Comrades: Is it a Rite of Passage for South Africans?

In no other country in the world, is an endurance athletic event the pinnacle of achievement for the average citizen. Over 90 kms of arduous hills, the Comrades winds its way between Durban & Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. How did this race become an institution and receive the acclaim that it does?

Having completed this race, the Ultimate Challenge as it is known, I have also been drawn by its allure and experienced the mind altering odyssey that is Comrades. Unlike other athletic events, this race attracts not only athletes but also the athletically challenged, as I am, to endure the mental and physical challenges of a race that is, upon sober reflection, beyond one’s physical capabilities.

Main picture: Wally Hayward at 80 years old completing the 1989 Comrades with Les Hackett just within the 11 hour cut-off.

Yet every year, 20 000 average South Africans will don their running shoes in January and then subject their bodies to tortuous training for five months in preparation for the big event.

This year, the 90th running of the event, was no different.

Having completed the Comrades, I am acutely aware at all times during the day when Comrades is being held at which point all my running friends will be on the route. I will recall how I felt at that spot and relive the mental anguish as if I were participating again. Such is the impression that the race makes upon one that the whole day is spent fluctuating between the present and the past.

Comrades early in Durban2

What makes this event so special? Is it the superb organisation, the carnival atmosphere over its entire length or something more ephemeral such the camaraderie of the runners? It is all of those aspects but it is more than that. It is the ultimate mental challenge. After 60 kms, the average person is weary and sore. Had enough. Finished. Gatvol.

Yet it is precisely at this point where one’s mental strength has to intercede for it is only mental fortitude that can prevent the physical lethargy and screaming muscles from corroding one’s willpower. One must never let negative thoughts intrude and undermine one’s determination, to subvert one’s mission, in order to cross that finishing line.

The route profile which any South African from 3 to 90 can recite flawlessly

The route profile which any South African from 3 to 90 can recite flawlessly

It was precisely at this point in 1993 that a blister under my foot split open. Up until that point I had successfully blocked the steady unremitting pain every time that my right foot slapped the tarmac. Now it was unbearable.

I could not meekly oblige and stop running. I had to force myself to continue, to run the remaining 30 kms. The corrosive effect of the steady jabbing pain steadily weakened my resolve. The running stride morphed into a hobble. In attempting not to place the offending foot squarely on the ground in a futile attempt at pain relief, in fact exacerbated the situation. My whole undercarriage was creaking in complaint.

Debbie and I running together in the 1993 Comrades

Debbie and I running together in the 1993 Comrades

Suddenly I spotted my saviour. Not a man walking on water or an angel descending with wings flapping down from heaven, but a woman with a tennis racket in her hand.

“May I have your socks?” I screamed in pain.

Instead of the expected slap at my impolite request, she dutifully bent down and removed them.

My attempt at sitting down was not as graceful. From half-way down I literally fell down sidewards onto my right side as my calf muscle went into spasm. Writhing on the ground in agony, her husband offered some inane words of encouragement.

Vic Clapham, founder of the Comrades Marathon

Vic Clapham, founder of the Comrades Marathon

On taking off my right running shoe, the full extent of the injury was evident. The bottom of the shoe was awash with blood. Without thinking I pulled her sock over mine and replaced the shoe. A prolonged look at the problem would further sap my willpower and determination to complete the final 30kms from Hillcrest to Durban

My parting words were not an expression of gratitude but rather a brusque determined response, “I have to make it. My friends are ahead of me.”

I have always wondered what that unknown person thought of my impertinent intrusion in her life. Maybe like many people along the route, it is the least that they can do to assist a fellow human being to finish the race.

The 9 Hour Bus

The 9 Hour Bus

I did finish.

Ultimately awash with pain, one no longer feels anything but a dull ache which one has to stubbornly ignore

My finishing time was 10:58; two minutes to spare.

That vignette epitomises both the sides of the Comrades coin: determination despite the pain and the unreservedly given assistance to strangers, indicative of the magnanimity & fortitude of the human spirit. These are the traits that are synonymous with the race and define its ethos.

Comrades finish: After starting in the dark one finishes in the dark

Comrades finish: After starting in the dark one finishes in the dark

Born as a race in the 1920s to celebrate their fallen comrades of the Great War as it was known before the Second World War, for most of the succeeding 60 years it would only attract only a sprinkling of entrants either the fit or the insane.

During this time it built up its cachet as the ultimate challenge that any self-respecting South African male had to undertake as a rite of passage. Perhaps it was not referred to in such melodramatic terms, but the finishers had a certain swagger, an almost swash-buckling mien.

Never say Never

Then came South Africa’s expulsion form world sport due to Apartheid. Without the distant sport’s fields as the proving ground of our sporting prowess, the focus was inward.

The Comrades fitted that bill. During the 1970s, it replaced the faraway battlefields with a local proving ground, the Comrades.

It is not going to be easy

The number of entrants steadily multiplied.

The hype and expectation grew apace. The introduction of television in the late in the seventies was like a magnet. The aura of the new local Comrades heroes was like a trout lure, ineluctable. The local youths – males only – responded in droves and were hooked.

The Comrades bandwagon was now unstoppable.

Then a skinny blond runner broke onto the scene. Bruce Fordyce mesmerised the viewing public. With his effortless strides and celebrity style, Bruce became the local hero replacing the cricketing and rugby heroes of yore.

Every gesture, every step on the way, every nuance in his strategy was debated endlessly.

Bruce Fordyce in his heyday

Bruce Fordyce in his heyday

With seeming effortless ease, he crossed the finishing tape as winner not once not twice but an astonishing nine times to set an all-time record.

During the period, the spectacle of the Comrades had attracted the youth in a frenzy of running. Fields swelled, the measure to be a regular guy, a runner, no a Comrades runner, became the measure of one’s manhood.

The decision to bail a race was not a trifling matter, instead of basking in the glory of finishing, one will face a baptism of fire equally as arduous as completing the race itself. It was preferable to quietly collapse and die en route then be subjected to the opprobrium of family and friends as if one had dishonoured them.

Defying logic

Another unusual phenomenon was the ability of all South Africans to recite the names of all the hills on the route. Names such as Cowies, Fields, Bothas, Inchanga and Polly Shortts became household names practically imbibed with one’s mother’s milk.

Maybe today the Comrades does not possess quite the allure of those early days or perhaps it has lost some of its lustre, nonetheless it is still the measure of not only a man but a female as women were eventually allowed to participate. All the apocalyptic prognostications of women being unable to procreate have been proved baseless as they have gone from strength to strength.

Bruce Fordyce and Zola Budd

Michelle Worstman, the 2015 female winner, is a testament to that tenacity, forbearance and style.

While within the white community, the Comrades might not hold the same attraction that it once did especially after the fracturing of South Africa’s sporting isolation, but if the latest Comrades is any indication, the black people of South Africa have embraced it with a fervency that is encouraging.

Here is just one South African’s response on receipt of the medal. In typical effuse mood, Caroline Lee embraces the Comrades medal:

Nobody said anything about the medal.

I LOVE the medal!

I love the shape.

I love the size.

I love the design.

I love the weight.

I love the feel.

I love the weight of it around my neck.

I love the sense of achievement it brings.

I love that it is mine.

I love everything about it.

And, for the first time ever, I don’t mind that it’s a Vic Clapham! ;-)

Thank you CMA!!!


Maybe most will not be so vocal about one’s achievement, but the words “I have finished Comrades” evoke within others a sense of awe, of achievement, of mental fortitude that is indescribable.

It definitely implies that one has made it as a South African.

Caroline Lee with a former winner Frith van der Merwe

Caroline Lee with a former winner Frith van der Merwe

For many it is still a rite of passage including myself.


  1. So, I am a South African! I ran Comrades 3x and I finished all 3 of them. As of today, when I talk about it, I have goosebums. I am still drawing a lot of stamina from Comrades.
    I also clearly remember the school of disabled children on the route. When you look at these poor children, one knows, one GOTTA finish Comrades. And “finishing” means on time.
    I believe, you can only call yourself a runner if you hve done Comrades!


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