July is the month of the Comrades, a South African challenge accepted by ultramarathon athletes internationally. Considered to be the largest ultramarathon in the world with entries capped at 25 000 runners. Large numbers of these hopeful athletes don’t finish, which makes the challenge just more enticing to participate in it. It is not about winning. It is about completing.
The cornerstone of the Comrades is camaraderie. The vision of Vic Clapham, a WW1 veteran who wanted to commemorate the comradeship which deeply impacted him during a march of 1700 miles through East Africa, which he was part of during the Great War. Many of his comrades died during the hardship they had to suffer on this journey, but it was the camaraderie between these exhausted and broken men, that remained with him. Thus he approached the League of Comrades of the Great War to help him to set up a race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. After being declined and yet persisting the first Comrades was run on 24 May 1921 with 34 runners starting the journey from the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg. Since then the race was only stopped during the years of war in WW2 between 1941 and 1945. Alternating the direction every year, today the track has at least 18 000 runners from all over the globe who partakes in this race, celebrating stamina, bravery and above all camaraderie during hardship.
The medals remained precisely the same since 1921 and are described as the most cherished medal ever to receive. The medal which is 29mm in diameter presents a figure of Hermes with helmet and winged feet. This is well suited for the race since Hermes is regarded as the protector of roads on this challenging road race. The first ten men and women each receive a gold medal. After that various medals are won depending on finishing times.
The name of Wally Hayward is synonymous with the Comrades Marathon. This ultramarathon athlete had a 60-year long career and won the Comrades five times. The last time that he completed the distance of around 90 kilometres were only a few days before his 88th birthday. He was a true legend and passed away in 2006 at the age of 97 years old.
Over time the Comrades developed its traditions. Some of these include that the race starts with gunfire by the mayor of either city where the race begins. The other mayor is awaiting the winner at the end of the sport who then brings a letter of greetings from the other city. The competition is run with the great soundtrack of Vangelis’s Chariots of Fire at both the start and the finish. The cut off time of the race is after twelve hours from starting, and this is also signalled by gunfire by the Chairperson of the Comrades Marathon Association, a moment of tears of glory and disappointment for many who didn’t make it in time.