After the Two Oceans and continuing our theme of running, on the 1st June is the mother of all ultramarathon running in South Africa and the world, The Comrades Marathon. This is a race of some pedigree and not only is it the oldest with it having begun in 1921 but it is also by far the largest with an average of 12000 runners competing annually.
At approximately 89 kilometres (or 56 miles), it is not the longest or perhaps even the most challenging compared with some of the more recently inaugurated races, but it remains the most prestigious and possibly the most welcoming and friendly of events. Its history explains it all. In 1921, a certain Vic Clapham, an ex-South African soldier of the First World War who had participated in and endured the longest campaign of the war and having marched over 2700 kilometres through German East Africa, wanted an event to mark and (as it's constitution states) 'to celebrate mankind's spirit over adversity'. This race would be a unique test of the physical and mental endurance of the entrants.
The first race was run on Empire Day (24 May) 1921 and had a field of 34 entrants. The winner was Bill Rowan in a time of 8 hours and 59 minutes. The race has been run continuously ever since ( except for the war years of 1941-45) and has gained progressively in popularity and renown. In 2000, the millennium year as well as the 75th anniversary of the event, the race hosted a field of 23,961 runners, the largest ever.
Times have been trimmed over the years of course. The current records stand at 5hrs 20mins and 49seconds for the men by Leonid Shvetsov of Russia in 2007 and 5:54:43 by Frith van der Merwe of South Africa in 1989 for the women. There is also a difference in time and endurance depending on the direction of the race. The first race was run on what is considered the downhill route from Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu Natal to Durban passing the scenically beautiful "Big Five" set of hills: Cowies Hill, Field's Hill, Botha's Hill, Inchanga and lastly, Polly Shortts. The race now alternates with a Durban start every other year, and this is considered the uphill route. Both routes have their own records.
The cutoff time is 12 hours. Every kilometre of the route is lined with spectators, urging on the aching competitors. Stories of courage over adversity are legion. There are now many disabled entrants. The support of the crowd and the physical and mental challenges of the race engender a comradeship which makes this race most appropriately named.