CENTENARY CELEBRATION ADDRESS FROM CMA CHAIRPERSON, CHERYL WINN

Ladies and Gentlemen, Let me begin by congratulating our Proudly South African athlete Irvette van Zyl, as well as Ethiopian Ketema Negas on setting new world 50km records yesterday in Gqeberha, as well as South Africans Jonas Makhele, Ntsindiso Mphakathi, Sibusiso Khubeka and Bongmusa Mthembu all of whom finished inside Thompson Magawane’s 32 year old record, l also congratulate Eastern Province Athletics, ASA and Nedbank on what was a fantastic and truly uplifting achievement for our sport.

 The Mayor of Msunduzi His Worship Mzimkhulu Thebolla and the Mayor of eThekwini His Worship Mxolisi Kaunda.  The Comrades Marathon from inception has always been a tale of two cities, but it is a rare occasion, on which we have been graced with the presence of the highest-ranking citizens of both cities at the same time, and it is indeed an honour, gentlemen, to have you both with us today. 

Mr James Moloi, President of Athletics South Africa, Congratulations, sir, on your recent election. May I be the first to extend a very warm welcome to KwaZulu-Natal and Comrades House and thank you for unveiling our Comrades Centenary Monument.

Mr Steve Mkasi, President of KwaZulu-Natal Athletics, my first opportunity to publicly address you in that capacity, and may I also congratulate you on your recent election.

Mr Aleck Skhosana, Secretary General of the Confederation of African Athletics Southern Region, and a long-standing friend of the Comrades Marathon, you are also warmly welcomed.

Representing the KZN Department of Sport & Recreation Mr Manqoba Bhengu, Director of Community Sport Promotion & Development.

Mr Johan Kruger, Secretary of the SA Legion of Military Veterans, the forerunner of which was the League of Comrades of the Great War founded in 1917, under the auspices of which the first Comrades Marathon was staged.

Mr William Swartbooi, Chairperson of Two Oceans Marathon, thank you for joining this celebration and for the longstanding close cooperative friendship our two events have enjoyed for over 50 years.

Former Chairpersons of the Comrades Marathon Association, Mervyn Williams, Jeff Minnaar, Barry Varty, Dave Dixon, Peter Proctor, MacDonald Chitja, Sifiso Nzuza, and in his absence Adrian Stowell, each of whom together with their respective volunteer committees and boards helped to mould this organisation into what it is today.

Mqondisi Ngcobo, CMA Vice Chairperson and fellow members of the current Board.  Our Board has had the dubious honour of steering the race through the troubled waters of the past two years, as well as the daunting mission of sustaining and launching it into its next century, a responsibility of which we are constantly mindful and deeply committed.

Keletso Tothlanyo, CMA General Manager, Rowyn James, Race Director and all CMA staff members who have worked tirelessly to put together this momentous occasion. You have truly excelled yourselves, and we are deeply appreciative of your efforts.

CMA Elders, Members of the Race Organising Committee, Comrades Marathon Sponsors, Representatives of Comrades Official Charities, Members of the Media, Comrades Marathon winners, including our two reigning Champions, Bongmusa Mthembu of the 2018 Down Run and Edward Mothibi of the 2019 Up Run, Comrades runners and friends, an exceptionally good morning to all distinguished guests.

In absentia, I would also like to pay homage to CMA’s 24 International Brand Ambassadors scattered around the globe, for the vital but often unheralded work they do in promoting the Ultimate Human Race within their respective countries.  And I extend a very warm greeting to Comrades Marathon runners and supporters throughout the country and around the world, who are tuning into our livestream.

At the outset I wish to express gratitude that we are gathered here today and that we are safe and well, which is a blessing not to be taken for granted, as we have all come to realise over the past year.

It is my great honour and very pleasant duty to welcome you on behalf of the CMA Board to the home of the Comrades Marathon this morning, 100 years to the day upon which the first Comrades Marathon was staged on Tuesday 24th May 1921. 

Pietermaritzburg is our birthplace, and this is our home at which we are delighted to host this august gathering.  We have fielded a number of queries as to why we decided to host this celebration on a Monday and the answer is actually quite simple in that the date of today’s celebration was pre-determined 100 years ago on the day that the Comrades Marathon was inaugurated.

Many of you are familiar with the story of how the Comrades Marathon began with the dream and tireless efforts of a humble railway man, turned soldier, Vic Clapham, who returned from war with the vision of staging a living memorial to the suffering, loss of life, spirit, fortitude and camaraderie of the soldiers with whom he had experienced the devastation of World War 1. 

Perhaps less familiar is a decision taken at a CMA Annual General Meeting in the early 1990’s, that henceforth the Comrades Marathon would be dedicated to the spirit and memory of protagonists in all conflicts in which South Africans have made sacrifices, including the struggle for democracy in South Africa.

This is reflected on one of the plaques just unveiled on the Comrades Centenary Monument this morning.  And it is one of the ways in which generations of Comrades leaders have at times taken valiant decisions that have enabled the race to remain relevant in a contemporary context, while also remaining true to its heritage.

Today, as we in South Africa and indeed the world engage in an invisible war of an entirely different kind, it is perhaps fitting to reflect that the values of grit, determination, sacrifice, courage, hope, humanity and endurance upon which the Comrades Marathon was founded, are still relevant today.  And, it is the reason we chose to reflect on the Centenary Monument just unveiled, both the soldiers associated with the origins of the race and the heroic health care workers depicting the battle being waged against the pandemic which precluded the staging of the race in our 100th year.

On this occasion we pay homage to the many dedicated volunteers through the ages who struggled to keep the dream alive, as participation in Comrades gradually grew and dwindled throughout the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and even 60’s to as low as 8 finishers in the 1946 Comrades Marathon. And to the many passionate and committed individuals whose initiative, innovation, influence and at times courageous leadership enabled the race to grow from strength to strength, to its renown of today as the oldest footrace in Africa, the oldest, greatest, most famous, popular and competitive ultramarathon in the world, and the most inclusive sporting event in South Africa, having attracted a phenomenal 28,034 entries for what would have been 95th edition of the race in 2020.

It came as a great disappointment last year, when amongst all the other deprivations, the isolation, loss of life, livelihoods, liberties, and quality of life, the 2020 Comrades Marathon was brought to a halt by a microscopic virus for the first time in 75 years. 

And it was an even more devastating blow to have had to cancel the 2021 Comrades Marathon in our Centenary Year, while it gives us GREAT HOPE to see major international marathons, such as London, New York and Boston Marathons opening up later this year and a number of events such as the SA Track & Field Junior and Senior Championships, the recent SA Half Marathon Championships, a number of league cross country events and yesterday’s 50km World Record Challenge staged in Gqerbeha, that there may be light at the end of the tunnel for a return to some sort of normality for our sport, and especially now that the vaccine roll-out has commenced.

Being an old person myself, with the underlying condition of asthma, I was grateful to receive my first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine on Friday.  Ladies and gentlemen, we are often quick to criticise government, as is our right to do so, but often less quick to hand out kudos.  I think it is appropriate to commend government for delivering on its promise to commence phase 2 of the vaccination roll-out on the 17th of May, and equally important to express praise and gratitude to all health care workers who have been at the frontline of the war against Covid for well over a year now.  I encourage everyone to be vaccinated as soon as they are eligible, and in the meantime to observe all prescribed safety protocols.

In accordance with Covid protocols, as CMA we were strictly limited in the number of invitations we could extend for today’s celebration to the 200-odd, hand-picked guests who are assembled in this marquee. We would have loved to have thrown the celebration open to all Comrades Marathon runners, friends and supporters and there is little doubt that had we been able to so, we would have been able to fill the ICC in Durban, if not the whole of Moses Mabhida Stadium. 

Instead we will be staging the Comrades Centenary Hope Challenge, a virtual event, on Sunday the 13th June, the date on which the 2021 Comrades Marathon race was originally scheduled, and we are calling on all Comrades Marathon runners, family members, friends and supporters, in fact anyone who loves or has been inspired by the Comrades Marathon, to personally participate in our Centenary Celebrations over a distance of their choice, and experience the camaraderie of the Ultimate Human Race vicariously along with tens of thousands of runners in towns, villages, cities and rural areas throughout South Africa and the world. 

 For a R400 South African entry fee, runners completing either 21, 45 or 90km will receive a limited-edition commemorative t-shirt and upon completion thereof an extremely attractive genuine Comrades Centenary Hope Challenge Medal, which is destined to become a collector’s item.  This is not your average virtual event, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of a historical Centenary Celebration, while contributing towards ensuring the future sustainability of the Ultimate Human Race.

The Comrades Marathon is a cherished institution which forms part of our national heritage and a milestone celebration such as this gives pause to reflect on the journey that brought us to where we are today and pay homage to those who got us here.

Earlier today 34 runners, comprised of past winners, male runners who had completed 40 or more Comrades Marathons and  female runners who had completed 30 or more,  ran a symbolic re-enactment of the Start of the 1921 Comrades Marathon, in which 34 starters lined up to commence what was at the time perceived to be an inconceivably tough 56-mile journey run entirely on dirt roads, traversing tortuous hills, crossing several streams, and passing through farm gates (in retrospect I suppose it could aptly be described as South Africa’s first trail run).

It was a challenge deliberately conceived of as arduous, to reflect the hardship and adversity of war, and only 16 of them finished (a 53% drop-out rate).  The following year it was decided to present an even tougher challenge, by reversing the direction of the race from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.

The 1922 Comrades Marathon attracted 89 starters and produced only 26 finishers (a 66% drop-out rate) but nonetheless the event caught the imagination of the public with its sheer audacity, and while the winners were obviously widely lauded, anyone completing the distance was regarded as being somewhat superhuman.

In the intervening years what began as one man’s humble dream, would inspire and go on to lure generations of fervent runners, of all ages, demographics, creeds, nationalities, stations of life and relative athletic ability to tackle an extraordinary challenge that for many would change their lives forever.

The late, Morris Alexander, himself a runner and an historian who painstakingly researched and authored several editions of the first 60 years’ history of the Comrades Marathon (1st published in 1966, and last in 1985) wrote in the Introduction to his book, and I quote: 

“A hero may conquer a thousand adversaries on the battlefield, but he only becomes  noble by conquering himself.  This is what is achieved in the Comrades Marathon, the ultimate of all ultra-marathons.  With our feet on the ground, we reach for the stars. The seed sown by ex-soldier Vic Clapham has brought forth much fruit.  It is a privilege to run the Comrades Marathon and to be associated with it is to be enriched.”

I recall a similar remark by the late Lindsay Weight, winner of the 1993 and 1994 Comrades Marathons, who would often say that running and winning the Comrades Marathon had such a profound effect, that it largely determined the entire future direction of her life.

It is a common theme amongst Comrades runners, which will no doubt also be reflected upon by our very special guest speakers a little later on. Somewhere on the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg many of us have discovered something within ourselves that has changed our lives forever. 

Perhaps one of the most striking things about having reached 100 years in existence, is the fact that we have managed to get here at all.  Vic Clapham could never have foreseen what lay ahead and today’s Comrades Marathon would have been beyond his wildest imagination. 

The race has survived war, depression, apartheid, international isolation, times of boom and bust, commercialisation, professionalism, and globalisation.  It has witnessed competitors coming onto the scene, and for the past two years has faced a global pandemic.  The common thread throughout has always been that of endurance resilience, innovation and adaptation to new challenges and circumstances. 

There are obviously longer races than the Comrades Marathon and even tougher challenges, there are also faster, flatter courses, world famous standard marathons and other standard distances, and there are championships which bring the best ultramarathon runners from around the world together to compete, but there is only one race that brings together the history, prestige, incredibly tough course, distance, and such a competitive, massive, inclusive and diverse field all together in one day each year and that is the one and only Comrades Marathon.

The sheer madness of the distance and terrain was the first characteristic to capture the imagination and set it apart.  But the fortuitous decision to reverse the direction of the race from year to year is the differentiator that has stimulated debate through the ages and enticed bucket list runners back again.  In the early 1980’s it was Prof Tim Noakes who famously stated that, “Every able-bodied South African male should run the Comrades Marathon at least once,” obviously not a very PC remark by today’s standards.  But we all know that no one is truly regarded as a Comrades Marathon runner until he or she has run at least one Up and one Down.

For the first 7 years of the race the time limit was 12 hours, which was reduced to 11 hours in 1928 right through to 1999.  Gold medals were awarded to the first 6 finishers and silver to everyone else who finished within the time limit.

1972 brought the differentiation of awarding gold, silver and bronze medals, and the INSPIRED introduction of the opportunity for runners to earn their race numbers in perpetuity, the so-called Green Numbers, which further incentivised runners to keep coming back.

The most significant milestone in the history of the race however was the 1975 removal of restrictions based on race and gender, with the race thus becoming the first major sporting event in South Africa opened to men and women of all races, and in a sense the model for normal sport in South Africa. 

The other notable innovation which occurred in the early to mid-1970’s was that the firing of the gun to signal the end of the race became a serious ritual, in which the person firing the gun would turn his back on the runners and fire on exactly the 11th hour, regardless of who was approaching, a ritual which has become synonymous with the race.

Having taken 40 years for the race to grow to 1000 participants in 1971, between 71 and 1985 the race grew from 1000 to 10 000, and the modern Comrades Marathon evolved.  It was a period of significant change and innovation, with the gradual phasing out of personal seconding which had been a popular characteristic of the race for the first 50 years, and the introduction of refreshment stations to cater for all runners needs, as well as the provision of medical, physio and runners rescue services, leading to the eventual closure of the route to traffic, thus enabling race numbers to safely grow.

In 1982 the Comrades Marathon Association was inaugurated, shortly thereafter setting up 2 offices above a supermarket and butchery in Alexander Road, one for administration and the other fully occupied by a single computer that was the size of a room.  And so began the search for a home, which by 1987 CMA had purchased, restored to its former glory and to great fanfare launched the opening of this Comrades House and Museum at 18 Connaught Road.

In 1983 CMA introduced the concept of Expo and Race Registration, the first of its kind in South Africa, which to date is staged annually for 3 days prior to the race, grows from strength to strength each year and is regarded as a mecca for anyone remotely associated with the sport. 

Following years of international isolation, the Comrades Marathon was opened to international participation in 1993 with an immediate influx and step-up in interest and intensity of competition, followed shortly thereafter with the end of the amateur era and introduction of prize money in 1995, with the princely sum of R45 000 going to local Pietermaritzburg winner, Shaun Meiklejohn.

Always endeavouring to be at the forefront of innovation, In the late 1990’s CMA introduced the first mat and transponder timing system to be utilised in a South African race.

To celebrate the millennium and 75th Comrades Marathon in 2000 the time limit was extended to its original 12 hours, at which it has since remained owing to popular demand, and several new medals have been introduced including the Wally Hayward for men who finish outside the golds and under 6 hours, the Isavel Roche-Kelly for women who finish outside the golds and under 7½ hours, Bill Rowan for runners finishing between 7½ and under 9 hours, Robert Mtshali for runners finishing between 9 and 10 hours and Vic Clapham for runners finishing between 11 and 12 hours, thus providing aspirational incentives to go for runners throughout the field.

In 2005 coming full circle back to the 1922 decision to reverse the direction of the race, the Back-to-Back medal was introduced to further encourage and entice novices to complete at least one up and one down Comrades Marathon.

95+% of Comrades runners now enter online, and CMA increasingly utilises digital platforms to communicate its messages.

Our driving philosophy at CMA is Runners First – and there could be no celebration that is not first and foremost about the 116,884 individuals who have completed the epic journey between Pietermaritzburg and Durban over the past 100 years.

We pay tribute to our winners, of which there have been 54 individual men and 26 individual women in the history of the race, bearing in mind that women have only officially participated since 1975. They are the champions who have excited and inspired generations with the magnificence of their athletic prowess, and their ever improving and intensifying competitive and record-breaking performances.

Today we have gathered 23 Comrades Marathon past winners, the largest reunion of past winners since 1983 and we are truly humbled and overjoyed to have you here with us.  Interestingly, the oldest former winner who attended the 1983 reunion was Darrel Dale who had won in 1929, and the youngest was Bruce Fordyce.

But lest not forget that no one runs the Comrades Marathon alone.  When the winner crosses the finish line, the last runner has not even reached the half-way mark – and there is an endless stream of humanity stretching for over 45km and pushing the winners forward every step of the way.

There is a select group of guests with us today of male runners who have completed over 40 Comrades Marathons, with Barry Holland and Louis Massyn jointly topping the log, both having completed 47 Comrades Marathons, in other words half of the Comrades that have been staged over the course of a century, a truly phenomenal achievement.

Also, amongst our 40+ runners is another runner deserving of special recognition – Zwelitsha Gono of South Coast Striders has completed 42 Comrades Marathons, two of which were prior to 1975 in which he completed unofficially.  One can only imagine the courage and fortitude it took for Zwelitsha to line up at the start in 1973 and 1974 when the laws of the land forbade him to be there, for which we salute him. Those two runs, as well as others run unofficially by women and ‘persons of colour’ prior to 1975, which CMA has been able to substantiate have subsequently been recognised as official.

Moving on to Comrades Marathon sponsors, both past and present, to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude, the most amazing part of the story is that for the first 50 years of the race there weren’t any.  The cost of the staging the race was covered entirely by entry fees and personal benefactors.

Coca-Cola has the distinction of being CMA’s longest-standing sponsor for a period of 50 years, with the first sponsorship in kind being the provision of Coke at the half-way point and finish in 1970, which by 1978 had expanded to 17 refreshment stations, and eventually 40-plus, while other relationships which have spanned 40 years or more are Formscaff and Biddulphs.

The first commercial sponsorship, comprised of advertising in the form of race numbers emblazoned with a sponsor’s logo was introduced in 1976, followed by sponsored refreshment stations, then branding at the finish by 1978, which at one stage even included Rothman’s cigarettes.

Over the years Comrades sponsors have included financial institutions, medical aids, mining houses, retailers, consumer goods and services, multi-nationals and some of the most recognisable brands in the world, without whom we would not be where we are today having brought with them a level of professionalism, marketing activations, razzmatazz, colour and entertainment that characterises the modern Comrades, as well as providing CMA with the wherewithal to innovate and also enabling a race of such magnitude to remain accessible.

More recently there has been a shift towards proudly South African and KZN brands and as CMA we are immensely proud to be associated with Mr Price, Toyota, Orange Grove, Thirsti, Hollywood Bets, Tsogo Sun, Netcare and Swinkels. 

From inception the Comrades Marathon has enjoyed the cooperation and support of the cities of Durban, Pietermaritzburg and the province of KwaZulu-Natal, not to mention the remarkable goodwill and embrace of the communities situated along the Comrades Marathon route.

There is something special that transpires on the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, an almost spiritual bond that empowers and embraces Comrades Marathon runners, an experience often remarked upon, particularly by our international runners as something that is profound and unique to the Comrades Marathon in the world of running.

It is on the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg that the spirit of humanity, camaraderie, community collaboration, the kindness of strangers and Ubuntu lives – each individual runner striving towards the same end, experiencing the same struggle, same pain and with the same determination to succeed, being able to draw on the strength of one another and the energy and encouragement of the crowd.  

So there you have it – the Comrades Marathon in a nutshell, an event which from humble beginnings grew to be the world’s greatest ultramarathon, described by the Washington Post as the Superbowl of South Africa, part of the fabric of our society and a story of humanity, strength, courage, camaraderie and extraordinary achievement by otherwise ordinary human beings – the Ultimate Human Race.  It has been a great 100 years and a foundation has been laid upon which to launch the next hundred.  Long live the Comrades Marathon.