1970's THE COMRADES CHANGES - THE RISE OF ROBB
Fifty years have passed since the firing of the starter’s gun in the cold and dark of a Pietermaritzburg morning on Empire Day back in 1921. In the 1970’s more than ever before, the complexion of South Africa as a nation was changing. The Apartheid system was firmly entrenched and even Comrades Marathon was not to escape the attention of the Nationalist Government. It was during this turbulent period that television was introduced to South Africa, there was an unparalleled display of defiance against the government and South Africa was well and truly evicted from world participation in every walk of life, including sport. The Comrades Marathon, ironically, flourished under these conditions, and thanks to a number of factors that make South Africa a great sporting nation, the classic truly entered a golden age.
It could be argued that it was because of our isolation, the race grew from a then staggering 865 entrants in 1970 to an unbelievable 3410 at the close of the decade in 1979. There was very little outside South Africa by the way of sporting competition, and consequently competitions like the Currie Cup grew in stature, the Comrades Marathon was one of the lucky beneficiaries of this isolation period.
Media coverage for the race came of age in this decade. For it was during the seventies, great strides were made to make the race accessible to all. In 1973 there was radio cover, but it was barely adequate. The traffic was so dense in Durban on the finish approach that it was impossible for the SABC van to cover the front runners. Consequently, it came as a complete surprise to most that Dave Levick was in the reckoning that year.
A new invention to alleviate this problem was the introduction of a helicopter by SABC’s Radio Port Natal. And by then, as was usual, radio commentary was to start at 6:00 a.m. and there was complete coverage with other sport reports on other transmission stations.
The introduction of television in 1975 had the potential to add a new dimension to the race. The opportunity was not readily seized by the race organisers or the SABC in the early years. For in 1976, the coverage of the race was scant and there were many complaints. The fact of the matter was that the weight of public opinion, together with human interest, that would all change.
Television in the later parts of the decade played its part in the growth phase. For it was during this period that many were now able to witness the epic struggles of runners in the comfort of their living rooms. Many an armchair enthusiast had his imagination fired up so that it brought him and later also her to the point of making a life changing decision “I’m going to run the Comrades”. For now the race was about ordinary people doing extraordinary things and this simple but profound inspiration was brought to the couch potato in his living room as he watched heroes, like himself carving a piece of history on the Old Road.
The 1970’s would witness, nay endure, many significant changes. There was an unprecedented growth in the field, true, but by the turn of this decade that was only one of the significant changes.
The growth in field necessitated the use of a computer, and in 1971 to cope with the mass of paperwork, for the first time a computer was hired, which was to become a permanent feature of the administration.
On the eve of the 1974 race tensions were building to integrate the race and to allow blacks to compete in an official capacity. Up until that stage there had been a number of unofficial finishers, black runners, who year after year, took up the challenge and did finish. These brave souls, conscious of never getting any of the accolades, like their fellow white athletes, did it for the sheer joy of participating. The clamor was building up in the country as a whole, in public life the majority of the population wanted their say. It is worth recording here that on many occasions a white runner would gladly give up his medal to make the point.
In 1974 the pressure to integrate blacks and women into the race participation reached fever pitch in the press. In terms of the laws at the time, integrating the race did pose some interesting logistical problems. The organisers would have to provide separate but equal amenities, in practical terms this meant change rooms and refreshment areas. Such was life in South Africa back then. Was there any fear of racial tensions on the road? This was absurd, black runners had participated as unofficial runners and, as was the wont of both fellow runners and spectators, as warriors of the road, they were accorded the same accolades as their “official” counterparts, except at the finish, they had to leave the stadium empty handed, and by another door. This treatment was not only for blacks, it was also for women. More women were taking up the challenge, and they too wanted their rights.
Happily much changed thanks to pressure groups from within and from without the Comrades Marathon itself. When the Comrades celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1975, the necessary sweeping changes were made and for the first time in the history of the race, all were welcome to participate. In a period in the tumultuous history of the country when South Africa was fighting a “total onslaught” and tanks were rolling back across the Angolan border, a small piece of sanity prevailed.
Another change, which started in the 1970’s, was the result of the unprecedented growth in the field. For fifty years it was a tradition that runner and helper were a team. All this would change in this decade. It was not an overnight change; it came slowly, but gradually.
As the field grew and grew, more of the debate centered on the traffic problem. The larger the field, the more seconds on the road, the more of a headache for the traffic authorities. Clearly, something had to be done. Many things were tried, perhaps the most drastic was the limiting of the field in 1975 to only 1500 runners. This proved to be a drastic step, and it provoked many acres of newsprint and many letters. Mick Winn, Chairman of Collegians Harriers, the organising club, said, “We all agree that it would be fantastic to see the Comrades Marathon with a field of 5000 as the world’s greatest road race. We are faced with the choice of cutting the field down ourselves or facing far more drastic restriction by the provincial authorities.” The authorities were keen for the race to go on, but if the traffic situation got out of hand, or if it became dangerous, someone would have to make a decision.
Happily, but the end of the decade, there were no restrictions placed on the number of entries, but there were fairly heavy restrictions placed on seconding. In 1978 along with their race numbers, the athlete was supplied with helpful maps showing where the 41 refreshment stations would be. Certain sections, notably the dual carriageways were off limits to seconds, and by 1979, helpers were only allowed on the second half of the course. Sadly this aspect of the race, the seconds running alongside with bucket and sponge exhorting a weary hero to higher and braver things against all odds was about to change forever. The growth of the field, the popularity of the race would change much.
Such may well have been the lament of the old pioneers, the Comrades would never be the same again, but undeniably the changes here were fully a reflection of what was happening in the country at the time. Soweto was ablaze, South Africa was international front page news. For Comrades runner, for South African citizen, life would never be the same, the revolution had begun.
In 1970 the field was by all accounts big. Vernon Jones, then a 61-year-old veteran spanning many years, recalls, “As one of the old and slow brigade, I lined up at the back. For a full minute after the gun had been fired, I didn’t move an inch and when I eventually did move it was so slowly that I had lost two minutes by Field Street. In 1936 Vic Clapham was so ashamed of the tiny field of 19 that he asked me to run a few miles unofficially, and I persuaded another chap to do the same. In that way we increased the size of the field by 10%”.
That year Dave Bagshaw was a likely winner. And the pundits did not have to look further than he for their man. On his maiden run he broke the record, and now fired up with this success, Bagshaw piled on the kilometers and between January and May of that year he ran over 2900 kilometers in training, almost 200 more than the previous year.
From the beginning, Bagshaw was determined to win and break the record. He went out fast and set a blistering pace. Gordon Baker (6th in 1969) hung on valiantly, and by the time the two reached Drummond, the cracks were beginning to show for a tiring Baker, and it was not long after that Bagshaw leaned into the Inchanga Bank and moved into the lead.
Determination etched onto his face, Dave fairly raced away, and by the time he reached Camperdown, the “up” record of Mekler’s held for 10 years, looked in danger. Bagshaw never broke his rhythm on Polly Shorts and to the delight of an enormous crowd, he crossed the line in 5hr 51min 27sec. A new record for the up.
It was 27 years later, on a visit to Johannesburg that Dave Bagshaw was asked to reflect on that achievement, was that as good a performance as the runners of today? Dave is self-effacing in his answer, but when pressed, he does admit that his race in 1970 was as good as the achievements in the latter part of the 1980’s, given the conditions.
Dave Bagshaw was quietly confident when he lined up for the down run in 1971. He was the holder of both the “up” and “down” records, and his main rival, Dave Box was out of the running due to an injury. The race was to be four kilometers longer than the ’69 down run. This was due to a detour in the Camperdown area, made at the insistence of the traffic authorities to keep runners and their supporters off the national highway, Clearly a record was not on the cards today. Changes to the course and the overall distance are quite usual even today, and most take this aspect of the race in their stride. Old timers still point out on Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shorts the remaining traces of the steeper, more winding routes taking by Newton and his rival competitors.
The “ghost” John Tarrant was at the start again as an unofficial entrant, as was Betty Cavanagh.
Bagshaw was in the leading bus by the time they reached Camperdown, the weather was miserable and cold, and it drizzled for most of the morning. By the time the leaders reached Drummond and the halfway mark, it was Baker and Bagshaw.
The usual big crowds were undeterred by the miserable weather, but motoring conditions were trying and just after halfway a car skidded in the wet and headed for Baker and Bagshaw, who were running together. Both runners had to jump clear, Baker onto a roadside bank.
Further back in the field, Dave Levick was beginning to make and impression and had gained a minute on the pacemakers since Camperdown, and picked up four places on the back of Inchanga. John Tarrant was forced to retire with an injury.
Dave Levick, a Cape Town university runner, displayed a surprising turn of speed, and by the time he reached Kloof, the 21-year-old overtook Baker, moved into second place and started to look menacing to a tiring Bagshaw.
A Westville Levick was in with a chance. If he could have a glimpse of a battling Bagshaw, would it have been the spur needed to a now confident Levick to stage one of the major upsets of the race? Could Bagshaw stage a recovery?
In the end, the tenacious Bagshaw clung onto his lead, and scored his hat trick of wins. By his own admission Dave Bagshaw did not have a happy run that day and considered himself lucky to have won. By winning a hat trick Bagshaw did become only the second man after Arthur Newton to achieve this distinction. Although Bagshaw stole the thunder, Levick did capture a fair share of the limelight with a brilliantly executed run and an outstanding finishing time of 5 hrs 48 mins and 53 secs. There is little doubt however, that despite a hard run, had it not been for the extra distance run, Bagshaw would have broken the record.
Long before the close of entries for the 1972 race, there was speculation over the “up” winner. No one dared look further than Bagshaw and Levick. Sadly Levick withdrew, and this changed the complexion of the race. Then the entries of the Tipton Harriers from the UK arrived, and these tough, longhaired, pale-faced men came into the reckoning and brought a truly international feel to the race.
They brought with them a hither-to-unknown diet, the depletion diet.
After a long training run to exhaust muscle oxygen stores they went to a high protein diet of meat and eggs for two days and took in no carbohydrates. Then starved of carbohydrates, their muscles would take up and store supernormal amounts of glycogen if a high carbohydrate diet was then followed. This, they reckoned would allow a runner to maintain his best running speed for a longer period.
Tipton Harriers brought a team of seven, financed by club funding, and Mick Orton who had paid his own fare so that he could look after his clubmates. Ron Bently, Tipton captain told Mick that if he was travelling to Durban he had to race, he couldn’t miss such a great experience.
Bagshaw was determined to run himself into the history books and he took an early lead. By the time Fields Hill was reached, it was Bagshaw, closely followed by his now familiar shadow, Baker and then the Englishman, Mick Orton. Orton soon took Baker, and running powerfully in the Ballington and Hayward mould, gave chase. At Botha’s Hill the dogged Orton caught the flying Bagshaw and drew level.
Shoulder to shoulder they ran to the halfway mark. Would this Englishman burn up in the African sun? The second half of the race would provide that answer. The cruel pull out of Drummond, and the Inchanga bank left the defending champion in distress, and Orton now running with an ease that belied his muscular frame, simply ate up the kilometers.
Umlaas Road, and Mick Orton, the reserve member from Tipton was three minutes clear of an ailing Bagshaw, all that was required now was to keep going and he could win this Natal epic.
At the speed he was running, the record could be in danger. And run Mick Orton did! When he ran the final circuit, waving a Union Jack he crossed the line in a record breaking 5 hrs 48 mins and 57 secs. In so doing, Orton emulated the great Dave Bagshaw’s feat of winning, against fierce competition, in record time at his first attempt.
The day ended with the Gunga-Din trophy for the first team, going to the Tipton Harriers, this thanks not only to Orton’s fine run but John Malplass ran home in 6th place and Carr in 7th. This was a blow to South African sporting pride, but on that day, as if this was not enough, at Ellis Park the Springboks were engaged in a rugby match against England and they lost 18-9. Truly a great sporting day for the English, and to the chants of England, England, old timers may well have on that day mistaken Marathon day for Empire Day.
Sadly, a few months later, one of the finest ultra distance runners South Africa has ever seen, Dave Bagshaw emigrated back to his native Yorkshire.
Mick Orton’s performance in 1972 prompted the club to raise funds and to send him back to South Africa. With Bagshaw out of the race, it was wide open again. Dave Levick was a favorite, as was Alistair Wood, a brilliant, smooth striding Scot. He had all the credentials, for this 40-year-old had handsomely beaten Orton in the ’72 London to Brighton and was the first person anywhere to average over 10 miles per hour over such a distance.
The 1973 down run, even without Bagshaw was full of interest and drew a huge field. By the time entries closed, the number was fairly twice the size of the 1970 “up” run. A classic race was on the cards.
From the very start, Orton gave notice of his intentions. By the time the lead bunch ran down Polly Shorts, Wood went into the bushes, and Orton moved ahead.
By the time Orton reached Drummond, he was ahead of the rest of the pack by a full eight minutes, he was intent on burning off the opposition, and he was looking strong. Meantime, further back, Wood had made a few “pit stops” and just before the steep descent to Drummond, was forced to retire with a leg injury.
Dave Levick was biding his time and now started to perk up and he moved up the field using his own wise pacing judgement.
By the time the race leaders reached Botha’s Hill Orton was a full 10 minutes ahead of his next rivals. The real interest was here and a titanic struggle was taking place. Levick was beginning to make his move, and by the time he reached Botha’s Hill, he overtook the Maritzburg salesman, Gordon Baker, and moved into second place. But the hard down hill running proved too much for the Capetonian, and Baker came back at him by the time they reached Gillits.
Up front, Orton was running well, his powerful legs pumping, he looked a sure winner. At Kloof there were more changes taking place behind the strident Orton. Chris Hoogsteden made a move and much to the surprise of Baker, moved into second position.
At the bottom of Fields Hill, it was Orton, Hoogseteden seven minutes back, with Baker close by, then Levick two minutes adrift of them. Then the cracks began to show. Perhaps it was poor timing, going out too fast, but at the base of Cowies Hill Orton began to falter. Van Hoogstenden and Baker closed, Levick hung back.
Hoogsteden made his challenge on the tiring Orton, and now on the outskirts of Durban the race took on a different complexion. Soon it was the turn of Hoogsteden to falter, and Baker was soon in the lead. Still Levick hung back and bided his time.
Gordon Baker, running his best ever Comrades soon caught the crestfallen Orton, and on Maryville Hill found himself in the lead and his life’s ambition right within his grasp, only five kilometers to go, and he was in the lead.
Fate at times can be cruel, for victory on that day would be snatched from Baker. Levick struck and with a ferocious turn of speed, and a steely eye, Levick closed in on an incredulous Baker. Levick, now running the race of his life hauled in on Baker, and to a huge, cheering crowd outside the stadium ran at an unbelievable speed to the finish line. Levick’s time was 05:39:09. This 23-year-old engineering student from Cape Town set a new record.
To take nothing away from Gordon Baker, he had a fine run and he finished in 5:42:53. This too was good enough to beat Dave Bagshaw’s record. After the race a gallant Baker said, “Orton was looking in poor shape as I went past him. I thought I had the race sewn up, as I was feeling pretty good at that stage. When Levick went past me I had no answer. It would have made no difference if I knew he was coming.”
In 1974 a novice lined up in the throng, it was a blond, mustachioed man by the name of Alan Robb. Being his first Comrades, he tacked himself to Gordon Baker. Another runner in that lead bus was an unofficial runner, Vincent Rakabele of Lesotho. In the early stages of that race, the bus included Brimelow, Baker, Robb and Vincent Rakabele.
After over 45 kilometers of running, at halfway, it was Brimelow in the lead with Rakabele in contention. Also at that stage, Robb, virtually an unknown novice discovered, to his surprise that found he had dropped all the other inexperienced runners, and was hanging in quite comfortably with the old war-horse, Baker.
Rakabele faded out of contention soon after and was never a factor of that race. The day went to Derrick Preisss who had in four successive races come 583rd, 32nd, 8th and now 1st. He was ushered in as it were by the accompanying helicopter which was managing the radio broadcasts, Sutherland came in second, and much to the surprise of all, Alan Robb came in third in a time of 06:06:45. Quite an achievement for a novice outing.
A number of women finished the course and, for the first time in the history of the Comrades marathon, one of them was an “official” competitor – Mrs Aleth Kleynhans, whose entry was inadvertently accepted in ignorance of the fact that she was a female. She crossed the line a safe 20 minutes before the 5 p.m. cut, and was promptly disqualified. Such was officialdom, but the rules were the rules.
Rakabele struggled on and although faded after Drummond, finished in an unofficial 42nd position to thunderous applause.
In 1975, the year of the Golden Jubilee race, sweeping changes were made and much of the age-old tradition was swept aside. For it was at this juncture in the race’s history, as if to herald in a new era, women and blacks were allowed to enter the race, for the first time, the race was open to all to compete. There was a sad irony to this, for five weeks before the 1975 Comrades, Geraldine Watson died at the age of 92…Geraldine Watson was a spectator, a helper and during the 1930’s a regular unofficial competitor. In 1933 she finished 42nd in a field of 85. She donated a trophy, and even today the person who is the last person home is awarded the Geraldene Watson Trophy. Happily, the first woman ever to compete in the Comrades, Francis Hayward was able to attend the race.
To mark the occasion a different medal was struck, and because the home of Comrades was always reckoned to be Pietermaritzburg, like the ’74 race, it was to finish there. Thus for the second time in its history, there were to be two "up" races. The earlier being in 1940 and 1946, events straddling the war years when no races were run.
The line-up for the golden year was impressive indeed. No less than eight previous winners stood on the starting line. The field included Boyce, Davies, Claasen, Gommersall, Malone, Bagshaw, Levick and last year’s winner, Derrick Preiss. As if that wasn’t enough, Vincent Rakabele was back, this time officially, and Robb was also an entrant.
By the time Trimborne had given his customary crow, and the runners headed into the dark Natal morning, the lead runners were getting down to the serious business of the day. Fields Hill, and much to the surprise of everyone, it was Alan Robb who was showing the way to Martizburg. Drummond saw Robb still in the lead, but the testing Inchanga had Robb weary, and struggling. Derrick Preiss made his move at Harrison Flats, and caught Robb and moved into the front.
By the time the leader, Preiss reached Polly Shorts he was well clear of the field and a sure-fire winner. There was great applause for the runner as he breasted the tape in a creditable time of 5:53:50. The crowds were generous that day, for when the first black athlete crossed the line a roar went up from an appreciative crowd. It was Vincent Rakabele, 20th in a time of 6:27. Who was the first black runner ever to be officially awarded a medal.