1940 – The war clouds close in and stop the race – echoes from the past once peace reigns

From the very beginning it was going to be difficult to stage the 1940 race. Yes, life seemed pretty much normal in South Africa at the time. Men were attending camps and the country was preparing itself for a war, but the harsh reality of a war with Hitler’s forces in Europe seemed another world away.

Rightly or wrongly, the organisers decided to go ahead with the race anyway. This was to be the 20th Comrades Marathon and all did seem normal in Africa after all.

Numbers of entries were small, not much different from the lean years of the thirties. How many intended entering that year will never be known, but, on the very eve of the race, Hitler invaded France and the Low Countries, and by Marathon Day the Allied armies were reeling back towards Dunkirk and the English Channel. At this moment the first South African troops were mobilised, and a number of men who intended to run the 1940 race withdrew their entries to join their military units at camps all over the country.

But the show did go on and on a bright moonlit morning in Durban, the Mayor of Durban, Councillor Rupert Ellis Brown, sent the 23 athletes on their way to Pietermaritzburg.

The race was unremarkable from a spectator’s point of view, and certainly did not emulate the close finishes that made the period of the 30’s so exiting.

Allen Boyce holds the record for winning by the biggest margin. Set in 1940, the record still stands today

What was remarkable however, was Allen Boyce’s run. He was the outright winner in a time of 6 hrs. 39mins. He ran alone almost the whole way, and was only 6 mins 57 secs outside the record. The second place went to WD Parr who was almost two hours behind the winner. Parr had almost to cover a quarter of the distance of the race when Boyce breasted the tape in Alexander Park. This was just rewards to an athlete who had served his apprenticeship well. Allen Boyce may not go down as one of the Comrades Grates, but he did have the makings of a champion. With seven medals to his name, three-second placings, he was only 4-and-a-half minutes outside the “Down” record. Boyce’s win in 1940 still stands in the record books to this day today as the biggest margin over a second placed athlete ever.

The curtain came down on the Comrades Marathon as the world was overtaken by the firestorm events of War. Empty and scilent on race day, the Old main Road would have to wait between the years 1941 to 1945. Not much changed on the mighty and ancient hills of Natal during this time. Africa quietly bided her time and waited. In the affairs of man however, many millions had lost their lives. In five short years, the world witnessed unprecedented destruction and cruelty.

In 1946 the world finally came to rest and began to count the cost of the war. Not much escaped the wrath, and when the dead were counted, it even touched the Comrades Marathon. Two of its previous winners were killed in action. Phil Masterson-Smith, that wiry runner who gave us those close finishes in the Thirties, and Frank Sutton, from the great Natal running family were now numbered among those who made the supreme sacrifice.

It was an emotional moment in the chill of that early Empire Day morning in Durban. Old comrades laid to rest, old friends remembered. The flame of camaraderie re-kindled, the dreamer soldier Vic Clapham not forgotten.

The old spirit of the race was quickly recaptured, and when the field of 22 lined up at the start in 1946, it was almost as if there had never been a break at all. It was the same old scene, same faces at the start, and some new ones.

The next three years were to bring about quite a remarkable series of results from the race. Each race from 1946 to 1948 was to be won by a pre-war winner. The first was Bill Cochrine, who gave the spectators so much excitement with those Titanic struggles with Hardy Ballington. As a wartime gunner he was captured in the Western Desert. Bill had formed the ambition in those camps to win the Comrades, and so at the age of 35 decided to make a comeback run. It proved to be successful and in a time of 7hrs 02mins, was the first post-war winner.

Bill Cochrane was the first post-war winner. He was captured in the Western Desert

There was an ironic moment for Bill, as he ran past the Oribi Flats. The area had been converted into a prisoner-of-war camp, and was full of Italian prisoners who were awaiting repatriation. Mussolini’s men watched in silence now as ex-prisoner, Cochrine, now a free man, ran on his way to victory at Alexander Park.

The 1946 race was an “Up” run, in keeping with the tradition of having “Up” runs in all the even years, and “Down” runs in all the odd years.

An ankle injury prevented Hardy Ballington from lining up for the 1946 race. However, fully recovered he was the outright favourite for the 1947 ‘Down” run. His sights were clearly set on one goal, to claim his fifth win and join the elite rank of “Comrades Great” by winning the race five times. A feat only achieved at that time by the great Arthur Newton.

Ballington was in the lead at the highest point of the race, Umlaas Road, and was running effortlessly. By the time Drummond was reached, Ballington was ahead of his 1935 time by about two minutes. The experts began to study his chances of beating Coleman’s record. This all seemed possible as he was known to run a faster second half.

Things did not go entirely his way on that day, Ballington had a bad patch and suffered from severe stomach cramps for many a mile and then later from sore thighs. Hardy Ballington stuck to the task at hand however and finished 19 minutes outside the record. He did achieve his ambition and joined Arthur Newton as the only other athlete to have five wins to his credit. This shy ‘fat boy’ was counted among the Comrades Greats; a place reserved for only an elite few. Ballington did fail in his quest to hold both the down and the up records at the same time, something that Newton did achieve. Immediately after the race Ballington announced his retirement from competitive running, and thus ended a fine career that spanned over fifteen years.

The Royal Family paid South Africa a visit during that year and to commemorate this event the 1947 medals bore the inscription “Royal Tour”.

In 1947 Edgar Marie, now a sexagenarian, and a regular runner, was not allowed to run the race unless he produced a doctor’s certificate. This he was to prove he was in good shape and would be able to cope with the rigours of such an ordeal. He duly produced the certificate and was allowed to run.

He arrived at the start with a pair of carpet slippers, and before long these were worn out. A spectator came to his rescue, and lent him a pair of sturdier boots. Edgar finished in good time and in grand style, and much to the appreciation of the Durban crowd, he did a second circuit of the track just to prove to the organisers that he was good for more.

The 1948 race was started by what was now a celebrated cockcrow by Max Trimbourne. This was always executed with much gusto and relish, just before the gun. Max was a consistent runner who started running in 1935 when he finished in 8hrs 21mins. Even today the familiar crow of the cock starts the race. He has become such a feature of the race that the organisers had the presence of mind to make a recording of his ubiquitous crow before he passed on, and it is played, much to the pleasure of those who remember him as a great character. So a tradition, thanks to Max Trimbourne, endures. The famous cock crows down the passage of time, every year it calls us to remember the old soldiers of the road, to bind ourselves in selfless camaraderie and to enjoy the simple act of running.

With Ballington and Cochrine out of the 1948 race, the new favourite for the up run was Reg Allison, a 21-year-old printer from Pietermaritzburg. When the hardy field of 45 left Durban that morning, no one had brought Bill Savage, victor of the 1932 race, into the reckoning.  Len Wootton led the entourage up the test of Fields Hill, closely followed by Savage. Sadly for Wootton, the pace he set was over-ambitious, and just before Hillcrest, the forgotten man of the race, Savage moved into the lead.   

The order of things at the halfway stage saw Savage ahead of Allison, who was having problems of his own. The heat on that day was intense and took its toll, many retired in distress. Up front however, the almost forgotten figure of Savage was toiling up the long, raking hill that guards Pietermaritzburg. After a 15-year absence from distance running, the race went to Savage.

Alison ran a gutsy race; at Camperdown he was lying fourth and was 32 minutes behind savage. He claimed second in 1948 and was 22 minutes behind the victor, thus making up 10 minutes over the last 20 testing kilometres of the race.

Savage’s victory meant that the first three post-war Comrades Marathons had been won by pre-war winners – Cochrine, Ballington and now Savage. Moreover, in the sixteen years since 1932, only five men had won the race: Savage – twice. Ballington – five times, Cochrine – twice, Coleman and Boyce once each.

The last race of the 1940’s was fairly open for the tipsters. Reg Allison had served his apprenticeship, was second twice was in good shape. Durban was punting Savage and John Ballington. It was the Maritzburg mayor, Councillor G.C. Jolliffe, who sent a field of 54 on their way to Durban on that Empire Day in 1949.

Allison was to stamp his authority on the race right from the early stages, and judging by the pace that was set, the Coleman record set in 1939 looked under threat. The running was too intense for Savage, and he retired. 

Up front, Allison only had to maintain his pace, and he would break the record. By the time he reached Pinetown with under twenty kilometres, Reg Allison was almost five kilometres in the lead. In the end, it was blisters that put paid to his effort to break the record. Valuable minutes were lost while Allison had them dressed. It was a struggle for him after that. Never the less, he was the victor on that day, and breasted the tape to an enthusiastic ovation.

And so ended thirty years of Comrades intrigue and drama. There are a number of post-scripts to the 1949 race. In completing the course Liege Boulle, then aged 40, won his tenth medal to beat the record which he had held jointly with Fred Wallace. His ‘ten medals’ achievement was a new milestone in the history of the race. In years to come, a small elite band of runners would join the Green Number Club, and have their numbers awarded in perpetuity.

Reg Allison winning the 1949 race

The last man home in 1949 was 29-year-old Dr. John Benee; a rugby playing doctor who had certified 62-year-old Edgar Marie as fit to run. The organisers had insisted that Marie produce a medical certificate of fitness and he so impressed Dr Bennee that the doctor decided to run himself. His elderly patient finished 25th, about three-quarters of an hour before, and was at the post to pick up the good doctor when he collapsed at the end of his run. It was Mare’s last Comrades as an official entrant. He was deemed to have won outright the Eddie Hagan Trophy presented in 1947 for the oldest competitor to finish and which he had won in all three races to date.

And so ended the third decade of the Comrades Marathon. The race was establishing itself as a tradition on the calendar, and despite the war-year interruptions, was becoming known to a still largely uninformed public.

Results 1940 to 1949

Published by Tom Cottrell

A struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.

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