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Comrades Marathon

Comrades Marathon
The Comrades Marathon logo
Date May/June
Location Durban/Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
Event type Road
Distance Ultramarathon (90 km)
Established 1921
Course records
  • Down:
  • Up:
    •  Men: 5:24:49 (2008)
        Leonid Shvetsov
    •  Women: 6:09:23 (2006)
        Elena Nurgalieva
Official site The Comrades Marathon

The Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon of approximately 89 km (approx. 56 miles)[1] which is run annually in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It is the world's largest and oldest ultramarathon race.[2] The direction of the race alternates each year between the "up" run (87 km) starting from Durban and the "down" run (89 km) starting from Pietermaritzburg.

The field is capped at 23,000 runners, and entrants hail from more than 60 countries.[3] In all but three runnings since 1988, over 10,000 runners have reached the finish within the allowed 11 or 12 hours.[4] With increased participation since the 1980s, the average finish times for both genders, and the average age of finishers have increased substantially.[5]

Runners over the age of 20 qualify when they are able to complete an officially recognised marathon (42.2 km) in under five hours.[6] During the event an athlete must also reach five cut-off points in specified times to complete the race.[1] The spirit of the Comrades Marathon is said to be embodied by attributes of camaraderie, selflessness, dedication, perseverance, and ubuntu.[7]


  • Course 1
  • Rules 2
  • History 3
    • 1920s 3.1
    • 1930s 3.2
    • 1940s 3.3
    • 1950s 3.4
    • 1960s 3.5
    • 1970s 3.6
    • 1980s 3.7
    • 1990s 3.8
    • 2000s 3.9
  • Health issues 4
  • Cheating in the race 5
  • Records 6
  • Winners and waypoints 7
  • Medals and demographics 8
  • Charts 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


The race is run on the roads of KwaZulu-Natal Province, marked by "The Big Five" set of hills. On the up run they appear in the following order: Cowies Hill, Field's Hill, Botha's Hill, Inchanga, and Polly Shortts.


Athletes currently have 12 hours to complete the course, extended from 11 hours in 2003. There are a number of cut-off points along the routes which runners must reach by a prescribed time or be forced to retire from the race. A runner who has successfully completed nine marathons wears a yellow number, while those who have completed ten races wear a green number, permanently allocated to the runner for all future races.

Medals are awarded to all runners completing the course in under 12 hours. Medals are currently awarded as follows:

  • Gold medals: The first 10 men and women.
  • Wally Hayward medals (silver-centred circled by gold ring): 11th position to sub 6hrs 00min
  • Silver medals: 6hrs 00min 01sec to sub 7hrs 30min.
  • Bill Rowan medals (bronze-centred circled by silver ring): 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min.
  • Bronze medals: 9hrs 00min to sub 11hrs 00min.
  • Vic Clapham medals (copper): 11hrs 00min to sub 12hrs 00min.

Prior to 2000, only gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded. The Bill Rowan medal was introduced in 2000 and named after the winner of the first Comrades Marathon in 1921. The time limit for this medal was inspired by Rowan's winning time in 1921 of 8hrs 59min. A new copper medal, the Vic Clapham medal (named after the race founder), was added in 2003. This medal coincided with the increase in the time allocation for completing the event from sub 11hrs to sub 12hrs. The Wally Hayward medal, named after five-time winner Wally Hayward, was added in 2007 for runners finishing in under 6hrs.


Bust of Vic Clapham, founder of the Comrades

The Comrades was run for the first time on 24 May 1921 (Empire Day), and with the exception of a break during World War II, has been run every year since. The 2010 event was the 85th race. To date, over 300,000 runners have completed the race.[4]

The race was the idea of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the war. Clapham, who had endured a 2,700-kilometre route march through sweltering German East Africa, wanted the memorial to be a unique test of the physical endurance of the entrants. The constitution of the race states that one of its primary aims is to "celebrate mankind's spirit over adversity".

From 1962 to 1994 the race was run on ANC Youth League, who felt that the race diverted attention from the significance of Youth Day, and changed the race date to Sunday 17 June for 2007 and 15 June for 2008. In 2009 and 2010 the date was changed (to 24 May and 30 May respectively) to accommodate football's Confederations Cup (2009) and World Cup (2010) in South Africa.


Forty-eight runners entered the first race in 1921, but only thirty-four elected to start. The course at the time was tarred only for the final few kilometres into Durban. A time limit of 12 hours was set and Bill Rowan became the inaugural winner, clocking 08:59 to win by 41 minutes ahead of Harry Phillips. Of the 34 starters, only 16 completed the race.

Arthur Newton entered and won the race for the first time in 1922. He went on to win the race five times and emerge as the dominant Comrades runner of the 1920s. When he completed the down run in 06:56 in 1923, there were only a handful of spectators on hand to witness the finish because so few thought it possible that the race could be run so quickly. The first woman to run the race was Frances Hayward in 1923,[8] but her entry was refused, so she was an unofficial entrant.[4] She completed the event in 11:35[4] and although she was not awarded a Comrades medal, the other runners and spectators presented her with a silver tea service and a rose bowl. In 1924 the Comrades had its fewest starters ever, just 24. Four years later, in 1928, the time limit for the race was reduced by an hour to 11 hours.


In the 1930s, Hardy Ballington emerged as the dominant runner, recording four victories in 1933, 1934, 1936 and 1938. The winner of the 1930 race, Wally Hayward, became one of the greatest legends of the Comrades Marathon, winning a further four times in the fifties, and becoming the oldest man to complete the race in 1989. In 1932 Geraldine Watson, an unofficial entrant, became the first woman to complete both the up run and the down run.


After Ballington's domination of the 1930s, Comrades was stopped during the war years from 1941 to 1945. In 1948 a Comrades tradition was born when race official Max Trimborn, instead of firing the customary starter's gun, gave a loud imitation of a cock's crow. That tradition continues to the present day with Trimborn's recorded voice played over loudspeakers at the starting line.


In the 1950s, a full twenty years after he won the race for the first time, Wally Hayward recorded his second victory and followed that up with wins in 1951, 1953 and 1954. He represented South Africa at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, where he finished tenth in the marathon. Hayward retired from the Comrades after establishing new records for both the up and down runs and equaling the five wins of Newton and Ballington. In 1958, the race was won for the first time by Jackie Mekler, who went on to win the race five times, finishing second twice and third twice.


In the 1960s, Comrades grew considerably, from 104 starters in 1960 to 703 starters in 1969. Due to the bigger fields, cut-off points were introduced at Wynand Claassen, Springbok rugby captain during 1981-83. Claassen junior also finished the Comrades ten times in later years.

In 1962, the race attracted foreign entries for the first time as the Road Runners Club of England sent over four of the best long-distance runners in Britain. English runner John Smith won the race, an up run, in under six hours, missing out on the course record by 33 seconds. Watching the stragglers come in hours later, Smith commented to former winner Bill Cochrane that the other people completing the race were getting as much applause as he had received. "You are now witnessing the spirit of the Comrades," replied Cochrane.

In 1965, English runner Bernard Gomersall broke Mekler's down run record with a time of 5:51:09.

In 1967, Manie Kuhn and Tommy Malone were involved in the closest finish in the history of the race. Malone appeared to be on his way to a comfortable win and was handed the traditional message from the Mayor of

  • Comrades Marathon Association
  • Comrades tables
  • Detailed profile of the 2009 Comrades route (PDF)
  • Movie concerning comrade's marathon
  • The Comrades marathon, by Brad Morgan
  • The Famous Comrades Marathon, by Amby Burfoot (Account of the 2007 race)
  • 1920 - 1925: A Soldier's Dream

External links

  1. ^ a b Comrades: Route cut-off times, 2012, retrieved June 24, 2012 
  2. ^ "Longest Running Ultramarathons". ARRS. ARRS. 
  3. ^ Cools, Delaine (6 November 2013). "2014 Comrades Marathon Entries Rising Fast". News. Retrieved 19 February 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Comrades 90 km". Association of Road Racing Statisticians. Retrieved 2009-05-25. 
  5. ^ a b Weight, Lindsay (2005). "How to run the Comrades". Retrieved 19 February 2014. 
  6. ^ Comrades: General rules and information, 2012, retrieved June 24, 2012 
  7. ^ "2013 Cathsseta Spirit of Comrades Award". Retrieved 24 February 2014. 
  8. ^ Aerni, John. "Why Comrades Is the Greatest". Running Times Magazine. Retrieved 2009-05-25. 
  9. ^ "Historischer Comrades Marathon Zieleinlauf". film clip of the 1967 finish. youtube. Retrieved 19 February 2014. 
  10. ^ Cook, Jonathan (2005-06-15). "Frith the Comrades queen". News24. Retrieved 2009-05-09. 
  11. ^ Comrades Marathon House, encounter south africa
  12. ^ "Comrades a record breaker". Sport24. 2010-10-19. 
  13. ^ "Comrades marathon sets new Guinness world record". Gomulti. 2010-10-19. 
  14. ^ Jorberg, Randolf (2009-05-24). "Comrades Marathon 2009 results". Retrieved 2010-05-05. 
  15. ^ Marathon deaths 'potentially preventable' by Chris Bateman (fulltext pdf)
  16. ^ Man sê hy't Matthee halfpad afgelaai, Die Burger, 1993-6-7
  17. ^ Herman Matthee wil weer hardloop, Die Burger, 1993-7-23
  18. ^ 'Ek sak my kop in skaamte' Motsoeneng erken Comrades-kullery Armoede en geldnood sy redes, Beeld, 1999-07-22
  19. ^ Foto's atleet se doodsteek? `Te veel toevallighede en ongerymdhede', Beeld, 1999-07-22
  20. ^ The Motsoeneng brothers - Comrades (South Africa) - The Best,, 2008
  21. ^ 2 broers het dié keer glad nie ‘aflos’ gehol nie, Beeld, 2009-05-27
  22. ^ Comrades-kuller van 1999 positief getoets vir middel, Beeld, 2010-07-16
  23. ^ Wettig gebruik van verbode middels, vra Comrades-ysterman, Beeld, 1999-07-09
  24. ^ Steroide-skok ná Comrades, Beeld, 1999-07-08
  25. ^ Lesotho runner faces doping charge,, 2012-08-02
  26. ^ RRW Comrades Marathon Preview – All Eyes On Defending Champion Ludwick Mamabolo,, 2013-05-29
  27. ^ Comrades ‘cheats’ bust,, 2014-02-13
  28. ^ Cheats Exposed at the Comrades Marathon? – Run Talk SA Episode 32,, 2014-02-04
  29. ^ ‘It’s a plot to get me’,, 2014-02-13
  30. ^ Comrades Marathon: Negative Splits and Cheating, Exegetic Analytics, 2014-05-06
  31. ^ Comrades Marathon Negative Splits: The Plot Thickens, Exegetic Analytics, 2014-05-10
  32. ^ Runner History: Clive Crawley
  33. ^ Runner History: Dave Rogers
  34. ^ Runner History: Kenny Craig
  35. ^ Runner History: Riel Hugo
  36. ^ Runner History: Barry Holland
  37. ^ Runner History: Louis Massyn
  38. ^ Runner History: Alan Robb
  39. ^ The Green Number Effect


Recent winners 
Finishers as a function of age and number of medals 


There is a lot of prestige associated with a Comrades Marathon Green Number. As a result, many athletes aim to complete at least 10 races, which is evident as a clear peak in the distribution of medal counts.[39] The introduction of the back-to-back medal (for running two years in succession) resulted in another peak for athletes with 2 medals.

Medals and demographics

  1. ^ The 1992 race was won by Charl Mattheus, who was later disqualified for testing positive for a banned stimulant

Winners and waypoints

Medal holder Medals Achieved in
Barry Holland 43 2015
Louis Massyn 43 2015
Alan Robb 42 2015
Kenny Craig 40 1998
Riel Hugo 40 2008
[38][37][36][35][34]Most consecutive medals
Medal holder Medals
Dave Rogers 45
Barry Holland 43
Louis Massyn 43
Clive Crawley 42
Alan Robb 42
[33][32]Most medals
Men's Champion Wins Country Women's Champion Wins Country
Bruce Fordyce 9 South Africa Elena Nurgalieva 8 Russia
Arthur Newton 5 South Africa Maureen Holland 4 South Africa
Hardy Ballington 5 South Africa Lettie van Zyl 3 South Africa
Wally Hayward 5 South Africa Helen Lucre 3 South Africa
Jack Mekler 5 South Africa Frith van der Merwe 3 South Africa
Alan Robb 4 South Africa Maria Bak 3 Germany

Most Wins

Up/Down Run Record holder Country Year Time
Men Down Leonid Shvetsov Russia 2007 5:20:49
Up Leonid Shvetsov Russia 2008 5:24:49
Women Down Frith van der Merwe South Africa 1989 5:54:43
Up Elena Nurgalieva Russia 2006 6:09:23

Course Records

Elena Nurgalieva in the 2012 Comrades


In 2014, an analysis of negative splits by runner and statistician Mark Dowdeswell, suggested that a number of runners in the middle to back half of the field may be taking shortcuts.[27][28][29][30][31]

Use of banned substances is claimed to be endemic among top Comrades athletes,[23] but only a small number have been disqualified. Runners who have tested positive include Sergio Motsoeneng, Rasta Mohloli, Viktor Zhdanov,[24] Lephetesang Adoro and Ludwick Mamabolo.[25] Mamabolo was found not guilty due to “technical irregularities”.[26] Erythropoietin (EPO), norandrosterone (a metabolite or precursor of nandrolone), methylhexaneamine and testosterone have been mentioned in connection with Comrades athletes.

In 1999, the Motsoeneng brothers from Bethlehem, Free State, who strongly resembled one another, performed an act of cheating during another down run.[18][19] By exchanging places with his brother at toilet stops and aided by car lifts at various stages, Sergio Motsoeneng finished ninth. This came as a surprise to Nick Bester and other athletes behind him, who could not recall being overtaken. They were exposed when television footage revealed them to be wearing watches on different arms,[20] and a time pad reading that confirmed that one of the brothers was still trailing Bester at Botha's Hill. The brothers performed well in later years,[21] though Sergio tested positive for a banned substance after finishing third in 2010.[22]

In 1993, Herman Matthee, a runner from Bellville athletics club finished in 7th place, amongst the top ten gold medal winners. He was later stripped of his gold medal, when video evidence and eye witness testimony indicated that he started the race at Kloof, and completed less than 30 km of the 90 km down run.[16][17] As his surname resembled that of top runner Charl Mattheus, he was often mistaken by the public as being the same person. In a Comrades first, the 11th-place finisher, Simon Williamson, was months later officially elevated to tenth place and awarded the last gold medal by the then South African president FW de Klerk. Williamson had passed another runner, Ephraim Sekothlong, in the last 100 metres to claim 11th spot and unknowingly, a gold medal.

Cheating in the race

As with every ultramarathon, there are potentially lethal health risks involved in extreme physical events. In the history of the Comrades, there have been 7 deaths up to the 2007 event.[15] In a survey among a sample of 2005 participants, 25% reported cramps, 18% nausea, 8% vomiting, 13% dizziness, 3% diarrhoea, 23% pain, excluding the expected sore legs, and 14% reported fatigue of such a nature that they believed themselves to be incapable of continuing the race.[5] Among silver medalists there was a higher incidence of cramps (42.9%), nausea (21.4%) and diarrhoea (7.1%), though a lower incidence of pain and fatigue than the average runner.

Health issues

Identical twin sisters Olesya and Elena Nurgalieva won a combined ten Comrades titles from 2003–2013, while three-time champion Stephen Muzhingi became the first non-South African winner from Africa in 2009. Stephen Muzhingi also became the first athlete to win three races in a row (2009, 2010 and 2011) since Bruce Fordyce won three in a row in the eighties (1981, 1982 and 1983).[14] Russian runner Leonid Shvetsov set both down and up course records in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

The 75th anniversary of the Comrades Marathon in 2000 was the largest ever staged, with a massive field of 23,961. An extra hour was allowed for bronze medal finishers to celebrate the milestone. In 2010, on its 85th anniversary, the race gained a place in the Guinness World Records as the ultramarathon with most runners. 14,343 athletes, the largest field since the turn of the millennium, finished in the allowed 12 hours.[12][13]


In 1992 Charl Mattheus, crossed the finish line first, but was later disqualified after testing positive for a banned substance. He claimed it was contained in medicine he had taken for a sore throat, but Jetman Msutu was elevated to the winner, thus becoming the second black winner of the Comrades. In a sad twist for Mattheus, the substance for which he was banned was later removed from the IAAF's banned substance list since all evidence pointed to it having no performance enhancing properties. Mattheus also suffered much negativity in the public eye but later managed to redeem his clean image with an emphatic faultless win in the 1997 down run beating a strong local and international field.

During the 1990s the size of the starting fields was in the region of 12,000 to 14,000 runners. In 1995 prize money was introduced, attracting more foreign competitors. The traditional race day of May 31, formerly Republic Day, was changed to June 16, the anniversary of the Soweto uprising.

Comrades Marathon House, the CMA's headquarters in Pietermaritzburg where race statistics and memorabilia are kept[11]


In the same year Wally Hayward entered the race at the age of 79 and finished in 9:44:15. He repeated the feat in the 1989 Comrades, where he completed the race with only two minutes to spare and at the age of 80 became the oldest man to complete the Comrades.

Schoolteacher Frith van der Merwe won the woman's race in 1988 in a time of 6:32:56. In 1989, Van der Merwe ran 5:54:43, obliterating the women's record and finishing fifteenth overall.[10]

In 1989, Sam Tshabalala became the first black winner of the Comrades.

In 1981, Republic of South Africa. Fordyce ultimately competed wearing a black armband to signal his protest. He repeated his victories in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 (a record 5:24:07 down run), 1987, 1988 (a record 5:27:42 for the up run), and 1990.

During the 1980s the Comrades began with a field of 4,207 in 1980 and topped 5,000 for the first time in 1983.


1976 saw the emergence of Alan Robb, who won the first of his four Comrades titles. Robb repeated his win in 1977, 1978 and 1980, including breaking the tape in Durban in 1978 in a record 5:29:14, almost 20 minutes and four kilometres ahead of runner-up Dave Wright.

The Comrades had over 1,000 starters for the first time in 1971, with over 3,000 in 1979. The race was widely broadcast on both radio and television. The race was opened to all athletes for the first time in 1975, allowing blacks and women to take part officially. In 1975, the Golden Jubilee of the Comrades, Vincent Rakabele finished 20th to become the first black runner to officially win a medal. Elizabeth Cavanaugh became the first women's winner in a shade over 10 hours.



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