The twists and turns of the Comrades Marathon

Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

At the entrance to the renovated, double-storey Victorian building that houses the Comrades Marathon Museum in Pietermaritzburg, is a bronze memorial to a runner whose name does not appear in the official results of perhaps the greatest ultra-marathon on the planet.

Robert Mtshali finished the 1935 Comrades Marathon in nine hours and 30 minutes, a time that would have earned him 27th place in a field of 35.

But Mtshali was black and, along with women, was not allowed to compete in the Comrades. Yet, he ignored the rules and ran the 89km along the dirt and tar roads, through the valleys and hills, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

He thus became the first black man to complete a race that, as it prepares for almost 20 000 people of all hues to run in the 92nd edition on Sunday, has mirrored the struggle of South Africa in its evolution from oppression to a young and sometimes uncertain democracy.

The race has seen change. It is perhaps entirely appropriate that, in a land whose people had been on the brink of civil war because of an evil regime, the Comrades began because of a war.

Vic Clapham returned from fighting in East Africa in World War I with the idea of starting a race along the lines of the London to Brighton event. Athletics officials scoffed at him. No one could run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. He approached the League of Comrades of the Great War, the association set up to help families and soldiers through the devastation of WWI. He was given a loan of £1 and in 1921 held the first race.

It took until 1975 before black people and women were allowed to officially compete. In that year, the first black runner to win an official Comrades medal was Vincent Rakabaele.

White South Africans dominated the race until 1989, when Sam Tshabalala became the first black winner. In 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years of incarceration, Bruce Fordyce, the 'King of the Comrades', won his ninth and final title.

As apartheid was being dismantled, the foreign legion arrived to see what they had been missing. Germany's Charly Doll became the first non-South African to win post-apartheid, in 1993. Another German, Maria Bak, did the same in the women's race in 1995.

Then came the Russians, a Pole, some Americans, a Belarusian, a Brit, and a Zimbabwean, and they allowed South Africans just six wins in both the men's and women's races from 1993-2012.

Many of those foreigners ran for South African teams, imported by local managers desperate to win this grand institution. South African men have won the last five in a row, South African women the last two.

This year, David Gatebe, who broke the down-run record when he took victory last year in a time of 05:18:12 (the 'up' record of 5:24:49 belongs to Russian Leonid Shvetsov set in 2008), is expected to have a battle on his hands from TomTom Athletics Club teammate Gift Kelehe, the 2015 winner. They will be wary of the challenge from Teboho Sello of Lesotho, and South Africa's Bongmusa Mthembu, the 2014 champion, who finished third last year, and was second in the 2016 World 100km championships in Spain.

Ludwick Mamabolo is an outside shot, having won in 2012, though that victory was tainted by a positive drug test that was subsequently overturned on appeal because of irregularities in the testing process. That brought about an increase in doping education by the Comrades association as Mamabolo spoke of how little he knew about his rights and anti-doping procedures.

"Black people -- I'm sorry to say it -- do not have computers where we can log in," said Mamabolo, who was represented pro bono by Werksmans Attorneys, a prominent South African legal firm.

"We wake up, eat pap, and train. But we have the right to be informed and it's important to us. I assure you I'm not a drug addict. I do not smoke and I have not had a drink my whole life. I rely on running to support my family," he told Independent Newspapers in 2013.

There is big money on offer at the Comrades in South African terms. Last year Gatebe became an instant Rand millionaire with his record-breaking run. First prize earns the winners in the men's and women's categories R425 000 each. Another R425 000 is on offer for breaking the course record, and there is cash to be claimed for being the first South African over the line, an incentive introduced when overseas runners were dominating.

Hosea Tjale did not make money from running the Comrades. Regarded as the best runner to never win the race, he had the misfortune of competing in the Fordyce era, finishing second in 1985 and 1990, and third in 1986 and 1987.

Tjale, now in his 60s, lives in an informal settlement near Tembisa in Gauteng. He has the same job he has had since 1993, driving a delivery truck as a messenger for an entertainment company.

In his day, he was perhaps the most popular athlete at the Comrades, running his 13 Comrades in his trademark floppy hat and affectionately called "Hoss". Save for the Comrades, he won every South African ultra-marathon title, as well as the London to Brighton. It was a wonderful career that left him with memories and no money.

"The most I got paid (at the Comrades) was about R250," Tjale told the Sunday Times.

He and Fordyce shared a special bond. "The competition between us was so tough that one day I told him I was not running anymore," Tjale recalled.

"He said that he was also not going to run because without me there was no competition. We decided to run and he beat me again."

Tjale would play the hare to Fordyce's steady tactics. When Fordyce would reach Tjale, he would, in a gesture that became a trademark for the blonde runner, reach out and place a hand on his opponent's shoulder. It would sap the spirit out of Tjale and others as Fordyce would power to the finish.

Tjale's tactic for the Comrades was to only begin to race after 42km, a standard marathon distance.

"At that stage, those who started at high speed were falling off like flies and that's where we were gaining momentum, making a line and counting the victims in front of us," he explained.

"We called Polly Shortts (the last hill outside Pietermaritzburg) the 'sieve' because from there the positions became clearer. That's where you made the decision to go or to quit, and that is where Bruce showed his amazing power."

Ah, Fordyce. No tale of the Comrades is complete without him. Fordyce and the Comrades are joined at the hip. Born in Hong Kong to British parents, Fordyce moved to South Africa at the age of 13. Short and skinny, he was born to win the Comrades.

Fordyce will regale friends with tales of the history of the Comrades, telling, with some relish, the story of Bill Payn, the South African rugby player who ran in 1922. Payn had not trained for the race, deciding the night before to take it on after sharing a few strong drinks with Arthur Newton, who won four times in the 1920s.

He was late to the start. He stopped in Hillcrest for a breakfast of bacon and eggs. At the top of Botha's Hill, he and a fellow runner, 'Zulu' Wade, stopped off for a chicken curry. The two then ran to Drummond, the halfway mark, and decided they needed a beer at the local hotel to celebrate having reached halfway.

Wade, enjoying the beer, did not leave the hotel, but Payn soldiered on, consuming, according to legend, about 36 oranges, water, tea and even a glass of homemade peach brandy, which a woman handed to him at the roadside. For whatever reason, Payn ran in his rugby boots, which gave him such awful blisters that he had to play a rugby match the next day wearing sneakers.

Fordyce can also tell you his own tale, of the day he was spat at and booed, and had tomatoes and eggs thrown at him at the Comrades. In 1981, the apartheid government celebrated the 20th anniversary of Republic Day. The Comrades organisers aligned themselves with this celebration, which did not sit well with Fordyce, who opposed apartheid. He chose to run and wear a black armband in protest.

"The official TV cameras tried to film me from the side without the armband, for obvious reasons, so I spent half the race swapping it from one elbow to the other. It was ridiculous. The security police came along and took photographs of all of the people wearing armbands, and filmed us," Fordyce told Ultra magazine.

"But then some of my friends who were on Robben Island in detention, they absolutely loved us. Peter-Paul Ngwenya and Tokyo Sexwale (political prisoners) were allowed to watch sport while in detention, so they were delighted with the fact that there were some people out there with armbands on, especially white sportsmen... There were lots of other runners wearing armbands in protest, I just happened to be the guy who won."

Fordyce's name is prominent in that renovated, double-storey house in Pietermaritzburg. He is part of a story that has twisted and turned with the history of the land, a story that began in 1921 and can be found in a museum where Robert Mtshali's name will, officially, welcome you inside.