Comrades Marathon – 1920’s – Part 1

Heat and dust – the era of Arthur ‘Greatheart’ Newton
When the smoke cleared from a war weary world at the end of 1918, the dead numbered almost ten million. In four years far more people had died than in all the wars 100 years previously. Little wonder therefore that associations such as the League of Comrades of the Great War were started. Mainly to help families torn apart by the cruelties of war, but also for soldiers to rekindle the camaraderie shared on the battlefield.

A soldier, a dreamer, who had campaigned in East Africa in that terrible war approached the League of Comrades of the Great War with a vision that would, one day, result in the world’s greatest ultra marathon. Vic Clapham could not have visualized that when he founded the Comrades Marathon in 1921. That almost twenty thousand aspiring athletes would stand at the start of his dream race was beyond his imagining.

After he returned home, Clapham approached the athletics heirachy in Natal with a vision. A race between Pietermaritzburg his hometown, and Durban. He had heard of the “Stock Exchange Walk” a foot race from London to Brighton over a similar distance. He believed that if infantrymen, drafted into the armed forces from sedentary jobs, could endure forced marches over great distances, trained athletes could cover the distance between the two cities without great difficulty.

Vic Clapham – The founder of the Comrades Marathon

Unsurprisingly the Natal athletics body was not interested, and thought Clapham was mad. Undeterred, Clapham approached the League, and asked permission to stage the race under their auspices. Again, Clapham did not receive the response he had hoped for. Members of the league thought such an undertaking far too strenuous for even a trained athlete and turned his proposal down.

Clapham persevered and applied to the same body again in 1919 and again in 1920. Finally in 1921, he was extended a loan of one Pound (two Rand) provided the money was paid back. Clapham endured much from his critics, but in that year he forged ahead with his plans and under the doubtful watch from the League of Comrades of the Great War, he founded the Comrades Marathon. He had a letter published in the local press, announcing the event. He invited donations of prizes and said that entry forms could be obtained from his home in Pietermartizburg or from Mr. JR walker, secretary of the Comrades in Durban.

And so one of the great athletics events of our time was born on Empire day, may 24th 1921. The camaraderie had as its basis the memories of that terrible war three years previous. Traditions would grow and survive even into the present day. 

The birth of many traditions
Many of the traditions that exist now, one hundred years later, were established in that first decade. The starting time for the first race in 1921 was 07h00 and the time limit was 12 hours. In 1922, the race saw its first enduring change – the starting time was altered to 06h00 to accommodate the back runners who finished in the dark. It was only in 1928 that the time limit was revised to eleven hours. One could only imagine if there was any controversy on this issue. Certainly if the time limit were chopped by an hour to day, it would be material for an independent Presidential Commission of Enquiry. But fields were small in those days, and the world on balance seemed a far more congenial place.

That never the less, would have had fairly serious consequences on the results between 1921 and 1927.

Of the 16 official finishers in the inaugural race, ten would not have finished if the current time limit were imposed. By 1927 the quality of the field had improved, but eight of the 21 finishers ran home between 11 hours and the cut-off, a sizeable 38% of the medallists.

The age limit was set in 1922. This came about when 16-year-old L.H. Templeton finished 19th in 11hr 40min. He had run together with his father, 59- year-old J.L. Templeton for much of the way, and continued alone when his father dropped out.

Young Templeton was a scholar at Marists Brothers College and lived in Pietermaritzburg. After the race Dr. Taylor-Thomas, the chairman of the Comrades organising club, had a resolution passed making the youngest age limit 18 years with the result that Templeton was to become the youngest official competitor ever to win a Comrades Marathon Medal. He was also presented with a pocket-watch by the proprietor of the Horseshoe Hotel.

In 1923 the first woman entered the race. Needless to say, in those days her entry was refused. Frances Hayward, a typist in the Durban Branch of ABC bank was unconcerned and arrived at the start in a very businesslike green gymnasium costume and ran anyway. The supporters of the feminist cause will be pleased to know that Frances finished 28th in a creditable time of 11hrs 35 mins. Sadly being an unofficial entrant, she was not to enjoy the coveted Comrades Medal. Her fellow runners and spectators held a shilling collection to buy her a prize. A hundred Pounds was collected with which a silver tea service and rosebowl were purchased and presented to her. That evening, after the race, she went to the theatre.

Each race in the twenty’s, like it always is, was an epic event. The first race was perhaps unremarkable in to-day’s terms, especially in terms of media hype, numbers of entrants, pre-race intrigue and the like. Only 48 runners entered that inaugural race. Many grew feint hearted before coming under starter’s orders and only 34 set of on a chilly Pietermaritzburg morning, and ran themselves into the history books. It would be difficult to imagine what motivated the first Comrades runner. He surely must have been a different breed of athlete than todays. Or was he?

Many of those runners were infantrymen from the Great War. Many had seen service in West Africa. To be sure, the camaraderie and friendship that endures even today was present on the Old Main Road back in 1921.

Seconding tables were unheard of and runners were told that refreshments could be had along the way. No doubt many of the runners also had their own personal attendants travelling along with them.

Interest in the race was tremendous. Wrote the Maritzburg correspondent of the Natal Mercury: “In the City large crowds gathered around the newspaper offices shortly after midday to learn the results”. Radios were rare in those days and a trunk call to Durban took hours, so the newspapers obliged by chalking up the results on boards outside their premises.

In 1923 one youngster who showed the determination and the true grit of a Comrades runner was James Copley of Durban. James was a shy lad and was scared of being laughed at by his parents, so he entered without their knowledge and under the name of A.W. Harrison.

By the time James got to Pietermaritzburg the night before the race, it was late and the hotels were closed. So he lay down in a field and listened in the cold and dark to the town clock striking the hour. At five-o-clock, supperless and without breakfast, his “work sandwiches” long eaten, he made his way to the start and was duly recorded as a starter, under the name of Harrison.

Copley, alias Harrison, got to the finish in the dark in a time of 11hrs 39 mins. “I then went home by tram-car to explain to a wrathful father and a worried mother where I had been and what I had been up to. Next day, stiff and with blistered feet, I went back to work at the Standard Bank. My father telephoned Vic Clapham, there was an awful rumpus, the name of Harrison was summarily deleted from the records but my name wasn’t substituted. Race official Harold Sulin returned the silver medal to Maritzburg. I was permitted to wear the Comrades lapel badge: and some years later I received a small medal in my correct name J.J. Copley, position 29th time 11hr. 39min 00sec.

The first Comrades Marathon
Empire Day, May 24th 1921, oddly because of some technical hitch, the first race was started by Maritzburg Mayor, Councilor D. Saunders at 07h10. Athletes were told that refreshments could be had at certain hotels along the route.

Most runners took off at quite a brisk pace, but soon most realised that the best course was to take it easy, conserve strength for there was a long way to go and the terrain was unforgiving. And so it was, the first race was battled out over the Natal Midlands between Harry Phillips, an athlete who was to represent South Africa in the Paris Olympics in 1924, Bill Rowan and A. C Purcell.

At Drummond Bill Rowan took the lead and carved a special piece of Comrades history. He was the first man ever to win the Comrades. The time was a very pedestrian 8hr 59 mins. Harry Phillips arrived 41 mins later. And so a South African institution came into being. Sixteen runners finished.

Bill Rowan – centre. Winner of the first Comrades Marathon

In 1922, the year of the South African rebellion, the Comrades Marathon had seized the imagination of many more and 114 entries were received. This was to be an “Up” run from Durban. Yet another tradition to endure into the future, the alternating “up” and “down” race.

The previous winner, Bill Rowan, traveled from what was then the Belgian Congo and arrived at the start. To be sure there was an exiting day’s racing ahead. A reporter wrote, “This is considered to be a splendid entry for this great event, which promises to become a South African classic in athletics”.     

Two runners at the start of the 1922 event, two novices and two who would both become legends of their own kind. Two who in those early days would come to symbolise the type of runner a Comrades runner is even to this day.

One a dedicated athlete that set himself the task of excellence in running and aimed to win, the other an athlete out just to enjoy the day and have some fun.

The legend of Bill Payn
The latter, one Bill Payn, was a rather large school master, a South African rugby player and a Natal Cricketer.  Sporting the “Nelson Number”, 111, he did not train specifically for this race, and relied heavily on his rugby fitness to get him through to Pietermaritzburg in time.

It was the great Arthur Newton who persuaded him to run. Arthur was hosted by Bill the night before, and according to the legend, after a few stiff drinks, the idea had some appeal to the rugby player and he did arrive under starter’s orders on time the next morning.

To Bill the race was to be a jaunt, nothing to be taken too seriously. But that epic run has been the inspiration of many, and besides which, in pubs around the Natal Midlands, the story still buys a good storyteller a few drinks.

Bill Payn first stopped off at Hillcrest where he had a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Having finished this, Payn ran on to the top of Botha’s Hill, where he was invited by a fellow runner “Zulu” Wade to join him for a chicken curry casserole. Wade and Payn took off together from this point, when they arrived at Drummond, they decided to celebrate reaching the half way mark with an ice cold beer at the hotel.

Wade did not leave the hotel, but Payn carried on sustaining himself on about 36 oranges, water, tea and even a glass of homemade peach brandy, which a woman handed to him at the roadside.

As the story goes, Bill Payn ran this race in his rugby boots, and on the following day he turned out for a club rugby match in his takkies. This was so, because of his blistered feet.

Commenting later, Arthur Newton Remarked, “Bill Payn was an unusually fine specimen of healthy manhood and I can vouch for every detail in the story, as I knew him well and was behind him until a third of the journey had been covered”.

Arthur Newton
Of course the other legend was the Comrades Great, Arthur “GREATHEART” Newton. This 39-year-old farmer from Harding was also among the 89 starters in that first “up” run to Pietermaritzburg. This quiet, self-effacing, pipe smoking man with a characteristic swing-trot took the lead at Camperdown, and won the race in 8hr 40min.

Told that is performance on that day had surprised the general public, given that runners such as Rowan and Phillips were in the race, Newton modestly remarked, “It came as a surprise to myself, I rather thought I could run into third or fourth place, but certainly I did not expect to win, and still less to cover the course in under 9hr. 15 min”.

Newton revealed what a technical master of the pace he was when he further remarked; “It isn’t my fault I won. If Phillips and Rowan hadn’t cut such a terrific pace at the start they both would have finished in front of me, because they are better runners”. Not surprisingly, even Newton said “never again” at the end of the race. He and many others after him broke that promise and have been lured back by the seductive charms of the Comrades.

Results – 1921 to 1929

Arthur Newton – the first Comrades Great.

Published by Tom Cottrell

A struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.

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