Edward Mothibi (left) and Bongmusa Mthembu shoulder to shoulder on Little Pollies.
My overwhelming impression of this year’s Comrades marathon was that it was an almost perfect day on which to run 87 hilly kilometres. (Well, certainly in the early part of the day.) Race morning was slightly chilly and, in places, there was a cool mist hanging in the dips and valleys. Some spectators reported small bursts of gentle rain. While I waited at Drummond, I was grateful for my tracksuit and a steaming cup of coffee.
This is most unusual for an Up run and was in stark contrast to earlier weather forecasts. 10 days before Comrades my weather app predicted Berg wind conditions with temperatures of 30C at some parts of the day. That would have been disastrous for the runners and would have resulted in the finish’s medical facility bursting at the seams.
In the almost half century I have been involved in the Comrades marathon, either as a runner, spectator or broadcaster, I can remember just two cool Up runs. It was grey, chilly and it rained intermittently in 1979, and it was bright, sunny and chilly in 1988 (as you’ll see in my ebook), when both Frith Van Der Merwe and I set new course records. So, this year’s race was relatively kind to runners and some certainly took advantage of the conditions.
This year I watched the race while seconding good friends from 3 points on the route. The first was in Pinetown, just before the climb up Fields Hill. It was still gloomy and chilly as the dawn started to arrive.
The usual over-enthusiastic TV runners or pacemakers came dashing past us. Those runners always puzzle me, as it seems so dreadfully foolish to be pounding along several minutes ahead of all the major contenders, especially when running your very first Comrades. And yet those ‘TV runners’ have been a part of the race since I began running it in 1977.
As these early leaders started climbing Field’s Hill, the main contenders’ bunch came thundering past. It really is an inspiring sight to see the elite runners travelling in a tight-knit group at speed. The same applies to the ladies’ contenders, whose bunch was just a little smaller, but just as intense.
I always enjoy watching the race at Drummond (halfway, and my second spot). Parking can be a problem but, like many experienced spectators, I have my parking secrets. It’s always packed with spectators and club gazebos. Braais are smoking and the air is full of the smell of crisp bacon and rich coffee. The crowd is always enthusiastic in its support and the runners’ spirits lift as they realise that they have reached half- way and the bulk of the climbing has been completed.
The early front runners had been reduced to just one lone man, who ran some distance up Inchanga and then turned back and climbed into a car. Again the two lead groups sped past, but their numbers had been reduced and there were some significant absentees as the pace took its toll.
My third viewing point is always my favourite for the Up Comrades; Ashburton, or Little Pollies as it is known to all Comrades runners. For some reason it is relatively undiscovered by spectators and fans and, for me, it is rather like the veteran fisherman’s favourite spot, hidden from view in a bend in the river where a deep pool offers exciting rewards.
Ashburton is hugely rewarding, as it offers easy parking and brilliant views of the runners toiling up Little Pollies. I’ve always believed that Little Pollies is a critical point in the Up Comrades and reveals so much about a runner’s progress.
I stood at the “11 kilometres to go” banner, almost at the summit of Little Pollies, and watched the leaders toil past. The day had started to warm up and the front runners were sweating, but they were still running strongly. Bongmusa Mthembu and Edward Mothibi were running shoulder to shoulder, and I was amazed at the speed that they were travelling. It is quite awe-inspiring to watch two runners running so powerfully after 80 mountainous kilometres.
To me, a fascinating piece of Comrades historical trivia is that, in the 90-odd years that the Comrades has been run, the first runner to reach the top of Polly Shortts has always gone on to win the race. When I spoke to Edward after the race he told me he had reached the summit of Little Pollies about 20 seconds ahead of Bongmusa, but it was still desperately close, and the two great runners managed to stage the third-closest men’s race finish in the history of the Comrades.
As exciting as Bongmusa’s and Edward’s race was, the major story of the 2019 Comrades has to be Gerda Steyn’s incredible run. When I started running in the 1970s, we male runners knew that if we could just manage to break the 6-hour barrier in the Up Comrades marathon, we would probably win the race. At worst, we would finish in the top 3 positions. Not one of us would have believed that a woman would ever be capable of breaking 6 hours, and doing it with such consummate ease.
Statistics and figures cannot adequately measure the ease and grace with which Gerda ran. Upright and beautifully poised, she seemed to be floating when she came past me on Little Pollies. She even managed a little smile and a wave when she saw me. It was a sight I will never forget. Here was a great athlete totally in control of her race and enjoying her running, while emphasising that anything is possible.
I was delighted to have coffee with Gerda a few days ago. As I always suspected, she is a very special Comrades winner and is a wonderful asset to the race. In my opinion, she has the determination and ability to win several more Comrades marathons.
As I complete this latest blog, I have just learnt the terribly sad news that the great Jackie Mekler has died. I will write my next blog on Jackie, but suffice it to say for the present that the Comrades marathon community is devastated. Jackie Mekler was the elder Statesman of the Comrades marathon and will be missed all over the world.
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