1956 - 1959

1956 - 1959: Dawn of a new Era

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SPECTATOR DRAWS MOST ATTENTION

 

In 1956 it was a spectator that drew most of the attention, not a runner. It was none other than Arthur “Greatheart” Newton himself. He had been invited by the Comrades Marathon Club of South Africa. The race that year was named after him. It was also fitting that Vic Clapham, the founder of the race in 1921 was to accompany him on the road.  Clapham, who had not seen a Comrades since 1938, had recently retired and returned to Pietermaritzburg.

It was almost from the gun that Mercer Davies wished to stamp his authority on the 1956 'Up' race. He set out at a blistering pace and by the time he reached Pinetown he was 5 min 59 sec ahead of the leader at that point in 1954 when Hayward beat the 'Up' record. The pace was fast on that day, perhaps too hot, and could prove to be Davies' undoing. Undaughnted, Mercer Davies forged ahead, determined to put as much day light between himself and his rivals. He strode over Fields Hill and headed for Drummond at break neck speed.

Drummond, the half way mark was reached in 3hr02min 20 sec. Davies was 9 mins 21 sec faster than the previous record to this point, the pundits took note. Gerald Walsh was 5 mins behind and also passed Drummond in record time.

The pace slowed noticeably after the monstrous Inchanga Bank, and the impressive lead built up by Davies was slowly but surely being whittled down by a persistent Walsh. The day was turning oppressively hot. Slowly but surely Walsh closed in on his rival and by the time the leader reached Umlaas Road, the highest point of the race, Walsh had a tired Davies in his sights.

On the long downhill from Umlaas Road to Tumble Inn, Walsh caught the tall Johannesburg runner and went into the lead. A fatigued Davies stopped and asked for a brandy to ease a stomach cramp.

Walsh had judged his race nicely. He entered the Maritzburg Showgrounds nearly 40 minutes ahead of the runner-up to record his second win in succession. But for the stifling heat, Walsh could have come close to Hayward's record. Said Walsh after the race, 'When Davies was eight minutes ahead of me I thought I had no chance of winning the race unless he cracked. He did crack, but far more dramatically than I expected.

The man in question, Davies, was soon overhauled by Boyce. He was reduced to walking frequently, and in the end had to content himself with third place. Boyce, who had been in 40th position in the early stages of the race, and 29 minutes behind Davies at Drummond, finished as freshly as ever finished as runner-up for the fourth time.

Arthur Newton, who mingled with friends old and new at the Showgrounds, commented after the race: "Conditions were too hot for a record. Davies went too fast in the early stages of the race. If he had started slower, he would have done much better"

Some of the races in the 1950’s produced close and exciting tussles. In 1952 Wally Hayward was out of the race representing South Africa at the Helsinki Games. Standing in the crowd at the start was a 38-year-old insurance agent from Maritzburg, Don Spencer. In the previous year, Spencer had finished 22nd out of 25 in a relatively pedestrian time of 10h09m04. Little did any of the competitors or the crowd suspect that this man would provide more than a little entertainment.

Also under the start banner in Durban that July morning of the Queen’s Birthday was Trevor Allen, a 34-year-old traffic policeman from Durban.

From the start this was to be a closely contested race, and by the time the leader, Rufus, reached 45th Cutting, only 70 metres separated the first eight runners. By the time the runners reached Huntly’s Hill, Spencer took the lead. Foolhardy? the pundits thought so. Allen was lying in 12th position at this point and Allen Boyce, the 1940 winner was labouring in 19th position nearly 5 minutes behind Spencer.

Cowies came and went, Spencer increased the lead. Fields Hill, and with bouncing gait Don Spencer sped on. Smugly now the pundits were laying bets where the “big blow” would take place. Would it come at Botha’s? No, Don Spencer was going well and Trevor Allen had now closed in and was lying 2nd.

Still running freely, Spencer ran through Drummond 16 minutes slower than the record for the leg. On his previous performance, this should have been the end of the man. At that point only four minutes separated the first four men. An exciting race was certainly on the cards. The wild card was the man out in front, Don Spencer.

The notorious Inchanga Bank loomed, Spencer was in fine fettle, and Allen decided to close in. By the time Harrison Flats was reached, Allen was beginning to show his pedigree, and it looked like Don Spencer would pay for his earlier excesses. Allen, by far the best trained, closed in on his quarry, and by the time the runners reached Camperdown, only 32 seconds separated first and second. It happened on a steep, but un-named hill between Camperdown and Umlaas road, Allen finally took the lead from the man who lead the way for the last 40 miles. Spencer looked beaten, but somewhere he dug deep, fell in step and on the downhill stretch to Umlaas Road, Don took the lead again. Stride for stride, step for step, this could be any one’s race. Allen took the lead again. Meanwhile the third placed Gerald Walsh, was beginning to look good. With less than 12 miles to go, this could be anybody’s race.

It was Polly Shorts, as it always is, that sorted out the runners. Allen pulled away, and by the time he got to the top, he was a full 3 minutes ahead of his rival. Powerfully he strode on to complete the last four miles, and to beat Don Spencer by 6 minutes. Second placed Spencer was still completing his circuit of Alexander Park when Gerald Walsh trotted on the track to take third place.

Spencer, who covered 1600 miles in training, ran the full distance from Durban to Martizburg four times in the final month in preparation for the race. After travelling to Durban by coach, he changed into his running togs in the Central Railway Station, posted his clothes back to himself in Maritzburg, and began running for home more than 50 miles away. A wily runner, he had the soles of his canvass shoes built up to offset the camber of the road.

Commenting on the race, Spencer said “There was a lot of uphill and nobody can hold Allen on that. I just had to beat Gerald (Walsh) because the third prize was a cuckoo clock featuring the Harry Lime theme. Imagine hearing the combination of that theme and cuckoos, twice every hour for the rest of your life!”

A number of years later, in 1957, one of the players of the ‘52 drama, Gerald Walsh, now with living room wall adorned with cockoo clock, provided another exciting race when he battled it out with 32-year-old Mercer Davies.

Walsh had much to gain, he was hoping to score a hat trick of wins, the first since Newton’s day. In 1955 he won his first Comrades in 6hr. 06mins and again in 1956 he ran home in 6hr 33mins. Clearly he was the favourite for the “Down” run. However Mecer Davies, a marathon runner who represented South Africa at the Melbourne Olympic Games was an entrant. The 32 year-old had served his Comrades apprenticeship, and he felt his time had come, and a score to settle.

Almost from the gun Walsh went out in front with very clear intentions on a hat-trick win. Davies stayed in close attendance. Light was breaking over the hills when Walsh crested Polly Shorts at 6h32a.m. with Davies 150 yards behind. At Camperdown, Walsh, still running at a fast pace was 15 seconds ahead of the tall Springbok. The leaders at this point were over a minute faster than Hayward in 1953.

Stride for stride the two ran, many times together along Harrison Flats and on to Inchanga. The punishing Bank, always a searching test held no terrors for these two to-day and by the time they ran into Drummond, only 10 seconds separated the two of them, with Walsh out in front by little more than a hair breadth.

At Botha’s Davies made a move to get in front, and by the time they got to Hillcrest only five seconds separated Davies and Walsh. This time with Davies in front. From Hillcrest, with 22 miles to go, one of the most exciting duels in the long history of the Comrades was intensified as Davies and Walsh fought it out, stride for stride and shoulder to shoulder. Occasionally the lead would change, but never for long, each watching the other, each testing each other’s strength, each praying for the other to falter, just a little.

It happened along the long, shaded stretch in Pinetown, that Davies pulled away. By the time the climb up Cowies was reached, he had a commanding lead. Walsh simply could not hold the swiftly moving Springbok. Any hope of a Masterson-Smith, Burree dual quickly faded. Walsh was robbed of his hat trick, but the crowd warmed to Davies, whom they felt had served his apprenticeship and deserved to win.

In 1958 Walsh was a non-starter, Davies, now the defending champion, was not in peak condition. The firm favourite for the Up was Jackie Mekler. Now 26, the printer's representative from Johannesburg had the pedigree. He wore the Springbok blazer and had represented South Africa on a number of occasions. He concentrated his running effort on the standard marathon, and in 1954 was second in the Vancouver Empire Games.

In the earlier stages of the race, it seemed that Mercer Davies was up to the task and by the time the runners reached Cowies Hill, the leader-board showed Davies ahead of Mekler. On the punishing turns of Fields Hill, Mekler drew level with Davies and soon thereafter drew slightly ahead.

Clearly, Davies was not up to it, and soon the cracks in his campaign began to show. Davies, dripping with sweat, was forced to a walk at times, and on the testing sections after Drummond, he finally withdrew. Meanwhile, a rampant Mekler was piling on the pressure and by the time he reached Camperdown, he was eight kilometres ahead of his nearest rival.

Out in front Mekler ran unchallenged to the finish. He was an easy winner in 6-hr 26 min. This was the second fastest winning time for the up run. He said afterwards; 'Today's win realised an ambition for me, The Comrades Marathon is the one race in the country that I have always wanted to win" Mekler was cast in the mould of a great, tough, self effacing yet with a steely competitive edge. He served an apprenticeship well under Wally Hayward. He was ready to make his indelible mark on the race.

The last race of the 50's held exciting possibilities, three past winners lined up and each had ambitions on the coveted title. Trevor Allen, the 42-year-old traffic policeman from Durban was fully recovered from injury, Gerald Walsh was fit and was eager for a third win, as was Jacky Mekler, the new defender of the title. For the first time in its history, the race hosted over 100 athletes.

It was Walsh who took an early lead, but he was soon overhauled by a 29-year-old novice from Rhodesia, Trevor Heynes. Heynes seemed determined, and was the first to run through a halfway checkpoint in almost record time. Bravely the novice held onto the position until he reached Pinetown. His Comrades ambitions, all but spent, Walsh closed and took the lead. A little further back, Allen now running strongly gave notice of his intentions and closed in on Walsh, Mekler followed closely.

The 1959 race was beginning to take shape, Walsh and Allen, the old rivals battling it out for supremacy on the back end of Cowies Hill. Walsh passed through Westville with an 800-metre lead on Allen. With only eight kilometres to go, Allen began to close the gap, and Mekler moved into contention. Only four minutes separated the three past winners as they crossed the Durban boundary.

The gradual incline at TollGate proved a searing teat for Walsh, he was found wanting, and Allen moved into the lead. Allen moved quickly to stamp his authority on the race and by the time he reached the finish line at Kings Park, he was over five minutes in the lead.

Third placed Mekler said that he was not satisfied with his run, "I could not fight off the determined running of Allen and Walsh".

Of all the stories that come out of the ‘50’s era, the prize for “Vasbyt” must go to 69-year-old Edgar Marie. He refused to give up and came home in that Arthur Newton Comrades in the time of 13 hours. Running in the dark up Polly’s Marie stumbled along by torchlight, as one of the St. Johns Ambulance attendants and one of Edgar’s own seconds took it in terns to hold a torch while he made his lonely way to the stadium. The crowd who had stayed for an evening braai gave him generous applause as he made the final circuit, and crossed the line. “Sorry I’m late”, declared Mare at the end, “but I did all my training in the Free State, where it is flat. Your hills held me back a bit today”.

By the end of the decade the race was beginning to show a lot of promise. For the first time since its inception, the race hosted more than 100 runners in 1959. Was this because of better media cover, was it because of a charismatic runner such as Hayward, was running coming of age, who could really tell. A race over 54 miles on such punishing terrain. With a field such as this, who knows, this may well be the greatest ultra distance in the world.

There is a sad post script to the closing of the 50's decade. After suffering a stroke at his Ruislip home, near London, Greatheart Arthur Newton died on 7th September 1959. He was 76 years of age. During his running career, which started when he was 39, he ran over 200 000 kilometres, more than five times around the earth. Over and above his prowess as a superathlete and pioneer in the ultra distance field, he will always be remembered for his great sense of sportsmanship, his gentle, retiring nature, and the self-sacrificial manner in which he went out of his way to assist other runners, including those attempting to better his own records.

HALL OF FAME

RESULTS:

Year

First

Time

Second

Time

Third

Time

Medals

1950 - Up Run

W. Hayward

6hr46

R.E. Allison

6hr59

T.N. Allen

7hr32

20

1951 - Down Run

W. Hayward

6hr14*

R.E. Allison

6hr38

T.N. Allen

7hr00

25

1952 - Up Run

T.N. Allen

7hr00

D. Spencer

7hr06

G. Walsh

7hr07

23

1953 - Up Run

W. Hayward

5hr52*

T.S. Luyt

6hr05

T.N.Allen

6hr28

26

1954 - Up Run

W. Hayward

6hr12*

T.N. Allen

6hr45

G. Walsh

6hr58

33

1955 - Down Run

G. Walsh

6hr06

F. Mare

6hr18

T.N. Allen

6hr24

64

1956 - Up Run

G. Walsh

6hr33    

A.K. Boyce

7hr12

M.J.Davies

7hr14

55

1957 - Down Run

M.J.Davies

6hr13

G. Walsh

6hr26    

F. Mare

6hr46

62

1958 - Up Run

J. Mekler

6hr26

E. Greening

7hr11

GN. Raubenheimer

7hr23

34

1959 - Down Run

T.N. Allen

6hr28

G. Walsh

6hr33

J. Mekler

6hr35

70

* = Record

Holder of record at end of the decade

Down                   Wally Hayward                  5hr52min30sec             1953

Up                        Wally Hayward                 6hr12min55sec             1954

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