3. Comrades Spirit

The Comrades Spirit - Facet 3 of what makes the Comrades an ultimate race

The Comrades Spirit

Comrades Marathon Founder

This bust of our Vic at the Comrades House, Pietermaritzburg

Vic Clapham

Vic Clapham, founder so long ago of the Comrades Marathon, got us to generate human spirit as we entered the long training months and then took on the run itself.

Sometimes, maybe because so many complete it, so many ordinary looking people, Comrades seems an easy thing to do.

Funny. Its anything but. Those who do it know better. Those who get themselves through the training needed, know better.

The Spirit

The Human Spirit, Vic thought about, rises when the going gets tough. Flows as runners share the load, encouraging where they can, being encouraged when they need it.

Had he been here to ask, I’m sure he’d have agreed that all of us touched by it, runners, supporters, spectators, volunteers, officials and more, could take the Comrades goodwill back into our everyday lives. Its not just something that happens on one day and then gets left.

Anyway, that’s what I think. We run, we become more human, we bring humanity into our daily lies.

Bob Lambert – RIP

Bob Lambert, Life Member of the Comrades Marathon.with Honours

Bob Lambert, Life Member of the Comrades Marathon.with Honours

Bob Lambert – Life Member, Comrades Marathon and Beyond

Comrades Marathon country is richly summer-green now. As is my memory of Bob Lambert.

I knew him mostly as the father of Robin Lambert with whom I have shared a friendship since the first days of our high school.

In those days, before TV and PC,  he had a pub in his house, a recliner chair and a great hi-fi, which he let me buy when he upgraded. He had a formal lounge that we never went into. In the kitchen was a bell with a room number indicator to call the servants for room service. In the guest toilet was a ceramic sign that said “We aim to please, you aim too please.” Bob owned a “speedboat” called Zabadack that allowed us to waterski on Midmar and sink as deep into the water as we would dare.

He set up and ran a clothing business called Smart Set with branches in PMB and Pinetown. He crashed his Jaguar XJ6 driving there. I don’t know why but it worried me.

Bob grew orchids magnificently

He learned to fly small planes and flew my little family and I to Margate to visit Robin who lived near there

Bob served others. He served Rotary. He knew our Headmaster but then again I suppose Headmasters are allowed to have friends.

He was directly involved in the Comrades organisation serving 22 years on its executive committee.

He got things done. He organised a shipload of water from Cape Town, in case needed in a deep drought year in the 1980’s.

He delivered and set up Comrades House and its small museum with the Comrades team.

Comrades Museum

Comrades House

He was one of those who gave to the Comrades in the spirit of the Comrades. Without him and the others like him Comrades wouldn’t be.

When Bob ran the Comrades he asked Robin, my motorcycle (compulsory then) and I, to second him. In the tough miles, Bob went on strong.

When he decided to run for City Council, Bob asked me to run his campaign. I prepared the posters, leaflets and plan. All opposition disappeared. Bob became Councillor. The Ciy Council of PMB then like so many institutions was trapped in its procedures rather that its purpose. Not a place to get things done. Bob didn’t run for office again.

He took me to lunch at the Victoria Club. I saw him in there as the insider who knew how to get n with others and get things done.

In his harder years I got to understand him through Robin as a hardy fighter against his ailments.

He will always be a beacon in my life, a measure of where I am and how I do what I do.

Bob Lambert’s drum beats loud and strong. We can let it roll. And trumpet his rich, full, serving life.

Comrades spirit in the early days

The spirit that makes Comrades unique started early.

Arthur Newton

When Arthur Newton won his second race, the third running of the event in 1923, he refused the first prize.

The Comrades spirit expressed itself there, in its earliest years.

His generous view was that the competition wasn’t fair. He had had nothing to do but train; the other competitors couldn’t do as much.

He knew that they had jobs, families, obligaions and more. He had time to run around 9000 miles, nearly 14500 km in the year between his first and second Comrades, which translates in around 300 km a week if my calculations are right.

Then again he had running logic. He worked out how to do that much distance that well with only his legs, his mind and smoking a pipe at the evening fire.


At the same run, the “crowd”, those that watched or took an interest, was generous too.

They stayed to watch Frances Hayward who though not allowed because she was a woman to run as an official competitor, had run anyway. She finished in 11 hours and 28 min and was suitable cheered and saluted.

Newspaper opinion was 53 years ahead of the those in charge of the rules. Morris Alexander quotes an unnamed article in 1922 that hailed Frances Hayward’s “achievement as ‘another signal of women’s emancipation from the thraldom of good-natured disdain in which mere man has held her’”.

Didn’t that put it nicely?

At the time women’s emancipation and fight for the vote had been a big issue in the United Kingdom which as the “parent” of South Africa at the time had had big influence here. The right to vote on the same terms as men only came to the UK in 1928.

Women were finally allowed to enter officially in 1975.

But to be fair not all men held the view. It was peculiar kind of man, who arrogated to himself the superiority to judge for others what was good and bad for them; and exercised the powers taken on themselves with a sniff and arched eyebrows, while boiling in their starched collars, without insight into human nature.

Then the rule-enforcers misunderstanding the purpose and context of rules, decreed that women were not supposed to run. Now they harass the jogger who run listening  to MP3,4,5 players, and women who can’t find a place on their crop top to pin a race-number.

Frances Hayward

Luckily, the organisers of Comrades 1922 were of the more generous kind. The Comrades spirit helped them manage a remarkable event rather than at athletics meeting. They accepted the “unofficial” status of Frances Hayward, allowed her to run and recorded her time.

The un-officious ordinary people, enthralled by the event and the courage of those who entered the Comrades Marathon, welcomed her presence, looked for her at the start and along the way, waited for her after the entertainment at the finish arena ended, cheered her he finish and generously gave to a “silver collection” – donations I assume, of silver coins, the sixpences, shillings and so on and not the darker pennies, ha’pennies and farthings – to reward her.

Enough was collected for a decent prize, one probably nicer than the winner’s prize Arthur Newton rejected.

She, ever dapper, recovered as Alexander records, and went to the theatre later.

And like many others held the view that once was enough, maybe too much.


The above is all based on Morris Alexander’s The Comrades Marathon Story and my imagination


Runners’ Spirit

To understand something its good to know where it comes from

The body, roughly stitched from pubis to throat, lay naked in the Oshakati morgue. Our job was to put him, his boots and bloody clothes in a used coffin, screw down the lid and take him to his flight home. A conscript dead, a vast sadness – the waste of war.

Vic Clapham in the 1914-1918 war saw death, injury and more. He would  also have seen the base side of military life: theft, unwashed selfishness, fear, cowardice. But he wasn’t trapped by them.

He saw more. In the gloom of war he saw good. He saw solidarity among the soldiers. He saw them share maybe water and food, maybe the physical and emotional load. He saw humour, courage, sacrifice, resilience and endurance.  He saw the unselfish concern for injured comrades; himself, far beyond any duty, carried for a long distance when he could not longer go on.

He knew soldiers’ rough comfort. He knew their reverence and faith.

In this spirit the Comrades grew. Though not always in the headlines, each year the Comrades Marathon creates some of this good; the light of life.

The spirit is in the runners.

The spirit is also in those watching, engaging from the side of the road.

It goes further: the organisers of the event, those who stage it, the families and friends of the runners, much of  a  nation enthralled but the spectable

Spirit in the runners

My mate Danie and I

He runs in a silent world, but still gets the Comrades cheers

Part of the Comrades spirit is generated in the runners.

The first part of the run is easy – unless you didn’t sleep well or ate too much of the wrong things; if you haven’t got a good way catch the wild herd of butterflies jostling inside.

The second part of the run is doable. At a steady pace, all the miles of your training carry you along. Its running just past fun and chat and jokes, but not too hard to do.

But then, sometime, you have to grit your teeth. The end is further than you want it to be. To far to hold on to as the means to keep going. Running is becomes uncomfortable, legs jar, feet hurt; discomfort you can’t escape. It can get harder: sun harsh, jarring shade, road hard, air rough. Sometimes even looking hurts. Nothing available tastes right. There’s still a way to go. The end of the run not yet close enough to bring hope or escape

Just there, deep in the Comrades, when you have to dig deeper, the spirit flows. It’s not a burst of energy, or happiness or a pain relief. The Comrades spirit begins with dash of resolve. You hitch yourself up and keep going, not matter what.

With maybe with a joke – stick a fork in me to see if I’m done; maybe the ratchet in your mind holds – its only 20 km to go; maybe with just a grunt, you go on. Even those who seek first comfort and indulgence understand. Giving up is wrong. Life doesn’t give up. Survival, adaptation are at source.

Spirit flow

We see the Comrades spirit at the end. Runner’s will help fallen comrades across the finish line; cross the line with friends bonded in many hours of training and now running; a married couple embraces; a father, against the rules, carries a child to the finish line.

Its there too on the road. Runners help, sometimes to their own cost, runners, strangers who falter – encouraging words, advice if need, often its just running with them, sharing and so lessening the load.

Many runners know that another’s success takes nothing from them.

Maybe two, maybe a group of runners run all the way together; a solidarity, a sharing the eases the load.

Early in part of the run; even in the dark first jostling stop-go, in leg-tangling trash-bags and curses; in the exuberant banter, the loud chatter, and among some pretty evil farts, the spirit flows.

A runner falls; instant concern, surge of empathy, helping hands. Way made for harder runners from behind. Joy of recognising the gait an old friend then greetings, wishes of good luck. Strangers suddenly talk to each other. At a crowded water table, runners sachets and thanks .

What I also like is further down, up, down the road. In silent kilometres a connection forms between same-paced runners. Faster ones come and go, others slow and disappear. The load, the total effort of those who stay is less than the individual efforts. That’s a rich part of the spirit.

Little for the ego

Those who expect that Comrades spirit jump up and pat them on the back may be disappointed. Trumpets don’t blast. The Comrades spirit doesn’t won’t pick them out and say “Hey everyone, look at here, a special person, a comrades runner, look what they achieved.”

Nor will it solve anyone’s problems. More likely it will give lessons, perspective: pricks for egos; aches those who seek first comfort; delay for those who seek quick wins; weights for those who like to carry things they needn’t.

It teaches that persistence brings rewards; that we are not alone; together who knows what can be done.


Long after the run the spirit, its energy, is still strong, ready to sparkle. You might walk down the steps to a beach and coming up is an older man in a faded Comrades Green number shirt. You might say, “You had a good comrades innings”.

He may glow. “Yes. Long ago now. Eighteen in a row, until my legs gave in.”

“Wow. But your Comrades cup is still full?”

“Yes even if I drink from it, it stays full.”

Or you might be away from home on holiday or work. You will greet runners, smile, chat with those going in the same direction.

Comrades runners know each other. They smile as they stretch out of their cars at a petrol-station in Harrismith – fellow t-shirt pilgrims head for another day of reckoning.  In the short “Good luck” and “Thanks you too” is a rich connection.

More on the Comrades Spirit to Come.

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