PHOTO: 1940 Winner, Allen Boyce


2020 will be marked in the history books of the Comrades Marathon as the first time in 75 years that the Comrades Marathon was not run. While the decision to cancel the race put many a dream on hold, it was necessary to ensure the safety of our runners and volunteers.


Running the first ever Virtual Race was a wonderful demonstration of how advances in technology are allowing us to achieve things that have not been historically possible.


With 2020 being a ‘no go’ year, I wanted to reflect on the other period of Comrades History when the race was not run, 1941-1945.


Already at the time of the 1939 Comrades, tensions in Europe were high and all signs of a second major war were starting to present themselves. In South Africa political tensions were also high as a divided nation couldn’t decide whether to support Germany or the Allied Forces.


Many Afrikaans families have strong Germanic roots and JMB Hertzog (Prime Minister at the time) was adamant that neutrality was the best course. When war was officially declared in September 1939, Hertzog stepped down and Jan Smuts took the reigns, committing South Africa to the war effort.


With no clear sign of when mobilization would happen, the Comrades Marathon organisers and runners alike, began to prepare for the 1940 event.

From March 1940, recruitment campaigns were reaching the pinnacle and on the eve of Comrades race day (23 May 1940) Hitler invaded France and sent the Allied Forces reeling towards the English Channel. The tide was turning, the Allied Forces needed help, and it was announced that South Africa would be deploying troops.


PHOTO: Unknown Runner


The day was spent in serious doubt as to whether to host the 1940 race at all, and at the last minute it was agreed to go ahead. There is no way of knowing how many runners opted out as they had been called to duty, but of who had officially entered, only 23 people lined up on the day to start the 1940 Comrades Marathon.  It was won by Durban policeman Allen Boyce in a time of 6:38:23 (a time which was only 4½ minutes outside the then fastest time for the Down Run) ahead of 2nd placed  WD Parr in a time of 8:29:51 – thus the largest winning margin in the history of the race.


With the world at war again, out of respect for those who were in the trenches, a decision was made after the 1940 race to stop the Comrades Marathon for the remainder of the war.


So it was only again in 1946 that the race was revived. Sadly, many past runners were in no condition to run as a result of the strain their bodies had taken on the battlefields and in the prisoner of war camps. This resulted in only 22 people starting the 1946 race.


The biggest reminder of what the Comrades Marathon stands for was noticed in the missing faces of runners, and past winners, who had been killed in service. A return to the Comrades was a moment taken to honour those who had fallen.


By 1947 a sense of normality had returned and race entries began to climb again; a living memorial that continues to remind us of the sacrifices made in times of war.