Ask any South African about the Comrades Marathon and their response will be either awe or terror—usually both. The epic 87km race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg means everything to participants and spectators alike. Impassioned world record-breaking athlete Bruce Fordyce should know—he has competed 30 times, nine of which he came in first. Here, he tells us all about South Africa’s most prestigious race, whose starting pistol is fired this year on 7th June at Durban City Hall, a 20-minute drive from The Oyster Box.
How did the Comrades Marathon begin?
“The race was started by a South African soldier called Vic Clapham when he returned from the First World War in 1921. He wanted to stage an event to commemorate the soldiers who had fought. It’s been going ever since, despite pausing for four years during the Second World War.”
Can you tell us about the route?
“In the early days, it was almost all countryside. But the run now passes towns, villages and urban areas, as well as miles of remote valleys and open bush. The race has a number of strange traditions and one of these is that it changes direction every year. This year is an Up Year, so it will start in Durban and end in Pietermaritzburg.”
Who takes part?
“When the Comrades first began, there were only about 30 runners and it was an all-white male event until 1975. However, unofficial female and non-white runners who competed before that point have now been recognised in the records. Nowadays, the race is capped at 25,000 competitors. To enter, you must be able to complete a standard 26-mile marathon within five hours.”
What are your most memorable sporting highlights?
“The final Comrades I ran, I bumped into British racing legend Zola Budd and crossed the finish with her. It would be hard to top that. But with the 100th Comrades coming up in 2021, I’d be tempted to run it again. Another highlight was being presented with the President’s Sporting Award from Nelson Mandela.”
What motivated you year after year, training twice a day?
“Wanting to win again.”
What does the Comrades Marathon mean to South Africans?
“It’s in our blood and part of our culture. Every single South African knows about the Comrades. Even if you have never run it yourself, you will know someone who has or dreams about running it. In South Africa, the Comrades is king.”
For a change of pace, Fordyce introduced Saturday morning Parkruns to South Africa in 2011 and confesses to being “much more addicted to these than I am to conventional running now”.
Founded by Paul Sinton-Hewitt, the weekly events originated at Bushey Park in London, and Fordyce ran his first Parkrun after racing in the London to Brighton ultramarathon. Thanks to Fordyce, more than a million South Africans complete a 5km Parkrun every week. “More than half of South Africa’s Park Runners don’t run. They walk. They want to take part in something where no one will laugh and they feel welcome,” Fordyce concludes.
Cheer the Comrades Marathon on 7th June or take part in an Umhlanga Parkrun while staying at Red Carnation Hotels’ The Oyster Box.