2nd screen

1921 Down (1st Race)
Date Tuesday, 24 May
Weather Fine and mild to warm.
Start Venue/Time Pietermaritzburg City Hall / 7:10
Finish Venue Durban City Hall
Time Limit 12 Hours
Official Distance 89.929 km (54miles 1120yards)
Winner’s Average Speed 10.012 km/hr (6m 0s /km)
Entries 47
Starters 34
Finishers – Total 16
Men 16
Medals – Silver 16
% Finishers / Starters 47.1

In a single line across Commercial Road, outside the City Hall, stood thirty-four official, and four unofficial, scantily clad men. They were waiting for someone to fire a pistol and send them on a pioneering journey, on foot, to the coast in faraway Durban; an unimaginable 54 miles away.

Shortly after 7 o’clock, a gunshot roared across the city and the greatest sporting extravaganza in the world was under way.

It was not a great extravaganza then, of course… but it has metamorphosed into such over the years.

No one knew what would happen to those pioneering souls, during the course of that day, as they shuffled down the hill and out of sight. The first leader, crossing the bridge over the Umsinduzi River was Butcher Purcell, followed by Harry Phillips and Bill Rowan.

Leaving the city, a dusty sand road meandered over the hills and through the valleys all the way to Durban. Purcell, Phillips and Rowan were still together at Cato Ridge but, by the foot of Inchanga, Purcell had fallen two minutes behind. As the two leaders left Drummond, Rowan went into the lead, where he remained.

Through Gillitts and Pinetown, followed by a convoy of bicycles, motorcycles and cars, Rowan increased the distance between himself and Phillips, who was plagued by a persistent knee injury.

Covered in brown, suffocating dust, but undeterred by it, Rowan finally strode down West Street, at the head of the convoy, to the finish line outside the City Hall. His time was 8h 59m. It remains, to this day, the slowest winning time.

Despite the troublesome knee, Phillips soldiered on, arriving at the City Hall in 9h 40m.

To commemorate his epic performance, the coveted Bill Rowan Medal was introduced in the Millennium year, 2000. It is awarded to those runners who fail to achieve a prestigious, sub 7h 30m, Silver Medal, but who finish inside 9 hours.


1st Bill Rowan South Africa 8h 59m 00s Established Best Time Down
2nd Harry Phillips * South Africa 9h 40m 00s
3rd John Annan South Africa 10h 10m 00s
4th R.S. Skinner South Africa 10h 27m 00s
5th Butcher Purcell South Africa 10h 37m 00s
6th Russell Main South Africa 10h 44m 00s
7th Albert Marie South Africa 11h 04m 00s
8th Llyn Mitcalfe South Africa 11h 06m 00s
9th L.M. Moran ** South Africa 11h 13m 00s
9th A.A. Imray ** South Africa 11h 13m 00s

* Harry Phillips subsequently represented South Africa in the Marathon at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris where he finished in 19th position in 3h 07m 13s.

** Finished together.

1922 Up (2nd Race)
Date Wednesday, 24 May
Weather Mild to warm winter sunshine. No wind.
Start Venue/Time Tollgate, Berea Road / 6:07
Finish Venue Royal Agricultural Show Ground
Time Limit 12 Hours
Approx. Distance 55 M
Entries 114
Starters 89
Finishers – Total 26
Men 26
Medals – Silver 26
% Finishers / Starters 29.2

Inaugural winner, Bill Rowan, travelled from the Belgian Congo to defend his title.

A cheering, 2000-strong crowd sent the runners, and a convoy of helpers on bicycles, motorcycles and in cars, on their way to the Capital. E. Williams set out at a reckless pace and at the Rugby Hotel, in Pinetown, he was followed by Butcher Purcell, Harry Phillips, Cary-Smith, Imray and Rowan. Lingering near the tail of the field, at this stage, was the 39-year-old Arthur Newton.

Williams dropped out on Botha’s Hill and Purcell inherited the lead, which he still held at Drummond; passing through in 3h 33m. Phillips was next through, followed by Imray, Rowan and Newton. Both Phillips and Rowan stopped for a massage at this point. Newton passed Imray on Inchanga and, at the top of the giant hill, set off after Purcell; 20 minutes ahead.

When Purcell reached Harrison Flats, after 4h 37m, Newton had reduced the lead to 7 minutes. He caught Purcell at Camperdown and from there on, his lead grew with every minute on the long descent through Thornybush. Newton took Polly Shortt’s in his stride and, with the final, major obstacle behind him, set off for the finish, 7 kilometers away. He entered the Agricultural Show Ground a clear winner. Harry Phillips overcame his recurring knee problem to finish second and managed to hold onto a 4-minute lead over Rowan.


1st Arthur Newton South Africa 8h 40m 00s Established Best Time Down
2nd Harry Phillips South Africa 9h 09m 00s
3rd Bill Rowan Belgian Congo 9h 13m 00s
4th John Annan South Africa 10h 11m 00s
5th P. Fouche South Africa 10h 18m 00s
6th O.J. Lazenby South Africa 10h 48m 00s
7th G.W. Taylor South Africa 10h 53m 00s
8th Bill Payn South Africa 10h 56m 00s
9th Charlie Cullingworth * South Africa 11h 02m 00s
9th R.A. St George * South Africa 11h 02m 00s

* Finished together

1923 Down (3rd Race)
Date Thursday, 24 May
Weather Very cold at the start, becoming warm and humid near Durban.
Start Venue/Time Pietermaritzburg City Hall / 6:02
Finish Venue Lords Ground
Time Limit 12 Hours
Approx. Distance 56 M
Entries Unknown
Starters  68
Finishers – Total 30
Men 30
Medals – Silver 30
% Finishers / Starters 44.1

Eyebrows were raised at the sight of a woman standing among the sixty-eight hopefuls on the start line outside the Pietermarittzburg City Hall. Frances Hayward ran unofficially and set in motion a dream that would take another fifty-two years to be realised.

The advent of the Comrades Marathon had a ripple effect on distance-running, with a noticeable increase in the number of entries in other events in Natal.

On a freezing morning, the journey to Durban began. Wratten was the early leader at the Victoria Bridge. He was followed by Phillips, Wolvaardt, Newton and Purcell. After having alternated positions frequently, Wolvaardt was twenty seconds ahead of Wratten at Thornybush, with Phillips and Newton going through within a minute.

At Umlaas Road, the order was Wratten, Phillips, Wolvaardt and Newton. With the lead changing regularly, Wolvaardt was back in front at Camperdown with Newton and Phillips trailing him. Newton went to the front along Harrison Flats and stayed there. He reached Drummond in 3h 2m. Wolvaardt (3h 13m) was next through but he retired shortly afterwards. Wratten was third in 3h 19m.

Once in the lead, Newton drew further and further ahead as he ran, victorious, through Gillitts, Pinetown and Westville before breaking the tape in a new Best Time of 6h 57m 07s.

Frances Hayward finished unofficially in 29th position after 11h 35m on the road.


1st Arthur Newton South Africa 6h 56m 07s New Best Time Down
2nd Lukas Nel South Africa 7h 48m 24s
3rd Butcher Purcell Belgian Congo 8h 17m 03s
4th W.N. Wratten South Africa 8h 23m 02s
5th H.H. Tomlinson South Africa 8h 28m 21s
6th John Annan South Africa 8h 49m 17s
7th Percy Shackleford South Africa 9h 02m 29s
8th A.A. Imray South Africa 9h 30m 02s
9th Albert Marie South Africa 9h 30m 37s
10th L.G. Cary-Smith South Africa 9h 33m 42s

* First Sub-7:00 Down Run

1924 Up (4th Race)
Date Saturday, 24 May
Weather 15°C at start with strong chilly wind.
Start Venue/Time Durban Post Office, West Street / 6:00
Finish Venue Alexandra Park Athletic and Cycle Track (The Duck Pond)
Time Limit 12 Hours
Approx. Distance 54 M
Entries 38
Starters  31
Finishers – Total 16
Men 16
Medals – Silver 16
% Finishers / Starters 51.6

With Arthur Newton back, and aiming for a hat trick, the Best Time for the Up Run was sure to fall.

A strong, cold, nasty wind blew in the faces of the runners as they set off. It was to prove troublesome for most of the morning. The road was tarred only as far as Mayville, whereafter, over the next fifty miles of sand, the dust kicked up by accompanying motor vehicles, and distributed widely by the wind, became a major, uncomfortable nuisance.

With no serious opposition, Newton immediately found himself in third place after 2 miles, at Tollgate, and by Pinetown he had moved up to second behind Nel.

Nel could not maintain the pace he set up the punishing Field’s Hill where Newton went past. Newton was vastly better trained than any of the others in the field. He reached the midway point at Drummond in 3h 27m. A struggling Nel was next through in 3h 45m. Then came Percy Shackleford (4h 3m) and Charlie Strassburg (4h 5m).

Newton forged further ahead with every stride. Nel hung on gamely but retired at Umlaas Road. Polly Shortt’s held no terrors for Newton. He sailed up and, with an insurmountable lead, ran into the finish in Alexandra Park with a new Best Time and a lead of almost 69 minutes over second man, Shackleford. Strassburg was another 35 minutes adrift.

In view of his performances in just 2 years, Newton must be credited with elevating the standard of distance-running that would continue unabated into the future.


1st Arthur Newton * South Africa

6h 58m 22s New Best Time Up

2nd Percy Shackleford South Africa 8h 13m 00s
3rd Charles Strassburg South Africa 8h 48m 23s
4th John Annan South Africa 9h 01m 25s
5th C.R. Long South Africa 9h 16m 13s
6th E.F. Williams South Africa 9h 21m 03s
7th Charlie Cullingworth South Africa 9h 35m 05s
8th Archie Cary-Smith South Africa 9h 40m 10s
9th R.T. Long South Africa 9h 41m 35s
10th H.S. Sowden South Africa 9h 45m 49s

* First Sub-7:00 Up Run

1925 Down (5th Race)
Date Monday, 25 May
Weather Cold at start, warming to a mild sunny day.
Start Venue/Time Pietermaritzburg City Hall / 6:00
Finish Venue Durban City Hall
Time Limit 12 Hours
Approx. Distance 89.518 km (54miles 670yards)
Winner’s Average Speed 13.961 km/hr (4m 18s /km)
Entries 41
Starters  39
Finishers – Total 23
Men 23
Medals – Silver 23
% Finishers / Starters 59.00

The press, in the build-up to the race, advised runners “Do not drink water on a run; avoid it if possible” as well as “never drink a lot at a time; it will only make you tired and lazy”.

Jogging for health was unknown in 1925. The result was that, with a continuing trend towards smaller fields, those who entered Comrades were the forerunners of a dedicated group that would continue into the future; those who ran solely for the honour of earning a coveted Comrades medal.

Pietermaritzburg runner, Harry Phillips, led the field through suburban Scottsville and out of the city. Arthur Newton was handily placed in third position. On the long pull up to Umlaas Road, Phillips drew well ahead, reaching the village in 1h 16m with Newton four minutes in arrears. Next through was Wratten (1h 21m) and Potgieter (1h 27m). Percy Shackleford was hidden in a group far behind the leader.

The three top places remained unchanged at Cato Ridge, which Phillips reached in 1h 53m, while increasing his lead, over Newton, to 5 minutes.

Phillips charged into Drummond in a new Best Time of 2h 51m 45s to halfway but he was experiencing discomfort with a recurring knee injury. He stopped for a brief massage and was on his way before Newton arrived in 2h 55m. The pair were far ahead and it was another 22 minutes before third-placed, Shackleford arrived in 3h 17m.

A mile beyond Drummond, Phillips was forced to stop for treatment to the troublesome knee, allowing Newton to slip into the lead. Without changing his stride, Newton drew further ahead and passed through Hillcrest 12 minutes before Phillips, with Shackleford a further 22 minutes back. Newton was clocked at Pinetown in 4h 42m, an impressive 34 minutes before Phillips who was reduced to stopping every 5 minutes for attention to his knee.

Passing Tollgate in 6h 06m, Newton was on the verge of establishing a sensational new Best Time. He duly arrived at the Durban City Hall in 6h 24m 45s.

Phillips hung on doggedly to finish 12 minutes ahead of Shackleford.

Newton had now won four Comrades in succession; a feat that would remain unequalled for 59 years until Bruce Fordyce equalled the feat in 1984.


1st Arthur Newton * South Africa

6h 24m 45s New Best Time Down

2nd Harry Phillips South Africa 7h 05m 30s
3rd Percy Shackleford South Africa 7h 17m 22s
4th H.C. Briggs South Africa 8h 04m 10s
5th Winston Sutton South Africa 8h 14m 45s
6th Felix Henriksen South Africa 8h 15m 00s
7th C.E. Vahl South Africa 8h 35m 00s

Charles Strassburg **

South Africa 8h 56m 15s
8th R. Hully ** South Africa 8h 56m 15s
10th Archie Cary-Smith South Africa 9h 04m 00s

*   First Sub-6:30 Down Run

** Finished together