The Comrades Marathon – The Ultimate Human Race

     The Comrades Marathon is an 89km (56 mile) ultra-marathon that takes place in South Africa every year.
     To put this in perspective for “Perthites”, 89km is roughly equivalent to running from the Northern suburbs of Perth, south past Fremantle, all the way to Mandurah, and then another 20km on to Pinjarra. Or, in another direction, it is like running from Perth City all the way to Northam in the Wheatbelt.
     For Sydneysiders, the distance is approximately equivalent to running from Sydney’s Inner West, past Paramatta, onto Penrith, and then all the way back again.

     The Comrades Marathon is run between the coastal city of Durban, the busiest port in Africa, and the inland town of Pietermaritzburg, capital of Kwazulu-Natal province. Each year the direction of the run is alternated: the “up run” begins in Durban and ends in Pietermaritzburg, and the “down run” is in the opposite direction.
    
     The Comrades route traverses an area of Kwazulu-Natal called The Valley of a Thousand Hills – not surprisingly then, the race has extreme climbs and drops, and at its highest point reaches 870m above sea level (where it begins or ends); although the total altitude gained in the “up run” or dropped in the “down run” is about 1500m – that’s 1.5 kilometres in height! The Comrades Marathon is internationally recognised for the body-sapping challenge it poses and the camaraderie it fosters among its thousands of participants.

      The Comrades Marathon was founded in 1921 by the late Vic Clapham, before the concept of an “ultra-marathon” even existed. Vic Clapham served in the 8th SA Infantry during World War I, and in establishing the Comrades Marathon, his intention was both to honour the Camaraderie between soldiers that helped them survive the horrors of the First World War, as well as to make this unique challenge a living memorial to the spirit of their fallen Comrades. Vic had personally witnessed the unselfish spirit of his Comrades in arms during wartime, and he intended that the Comrades Marathon should similarly lock men together in friendship during peacetime. Interestingly, the core concept underlying this race, is therefore similar to that of the “mateship” of the ANZACs of Australia and New Zealand – and all Australians know how cherished is that National value – a concept which also originated amongst the “diggers” of World War I – the value of mates pulling together in the face of adversity.   

      The first Comrades Marathon took place in 1921 and it has been run annually since then, except for the World War II years of 1941- 1945. Although we are now 90 years away from its founding, the race is still run as a celebration of mankind’s fellowship and spirit in overcoming adversity. In South Africa today, someone who has successfully completed a Comrades Marathon is seen as a kind of initiate into an honoured and exclusive club. Many people who persevere through and endure the rigorous training required to finish the Comrades Marathon, find that this discipline and dedication helps them subsequently to achieve many other life goals.     
 

Start of the Comrades Marathon

          On Comrades day, thousands and thousands of spectators and supporters line the route of 90km to cheer on the brave (or, as some think, mad) runners. Each year the race is broadcast on South African national television all day. Well before Max Trimbourne’s “cock’s crow”, which precedes the starting gun, at 5:30 a.m., the build-up, commentary and pre-race discussion are shown on screens all around the country. Well after the firing of the finish gun at 5:30 p.m. the dramatic stories, incidents of race day camaraderie, post-race interviews and analysis become national sagas flashed all around the country.   

     The names of key sections of the route have entered South Africa’s National Lexicon: The Big Five Hills, ie., Cowie’s, Field’s, Botha’s Hills, Inchanga, and the most infamous killer of all, Polly Shortts. A number of otherwise insignificant places that would have remained unknown blips on a map, have acquired legendary status from their association with race: 45th Cutting, Drummond, Bayat’s Store, Cato Ridge, Camperdown, Tumble Inn.
     Almost every South African will have witnessed the dramatic and, often heart-breaking, scenes of physically exhausted runners desperately trying to sprint/ scramble/ drag/ crawl their exhausted, depleted, trembling, collapsing, malfunctioning limbs and bodies over the last few metres to cross the finish line before the dreaded gun is fired – signalling that they have not made it in time, and will hence not earn their coveted medal and “badge of manhood”. This is the context of the greatest “Ultra” in the world, and the stage towards which I am steadily, and hopefully, progressing. 
 

 

 
 

Perhaps the most dramatic Comrades Marathon finish of all time. It was 1967, year of my birth, and as Tommy Malone's legs cramp just short of the finish line after having led for nearly 90km, he is pipped to the post by Manie Kuhn. Note the "rolled scroll" in Tommy's right hand: another Comrades Marathon tradition, this scroll contains a message from the Mayor of Durban, or Peitermaritzburg, given to the leading runner who enters the finishing stadium, to hand over to his or her Mayoral counterpart. As far as I am aware, this was the only occcasion in which the lead runner entering the stadium failed to "hand over" the Mayoral message.

 

Other pages in this section about the Comrades Marathon. 
     For information about the Comrades Marathon generally, and in particular as it pertains to the Prags – my father and myself – follow the Links coming off this page, ideally in the following order:
 
    1) Information about the concept of the Comrades Marathon “Green Number“, because that plays a fundamentally essential part of this entire challenge that I am undertaking.
     2) All about Comrades Marathon number THIRTEEN; how it entered into my family’s history and its ongoing relevance.
     3) Some interesting and comparative facts and stats of my father’s Comrades Marathon history in relation to my intended run on 29 May 2011.
     4) A few samplings of the many Prag Comrades Marathon stories. All these stories, except for one, are about the association of my father, David Prag, with many of the “Comrades Marathon Greats” with whom he ran and whom he knew well. The one exception is the only story of MY association with a “Comrades Marathon Legend” (a 4 times Comrades Marathon winner)! Follow the above link to find out which “Comrades Great” I have trained with … 🙂 
      5) Most South Africans know at least a little bit about the Comrades Marathon, being the National treasure that it is, but many do not really have a feel, or a good sense, of what The Comrades Marathon actually entails; nor of the high drama and intense emotions that play out all race day, all over the course, and not just at the finish line. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you go to my page with 6 Links to external Comrades Marathon material (of the thousands and thousands of pages about the Comrades Marathon available in cyberspace). These 6 links, 4 of which are fascinating and entrancing videos, give you a “runner’s insight” into the Comrades Marathon. One Link takes you to a 3 page article written by a former winner of the Boston Marathon of his experience of Comrades; it is entertaining, but highly insightful. Below each Link, I have written a brief description of what each contains. 

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