History of the Comrades Marathon

The first Comrades was run on 24th May 1921 by and started Vic Clapham, a veteran of the First World War, and was his way of commemorating his comrades who he had left behind in East Africa and to honour the camaraderie he shared with his colleagues. One of the most epic long-distance marathons in the world is run over a distance that varies every year depending on the route decided upon, but averaging 90 km. The race is in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, and starts one year in Durban, (South Africa) up to Pietermaritzburg and then down from Pietermaritzburg to Durban the next year.

The route goes through areas of flat road and very hilly areas, the highest point being 870 meters above sea level. The major part of the way is run on the old Durban to Pietersburg road, which is tarred the entire length. The first race was held in 1921 and started from the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. The only years that were missed was during the Second World War from 1941to 1945, the years that South Africa participated in the war.

Cut off times

Cut off times have varied over the years going from 12 hours to 11 hours, but now is fixed at 12 hours. There is also a mid-way cut off for those runners who are not going to be able to finish. In 1975 two significant changes were made to the rules and for the first time, “non-whites” were allowed to participate. At that time, South Africa was run by a racialist government, and non-whites were excluded in most areas in South Africa. This could have been the beginning of the end of separate development. Another milestone was that women were allowed to enter the race for the first time.

Any runner who completes the comrades ten times receives a “green” number which remains his/her number and can never be repeated. In the early hours of the morning, the race is started by a cockcrow and the leaders who have their position at the starting ribbon (depending on their results from previous years) set off. Due to the numbers of entrants, those at the back have a long wait before they can join the race!

Amongst the runners who have proved themselves on the road is icon Bruce Fordyce who won the Comrades 9 times and has since devoted himself to promoting running to encourage youngsters to participate in the sport. Bruce also won the London to Brighton Marathon (53 miles 1082 yards) in 1983, and he also holds the 50 mile USA All-Comers Race, and for some years held the world 100km record. Another iconic South African runner was Wally Hayward who won the Comrades in 1930, his first time running the Comrades and after a gap of 20 years, he again won in 1950, 51, 53 and 54 (in 1952 he was competing for South Africa in the Helsinki Olympic Games and finished 10th ). In 1984 he again ran the Comrades and finished in 9hrs 44min, and in 1989 he back ran at the age of 80!