Yesterday, May 24, was exactly 90 years since the first Comrades marathon in 1921. That day Vic Clapham saw his dream of some lasting living remembrance of the spirit of camaraderie between the soldiers of the First World War come to fruition. Over subsequent conflicts and battles Comrades remains a timeless reminder of the spirit generated in all conflicts and the extent one person will go for another.

Today, May 25, is a special day in the history of Martizburg and Comrades marathon.

Exactly 80 years ago, in 1931, Empire day, the 24 May, fell on a Sunday so the race was delayed from the Christian Sabbath to Monday 25 May.

It was a down run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban and the eleventh running of the race.  There 65 official entrants who lined up for the plus three unofficial walkers, a skater, who would fall and retire from the race, and Geraldine Watson running unofficially as the first lady to complete Comrades.

Wally Hayward had won the previous years up-run, but had returned to shorter distances, leaving no clear favourites. In their favour however was that for the first time the whole race would be run on tar.

Pietermaritzburg were pinning their hopes on Phil Masterton Smith a youngster who the previous years had finished just 37 seconds behind Hayward. The Lanky Noel Burree, the Colenso Town Clerk, arrived in the nick of time as the clock chimed six after having to borrow a bicycle to pedal to the city hall as his taxi had failed to arrive on time at the Scottsville guesthouse. That warm up may have proved to be a godsend later in the day.

While Burree was mixing it up front with the leading 15, Matserton Smith was well off the pace and slumming it back in the twenties.

By Drummond the Natal Carbineer had moved into seventh position, seven minutes behind Burree who went through half ay in 3:17.  The second half saw tables turn with Masterton Smith taking the lead going down fields hill.  Burree clawed back the gap as they approached Durban with only 40 metres separating them at Tollgate and by the time they hit the track at Hoy Park Masterton-Smith leading margin was 2 seconds!!

At 19 years Masterton-Smith was and remains the youngest winner of the Comrades marathon in a  time of seven hours 16 minutes and 30 seconds.

Although he returned in 1932 he could only finish sixth and in 1933 world wide depression saw him in Cape Town with insufficient funds to get a train to the start of the race. As a result he took 10 days to cycle to Pietermaritzburg before running the comrades where he would finish tenth.

Today the 25 May four runners are re-enacting the feat and have already covered the distance from Cape Town to Lady Freere, which is around 1200km of the 1730km journey they need to complete to reach Pietermaritzburg on Saturday morning.

As you read this they will be facing the many passes and climbs of the Eastern Cape and Transkei and need to put around 150km behind them each day.

The toll of such a ride is hard to express, but it says much for Masterton-Smith’s fitness that he was able to complete the 1933 race in eight hours and ten seconds. By comparison one of the 2011 quartet, Paul Blake is already fending off a knee injury, and in spite of the most modern equipment and better roads, none of them consider themselves capable of getting close to the eight-hour mark on Sunday.

That said what they will achieve is to highlight Masterton Smith’s exceptional achievement and raise a mammoth amount of funding for the Comrades marathon Amabeadi-beadi charities.

It is a worthy cause that, as with Vic Clapham’s initial intention, sees runners putting in their efforts to aid others.

Thankfully in a time where so many, even those in the highest of offices, are intent on feathering their own nests at the expense of others, the intent of Comrades has survived.

By the end of this 90th year in the history of the event over 130,000 individuals will have experienced the dedication, discipline, and determination required to conquer the Comrades route, and you can be sure that every single one of them, somewhere and at sometime has been exposed to, and been grateful of the camaraderie that boosted them through the depths of self-questioning and doubt that seeks to prevent their victory in the Comrades Marathon:  The Spirit of Comrades Live On.

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