1930’s : Desperate dashes, close finishes – The Ballington Era. (Part 2)

Even though the field was small for the 1935 “Down” race, the day was glorious, the sun was shining, a big difference from the previous two years. Interest was high. Ballington and Cochrine had established themselves as great rivals. There too was a dark horse on the start line. That was Johannes Coleman. Some years after the ‘35 race Ballington remarked, “Cochrine and I tried hard for the 1935 race, because we were to have Coleman as an opponent. Coleman put in a great deal of work for the race and looked as fit and hard as anybody.

With these three outstanding runners, the race was shaping up to be a thriller. Would the record go? Would Ballington score a hat trick? The papers of the day speculated. Only time and the Old Durban Road could reveal the secret.

H.A. Ward of Mafeking went out as the rabbit as usual, Ballington, Cochrine and Coleman, with too much at stake stayed close to him this year and did not use their tactics of holding back as in previous years. Before long, at Cato Ridge, the trio had overhauled the rabbit and were making good time on their way down to Durban. This was a game of chess, each making a move, each watching their rival. Bill Cochrine sprang the surprise, Ballington was suffering from stomach cramp, and the surge was made. Cochrine opened up a useful lead on the long winding Inchanga Hill. By the time he reached Drummond, he was two minutes ahead of Ballington and Coleman, who were running side by side.

Bill Cochrane in 1935 – he beat Ballington in a time of 06:30.

Cochrine fearlessly built up a lead, and the record seemed in reach when he ran through Kloof. By this stage he was 8 minutes ahead of Coleman and 9 ahead of Ballington.

The race was not over and after Pinetown, Ballington set off in determined fashion. All the while he was closing on his great friend and rival. This was the stuff of legends. Could the ailing Ballington come back and do it again. Cochrine was forced to look over his shoulder more than once at a revitalised Hardy Ballington. This was to be ‘30 and ‘31 all over again. For Ballington it was not to be. This time the race went to Cochrine. Ballington was on the track when Bill breasted the tape, one minute 45 seconds separated them in yet another enthralling finish.

To the surprise of everyone, Cochrine announced his retirement after the 1935 race. He felt that he had achieved his ambition, and wanted to turn his attention to other pursuits. Johnny Coleman was preparing for the Berlin Olympics, and was thus counted out of the ‘36 “Up” race.

In 1936, Ballington was however there, and was the firm favourite for a win. On a cold and miserable day, Hardy Ballington set out not only to win but also to claim the record as his own. This indeed was to be the day of victory for Hardy Ballington. On this day he not only scored his hat trick of victories, he smashed Philip’s 10-year-old “Up” record by 11 mins 32 sec.

This was a triumph of the spirit. This was a victory that came from a tubby, self-conscious little school boy who started running in the dark, so that no-one could see his porkey little legs and laugh at him. Testimony to his hard training and self-sacrifice, Hardy Ballington was on his way to the Comrades Hall of fame.   

It is not entirely clear what was effecting the race, but in 1936, the starters only numbered 19. The organiser, Vic Clapham was so upset by the poor turnout, he persuaded two old stalwarts, Harry Wilkinson and Vernon Jones, neither of whom had trained for the race to run as far as Toll Gate to make the size of the field look more respectable.

Hardy Ballington – concentrating while Vic Clapham looks on

In 1937, Hardy Ballington was in Britain tackling Newton’s records. The race, it seemed, to have been handed to Johnny Coleman on a plate. Coleman, now 26 and a guard on the South African Railways had run into sixth place at the Berlin Olympic Games Marathon in the previous year. It is not clear whether Coleman had any designs on the record, but by the time he reached Hill crest, he clocked 3hr 45min 15 sec. Johnny Coleman was seven minutes ahead of Cochran’s time and was nearly five minutes ahead of Newton’ record-breaking time. Calculations were made, this had all the makings of an epic run.

Coleman was beginning to show signs of distress, and battled hard against fatigue. By the time he reached Mayville, he had 29 minutes to break the record. Digging deep, he found the hidden reserves of a thoroughbred, he ran unfalteringly to the end and in that year history recorded that Johnny Coleman did break the down record by 1 min. 34 secs, a record held since 1925 by Arthur Newton. And so after 15 years when he became the first holder of the up record, the name of Newton vanished from the list of record holders.

In 1938, the 18th Comrades Marathon, was the last organised by the founder, Vic Clapham. He had to relinquish his post because of a transfer to Ladysmith. In a very real sense its success as a national event was almost entirely due to him. At least he had the pleasure of knowing that he had accomplished something for the lasting benefit of South Africa.

The prospect of an exciting tussle between Ballington and Coleman, sadly was not to be in 1938. Coleman was chosen to represent South Africa at the Empire Games in Sydney and opted not to run. Ballington was there and was looking for his fourth win. It was a small field of only 20 which came under starters orders. Although all eyes were on Ballington, he seemed to have no intention of rushing himself, and as usual, he preferred to follow his own race schedule regardless of the others in the race.

Ballington stuck to his racing schedule and at Camperdown clocked 4 hours 49 min 50, nearly eight minutes ahead of his 1936 time. Now well ahead, the main interest was how much he would take off his own record. He didn’t have things all his own way and on the long downhill from Umlaas Road, Ballington had to contend with stomach cramps and he laboured heavily over this part of the race. The fourth victory was assures, and the youthful Ballington took 13 mins 48 sec off his own record.

So well had Ballington judged his race that he was only 86 seconds outside his race schedule. This record breaking run brought to a close a magnificent Comrades career, for Ballington announced his retirement soon after the finish. “I’ve had enough, I must get on with my work now” said Ballington, “I can’t manage work and marathon running, it’s just too much”.

It was a chilly and overcast day in 1939. Empire Marathon Champion Johnny Coleman was in the line-up and was very fit. The experts were predicting a 6hr 20 finish. Boyce had in the space of two years become a factor in the race, and with his single-minded approach, a record-breaking time seemed on the cards.

Despite the inclement weather, a large crowd gathered in the Maritzburg chill to send the runners on their way, some in their evening dress from parties of the previous night, and others with overcoats over their pyjamas.

Coleman, defying superstition by wearing number 13, immediately took the lead. He was determined to stamp his authority on this race, and by the time he reached Drummond, and the halfway mark, he was more than a mile ahead of his nearest rival, Boyce.

By the time Coleman reached Pinetown however, he seemed to run out of reserves, and his powerful stride began to faulter. Boyce, in the meantime had come to life and began to close in on his rival. Coleman now clearly in distress and reduced to walking on the hills, saw a rejuvenated Boyce close the gap.

In the end it was Coleman who had the final answer. It was only after the race that Coleman revealed that he had badly twisted his knee when he slipped on a training run only four days before the race. Coleman was now assured of victory, but time was running out. He would have to dig deep within himself if he were to take some time off his record. Thanks to a strong final burst, he succeeded in lowering the record by 1 min 06 secs. In truth a great performance, especially in view of his injury which he kept secret until after the race. Like Ballington the year before, Coleman announced his retirement from the race. 

Thus ended the second decade of the Comrades marathon. Far from the Natal midlands, in lands many miles away, the skies were already dark with the spectre of war. In September of 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and before long the world was enveloped by a storm which was to last six years.

Hardy Ballington on his way to his fourth win in 1938

Results 1930 to 1939

Published by Tom Cottrell

A struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.

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