Gem in the conception

The “ultimate” status of the Comrades Marathon lies first in its conception. Right there is the gem that is the heart of its treasure.

The Comrades Marathon is about running, endurance running; it’s also more, it’s about the human spirit.

That’s not something I made up. The conceiver of the run, Vic Clapham, had more in his mind than just running. He wanted the runners to feel what it was like to have their spirit energized, to make it flow maybe even overflow. He took things he knew about and made an event to celebrate the human spirit.

Linger here, much as the thousands of chatting, laughing, staring, sweating, agitated runners do in the starting chutes in the hour before 05h30 on race day.

Linger only to savour the idea. Enjoy the magnificence of wanting to generate and celebrate the human spirit. Enjoy the tang of putting this at the core of a running event; blisters to make souls soar, as it were. Great idea: use running – the discomfort, effort and endurance – as means to a noble end.

It’s not knocking other runs to say they are different. All it is to say is that the Comrades Marathon has something unique and deep.

Yes, of course it doesn’t have to be nor is special for every runner. Some are really miserable about it. Comrades can be just another run, one on a to-do list. That’s okay. Finishers get their medal even if their souls are blank or churlish or if their inner lights are dim.  Yet even they will feel however faintly, a tremor after they cross the finish line.

Also there no doubt that there are other ways to generate and celebrate human spirit; other runs in which we can find it. Comrades is dedicated to it.


Vic Clapham experienced the human spirit during his time at as soldier. His experiences were of the front lines the Great War of 1914-1918. It was how he and his comrades responded to what some call the adversities of war. “Adversities” in this case is a nice-sounding word for death, mutilation, poisoning, injury, sickness, doom, cold, heat, muddy beds, lots of physical work and more than a little futility.

Soldiers had to cope or be overwhelmed. Mostly they coped. They found deeper sources of energy. Their support for each other and humour transformed their hardships.

They supported each other knowing that they may need the support later. They depended on each other for their lives. They didn’t leave wounded comrades on the field of battle.

They sang. They treasured the letters and parcels from home and shared what they could.

More than most, the soldiers understood the need for a good dose of humility. Not the humility of meekness or submissiveness, but of not getting too full of oneself, too cocky – the humbleness that ensures survival.

Vic Clapham wanted to keep alive this rich spirit. He learned during training that it could be found when a group of men face a test of endurance.


He also wanted the run to be a living memorial to soldiers who died in wars. He must have seen the emptiness around those permanent erections, inscribed with the names of dead soldiers, with angels on top, next to start of the run in Pietermaritzburg. He must have watched people walk past them without a glance, others dropping their lunch-wrap. He wanted a better way to remember the sacrifices soldiers made.

The soldiers’ memorial dimension of Comrades has mostly gone. I am not sure whether that’s good or bad.  It’s sad because it’s a noble idea and was part of the early races. It’s good because we no longer live in times when war is promoted.

What I do know though is that one of those token “Minutes of Silence” that last a few seconds wouldn’t do justice to the idea.

Nor am I sure that the “Wall of Remembrance”, where runners can buy space for their names to say “Look at me I ran Comrades”, fits with conception of the race. But its okay, I just prefer my coffee black without sugar.

In line with the memorial idea, maybe we should we take time remember just how much we depend on others, whether in war or peace. It is worth remembering that we need our families, community, friends across borders and that they need us. It is also worth remembering that together we are more than we could ever be alone.

From time to time I do think about all those who died and were damaged in wars, their lives stolen.  I think about the war mongers, the executives and managers of wars and just how much they abuse the loyalty, faith and discipline of their soldiers. I think about those who never did what they expected others to do, those who frowned when their plans confronted a devastating reality; only to frown more while signing standardised letters of condolence.  But that’s not the issue here. Vic Clapham got past it and left us a treasure.

He must have learned from his military service that it’s better to be in a position to send troops into battle than to be one of the troops. I can’t find his name in the Comrades results so it looks like he never ran it himself. Anyway the work he did to get the run going and to keep it going was more than equal to the effort of running it.

Less of the military

But let’s note too that while military in origin, the Comrades marathon has requirements quite opposite of military life. The military is based mostly on external discipline – the shouting sergeant, the command to obey orders, the legal system to back it up. For runners discipline is internal.

In the military the idea is to get fit and strong to fight and kill– for the Comrades the idea is to be fit and strong for life.

For me military life was about “gyppo-ing”, getting out of doing what you were told to do or not being there when the orders were given. Running Comrades is the exact opposite: doing what is needed even though it is not ordered and being there as fully present as possible.

What about Comrades today?

Vic Clapham’s passion, insight and modesty are all hallmarks of the way the owners and organisers of the marathon have go about their business and how the event has grown.

The spirit Vic Clapham created lived on in the Comrades Marathon through the depression and more wars. It was the basis of its endurance and is what enabled it to grow to what it is today.

We still see the human spirit alive in the runners and how its spread to their families, supporters, colleagues, and to spectators and TV viewers. With it is another perhaps unintended and unarticulated legacy – the results of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Thanks Vic

What I really like is that Vic Clapham was modest man of at best modest means. He was a train driver. No lofty lord, no commanding officer, no poet, philosopher- or warrior-king with the leisure to ponder. He was an ordinary person, an ordinary soldier with extraordinary insight. He saw into the hearts of men. His legacy outlives that of the lofty.

If you allow it to, if your expectations aren’t too tight, the Comrades Marathon will enrich your life with unexpected delight. So now and again we should reserve a wink for Vic Clapham and what he gave us, just after we thank our calluses for protecting our feet. We should thank him for his persistence. We can even follow him by finding our inspiration and implementing it.

The next facet:: The Comrades distance

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  1. jon clapham says

    The organisation the comrades has become about the money and politics I know Vic would despise.
    In his obituary which I have he sends a message YOU LIVE LIFE BY HONOUR NOT GREED and I hope more people that run this race will honour this.

    Here is an example.When Vic died he was the groundsman of the Old Fort Museum in Durban where he lived.Being a M.O.T.H he received a monthly cheque from the army to take care of the Old Fort.When he died and his contents were cleared out there were draws full of uncashed cheques and he did this because he felt it was a privilege just to have roof over his head and thought the money would better spent somewhere else.

    The thing that gets to me is the people who work at the Comrades House in PMB don’t even understand the concept of the Comrades

    Playing in the PMB Caledonian Pipe Band and leading the Armistice Day parades for many years with my grandfather Douglas Clapham(RNC) in the ranks was always an honourable moment and any M.O.T.H parades we did but the was never ever anyone from the Comrades Association paying their respects.

    Unfortunately I think it’s become a money making racket

    Jon Clapham

    • Paul Vorwerk says

      Hi John
      I’m sorry to hear that when it really counts Vic Clapham isn’t acknowledged for what he was and did. If you have any more stories about Vic like the one you mentioned I’d be happy to publish them. I don’t have access to much information about him.
      My assessment is that the people in charge of Comrades and lots of the runners don’t understand its essence – not willfully but still. Its never just a race and logistics. But I do think that they aren’t overwhelmed by the money making part. It could be a lot worse. We only have to look at the Two Oceans Marathon which puts out that it is the largest ultra event somewhere or other, but actually its mostly a halfmarathon and lots of other money making things.
      In any case its up to those who do understand a bit of the deeper part of Comrades and Vic to at least try to broaden that understanding … hence my homage to the event and the man who conceived it.