1996 - 1999

1996 - 1999: The 'Up' Record Broken

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If the South African had cause for pre-race complacency in 1995, this was certainly not true the following year. Volgin was back, fresh from his third place the previous year and no doubt a lot wiser in the ways of Comrades; Santalov had entered again, but was soon eliminated as a favourite thanks to his string of Comrades failures and allegedly had something to do with pre-race vodka consumption; World 100 km champion Valmir Nunes of Brazil had thrown his hat into the Comrades ring; there was Tom Johnson, a spectacularly handsome American who had female members of the media swooning at the pre-race press conference; another foreigner was a pale British athlete named Christopher Parkes, about whom nothing was known; and finally one Dmitri Grishine, a grim Russian who was purported to be a fearsome hill runner.

All in all, a potent mixture that gave Bester and the crowd reason to pause and ponder on the outcome.

If the quality of the international contingent had reached an all-time high, so too had the level of commercialism surrounding the race. With prize money on offer, the race budget ballooned to cope with the demands of the runners for more and varied drinks, food on the course, greater media exposure and bigger and better race organization.

The money had to come from somewhere, and Comrades became seriously commercial. ‘Official Sponsor’ and ‘Official Supplier’ packages were hammered out behind closed doors, television rights were negotiated and joint venture deals with various commercial partners were concluded.

Add to this mix an exponential increase in the amount of money offered and paid by way of incentives to the top runners by sponsors, as well as an explosion in the size of the Comrades Marathon Experience, the annual sports expo associated with the race and it was clear that the Comrades now represented the involvement of tens of millions of rand by sponsors and investors.

With all the advertising, television and media exposure, product displays and general hype around the race, the Comrades Marathon had by 1996 become the biggest sporting extravaganza in the land.

As the field exited Durban and climbed through Westville, Cowies Hill and Pinetown, large groups of contenders formed each with its own prominent athlete. All the favourites were there, with no one choosing to make an early move.

At Fields Hill the break came, and it was as emphatic as it was unexpected. Christopher Parkes, the unheralded Briton, stormed up the race’s biggest hill as if his life depended on it. On and on he went at breakneck speed, and soon he was through Drummond in an astounding 2:38:35, a record time to halfway.

The chasing runners feared that another ‘Salazar episode’ was in the offing and sped up themselves, but it was not to be. Parkes’ heroics eventually caught up with him and he was spotted lying on his back at the side of the road on Harrison Flats. To his eternal credit, he got back onto his feet and finished the race, way down the field. The group that Parkes saw passing as he rested on the side of the road consisted of four athletes, two Russian and two South African. Dmitri Grishine, Alexei Volgin, Nick Bester and Charl Mattheus ran together for the next hour, as if joined by an invisible piece of string, through Cato Ridge and Camperdown, over Umlaas Road and down to Ashburton.

With Volgin looking the most vulnerable, the two South Africans worked in tandem to pressurize Grishine, surging in turn, hoping that the blond Russian would crack.

But the game of chess, with its moves and countermoves, comes naturally to the Russian psyche and Grishine was equal to the task. On the climb to Ashburton, he made a decisive move, and found both Bester and Mattheus wanting. The timing of this move was brilliant in its execution for Grishine was saying, in effect, ‘If you can’t stay with me here, you definitely won’t stay with me on Polly’s. and the man who leads on Polly’s wins the race.’

And so Dmitri Grishine won the 1996 comrades Marathon, a race that turned out to be a fascinating war of attrition between four brilliant distance runners. The winning time of 5:29:33 was ominously close to Fordyce’s course record and only the second time anyone had broken 5:30 for the ‘up’ run. A formidable new Comrades competitor had arrived.

Nick Bester, gritty as always, hung on for second place, a scant 1 minute and 15 seconds behind, while Volgin outlasted Mattheus for third (5:32:21 to Mattheus’ 5:34:56).

By now the Comrades Marathon had established itself as the number one ultra-distance race in the world. The wins by Salazar and Grishine had received unprecedented levels of publicity in the international media and virtually every top athlete now saw the race as the unofficial world long-distance championship.

At the same time, the CMA increased the prize money yet again, while eager sponsors reacted to the hype by offering generous incentives for wins and course records. There was everything material to run for.

Charl Mattheus, of course, had more on his mind than rands and cents. Gnawing away at the back of his mind was the memory of 1992 and the dreadful legacy of the label ‘cheat’ that had haunted him for five years. If ever he was going to redeem himself, it was now.

As Mattheus trained in wintry conditions high in the American Rocky Mountains, his rivals were also preparing for the race in extreme circumstances: Bester in the hills around Dullstroom; Grishine and Volgin deep in their native Russia.

After entries closed, it became apparent that the filed was stronger than ever, with a host of international marathon runners on the list, many of whom had never before attempted a race as long and demanding as Comrades.

For the first time, Zithulele Sinqe, South Africa’s fastest marathon runner (2:08:04), entered. So too did old faithfuls such as Santalov, Meiklejohn and Mohloli. Mr Price, the maverick clothing retailer, joined the fray by pouring several hundred thousand rand into a formidable squad of top-class international athletes for the race. Included here were the likes of American Tom Johnson, Jaroslav Janicki of Poland and Anatoliy Koreponov. It seemed likely that at least one or two of this group would collect gold on the day.

Soon after the start on a cool, cloudless day, a huge group of 40 athletes developed just behind the eager television runners. All the favourites were in the bunch, the pace was comfortable and the weather good. The group cruised along towards halfway, with no one taking charge. The time for heroics would come later, and they knew it.

Charl Mattheus was the first to show, breaking away up Inchanga, and taking Grishine, Sinqe, Bester and several others with him. Their collective time at the halfway point was 2:43:45, nearly 2 minutes faster than when Bruce Fordyce had set the down record.

On the long climb out of Drummond, Bester made his move, surging aggressively and breaking up the group. By Hillcrest, he had destroyed the cohesiveness of the group and only Mattheus and Sinqe remained close, with Mohloli, Sarel Ackermann, Andrew Kelehe and Soccer Ncube trailing behind.

Abruptly, Grishine’s challenge evaporated, and with Volgin out of the race with a stress fracture, it looked like a South African sweep of the gold medals was on the cards.

On Fields Hill, Bester once again surged, running down the race’s steepest incline at a reckless pace. Behind him, Mattheus and Sinqe were more careful, allowing a small gap to develop.

In Pinetown, the trio regrouped but by Cowies Hill it became clear that Sinqe was in trouble as Bester and Mattheus waged a bitter man-on-man battle up front.

The last portion of the 1997 Comrades consisted of two distinct races – for the win and for the gold medals. And both were absorbing and dramatic.

Charl Mattheus had several images in his mind as he raced Nick Bester over those final kilometers. There was the bitter pain of 1992, when his win had been taken away, and there was 1995, when Shaun Meiklejohn had passed him on Tollgate in a carbon-copy two man race.

When the body has done all it can, the mind sometimes takes over, and Charl Mattheus won the 1997 Comrades because he wanted it more. On the climb up to Tollgate Bridge he drew on every reserve of courage and energy left and ran past Bester, who simply could not respond. The race was effectively over at that point and Mattheus went on to win 5:28:37, two minutes clear of Bester.

It was a wonderful race of Mattheus, who said it all by declaring later, “Now I can be known as the winner of 1997 instead of the cheat of 1992.

It was a day for South Africans to savour. Of the 10 gold medals, seven stayed at home, while the Russian juggernaut had been well and truly demolished. Surely, there would be no stopping the local boys in 19978!

By the latter part of the decade, the Comrades had become firmly established as the most important ultra-distance road race in the world, and it was therefore no surprise when a long list of foreign athletes entered along with the normal selection of South Africa’s best. Defending up-run champion Dmitri Grishine was back in the line-up, as was compatriot Alexei Volgin, together with a brace of other Russians, most of whose surnames, like the best Kenyan distance runners, began with the letter K.

The top local men, including Bester, Mattheus, Sinqe and Meiklejohn, all entered the fray, and once again it became a case of “South Africa versus the rest” in the minds of journalists and followers of the race.

If the truth be known, the top men cared little about which country collected more gold medals. Given the staggering level of financial rewards on offer to anyone taking home gold that day, the race became more of an ‘every man for himself’ contest as 16 June drew near.

The Comrades Marathon Association made another important change that year. They moved the finish from the claustrophobic confines of Jan Smuts Stadium to the vast expanse of Scottsville Race Course. This move could easily have altered the course of Comrades history, and would have, but for the steely determination of a single athlete. A Scottsville finish meant that the course was significantly longer than when Bruce Fordyce had set the record in 1988.

From the word go, Mattheus and Grishine made the running in the group that set off just behind the obligatory TV runners. The two previous winners had trained their bodies to perfection: Mattheus in the snowy high altitude of the Rocky Mountains; Grishine in his native Russia. The stage was set for the first multiple winner since the Fordyce era.

Volgin, Jaroslav Janicki, 41-year-old Russian Ravil Kashapov and Walter Nkosi stayed in the leading bus for a while, but, strangely, Bester, Meiklejohn and Sarel Ackermann never showed any signs of closing down the leaders.

By Fields Hill the two main contenders had already started their game of cat and mouse, with the Russian flexing his legendary hill-climbing muscles up the race’s longest and toughest

The lead group swept through Drummond in 2:44:38 and for the first time the crowd sniffed the possibility of a course record. But what about that extra distance at the finish …?

Everything changed on Harrison Flats. Sinqe pulled out, Nkosi and Kashapov dropped out of the leading group and the Bester bus dropped even further behind. Only Volgin remained in touch with Mattheus and Grishine.

On and on the two of them went, continuously putting distance between themselves and the rest of the field. Both men were in peak condition, both knew how to win and both had bad dreams to exorcise. For Grishine it was the nightmare of ’97 and for the South African the horrors of ’92.

During the final two hours of the race, each had good and bad moments. At one stage Grishine gulped down pain killers and let Mattheus through but came straight back at the local man with gritty determination. With 25 km to go, they were still on record pace.

By Umlaas road, the Russian had built up a small but vital lead and Mattheus began to show strain. Down the hill past the chicken farms, Mattheus’ happy hunting ground in years gone by, Grishine continued to draw away, an ominous sign for the South African.

By Polly Shorts, it was Grishine against the clock. The only question was: would he break Bruce Fordyce’s decade-old record?

The final 15 km of the 1998 Comrades Marathon will go down in history as one of the most brilliant pieces of sustained front-running in the history of the race. Many men have won it going away, but few have done it with such dogged determination as Grishine did that sunny afternoon. Attacking a Fordyce record is an ambitious exercise at the best of times, but to overcome a handicap of over 2 minutes through extra distance was asking the impossible.

Maintaining an average speed of just over 3:30 per kilometer for the last 15 km, including Polly Shorts, took a superhuman effort from Grishine, and the country watched spellbound from the side of the road and on television as he ground out the lonely kilometers through Pietermaritzburg.

After negotiating the long, twisty section through Scottsville, Grishine finally finished the race and promptly collapsed at the finish line, with tears of exhaustion and happiness flowing freely, right on top of the Comrades logo painted on the grass. It was a fitting gesture on his part, for he had well and truly conquered the Comrades Marathon.

His time was a new ‘up’ course record of 5:26:25.

Mattheus received a rapturous welcome in second place, his time a brilliant 5:31:33, while Volgin collected his third 3rd place, Igor Tyupin, Ravel Kashapov and Anatolyi Kruglikov made it five Russian gold medals, with favourites Kelehe, Ackermann, Livingstone Jabanga and Meiklejohn doing likewise for South Africa. All in all, eight Russians finished in the top 20.

But the day belonged solely to Grishine. Not only had he proved that his victory two years earlier had been no fluke, but his sheer toughness over the final part of the course in pursuit of the record, when he could have cruised to victory, had been monumental. It was, indeed, one of the great runs in the history of the race, which now saw its first multiple winner in a decade. The Comrades had a new hero, so roll on 1999.

The final Comrades Marathon of the 20th century turned out to be an amazing amalgam of poor tactics, doping and cheating on the one hand, mixed with some brilliant running and sheer guts on the other.

After Grishine’s heroics in 1998, pre-race speculation centred more on the possibility of a new course record for the ‘down’ run than about who would win the race. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Bruce Fordyce’s ancient mark of 5:24:07 would be dead and buried long before noon on race day and there was even speculation that as many as three runners were capable of breaking the record and that it would go below 5:20.

Even the top runners seemed infected by record mania, with the result that the group that set off from Pietermaritzburg at the front of the race appeared intent on mass running suicide, rather like a bunch of lemmings in Nikes.

There is no doubt that the bus driver on this occasion was Dmitri Grishine, motivated presumably by a combination of his brilliance in 1998 and a deep desire to expunge the memories of a dismal 1997 down run. With him went virtually the entire top echelon of favourites, with no one willing to risk getting left behind.

As the group sped on, runners dropped off one by one. Bester, realizing that the pace was too fast, came through Drummond 2 minutes behind the runaway bus. Mattheus eventually succumbed to Achilles tendon problems and withdrew, while the unthinkable happened and Grishine fell back in Pinetown. At this stage a different group held together, by far the strongest of whom was Pole Jaroslav Janicki, with Alexei Volgin also looking good.

As the leaders approached Durban, the suicidal early pace took its toll and the leaders slowed down one by one. Janicki moved out into the lead while behind him a mad scramble for the golds ensued, with all sorts of lesser-known runners appearing in the top 20.

Volgin was still hanging onto second place through Westville, less than 30 seconds behind Janicki, but the Russian was able to close the gap slightly after 45th Cutting. Always more comfortable on the descents, Janicki pulled away again, but on the climb up to Tollgate, Volgin called on every ounce of strength and determination once again to reel in his rival. Finally, at the very top of the hill his tactic bore fruit and he took the lead.

The crowds hanging over the barriers on the freeway into Durban did not see a man cruising comfortably to victory however. Rather, they saw a face contorted in agony as the cramps hit. Still, Volgin stuck to his task and clung onto the lead. Janicki wisely let him go and concentrated rather on containing the gap – he knew he was the stronger runner

Behind this drama, a host of athletes chopped and changed positions, many of them presented with possible gold medals on a platter by the unwise tactics of Grishine et al. Kelehe was there, again as were previous gold medalists Mohloli and Matlala. Walter Nkosi had come back into the frame, as had a brace of Russians including Anatoliy Korepanov, Konstatin Santalov – twice 11th in the past – and Grigoriy Murzin.

Others challenging for gold were Joseph Ikaneng and Sergio Motsoeneng, representing the new wave of young black marathon athletes.

Fastest of all, though, was Viktor Zdhanov, who simply tore down the road over the final stretch possibly even mounting a challenge to the two race leaders.

Most Comrades Marathon dramas are played out some way before the finish, but not so in 1999, as three men battled over the final 2 km to become the last winner of the millennium – the cramping, agonized Volgin, the solid Janicki and the sprinting Zdhanov. The crowd at the finish held its collective breath as the stadium announcers told the story second by second – of Volgin finally collapsing just 2 km from the finish and frantically plunging an acupuncture needle into a tortured quadriceps; of Janicki cruising past the prone Russian; of Zdhanov rushing down Grey Street as if he was late for the next plane back to Moscow.

At the end, it was Janicki who claimed the win, holding his composure and showing just what a fine athlete he is. His time of 5:30:10 was 6 minutes outside the course record, a statistic that says more about the genius of Bruce Fordyce than anything else. They all came, they all saw, they all coveted, they all tried. But no-one was good enough to break his record.

Just over 2 minutes and 30 seconds later, Zdhanov charged to the finish to claim second place, while the workmanlike Kelehe grabbed third and Lucas Matlala fourth, after both had passed Volgin just outside the stadium.

Watching the Russian finish was agony in itself. Once a race walker, the lanky Volgin summoned all that was left of his strength just to stay on his feet for the 400 m journey around Kingsmead. Buoyed by the cheers of the crowd, he stumbled along on wobbly legs, arms waving around wildly as he tried to stay upright. Finally the agony was over, and Alexei Volgin crumpled onto the grass at the finish line like a limprag doll, from there to be mercifully carried off to the medical tent. He had finished fifth. Korepanov, Ikaneng, Nkosi, Motsoeneng and Santalov rounded out the top 10, the Russian earning his second gold medal.

Dmitri Grishine eventually finished 75th in 6:29. After crossing the line, the quiet Russian sat down by himself inside the finish tent and stared at the grass between his feet for more than half an hour. Then he stood up and disappeared into the throng, there to ponder his future in the Comrades. He went home quietly that day and nobody noticed him do it.

Thus ended the last comrades of the millennium, or so everyone thought. But it was not to be, for the race did not end that day. In the weeks that lay ahead, Comrades was to be dealt a hand so harsh that even the most cynical of sports watchers found it hard to believe.

First came the results of the dope tests. From the laboratory in Bloemfontein emerged the disturbing news that Zdhanov had tested positive for a stimulant. This was soon confirmed and the Russian was disqualified. The CMA went after him for his prize money and gold medal, but the bird had flown. Everyone down the line moved up a notch.

Then another, more ominous, rumour emerged – there had been a steroid bust in the golds, and it was local runner. This, too was confirmed and it did not take long for an eager media to sniff out the culprit – Rasta Mohloli, the likeable, cool, laid-back Rasta who had been so consistent for years in Comrades.

This was a real blow for the race, for the question had to be asked: did he or didn’t he earn his other gold medals legally? No one will ever know. Protesting his innocence, Mohloli was promptly slapped with a two-year ban and went into the running wilderness.

Everyone moved up a notch again. Things were looking good for Meiklejohn’s 10th gold.

Then came the biggest bombshell of all: a letter from Nick Bester protesting against Motsoeneng, who he claimed had never passed him. The CMA, initially skeptical had to take a runner of Bester’s stature seriously, especially when two photographs of Sergio were produced, one with a watch on his left wrist, the other with a watch on his right.

The press went into a feeding frenzy and Sergio Motsoeneng suddenly became a household name, his photograph with the offending watch appearing on front pages all over the country. The secret could not possibly hold, and a contrite Motsoeneng admitted that he and his brother had run a bizarre but carefully planned relay race, swapping transponders in clandestine and presumably rather cramped visits to roadside toilets.

So everyone moved up another notch and Murzin ended his 1999 Comrades Marathon with a gold medal to go with his novice’s prize.

What did all this do to Comrades as a race? The cheating of 1999 will no doubt go down in the annals of the race as just another piece of unpleasant history. But officials, the media and runners themselves remain steadfast about one thing – all this cheating said more about athletics, and the state of sport in general, then it did about the great race.

The Women’s Race in the 1990s

One of the most significant changes to occur in the Comrades in the last decade of the century was the growth in the number of female competitors. While the overall numbers remained more or less static, give or take a thousand or two, there was a steady increase in the number of women as a percentage of the total field.

This was no doubt due to the increasing importance of health and fitness among this sector of the population (the number of participants in the SPAR series of women’s-only 10 km races grew by an average of 35 percent per annum over the same period). But it was more that that – experts agree that the growth in the number of female runners in Comrades was due to the growing confidence that many women felt about being able to tackle a race as physically and mentally demanding as the Comrades.

As far as the top performers are concerned, the decade can be neatly divided into two periods – ‘pre-international’ and post-international’.

The change that came in 1994 was utterly remarkable, as one era was ushered in while the other was swept out with ruthless efficiency.

The 1980s had ended on a high note with Frith van der Merwe’s brilliant 5:54 in the 1989 down run. But the Benoni heroine was absent when 1990 rolled around, her frail-looking body finally unable to withstand the relentless racing schedule it had been asked to endure for three years. Frith had her first stress fracture and an era ended.

The win went to Newcastle pharmacist Naidene Harrison in a slowish 7:02, with Pretoria’s Annette Schoeman second and Durban runner Di Terreblanche taking third place.

Frith van der Merwe was back in 1991 with her injuries a thing of the past, and with the rest of the field clearly not in her class, it was just a matter of seeing whether her body – some 5 kg heavier than in prior years – could go the distance. It did so, magnificently, and Frith trotted onto the finishing turf smiling and loving every minute of her victory.

The crowd roared its approval, for many had felt that Van der Merwe’s days at the top were over. Her time of 6:08:19 was well off the record, but no one cared. Their heroine was back and undoubtedly still the world’s best long-distance runner. It was a moment to be savored.

Such was Van der Merwe’s dominance that 1991 saw one of the most lopsided victories in the modern era of Comrades. Heleen Reece (6:54) was 48 minutes behind the winner, with Tilda Tearle another minute further back in third.

Sadly, it was to be Frith’s last appearance in the top 10 at Comrades for the rest of the decade.

1992 saw another winner on the podium. With Van der Merwe once again out through injury, the race was wide open and Pretoria’s Frances van Blerk grabbed the opportunity take her only Comrades win. The 37-year-old ran a solid, if unspectacular, race to come home in 6:51:05, with local favourite Tilda Tearle improving by a position on 1991 (7:07:44).

The year 1993 proved to be the last of the ‘old style’ Comrades women’s races. Tilda Tearle was firmly ensconced as race favorite early on, having picked up nine medals in a row, with a third place in 1991 and second in 1992. There were no international runners of note on the scene yet, and Tilda was undoubtedly the best local athlete in the race. By 13:00 on 31 May that year, Tearle had realized her dream of winning the Comrades. Clutching a rose and smiling brightly, she shuffled into Jan Smuts Stadium on wobbly legs, but still 5 minutes clear of Johannesburg’s Rae Bisschoff.

Her winning time of 6:55:07 was well off Van der Merwe’s record, but the win was the culmination of a superb Comrades career during which she carefully crafted her skills, year by year improving her position. She was a worthy and popular winner.

The 1994 race saw a complete change in the nature of the Comrades Marathon women’s race. From 1990 to 1993. South African runners each year took the top three places on offer, with no international runners featuring. During the remaining six races of the decade, local athletes could only manage to secure three out of the available 18 podium positions.

The line-up in 1994 saw most of the top girls back in the fray, including Van der Merwe, who was running as a tribute to her late father, and defending champion Tearle. Added to this were Helene Joubert and Sanet Beukes, both of whom had fine credentials over shorter distances.

The international challenge came from the two Russian Valentinas, Liakova and Shatyayeva, who would become synonymous with Comrades over the next five years.

Still, Van der Merwe was the sentimental favourite, but her challenge fizzled out on Fields Hill, which let the international juggernaut through. Showing a remarkable hunger for the hills, the two Valentinas and Hungarian Marta Vass pulled away, with Liakova eventually winning in 6:41:23, four minutes clear of Shatyayeva and 10 ahead of Vass. Beukes and Joubert gave local fans something to cheer about by breaking seven hours.

In 1995, two more runners of true international statue entered, in addition to the top three of the previous year. The undoubted star of the international long-distance firmament was Ann Trason, the introverted American who had a string of achievements behind her name, including the world 100 km record (7:09).

A petite blond German athlete by the name of Maria Bak also entered, together with her husband Kazimiertz.

With all the top local athletes in the mix (excluding Van der Merwe), the scene was set for a great contest.

Trason took the race by the scruff of the neck and by Drummond was a full 8 minutes clear of Bak and looked likely to improve on Frith van der Merwe’s overall 15th place in 1989. Joubert was third, followed by the two Russians.

Disappointment was, however, in store for the American as a stomach virus, which had plagued her leading up to the race, made its presence felt and Trason slowed her pace considerably, eventually falling out of the race. Bak was having a brilliant run for a novice and took heart from Trason’s departure, speeding up over the last 20 km and passing men by the score.

In the end, the German came home in a splendid 6:22:45, making her the second fastest female runner ever on the down run. At the finish, President Nelson Mandela was on hand to present the prizes and Bak, not overawed by the presence of her hero, gave him a handsome hug and kiss live on national television. Mandela, it seemed, was charmed by the gesture, which went on to become something of a tradition between the two in future years.

Helene Joubert realized her potential at last and took a well-deserved second place (6:34:04), with Shatyayeva third and Beukes fourth.

The following year, Trason was back and raring to go. Such was her reputation as the world’s best ultra distance runner that she was immediately rated as favourite. Bak, Liakova, Shatyayeva, Britain’s Carolyn Hunter-Rowe and even Frith van der Merwe tossed their hats into the ring for what promised to be the best women’s race ever.

As a contest, the race never developed. It was simply too one-sided. But as a race against the clock it was brilliant, one of the best ever.

Trason charged into the lead and put distance between herself and the rest from the word go. Her time at half distance was a staggering 3:03, almost good enough for an overall top 10, and with Bak passing in 3:08 a record looked beyond doubt.

And a record it was, by 19 minutes, no less! Trason came home in a brilliant 6:13:23 to finish in 66th place and push Van der Merwe out of the record books. Both Bak (6:24:08) and Shatyayeva (6:30:33) were inside the old mark. For Frith, now married and officially Frith Agliotti in the list of entries, the loss of the record was compounded by having to withdraw yet again due to injury.

When Trason’s entry arrived for the 1997 down run, it immediately appeared a strong possibility that Frith’s record of 5:54 would be beaten by the brilliant American. One of Trason’s trademarks, however, is an extreme privateness about everything she does, with the result that the media did not realize the extent of the medical problems the American had endured over the previous 12 months.

As Frith van der Merwe knew only too well, the damage that too many races can do to a frail female body is extreme, highly debilitating, and even terminal to the career of an athlete. It turned out that Trason had had radical surgery to a hamstring muscle as late as November and had taken months to recover fully.

Suddenly the race was wide open, and the record not necessarily in such danger. But when Trason declared shortly before the race that “I would not be here if I was not a contender,” everyone took note.

And well they might, for Trason once again reigned supreme in what became the finest women’s Comrades ever. The race did not start off that way, however, as Bak, employed full-time as a worker in a German factory and the mother of two daughters, took the lead. At halfway she was 1 minute and 30 seconds ahead of Trason, who looked in big trouble as the German kept up a relentless pace.

The gap remained constant right down to Cowies Hill, when Bak’s pace faltered, courtesy of a bruised heel. Through Westville, Trason found an inner source of strength and reeled in the German. The lead finally changed hands up Tollgate hill, and Trason, gamely battling a problematical stomach, finally took the win in 5:58:25.

This was just 4 minutes off the record, which Trason had labeled ‘in another orbit’, and the time made Trason only the second woman to break six hours for the Comrades. She finished in 26th position.

Bak also ran brilliantly that day, missing six hours by a mere 28 seconds. The two Valentinas came in third and fourth making it a clean sweep for the foreign contingent.

The 1998 women’s race looked pretty open from the word go, Trason and Bak were absent but Liakova and Shatyayeva were back again and posed the biggest threat to the locals, of whom the strongest contenders were Helene Joubert, still seeking that elusive victory, Rae Bisschoff, the consistent and reclusive veteran from Johannesburg and Durban’s Sanet Beukes.

Although the winning time in the end was slower than in previous years, the race was a thriller, with the winning margin the smallest in the history of the women’s race.

A leading group including Valentina Liakova, Valentina Shatyayeva and Rae Bisschoff was soon established and commentators expected this group to stay more or less together for several hours, at least until halfway. But it was not to be as Bisschoff broke away from the rest as early as 10 km after the start. The rest were content to let her go and run at their own pace. It was early days.

History will record that the 44-year-old Rocky Road Runner retained the lead for one of the longest stretches in Comrades history – 79 km. Running her own race just as she felt (for Bisschoff never wears a watch during a race), she retreated into a distant and private world, seemingly oblivious to all around her.

Through Westville, Pinetown, Hillcrest and Drummond she went, running fluidly and steadily extending the gap on her pursuers. Behind her, mild concern developed into frank anxiety as the favourites realized Bisschoff was not coming back to them as expected. Frantically they set off in pursuit, with Liakova in the vanguard.

Slowly, the Russian stemmed the tide and started closing on Bisschoff, who just kept on going. At the top of Polly Shorts she was still well clear and running for all she was worth for victory, with Liakova in hot pursuit. Would the extra distance to Scottsville mean that a South African victory would be thwarted at the very end?

The answer was no – but only by the narrowest of margins. Urged on by a vociferous and partisan crowd, Rae Bisschoff crossed the line as Liakova turned the corner into the finishing straight, 19 seconds behind.

Few could believe that a local athlete, and a veteran to boot, could upset the Russian juggernaut, but it had happened. Bisschoff’s nail-biting victory came in 6:38:57 to Liakova’s 6:39;16, and the two exhausted runners embraced in an emotional encounter on the line. It had been a wonderful contest and first South Africa victory since Tilda Tearle in 1993.

In her post-race interview, the media-shy Bisschoff gave some detail about her unorthodox approach to running and racing: ‘I don’t wear a watch and have no race plan. I also do not use seconds and never keep a logbook. So I can’t tell you anything about my training. I can’t remember when I passed the leaders,’ she explained to an amazed media corps.

The last Comrades Marathon of the decade provided more surprises as a wave of novices swept to Comrades glory in an absorbing race that once again offered more in the excitement department and less in fast times.

With Ann Trason and Maria Bak again sidelined, it was the old firm Liakova, Shatyayeva and Joubert who seemed likely to provide the winner. Indeed Joubert was the first to show and led the field for the initial stages, before dropping back at 50 km. ‘My legs felt like lead’ she complained bitterly disappointed. ‘Perhaps this is not my distance. In future I think I’ll stick to 42’s and 56’s,’ said the former SA marathon champion later.

With Joubert of the race, the lead was briefly held by Hilton’s Heidi McIntosh before Germany’s Brigitte Lennartz took over with 40 km t go. Urged on by her team of seconds, the experienced German ran conservatively, making sure that she simply stayed in front.

At the end, these patient tactics worked to perfection and Lennartz crossed the line in 6:31:03, a full 35 minutes slower than the course records.

She was clearly ecstatic after the race. ‘This has been the highlight of my life. I’ve run all over the world for 20 years, but never experienced a race like the Comrades’, she exclaimed.

Equally impressive was Durban debutante Grace de Oliveira. The 37-year-old wife of gold medalist Eloi came home second, 3 minutes and 50 seconds behind Lennartz, after starting conservatively and burning up the road in the second half.

A veteran of many outstanding standard marathon and half-marathon victories, the talkative Grace justified her careful race plan and downplayed the possibility that she could have won the race had she run more aggressively. “It was a wonderful experience, I loved every minute of it,’ she enthused afterwards.

Amidst all the Comrades spectacle, the winner of the Geraldine Watson trophy for the last runner home holds enormous appeal each year. For runners and spectators alike, the core of the race is embodied in this person. (Such an eccentric crowd are we). For those who stand in the stadium at 16:59, and sit glued before the television screen at home, to witness that scene year after year is one of the miracles of the race. South Africa has endured so much since the start of the Comrades Marathon in 1921: violent civil strife, World War II, extensive political upheaval and change. So much. We cannot fail but to pause at that final moment – to applaud, to plead with and cajole the last runner home. Fighting against time, struggling against indescribable fatigue, battling to conquer the demons that lurk in the mind, this runner signifies the spirit of the Comrades. Herman Delvin explains: ‘For it is this runner who is the last person to make the grade – the person who has been on the road for eleven hours; the person who has suffered the most; who has tried the hardest. And it is this person who, more than any other, deserves a reward for not giving in.’

‘But this is not all,’ assets Delvin. ‘As the time draws nearer, the crowd at the finish grows ever thicker, the atmosphere becomes tense and charged with expectancy … The time has arrived, the last runner has been clapped in, but the crowd lingers, waiting for the person who will just fail to make the finish line. It is the ‘fallen warrior’, who has fought well and bravely, who is gripping the hearts of the crowd … who the crowd remembers as they wend their way home.’

The words of a little known poet of the Comrades Marathon, Dave Jack, linger

It is something that changes lives forever

And makes those who do it, different,

Not only to others but to themselves,

It takes ordinary people

Who struggle to achieve mediocrity,

And allows others to look up to them in awe

The Comrades Marathon belongs to us all. It is a testimony to human endeavour. It bears witness to the compelling power of the human spirit that grips each one of us from the start to the finish. For one day in each year, we are a nation of winners.

HALL OF FAME

Men’s race

Year

First

Time

Second

Time

Third

Time

Medals

1990 - Up Run

B.N.S. Fordyce

5:40

H. Tjale

5:45

J.M. Radebe

5:45

10268

1991 - Down Run

N.G. Bester

5:40

S. Meiklejohn

5:43

C. Thomas

5:45

12081

1992 - Up Run

J. Msutu

5:46*

M. Page

5:48

S. Meiklejohn

5:49

10690

1993 - Down Run

C. Doll (Germany)

5:39*

T. Rafiri

5:42

M. Mohloli

5:42

11314

1994 - Up Run

A. Salazar (USA)

5:38

N.G. Bester

5:42

M. Mohloli

5:43

10272

1995 - Down Run

S. Meiklejohn

5:34*

C. Mattheus

5:35

A. Volgin (Russia)

5:40

10536

1996 - Up Run

D. Grishine (Ukraine)

5:29

N.G. Bester

5:30

A. Volgin (Russia)

5:32

11264

1997 - Up Run

C. Mattheus

5:28*

N.G. Bester

5:30

J. Janicki (Poland)

5:32

11344

1998 - Down Run

D. Grishine (Ukraine)

5:26*

C. Mattheus

5:31

A. Volgin (Russia)

5:33

10490

1999 - Down Run

J. Janicki (Poland)

5:30

A. Kelehe

5:32

L. Matlala

5:32

11276

* = Record

Women's Race

Year

First

Time

Second

Time

Third

Time

1990 - Up Run

N. Harrison

7:02

A. Schoeman

7:07

D. Terreblanche

7:09

1991 - Down Run

F. van der Merwe

6:08*

H. Reece

6:54

T. Tearle

7:55

1992 - Up Run

F. van Blerk

6:51

T. Tearle

7:07

S. Deetlefs

7:11

1993 - Down Run

T. Tearle

7:12

R. Bisschoff

7:00

B. Daly

7:03

1994 - Up Run

V. Laikova (Russia)

6:41*

V. Shatyayeva (Russia)

6:45

M. Vass (Hungary)

6:51

1995 - Down Run

M. Bak (Germany)

6:22

H. Joubert

6:34

V. Shatyayeva (Russia)

7:24

1996 - Up Run

A. Trason (USA)

6:12*

M. Bak (Germany)

6:24

V. Shatyayeva (Russia)

6:30

1997 - Up Run

A. Trason (USA)

6:58

M. Bak (Germany)

6:00

V. Shatyayeva (Russia)

6:22

1998 - Down Run

R. Bisschoff

6:38*

V. Laikova (Russia)

6:39

V. Shatyayeva (Russia)

6:44

1999 - Down Run

B. Lennartz (Germany)

5:31*

G. de Oliveira

6:34

V. Shatyayeva (Russia)

6:36

* = Record