The largest ultra-distance race in the world, featuring a brutal, undulating course, the annual pilgrimage in KwaZulu-Natal is comparable to no other contest. It’s fitting, therefore, that the people who have become protagonists in its progress over the last century have been equally special individuals.
The first standout character to tackle the race was Springbok Bill Payn. Cajoled into taking part on the eve of the 1922 edition, Payn covered the entire 89km distance in his rugby boots, stopping twice in the first half for a bacon and egg breakfast and an early chicken curry lunch. At halfway he stopped again for a pint of beer, and before the finish he accepted some peach brandy from an onlooker. Payn finished eighth overall and, according to reports, went on to play a club rugby match the following day.
In 1933, Phil Masterton-Smith was equally stubborn in his attempt to reach the finish, after achieving an impressive ultra-distance feat just to get to the start. Having won the race at the age of 19 two years earlier, Masterton-Smith was so eager to regain his title he cycled from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg as he could not afford the train fare.
While he was unable to challenge for victory, he earned a credible 10th place. Another memorable participant, considered by some to be the greatest Comrades runner of them all, was Wally Hayward. Two decades after earning his first win, Hayward returned to the race in 1950 to bag his second of five titles. He made another spectacular comeback in 1988, completing the race in under 10 hours and finishing ahead of more than half the field at the age of 79.
The next year he participated again and became the first person over the age of 80 to earn a Comrades medal. In 1981, the race’s best-known participant secured his maiden victory, and by the time Bruce Fordyce bagged his ninth win in 1990 he had firmly established himself as a cult icon by playing a key role in the rapid growth of the event. As Fordyce’s career was winding down, a school teacher from Benoni was gearing up for a truly remarkable feat.
Frith van der Merwe stunned the global ultra-running fraternity in 1989 when she won the women’s race in 5:54:43 to take 15th place overall, making huge strides in the ladies’ division by chopping nearly an hour off the “down” run course record. Last year Caroline Wostmann put up her hand as the next potential lead character in the ongoing tale, not only for her superb performance and swift finish, but for the inspiration she offers so many other runners.
A mother of two who started jogging to lose weight while juggling a career, Wostmann is an ordinary person who likes to run. She faces the same daily struggles as many other individuals who will run the race tomorrow, and the only real difference is that she happens to be very good at it.
She portrays the very essence of the race, which is borne from the spirit exuded by ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The Comrades Marathon story is a tale of dreams, determination and personal glory, told through the performances of individuals who have embodied its traditions, representing thousands of other participants who overcome their own personal challenges to reach the finish.
If Wostmann wins tomorrow’s race, she’ll be the first athlete to secure back-to-back Comrades titles since Fordyce and Van der Merwe in the late Eighties. She’ll also become the latest protagonist in the lengthy Comrades epic, and it could well become one of the race’s best chapters.