1930’s : Desperate dashes, close finishes – The Ballington Era (Part 1)

The first race of the 30’s saw a wiry, muscular runner line up in Durban as a novice. An athlete who had won the national 10-mile championships earlier that year. He was the 21 year old Wally Hayward, of Johannesburg. No one suspected him of any ambitions as a long distance runner. Nor could anyone have foreseen the feats this man would have achieved in the Comrades two decades later.

Almost from the gun this novice seemed determined to pile on a big lead in the early stages and took off at a furious pace. Too fast, too soon? This was the question in the minds of the seasoned campaigners and spectators alike. Yet young Hayward was determined to build a big lead, and by the time he went through the halfway mark, he was a full 16 minutes ahead of his nearest rival.

A young Wally Hayward, winner of the 1930 Comrades Marathon

In this field was another novice who chose the more conservative option and went slowly in the early stages. This was Phil Masterson-Smith, an 18 year old from Maritzburg.

By the time the leader reached Cato Ridge, he was beginning to show the strain of his earlier indiscretions. The cruel hills of Field’s, Botha’s and then Inchanga proved to be too much for the young novice. Finally the young Hayward was forced to stop for a rub. At this stage Phil Masterson-Smith was looking quite fresh and was beginning to close on the ailing Wally. An exciting race seemed on the cards.

All the time the lead was being whittled away, but by Mpushini Masterson-Smith was also beginning to show strain and was struggling. Nearing Alexander Park Wally Hayward kept looking over his shoulder, expecting to see the slight figure of the curly-haired, Masterson-Smith. But it was not to be. Obviously running on his nerves, said the Mercury report, Hayward entered the track and began the final circuit. Before he was clear of the back straight, his young rival cantered in to the stadium.

On entering the final straight, Hayward stumbled. There was a tremendous gasp from the crowd, but Wally, being Wally, recovered and held on to a win by 37 seconds, a little over 200 yards. This was the closest finish to date and Hayward, who had led the race for more than 70 kilometres had so nearly lost the race to a less experienced rival. Phil Masterson-Smith had made up more than 16 minutes on the ailing Hayward in the last 14 miles.

A close finish

If 1930 proved an exciting finish, the “Down” run of 1931 must have been a heart stopper to both an unsuspecting crowed and to the lanky, Town Clerk from Colenso, Noel Buree.

The hapless Buree arrived at the start just as the City Hall clock was chiming six o’ clock. The taxi which he had ordered to pick him up at Scottsville, where he spent the night, did not arrive at the appointed time of 5:40am. A frantic Buree borrowed a boys bicycle, found it had a puncture, hurriedly mended it and peddled furiously the two miles to the City Hall, and arrived at the start just as the starter’s gun went off. This was not to be the last of the day’s excitement for Noel Buree, who finished 12th in the previous year’s race in a credible time of 8hrs 48 mins.

Last year’s runner-up was at the start, the man who gave the crowds all the excitement, 19 year old Phil Masterson-Smith. Unfortunately, the 1930 winner Wally Hayward was not there as he was nursing an injury.

Masterson-Smith, now a seasoned campaigner with one medal to his credit, moved along in an untroubled fashion, and by the time he reached Cato Ridge was lying 22nd. Changes took place frequently up front, but nothing that seemed to bother young Phil. By the time he reached Hillcrest, he started picking up the pace and was not far behind the leaders. Buree however looked in bad shape, and was not going to reach Durban.

On the long decent into Pinetown, the dreaded Field’s Hill, Masterson-Smith piled on the pressure and soon took the lead. A big crowd turned out in the streets of Pinetown to cheer the runners on their way. Masterson-Smith waved and smiled, victory seemed assured. Buree was some 10 minutes behind at this stage in fourth position and still limping slightly.

Pretty soon the second and third positions of a tiring Van Rooyen and Strydom fell prey to Noel Buree and before long he was in second position and running the race of his life. 

By the top of Westermeyer’s Hill at Westville, Buree had made up 3 minutes on the leader. Masterson-Smith still looked like the winner at this stage with a small margin to spare. But the steely man from Colenso had other ideas and was closing in rapidly on a now tiring leader.

A big crowd greeted Masterson-Smith as he came over Tollgate into town on that warm, sunny afternoon. He was hemmed in by cars, motorcycles and bicycles and occasionally had to run off course to avoid them.

Barely 40 yards behind him came Buree, having gained 10 minutes in the last 10 miles. Never before had Durban witnessed such a close finish and the crowds lining the Berea Road throbbed with excitement. By now the 168 lb Colenso man looked like winning the race, but was frequently frustrated in his overtaking dash by the mass of traffic.

At the corner of Botanic Gardens Road, Buree was only a few yards behind Masterson-Smith. This order was maintained until they reached the Old Fort Road, where Buree finally took the lead on Alice Street Bridge, barely 700 yards from the finish post. Noel Buree forged ahead a few yards and it seemed to a hysterical crowed, that the race would go to Colenso.

Excitement reached fever pitch among the large crowd at the Track Ground, The surging spectators blocked the path of the runners in the entrance roadway, and Masterson-Smith again took the lead by a bare 10 yards when the two men turned on the track from behind the pavilion for the final lap. On the back straight, Buree began to make pace and closed the gap to 3 yards. The two white-clad runners turned into the final straight together…..neck and neck, with only 100 yards to go at the end of a 54-mile race. The crowd rose as one and shouted with excitement as the two men put on a final spurt.

Buree got in front by a foot. Masterson-Smith, taking a quick side-glance, put all he had in the final scramble for the tape. Both men were played out… just for a moment that was an eternity, they kept together, each in stride, each just a heartbeat…. Then Masterson-Smith drew ahead and in that very instant he breasted the tape to win by a mere 2 yards. Two almost simultaneous pistol shots recorded the finish. The first for the winner, the second for Buree.

For the second year in succession the first two men were on the track together and Masterson-Smith was involved in both dramatic finishes.

In the change rooms afterwards Masterson-Smith shook Buree by the hand and said; “It was a great race, our race. Not first or second – the margin was too narrow.” It was a typical gesture of Masterson-Smith, who at the age of 19 was, and still is, the youngest winner in the history of the race.

The Gunga Din Trophy

To date there was no team trophy and the race was ten years old. Vic Clapham commandeered an old World War One relic, a discarded steel helmet found by his sons. He had this symbolic Great War memento chromed and mounted on a circular piece of wood. This team trophy was named the “Memorable Order of the Tin Hats (MOTH) Team Trophy” This trophy was presented to the Comrades Marathon by the Gunga Din Shellhole – successor to the League of Comrades of the Great War of which Clapham was a member. The trophy became known as the Gunga Din. In 1931 the first recipient of this coveted prize, appropriately was the Maritzburg United Athletics ‘A’ Team.     

When the 65 intrepid runners lined up on a glorious morning in Durban on Empire day 1932, there were no real clear-cut winners. Yes, Masterson-Smith was there, as was Cochrane, but the race was wide open. There were two however in that early morning throng that deserves mention. The one, knew she would not win a medal no matter how well she ran. Her name was Geraldine Watson, a Durban school teacher. She was an unofficial finisher the previous year in a time of just over 11 hours. In 1932 she became the first woman to have finished both the “Down” and the “Up” race. In 1933 Geraldine finished in a very respectable time of 9 hrs 31 mins. Had the organising committee of the day recognised her status as an athlete she would have been given position 41 in that race.

Hardy Ballington

The second, was a novice by the name of Hardy Ballington. While no one could have guessed when this youthful looking athlete finished in the relatively pedestrian time of 8:01in 1932 that a new era had begun.

The road was dust free as it was now tarred all the way. No doubt the hardy stalwarts of the 20’s would have had something to say to the new breed of runners about the heat and the dust.

Hardy Ballington – Comrades Great of the 1930’s

On that cold, wet and miserable morning in 1933, history was about to be made. Not since the Newton era, had an athlete run under seven hours. Young Hardy Ballington was about to change all that.

Ballington judged his race well. This was a down run and by Cato Ridge, the young runner had attached himself to Cochrane, a more seasoned campaigner, and they were lying comfortably in 15th and 16th position. By the time they reached Drummond Cochrane and Ballington were in joint 3rd position and were starting to take stock of each other and were weighing up their options. Ballington had to stop at Drummond to change his shoes, Cochrane went ahead, perhaps thankful that he had shaken off this young stripling.

It was Ballington, however, who had the greater store of options on that day, and soon hauled in the more experienced runner on Botha’s Hill. He then set of after the leader Sandison, a tall Durban runner.

By the time he reached Hillcrest, Ballington was a full seven minutes ahead. The sturdy 20-year old went on with a purposeful pace and ran through Pinetown at around about 11 ‘o clock. By now the statisticians were doing their calculations, and if this Durban Boy kept the pace, he would be the first man to be in Durban in less than seven hours, the first to do it since Newton in 1927.

The cold and wet weather suited Ballington. By the time he reached Tollgate, there was a big crowed who cheered on the youthful Ballington, who gave a smile and a wave as he ran strongly passed. Down the Old Dutch Road and onto the Track Ground, Hardy Ballington of Durban was given a rousing welcome by the home crowd. This race, this win was to be a new chapter in the history of Comrades.

Hardy had changed much. This was to mark a new phase in the Comrades Marathon, where a highly trained athlete would run as much against the clock, as he would against his rivals. Since that day in 1933, no winner of the “Down” race has ever gone over the seven-hour mark.

Ballington, who began long-distance running two years earlier, later said “I’ve never worked so hard in my life as I did training for this race. In four days over Easter I covered over 104 miles.”

Something needs to be said of another Comrades hero of previous Titanic struggles. That day saw Phil Masterson-Smith as a starter. These were the Depression Years and life was very hard. Undaunted, Phil cycled from Cape Town to be at the race. Phil only managed to finish in the modest time of 8 hours, in 10th position. That notwithstanding, the achievement in itself must go down as one of the toughest biathlons in modern history.

Ballington was there at the start of the 1934 “Up” race as was some of his rivals. Again, the weather was not kind, for it was cold and miserable, and it was to remain that way for most of the race. The man who Hardy stuck to in the previous race, Bill Cochrane was there and many in Natal were punting him for a win.

Cochrane and Ballington stuck together, and by the time they reached Botha’s hill were working their way unhurriedly through the field. By the time they reached Drummond, the pair was in 4th position. The great destroyer of hopes and dreams, the Inchanga Bank, took its toll and Ballington was forced to relinquish the pace to a stronger Cochrane.

It was a chance comment from a spectator, Ballington later revealed, that spurred him on, out of his bad patch and on to try catch his rival on the Harrison Flats. The person questioned if his previous win was a fluke. “Little did that man realise what his remark meant to me, I was determined to win at all costs and the further I went, the better I felt.”

Ballington was relentless in his pursuit. It was just before Umlass Road that Ballington finally caught and overhauled a tiring Cochrane. It was 1933 all over again. As he now moved strongly ahead, the one thing that would elude the young athlete, was the sub seven-hour mark. The victory did not elude the young runner that year, convincing the public that such talent was no fluke.

1931 – With less than a kilometre to go Phil Masterson-Smith (45) chases a spirited Noel Burree (29)

Published by Tom Cottrell

A struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.

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