Comrades Marathon: The Ultimate Human Race

This weekend, the biggest ultramarathon in the world kicks off, Comrades in South Africa. Ahead of that, well-known South African and Australian resident, former Six Foot Track race director, Colin Jeftha and holder of a 2:27 marar PB himself, has very kindly pieced together an article for Ultra168, looking at the history of Comrades and giving us his view on who might take the line honours, as well as a preview of two Aussie male athlete gunning for some success in the form of Andrew Tuckey and Brendan Davies. Thanks to Colin for his efforts on this.

The alarm is set for 5:15am and all supplies for the long day ahead have been checked. No, these are not the runners, but viewers throughout the country!

In the 70’s the South African government realised that showcasing the race in the era of sporting isolation was one way to show the world “we are fine without you”. In the era where there were separate sporting associations and non-whites could not share the same dressing room nor after race beer, some of the top black runners were lured by the lucre to Comrades and other races, and that was shown as a sign of racial harmony.

Despite that, we have great memories of following Comrades in the late 70 and 80, first from the comfort of bed, coffee in hand and throughout the morning as we go about our chores, distracted by the TV. Will Fordyce be beaten this year? Will Hosea Tjale hold on? Just don’t tell anyone how gripped we were. It took me until 2014 to finally do this race, but I will be back.

If Melbourne Cup stops a nation, albeit mainly for a long lunch, Comrades unites a nation. This is after all, the Ultimate Human Race. Whatever the discrimination or your political views; this was everyone’s race, and the reason may lie long before in its origins.


Victor Clapham, medically discharged from the Great War in 1917, not before being carried injured, by another soldier, a comrade, across 50km of hills and bush in German East Africa, returned to join the Natal Government Railway.

To commemorate the fallen, the injured and the comrade who saved his life he decided to found an annual event. It took three years of persistence to gain the approval of the League of Comrades of the Great War and in 1921 the first race, a down run between the Capital Pietermaritzburg and Port of Durban took place…in latter day terms, a ‘fat arse’.

As much as the route has changed from dirt roads to tar, minor roads busy freeways, the spectators,with their braais and beer, their boiled potatoes and deep heat, have always been a part of the race and made it what it is.

The race is also intertwined in the political history with the first event on 24th May, Empire (Commonwealth) Day. The 1961 race, heralding South Africa’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth and declaration of the Republic saw it moved tot last day of May until political change, moving for a period to the new holiday of Youth Day on 16th June – a day that marked the political uprising of youth in 1976. 

It then became so big that it detracted from the essence of Youth Day and moving back to the closest Sunday end of May.

It deserves a day of its own

Bruce Fordyce
Bruce Fordyce

Between Newton (five wins in 1920’s) the father of science in ultra running that is still uncontested, Bruce Fordyce dominated with nine wins in the 80’s with a psychological addition to the science and the open era and foreign invasion.

Wally Hayward with five wins from five starts spanned 25 yrs – He was the first to break 6 hrs in 1953, then after being declared ‘professional’ returning only in 1988 months shy of 80 to record 9:44 in his 6th start in 58 years!

In approaching this race, the journey between Pietermaritzburg and Durban (or the other way), one cannot forget the above history nor the atmosphere provided along the route.

Whether chasing a gold medal or just aiming to finish, pay respects at Arthur (Newton) ‘s seat, the wall of remembrance and the kids at Enthembeni school for disabled. The gratitude and support of the people along the route; and the course might respect you in return.

For the growing contingent of Aussie runners, influenced largely by our ambassador Bruce ‘Digger’ Hargreaves, the morning starts at 1:30am and for many staying at the Durban Hilton a 2am breakfast spread, then on the bus to PMB at 3am for the 5:30am start.

Lining up in seeded pens, the bright lights betraying the pre dawn darkness, the nervousness just as palpable as the smell of liniment, the anticipation reaches a climax when Chariots of Fire is played at 5:15, then Shosholoza, the quasi national sporting anthem, sung by 16,000 is simply hair-raising. Followed by the national anthem; there is nothing like it anywhere. 

Ellie Greenwood
Ellie Greenwood

The Favourites

Especially in the absence of the suspended Russians, the women’s race will be more clear-cut, but holds more anticipation. After Ellie Greenwood’s down win in 2014, we saw the emergence of local Caroline Wostmann last year, winning both Two Oceans and Comrades, a rare feat in any year.

She backed that up to win Two Oceans again this year. One thing in common is their racing strategy, both slower starters with amazingly fast last 10km. In 2014 Greenwood had the 2nd fastest split overall in the last 7km, Wostmann having the fastest split in the 8km from Polly Shortts last year.

Greenwood and Wostmann have marathon PB’s of 2:42 and 2:44 respectively with bests of 6:18 and 6:08 at Comrades. Have Ellie and Caroline outperformed their marathon ability? I believe that both she and Wostmann have far more to give in a marathon because for the most part, it is often part of a long training run in a busy ultra schedule that includes 190km weeks.

In Wostmann’s case in particular, one does not run the last 14km of Two Oceans Marathon , over the brutal Constantia Nek, in 53min with the last 6km in 21min without being much closer to low 2:30 shape!

Throw Charne Bosmann into the mix to keep them honest, and it should be good racing. My tip is Wostmann to come close to sub 6hr if not under.

The men’s race has four previous winners, Muzhingi (3 consecutive wins 2009-11), Mamabolo (2012), Mthembu (2014) and last year’s winner Kelehe. However, it will be much more open to others stealing their thunder. Mthembu raced Two Oceans and that may count against him and it appears that Mamabolo is the favourite. As a  bit of history, Mamobolo is the grandson of legendary Titus Mamaobolo who still holds the 50+ marathon WR of 2:19. I think the winning time will be low 5:20s on a good day.

The Aussies

Finally of course, what makes Comrades extra interesting to us this year is the attendance of two of our best ultra trail runners, Andrew Tuckey and Brendan Davies. Although that is where they have made their mark here, I still regard them as better marathon runners, not being the very technical type, Davies more so.

As reference, the best Australian performers at Comrades are Don Wallace and to a lesser extent Tim Sloan. Wallace has two 8th, two 12ths, 15th and a DNF out of six attempts, with a best of 5:42. Sloan has three high 5:50’s and a 6:08 for positions 20th , two 29ths and 48th.

Another great Australian, with the best standard marathon time, Magnus Michelsson, has been there nine times for a best time of 5:55 in his first attempt. No doubt in my mind Magnus probably raced too fast in 2006 and had his best chance there, but age and injuries have diminished his chances since then.

Andrew Tuckey, now resident in Wales makes his Comrades debut
Andrew Tuckey, now resident in Wales makes his Comrades debut on his 40th Birthday

So what are the prospects for our two?

Staying away from gold medal or even top twenty chances (well anything can happen in a long race), more realistically, what are the top 40 chances?

Age: Of the top 40 in the last down run, the average age is about 35, 3 over 40 and 2 under 30, so a big plus there. Not too old yet. This is a mature runner’s race.

Speed: What? Speed? Yes, are they quick enough. Tuckey has a 2:26 marathon and Davies hasn’t broken 2:30 (yet?) and a 2:30 theoretically indicates a ‘potential’ to break 6hrs. A quick check of the records indicates that the first runner with a marathon PB slower than that in 2014 came in 41st in 6:13. To get a gold medal usually requires a low 2:20 at best, if not sub 2:20, with most of the top 40 in the mid 2:20’s. Wallace had a 2:24 and Sloan a 2:26.

Pre-Race Preparation: Both have had what they deem good solid preparation, and Davies targeting this as his A race this year. 

Brendan by all accounts was racing Canberra hard for a 2:33 seven weeks out, the Bathurst HM win would have been a good hit out too. Brendan backs up well and knows his own body, but it will be interesting to see if those help or hinder his Comrades efforts.

Racing strategy: Bruce Fordyce says that this is a race for the cautious. Even he was never near the front in any of his 9 wins until the last 30km. 

Local Experience:  Most of the top 40 have a several Comrades under the belt, and a good grasp of the conditions, the course etc.  This is a big factor.

If the two boys run a judicious race they can come through for a solid finish around 6hrs, but a top 20 would only be possible in a slow race.

The race can be followed on the Comrades (Unlimited Sport) mobile tracking app, and should again be available on the live SABC Youtube channel.

I’ll have the BBQ fired up after my run on Sunday 🙂

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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

6 thoughts on “Comrades Marathon: The Ultimate Human Race

  1. Thanks for the alert Spud…that was a very late withdrawal, seems that she is already in Durban, and withdrew last night. Still expect Wostmann to run the same race, she came from 4th at 50km to win Two Oceans with a 21:10 last 6km.
    Sorry about some of the punctuation and disjointed sentences…seems some of that was left on the cutting room floor 😉
    Still going to be rapt with good performances from the two aussie guys (well one and a half)

    1. Indeed! And what a fantastic result for Brendan and very happy to be proven wrong, along with our guest writer. Ultras can be hard to call as there are so many variables, we can only try! Anyway well done to Brendan again what an awesome result for such a quality runner!

    2. Yep…very happy to be ‘proven wrong’ as I indicated up front, and in comments via Yoli on FB, that I would be rapt to see him under 6, and now he can ‘prove me right’ by carrying on and getting that sub 2:30 that he has been capable of for many years whilst focusing on other stuff.
      Personal conversations with knowledgeable friends ….I am not on FB to broadcast :-), will verify that I had a 10min band of mid 5:50 to low 6 for him, so at the best end of the range, but the ‘analysis was not into guesswork.
      And whilst records show that I have been a huge fan of Brendan’s running for many years and have itched for him to ‘perform to expectations on road’, my analysis was not from a ‘fanboy’ perspective as many are, but I tried to be dispassionate and objective with the factors that I laid out.
      I could also say that of the two, ‘one proved me right and the other wrong’ 🙂

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