HARTFORD HAVEN TO THE COMRADES FAITHFUL
KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
KwaZulu-Natal is home to a number of unique sporting events, and when we speak of uniqueness, we mean it in the most exclusive sense of the word. It is home to the biggest “swim” in the southern hemisphere, the Midmar Mile; it hosts what was the founding statement in canoe marathons the Duzi, it is the venue for Africa’s greatest horserace, the Vodacom July; and a fortnight ago we celebrated the 84th renewal of greatest marathon in the world, the Comrades.
Besides the Hilton Arts Festival, which ranks alongside its Grahamstown equivalent as the best in the country, all these events make considerable contributions to the bottom line at Hartford, and the Comrades was its usual exceptional self.
As unique a story as any about the Comrades is that of the famous Durban High School master, Bill Payn, who tackled the 1922 Comrades Marathon. In Bill’s own words, this irresistible piece: “I was young and foolish, and on a bleak May morning in 1922, I toed the line at Toll Gate. Number 111 had been allotted to me. When the shot rent the air, off we sped like a crowd of Armenian refugees fleeing from the wrath of a Turkish army. Shall I ever forget that infernal run? It was not long before I realised that I was prey to a consuming thirst. When I got to Hillcrest my feet were giving me so much pain that I took off my rugger boots to make an inspection in loco. Things were pretty gloomy, and I was not a little perturbed at the “undulation” of blisters that had formed on the soles of my feet.
Some kind follower handed me a pot of Brilliantine, with which I anointed my feet, and then repaired to the hotel and knocked back a huge plate of bacon and eggs. This done, I felt much refreshed and pushed onto Botha’s Hill. The old road went directly up the hill, and when I got to the top I found “Zulu”Wade sitting on the bank looking in pretty poor shape. We exchanged notes and then took stock of ourselves. I fear that we did not move with the freedom of young athletes, but rather resembled two old ducks suffering from some sort of distressing gynaecological disorder.
I was assured by “Zulu” that our condition would improve when his supporter arrived. We had not long to wait when he did, on a motorcycle. The fellow took a wicker basket from the carrier, and from it produced a delicious chicken curry in a huge snowdrift of rice. Quickly down the hatch, and then we slogged in happy companionship for Drummond. Here we bent our steps to a happy oasis – the pub – and according to Harold Sulin, I had a dozen beers lined up on the counter. Zulu and I were determined not so much to celebrate a victory as to drown our sorrows. Harold Sulin came and told me to push on – as there were only five runners ahead of me. “Zulu” assured me that his sorrows were completely drowned and wished me the best of luck, as I set off alone for Maritzburg.
Somewhere along Harrison Flats, I noticed a frail little woman with pink cheeks standing at the side of the road. She held up in one hand a bottle and in the other a glass. I stopped and with old world courtesy bowed low, saying “Madam your servant to command”. “Its peach brandy” she volunteered “and I made it myself”. I gulped down a full tumbler of this home made brew and in a second realised I had swallowed a near lethal dose of the rawest liquid I had ever tasted. I am convinced that this charming little old woman must get the credit for inventing the first liquid fuel for jet engines!
Very fortunately I was facing Maritzburg, and I was propelled along my way. I was too far gone in my cups to even ponder on whether this assistance was consonant with the prescribed laws of amateur marathon running. When I passed over the Msunduzi Bridge I was hailed by my wife’s family, who were taking tea on the verandah. I went off the road and joined them in their tea and cakes. While we were thus happily engaged, two of my “hated rivals” went past to Commercial Road, and so it was that I ended the course number eight. In the changing room of the Show Grounds I discovered that the soles of my feet were now two huge pads of blood blisters. My brother-in-law Wilfred Hagg, with an uncanny insight into my most immediate needs, gave me a bottle of champagne, for which I was most grateful. Paul Hattingh then came into the room and said, “Bill, have you forgotten that the Old Collegians play Rover tomorrow and you have to play?” He took me back to Durban on the back of his motor-bike, and on the following day I played at full-back in a pair of tackies.
I conclude this sad story in the deathless words of Jimmy Little: Yena lo marathon!
Visit the websites of these KwaZulu-Natal institutions for more information.