History – Origins

There are lots of interesting accounts of the origins of the Comrades  in books and on the web, worth exploring.

The basic facts are the same. But one idea is not given enough prominence.

The idea behind,in, a hard but achievable run, was to recreate enough of the hardship that soldiers face to generate the “human spirit”, as its orginator called it.

The pressure of the training and the run on the day produces human spirit.

Not because there is a winner and a loser. Not because there is prize money. Not because the names of the finishers are published. But because every runner, each participant will feel the “pressure”, will respond positively or collapse, and has the opportunity to be part the greater human spirit. That is the Gem in the Conception of the run. My stories of the spirit explore this more.


Of those long ago days between 1917 when the originator of the Comrades Marathon was repatriated due to ill-health from the war zone of East Africa, and 1921 when the first run was held, the facts are few.

  • Vic Clapham was Fireman on the railways keeping the fire of a steam engine going.
  • He volunteered to go to war for his home country the United Kingdom
  • His experiences drove him to commemorate the sacrifices and spirit of his fellow soldiers
  • The Athletics Association under which he fell wasn’t interested in his race
  • The Ex-Serviceman’s organisation the League of Comrades  of the Great War reluctantly agree to support the race with a minimal loan.
  • The run immediately took hold in the imagination of the public and became part of life in the then province of Natal, South Africa.


The Comrades story begins in the European conflict known as the Great War, the War to end all Wars, the First World War.

It was a time when wars were still, shall we say, revered. When a call to arms was made, ordinary people responded, as was their duty.

One of them was Vic Clapham, a fireman on a train my understanding of which is that he kept the fire going of a steam engine, later become an administrator. He was born in the United Kingdom, emigrated to Cape Town, South Africa as a child with his family.

At least three things in military life struck him:

  • Ordinary people could with the right amount of training over six months could march 40 miles carrying their kit, without collapsing
  • The soldiers found ways to cope with hardship – from discomfort to oul and body destroying nightmares.
  • That many soldiers, actually people who did soldier-work, were prepared to give so much of themselves, even their lives to help colleagues. As recorded in John Cameron-Dow’s book, Vic Clapham collapsed one day and a fellow-soldier Ernest Freemantle carried him over 50 km to safety and care (see note below)

To remember soldiers’ sacrifices and celebrate their spirit, Vic Clapham started the Comrades Marathon. he was one understands one of them, one of the soldiers. He survived. He had to do something to remember what the soldiers went through, how they coped and what they sacrificed.

His idea was to remember the fallen, recreate the camaraderie and spirit of soldiers by creating a serious physical challenge.

Stripped now of the gore of war his idea is still the essence of the run ultimately makes it into the event that it is.


You have to savour this idea. It’s remarkable that an ordinary soldier identified and brought into being such a noble, uplifting and marvellous idea. A celebration and remembrance not by gatherings, speeches, mourning, ceremony or a select few; it was a celebration by doing, by many, by all who understood, a celebration which would generate the human spirit Vic Clapham knew existed.

It wasn’t then just an athletics event, a road race driven by times and places.

To call it his idea a dream may do Vic Clapham an injustice. It was concrete, he knew what he wanted and persisted with it until it came into being. We reap the benefits of that effort now nearly 100 years later.

Note: See John Cameron-Dow’s book, Comrade Marathon the Ultimate Human Race. Its is pity though, as will all history, that there isn’t more of this, more of what made the man, tick.