size and general appearance as being insignificant, but as Morris Alexander wrote in his book “The Comrades Marathon Story":
"No sports medals have ever been so dearly won and cherished as the Comrades Marathon medals. It was surely an original stroke of genius on the part of Comrades founder Vic Clapham to reward with these medals the efforts of all those who completed the course within the prescribed time"
The medal is 29mm in diameter and depicts the words "COMRADES MARATHON" and "MARITZBURG - DURBAN" encircling a striding figure of Hermes with winged feet and helmet. It would seem that the figure of Hermes was chosen as the emblem of Comrades Marathon on the basis of his renown as the messenger of the gods according to Greek mythology. He was also the god of land travel and the patron of roads and his relevance to Comrades can perhaps be drawn from this connection.
Silver Medal - The first medal awarded in 1921 was a SILVER MEDAL which was awarded to all finishers of the event up until 1931. An exception to this rule was a special bronze medal awarded to LEW Pearson who completed the distance in a time of 12hrs 20min in 1921.
Gold Medal - 1931 saw the introduction of the GOLD MEDAL, awarded to the first 6 men.
Bronze Medal - 1972 saw the major change of ten Gold medals being awarded, Silver to those runners completing the race in sub 7hrs 30min and those completing the race in sub 11hrs 00min receiving a BRONZE MEDAL.
In 1980, because of the cost of gold and silver, the quality of the medals was down graded. Gold medals became sterling silver medals plated with gold and Silver medals were to be silver plating over 'high quality gilding metal'.
Plated Medal - 2000, the millennium year, saw the introduction a new medal, the BILL ROWAN for those achieving a time from 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min, a medal with a bronze centre circled by a silver ring and named after Bill Rowan the winner of the first Comrades in 1921. His winning time being 8hrs 59min, therefore anyone winning a Bill Rowan would have complete the event faster than the winner of the first race.
A new copper medal, the fifth in the series, was added in 2003 with the introduction of the VIC CLAPHAM medal for those finishing from 11hrs 00min to sub 12hrs 00min. This coincides with the increase in the time allocation for completing the event from sub 11hrs to sub 12hrs.
The Comrades Marathon Back-to-Back medal was introduced in 2005 and henceforth was awarded to novice runners who complete an 'up or down run' in succession. In terms of the implementation thereof, Back-to-Back medals were automatically awarded to 2005 Comrades Marathon finishers who had completed their first Comrades Marathon in 2004. As with any new innovation, the award was never intended to be retrospective, owing to administrative restrictions. However, in response to popular demand, the CMA have decided to make the Back-to-Back medal available for purchase to runners who have previously fulfilled the criteria of completing both an 'up' and a 'down' Comrades Marathon.
A new medal - the “Wally Hayward” - was introduced in 2007. The Comrades Marathon Association wanted to honour one of South Africa’s greatest athletes, and at the same time to recognise the outstanding performances of elite athletes who narrowly miss a gold medal. This new medal is awarded to those who do not finish in the top 10, yet complete the race within six hours. The late Wally Hayward was one of the greatest ever Comrades Marathon runners. His seven medals included five wins, three of them record breaking runs. He had a remarkable Comrades career spanning 60 years. Wally remains the oldest person ever to finish the race.
MEDALS CURRENTLY AWARDED
Gold Medals - First 10 men and first 10 women
Wally Hayward Medals - Position 11 to sub 6hrs 00min
Silver Medals - 6hrs 00min to sub 7hrs 30min
Bill Rowan Medals - 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min
Bronze Medals - 9hrs 00min to sub 11hrs 00min
Vic Clapham - 11hrs 00min to sub 12hrs 00min
On only three occasions has the medal changed in size and design. The size of the commemorative medal has remained constant at 40mm diameter although the design of the medal has been specific to the occasion.
1975 - A special medal was struck to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Comrades Marathon. This medal bore a commemorative '50'.
1988 - A special medal was struck to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the City of Pietermaritzburg.