Port Elizabeth of Yore: The 1954 Empire Games’ Marathon Trials

It is safe to say that South Africa was one of the foremost exponents of ultra-marathon running events in the 20th century. What is more amazing is that South Africa produced a mindset where the most non-athletic citizen could participate in events that were clearly in the domain of the specialist ultra-marathon runner. Yet they would participate. This situation occurred as a result of the conflation of two events; firstly the creation of the Comrades Marathon commencing in 1921 and then later in the century with South Africa’s exclusion from participation in international sport.

Just as important was the calibre of the athletes produced in South Africa starting with Arthur Newton, then succeeded by Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler and finally Bruce Fordyce, the doyen of road runners.

Under normal circumstances, trials are usually only undertaken to determine who should be selected to attend a future event. In this case, however, it was much more significant in that this race witnessed the passing of the baton by Wally Hayward and the birth of a new star: Jackie Mekler.

Main picture:Jackie Mekler coming 2nd to Wally Hayward in Hyde Park in the record breaking 100 mile race from Box in Wiltshire to London in 1953

Mekler’s early life

Mekler did not have an easy upbringing. His parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe in the late 1920s with little more than the clothes on their backs. They struggled to survive financially. Initially the family stayed with friends in Bertrams, Joburg, then upgraded to rented accommodation in the same suburb and finally purchasing a house in Bertrams. Mekler’s mother was a trained nurse and his father earned a living hawking fruit from the back of a horse-drawn cart.

Jackie Mekler alongside Arthur Newton in London in 1955

Mekler’s mother developed Parkinson’s disease at a young age, growing increasingly incapacitated by this debilitating disease. She spent long periods convalescing at home and at the Otto Beit Nursing Home. Due to his father’s long working hours, he was unable to raise Jackie and his elder sister Hannah, resulting in their being placed in a home.

As can be imagined, this separation from his family made a huge impact on the young Jackie Mekler, who increasingly sought solace in his own company and running. It swiftly dawned on him, that he had a natural talent for long distance running. He might not have had the turn of speed as his peers, but he possessed the stamina to run extremely long distances without being subject to the same stress, tiredness and loss of vigour.

This ability  to train at weekly distances of greater than 150 miles would prepare his body for the greatest tests of endurance: The Comrades and the London to Brighton Marathons.

The Wally Hayward era

Wally Hayward won the Comrades Marathon for the first time on his first attempt in 1930 at the age of 21. It would take another twenty years before he competed again. Surprisingly he won that year and the subsequent three years from 1951 to 1954, except for 1952 when he chose to rather represent South Africa at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. He finished tenth in the Olympic marathon event. In 1951 and 1953 (first athlete under 6 hours) he broke the down-run record, and in 1954 he broke the up-run record and became the oldest man to win the race at age 45 (later overtaken by the Russian, Vladimir Kotov, in 2004).

In 1988 he returned once again to participate. He beat half the finishers with a time of 9h44m. Wally’s most dramatic moment came the following year, in 1989, when he completed the down run at the age of 80. There was hardly a dry eye in the stadium as he staggered across the line in an obviously distressed state, making the cut-off time by a mere 1min 57sec, after which he finally quit the race for good. To this day, he has the distinction in the record books of being the oldest finisher in the history of the Comrades Marathon.

Rise of Jackie Mekler

Hayward and Mekler were teammates at Germiston Callies Athletic Club. In that era, this running club possessed one of the finest minds on all aspects of running; Fred Morrison. With little scientific knowledge but a curious mind at his disposal, he provided dollops of useful advice to the fellow members. What was little appreciated at that time was that the human body was not a machine and required rest as much, if not in greater measure, than hard training. On the 9th May 1954, Jackie Mekler won the 56km Pieter Korkie ultramarathon which was hosted by Germiston Callies. Three weeks later, on the 31st May 1954, would be the Empire Games Trials Marathon.

Marathon Trials in Port Elizabeth

These are Jackie Mekler’s recollections of this titanic battle of wills: the middle-aged Hayward and the aspiring Comrades winner, the 22-year-old Jackie Mekler.

Mekler describes this race as follows:

The trials in Port Elizabeth were now three weeks away. It was likely to become a battle between [Jan] Barnard, [Wally] Hayward and myself as favourites. But there were many other talented hopefuls in the race, including Gerald Walsh, Mercer Davies, Piet Kriel and Jackie Goldie. We travelled down to Port Elizabeth by train. As the train pulled into the Port Elizabeth station, I noticed that all the trees were growing at an angle thanks to the prevailing strong coastal winds. Port Elizabeth is known as the Friendly City but also the Windy City.

On the evening before the race, the wind started blowing as only it can at the coast. When we went to bed the windows were rattling, banging and thudding, noise that continued throughout the night. I knew that we could not expect a calm day on the following morning.

Jackie Mekler with his ‘dirty black look’ as he focused intently on the race

It will still dark and the wind still howling when the race started at 7am. We started at Newton Park and went out around Greenbushes Hotel, Cows Corner, Linga Longa, back to Crossroads and then back to the stadium.

The first eight miles were straight, head-on into the wind. Wally, who was short on natural speed and whose age was against him, realised that he had to win the race in order to gain selection. He therefore had no alternative but to force the pace from the start. This was in any case his normal style.

Both Jan [Barnard] and I had the speed to beat him in a fast finish, so Barnard tucked in behind Wally, effectively shielding himself from the wind. I felt sorry for Wally, so I purposely moved out alongside him so as not to gain an unfair advantage. These were perfectly legitimate tactics by Barnard, but I could not in all fairness do the same.

We ran like this for the first 11 miles [17 kms], which was mainly uphill. Shortly after that I decided to push the pace and moved into the lead. I hung onto this lead for a mile until Jan came shooting past saying, ‘OK Jackie. Let’s go now’. This remark left me puzzled. Was he inviting me to join him in pushing the pace or was this a challenge for me to try and keep up with him? Whatever it was, his pace was too fast, and he gradually opened up a lead on the downhill stretch.

We were now turning for home. The rest of the course was fast and mainly downhill with the wind behind us. The weather had improved, and I needed only one sip of tea at 19 miles and a couple of sponges. Barnard drew steadily ahead and try as I might, I was unable to hold him. This was the type of course that suited Jan and he took full advantage of it.

He finished in 2:25:31, the fastest time ever run in South Africa and the first time that 2:30 had ever been broken by a South African. I finished second in 2:28:57 as inside the existing record of 2:30:45 set up by the late Jackie Gibson in 1927. Gerald Walsh was 3rd in 2:31, Wally 4th and Jackie Goldie 6th in 2:40:40.

Mekler did not know it yet but from now onwards the South African running hero, Wally Hayward, would forever be behind him instead of being in his sights.

The Empire Games Marathon Trials in Port Elizabeth represented the swansong of the Hayward era and the dawn of the Mekler era of long distance running in South Africa.

Events after the Trials

Three Comrades greats – Jackie Mekler – 5 wins- Bruce Fordyce – 9 wins and Alan Robb with 4 wins

Later that evening the athletics team for the Empire Games in Vancouver was announced. Jan Barnard and Jackie Mekler were selected for the Marathon. Jackie had made the breakthrough at the tender age of 22, normally regarded as too young for marathon running. Jackie’s development and improvement over the previous two years had been phenomenal.

Even though the Empire Games were some 10 weeks away on the 7th August 1954, Mekler even seriously considered running the Comrades being held on the 12th June that year. Fortunately the athletics authorities got wind of this plan and swiftly nipped it in the bud. It was just as well. It was speed that Mekler needed and not distance work

It was now Wally’s swansong. Having missed out on the Empire Games, he made his mark on the Comrades that year by smashing Hardy Ballington’s up record in the 1954 Comrades in 6:12:55. In spite of this achievement, Wally nevertheless ran a superb 100 miles from Standerton to Germiston in 13:08:05 in freezing cold weather.

During his running career, Mekler would win the Comrades Marathon five times as well as various other marathons around the world. He competed for South Africa in various international games. A 25km Jackie Mekler race is held annually in Gauteng in his honour.

Jackie Mekler died in Cape Town on 1st July 2019, when he was 87 years old.



Running Alone by Jackie Mekler (2019, Quickfox Publishing, Cape Town)

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