I’m not a superstitious person. I’ll walk under a ladder, and I’ll stroke a black cat that crosses my path. I hardly notice Friday 13th and I would happily sit in seat in seat 13 on a plane if there was one. I eat the chicken on a wishbone, and I always forget to make a wish.
But I would never dare forget to greet Arthur Newton as I run past Arthur’s seat in the Comrades marathon.
Arthur “Greatheart” Newton was the first multiple winner of the Comrades marathon. He won the race 5 times between 1922 and 1927 and set new course records on 5 occasions. In addition, in his travels around the world, he won many races and set world records for 50 miles, 100 miles and 24 hours. He also won the first London to Brighton race in 1951. He started running at the relatively late age of 38 and ran his first Comrades in 1922 to publicize his outrage at a land dispute he had with the government at the time. He is considered the father of modern marathon running and his book on running simply called “Running by Arthur F.H. Newton” is still studied as a classic source of reference. He championed L.S.D. running (Long slow distance) as his favourite method of training.
In his heyday Newton would often train on the Comrades route, running prodigious distances at LSD pace but legend has it that on his training runs just after the halfway point of Comrades (Drummond Village) he would pause to gaze at the spectacular view of the Valley of a thousand Hills. Newton, an inveterate pipe smoker, would call for his pipe and sit in a hollowed out makeshift chair in a rock face and contemplate the magnificent valley with its sacred Table Mountain and the mighty Umgeni River snaking its way through the mountains. Sadly, parts of this fable must be a myth because it is impossible to see the Valley of a 1000 Hills from Newton’s rock face seat. But nonetheless the myth has grown in stature, has inevitably been embellished, and is now entrenched in Comrades folklore.
On race day runners passing Arthur’s Seat are expected to throw a flower at the seat, which is clearly designated by a sign and a small brick monument. (By the end of the day the day the monument is covered with a great bower of discarded flowers.)
But it is not enough to just toss a flower at Arthur’s Seat. Every passing runner is then expected to doff their cap and greet Newton with the words “Good morning, Arthur”. Failure to do so, the superstition warns, will result in catastrophe in the second half of the race for any disrespectful runners.
However, Arthur Newton’s ghost will smile benevolently on those do remember to respect the great man and greet him. A happy and successful journey to the finish in the second half of the race is then guaranteed.
I never wanted to put the superstition to the test and so even in the heat of battle I would never forget to doff my cap and shout, “Good morning Arthur” Sometimes to the bewilderment of the uninformed runners around me.
Amazingly I’ve never really had a bad run!
It seems to me that the ceremony at Arthur’s Seat is more ritual than superstition and the ritual helps to remind runners that this is the most famous ultra-marathon in the world and that this really matters. It helps to focus the mind and gird the loins for the challenge of the second half of the race.
Some runners might argue that the start of the race with its traditional ceremony of the national anthem, Shosholoza, Chariots of fire and Max Trimborn’s cockerel call is a superstitious sending off. But I believe that the start is a ritual which prepares runners for the great battle ahead.
Alan Robb’s famous red socks are a superstition. Alan would never start without them. Gerda Steyn tells me she wears a charm bracelet on her wrist. My friends Sue and Cherry also indulge in superstition. Sue must paint her toenails red and must put her left shoe on first on race morning. Cherry waxes her arms. (She believes it makes her faster.)
Mike wears his shorts inside out because he unintentionally wore them that way when he once ran an outstanding race.
The lesson for Comrades runners appears to be don’t change whatever works for you, but most importantly don’t forget to greet Arthur Newton at Arthurs Seat.
This blog is published by kind permission of The Citizen Newspaper.
Join the “Bruce Fordyce Comrades 2023 Route Tour” and the “Comrades After Party!!
Tickets are now available to join my “Bruce Fordyce Comrades bus route tour” and the “Bruce Fordyce Comrades after party”.
Join the Bruce Fordyce Comrades Route Tour on 9th June 2023! Tickets available here!
Join the Bruce Fordyce Comrades After Party on 12th June 2023! Tickets available here!