1920’s : Heat and dust – The era of Arthur ‘Greatheart’ Newton – Part 2

By 1923 the race had taken on a far more serious look, even though race entries were down from the previous year. The practical jokers had been eliminated somewhere on the testing hills and the field looked a lot more serious. Phillips and Newton were the objects of much of the press attention. From the start the real contenders had learnt their lesson, and a more cautious approach was taken by most. Notwithstanding, Newton took the lead early on and by Harrison Flats he was ahead. There he stayed until the end.

Newton took the officials by complete surprise on his second run. No one believed the first athlete would arrive at the finish line in under seven hours. And yet, here he was in Durban for lunch. Harry Hotchin, president of the Natal Amateur Athletic and Cycling Club was walking to the Lords Ground to check the arrangements for the afternoon sports meeting was flabbergasted. Newton was approaching Alice Street Bridge along Old Dutch Road followed by a procession of vehicles.

The clock won in 1923. It stands in the Comrades museun and still works.

Only by scampering through a hole in the fence at Lords Ground was he able to get to the tapes in time to clock in the “dusty travel-stained figure” Newton, who had mounted the perimeter bank and, in the presence of only a handful of spectators, had started running around the Oval cycle track. Newton had come home in the unbelievable time of 6 hours and 56 mins, breaking the seven-hour barrier. There can be no doubt, the Comrades Marathon would never be the same again after such an epic run.

Although the 1924 race attracted only 31 starters, interest was never-the-less high and Newton started as firm favorite. Harry Phillips was not an entrant and this did put a damper on things. Phillips had beaten Newton in the S.A. Marathon Champs earlier and would have been a main contender. As a result of his win over Newton at the Marathon Champs he was to run for South Africa in the Paris Olympics later that year.

By the time the runners reached Fields Hill on the up, Newton again was already in the lead. This race however was not to be a “cake walk” for the champ. About eight kilometers from the finish Newton took a fizzy drink and collapsed. Fortitude and the strong shoulder of the timekeeper got him running again. But for this incident, Newton would probably have finished eight or nine minutes earlier. His time was 6:58. It is worth recording here that his time for the second half was 3:31. – a full hour faster than his first “Up” run.

The 1925 press gives us some interesting insights into training beliefs in those days. The Latest, a Natal paper encouraged athletes not to take on fluids during the run for it will “only make you tired and lazy”. “For footwear get hold of the lightest pair of shoes, not boots, and if possible use the crepe-rubber-soles canvas variety. The training methods were also quite interesting, The Maritzburg athlete Shackleford, who finished as runner up in the previous year’s race ran out on the 3rd of May, and completed the entire course “as fresh as a herring”, 20 days before the race.

Harry Phillips was back and as the new marathon champion seemed intent on stamping his authority on the race almost from the start. He took an early lead and by the time he reached Drummond he was four minutes ahead of Newton. But in the end the pace seemed too much for the Olympian and on the other side of Drummond near Alvestone, Newton took the lead. Again it was Newton, with four wins to his credit, the farmer from Harding was now 42 and in the peak of fitness. The 1925 run was his finest, 6:24. a full 31 mins better than his previous best time.

Harry Phillips – winner in 1926

For Newton there were clouds on the horizon, not so much on the road but in his personnel life. During 1925 Newton left South Africa in protest. Some of his farmlands were being expropriated at below market prices and the softly spoken, pipe smoking champion was lost to South Africa.

Difficult times
Prospects for the Comrades Marathon were looking bleak. With the smallest field yet, the 1926 “UP” run only attracted 24 starters. Newton did however enter at the last minute and traveled from Bulawayo. His preparation was not what it should have been. The Natal Witness sill viewed Newton as the main contender for the ‘26 race and published its selection as : 1 – Newton, 2 – Phillips, 3 – Sutton.

Only a few minutes before the start Newton, who had been sitting in a motor car discussing the National Flag Question with a pressman, put away his pipe and leisurely joined the bunch of thinly clad athletes. Phillips, the other favorite for the race, extinguished his cigarette and removed his overcoat revealing the black and gold colours of his Comrades Club. Although Newton was to run for Bulawayo Harriers, his former Comrades Club was still by far the best represented.

After the starter called the roll, the small field set off and Harry Philips took an early lead up Berea Road. Imagine if you will if the roll was called today, how long it would take. Phillips again took an early lead. He led the field at Berea Road. Newton worked his way through the field with his unpretentious jog-trot and was soon in second place. By the time the leader reached Drummond, he was a full 10 minutes ahead of Newton and looking strong. Over the Inchanga Bank the race took on a different look. Newton was steadily closing on Phillips. However the lead built up in the early stages of the race where just too much for Greatheart, and for the first time in the race’s history, the winner was a Martizburg man.

By all accounts Philip’s run that year was indeed great. Not only did he beat his great friend and rival, but he also lowered the record for the “Up” run by 36 seconds. Newton’s run was also a brave attempt. Although he could not have done all of the training he would have liked, he did manage to close the gap in the closing stages of the race. The end result will show that he only finished 4 mins.14 sec’s behind Phillips.

By the time the 1927 race entries closed, Phillips announced his retirement. He felt he had achieved his main ambition. This left Newton as the main favorite for the “Down”.

Newton wasted no time in taking the lead and he seemed intent on running a different race this year, leading from the start. Newton did run into trouble, and by the time the lead bunch reached Cato Ridge, Newton was showing real signs of distress. The easy swing-trot seemed belabored, and he was forced to stop. Steytler, who had been following him closely passed Newton in fine style and by the time the leader pack reached Drummond, Steytler had a six-minute lead on Newton. At the Railway Bridge just after Drummond, Ron Sutton caught Newton who seemed to really be in big trouble.  At Botha’s Hill, Ron Sutton took the lead, and for the first time it seemed that the great Sutton Family of Maritzburg would triumph.

Newton was not known as “Greatheart” for nothing and soon showed signs of recovery. He was closing on a toiling Sutton. Steytler by this time had retired. By Hillcrest, Newton was again in the lead and never looked like giving up the position until he reached Durban. It was his fifth win, an accomplishment so rare that only a small handful of elite’s could ever make such a boast in the future. The 1927 race would also be a sad occasion for the crowds, for Arthur “Greatheart” Newton was to leave the shores of South Africa to settle in Britain. There he would notch up a number of world records and achieve other great victories.

Such was the man, he would not keep his prizes, because he felt he had an unfair advantage over his rivals. This was so because he could put far more into his training than anyone else and preferred that the accolades went to the second placed athlete who could not devote so much time to the task as him. Ah, how times have changed. Or was it just that when we come to judge who was the greatest of them all, the name of “Greatheart” will be there, as the number one not only for his great running ability but for his humility.

Even this great runner had certain things to say about the punishing course. Of Inchanga he said that unlike the Bank of Monte Carlo, the Inchanga Bank was more apt to break the man. Of Polly Shorts, he suggested a name change : Jolly Longs.

Newton was out in 1928, Phillips too. The press was punting the Sutton Family as hot favorites. Again the field was small, with only 34 starters lining up in Durban on Empire Day. A feature of the field was its youth. Without the class of Newton, the race was slow and indeed it did end up as a Sutton “one, two” with Frank Sutton winning in the relatively pedestrian time of 7hr. 49min. Ron was not far behind and came second in 7hr. 57min.

The Sutton Brothers – Frank (back left) won the race in 1928

The last race of the 20’s attracted only 29 starters, and not one of those under the start banner in Commercial Road that morning had ever finished in the first three. The Suttons were gone and the race was wide open.

The Comrades Marathon as a race was beginning to deteriorate, Vic Clapham’s hand was not in it anymore, and the lack of his organisational flair and his zeal was keenly felt on that cold Empire Day. No timekeeper was appointed, but a farcical situation was avoided, thanks to the Natal Mercury sports writer, who brought and used his own stopwatch.

The race went to a 20-year-old novice, Darrel Dale. He was the first novice since 1922 to win. Darrel was a bank clerk, who a few years previously, was stopped from doing any sport at school because of a suspected weak heart.

Fred Wallace, the second man home finished 18 minutes behind the winner and was a novice Comrades runners as well. Thus ended the first decade of the Comrades, small beginnings, dusty roads and small fields.

When one looks at the numbers of participants, it would seem that after 1922, where the race attracted over 100 entrants and 89 starters that would be competitors took fright at the enormity of the task. Certainly judging by the times, the race became the reserve of more dedicated runners, and the Comrades Marathon was not something to be trifled with. Certainly, the 1922 race must have been a turning point. The biggest field of the decade with many practical jokers in the pack. It is also worthy to note here that over 70% of the field did not finish on that day. When one compares that with the dropout rate in later years, it was a huge number. In later years during the 20’s the dropout rate rarely was greater than 45%.

In 1924 one edition of The Latest reported “It is surprising how this strenuous race has caught on, to do the 54 miles within 12 hours does not appear to be a very difficult task, but dozens fail each time, it must be far more difficult than many imagine. That is why, no doubt, a Comrades Medal is so keenly sought.”

Yet a year later in 1925, the same paper reported : “when the six prize winners lined up at 4:30 p.m. to receive their prizes from the Mayor, all looked as fresh as crickets, which shows that a run of this description has no ill effects on a well-trained athlete”.

Results – 1921 to 1929

Published by Tom Cottrell

A struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.

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