Always the name of the winner is inscribed big and bold: time, maybe age. But hardly ever, except for Alan Robb, is inscribed the colour of their socks, or as a poet asked, whether they dream of hunting tigers in red boots.
Who was Bill Rowan, winner of the first run in 1921? What made him enter the race? How did he know about it? After all he lived in Koster, in what was then the Western Transvaal, a fairly out of the way part of South Africa, far from Durban.
He trained on his farm, according to Morris Alexander, by running 20 mile off-road runs and doing long skipping sessions.
What made him understand that he should run slower in the beginning and walk up all the hills?
We know he came back the next year from a farm in the Belgian Congo. How did he get there? What happened to his farm in Koster?
Imagine that: moving from South Africa to the Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; somehow travelled all the way back to Durban to run the next year again and finish just 14 min slower than he did the year before. In a time before planes, extensive railway networks, even cars and roads.
It’s okay though. We know there’s a story. We can let our imagination fill, not maybe with the detail but with the images; a history let’s say, less of fact, more of feeling, perhaps inspiration.
Each of the other runners then and now has their own story; those stories are part of the history of the Comrades Marathon.
A name in the 1921 results: finished in 11:06. Maybe just another human being. He at least lived in Durban, so it’s easy to see that he could have known about the event from a newspaper, say. Well, if not in Durban, he lived within a kind of walking distance. We know that because after he finished his epic, and after a rest, he walked home. Just 24 miles, another ~38 km to the Tongaat area. After the run, why not take a stroll home in the cool of Durban’s marvellous, balmy, autumn.
Funny that, whenever we think we’re okay, and can sort of walk after the run and get home in a car and maybe have a beer, there’s someone who will walk home for nearly another marathon. Of if we think our 10 medals has substance, soon enough we’ll meet someone is 20 and increasingly 30 medals.
And then there’s another level: in 1999 Paul Selby decides he will do an unofficial back-to-back Comrades. Unofficual as there is no formal run. Start in Durban, get to Pietermaritzburg before the start of the official run and then run all the way back to Durban. And then walk to his car I presume, or hotel, or maybe his home in Johannesburg. Nothing is impossible.
He raised a large sum of money, R200 000, for charity. I got to know Paul Selby. He is a seriously solid, resilient, relentless athlete, whole in mind, body and spirit. In the long run, he will always be there.
Later a couple of other runners also ran back-to-back: Mimi Anderson from the UK and another South African Tobie Reyneke.
Around all three of them are more stories; because of the times we live in, their stories are easier to find.
Then again, there’s Marie Ballot who ran in stages from Cape Town to Durban, by road around1600km, the Comrades Marathon down run being the last leg of the journey. She did say along the way with maybe 65km to go, that she would be glad get it done; maybe not have to run the next day.
She wrote her story so that’s good.
Much more than extremes
But Comrades legends are not just in extremes, even just the headline stories.
Without each runner, without each story of each runner, Comrades would be that much poorer.
Every story of each Comrades runner helps make up the rich Comrades story.