A Marathon …

The recent (13 April 2014) London Marathon got me reminiscing…

I am not a runner, never have been and never will be, and really cannot understand the appeal of putting one’s self through all that torture – but each to his/her own. I imagine there are many who feel the same about me sitting enthralled in dusty archives (yes, there are still dusty archives around outside of London, but that’s for another day).

Back to marathons. As many know the marathon originated with the Greeks (about 490BC) but only became famous with the introduction of the marathon as an Olympic sport on 10 April 1896 (four months after the marathon Jameson Raid into the Transvaal on 2 January but I couldn’t find a direct link). Yet, it was only in 1921 that the marathon was officially set at 49.195km or 26miles and 385yards. You can read a fairly well referenced summary about all of this on Wikipedia (it does have its uses sometimes!).

Today, there are about 556 marathons run across the world of which 11 are in Africa and 3 noted in South Africa and yet, the marathon I’m most interested in doesn’t feature on this list, nor on the top 10 list of marathons – I wonder why that is? Perhaps, simply, because it’s an ultra marathon…

The Comrades Marathon is due to be run on 1 June 2014 – it always used to be on Republic Day, 31 May, until 1996. The Comrades was, and still is, an institution. I remember getting up early to watch, on TV, the runners take off on their epic journey and then returning every now and then to see what progress was being made – it would be about eight hours before the lead runner (invariably Bruce Fordyce winner of 9 Comrades) was near the finish line so lots of time to get other things done.

However, it was only a few years’ ago that I realised the origin of this particular marathon – it was started by Vic Clapham on Empire Day 24 May 1921 in memory of all his comrades who had lost their lives in the gruelling East Africa campaign of 1914-1918, although Vic and his friends were only there between 1916 and 1917. Rather than a memorial, he wanted something more fitting and an 88km (56mile) run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg (or vice versa) every year seemed just the ticket. Not only is the distance itself a challenge, but one rises or falls (depending on the run direction that year) between 89meters (292ft) and 596meters (1,955ft) reaching a height of 810meters (2,657ft) en route at Umlaas Road (19km outside Pietermaritzburg). There are a few other historic mentions along the way as well as in the origins of the event.Sport and war are closely linked although, as Floris van der Merwe points out in his Sporting Soldiers (a book I’m currently reviewing), not much has been written about it. Alas, the Comrades doesn’t feature in van der Merwe’s book either – I’m left wondering how many of the runners and spectators know of this novel and poignant way of paying homage to one’s comrades?

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