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One marathon and three people – Steve Trew takes us through an unforgettable 24 hours.

Three legends in one day for Steve Trew (Illustration: Peter Greenwood)

South Africa; the late ’90s. I was there for three weeks courtesy of South Africa Triathlon to run a series of educational courses and to do some coaching with their top juniors. The first week was in Durban, the second in Stellenbosch, and the third in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

The first few days went extremely well, and I was invited to watch the Comrades Marathon – probably the most well-known ultra-distance race in the world. At 55 miles long, it’s just over two marathons in one day. Each year the race alternates between an ‘up’ route and a ‘down’ route. It was the ‘up’ run that year, starting in Durban and finishing in Pietermaritzburg (in a cricket ground). the ‘up’ run is exactly that: 90km, five hills, and 2,300ft of climbing. Twenty-thousand runners lined up at the start and it was an incredible sight seeing them all there about to make marathon history!

We sat in the van, half a dozen of us doing that almost nonchalant thing when you don’t really know what to say. “OK, let me introduce you,” says our guide. “This is Steve, he’s over from England to do some coaching, and this is Sydney Maree, world record holder for 1,500m in 3:31.24.” Sydney later ran a 3:29.77.

I was going to be sharing a car with Sydney Maree for the next five or six hours! I honestly couldn’t believe it. “And this is George Claassen,” says our guide. (George is an older man, obviously not an athlete – a reporter or photographer, I guess.) “And as, I’m sure you know, George won Comrades in 1961 in six hours and seven minutes. He was only a kid then – 44 years old!” he adds. And that was it – my life for the next few hours – watching the greatest road race in the world, from inside the lead vehicle, with two legends of the sport.

Sydney talked and shouted and cheered – and was cheered by, it seemed, every single one of the thousands and thousands of spectators that lined the route. He replied in the language and dialect that was spoken to him. He was – and is – a legend. George Claassen was around 80 years old when I met him, and he told me that while he didn’t run any more, he would get out on his bike for a couple of hours a day. He talked about the plimsoles he used to run in, and about the miles he used to run in training while holding down a full-time job. George was – and still is – a legend.

George finished Comrades 10 times and was awarded a permanent race number, 994; no other runner can ever use that number. Sydney Maree competed when South Africa was banned from the world scene because of their apartheid policy. He was able to take USA citizenship and competed in two Olympic Games.

It was a magic time in that van, pure magic. And then comes the finish; probably the most dramatic finish in road racing. At precisely 10 hours, 59 minutes on the time clock (recently the cut-off time has been extended to 12 hours), the Director of the Comrades Marathon Association comes and stands at the finish line. He stands not looking at the incoming runners, but facing away from them. He is blind to the struggles going on behind him.

And then, the world quite simply goes mad. Everyone is watching the man with the gun; everyone, spectators and those struggling to finish. It seems to intersperse intense noise with absolute silence second by second. The incoming runners sprint happily, knowing that they are within the cut-off time. Many flail desperately at the ground as the seconds tick away. Some make it. Many don’t.

The clock hits 11:00 and the gun is fired. It is done. For those who didn’t get over the line, it’s all over. It is as if they didn’t even take part. No medal, not even a mention in the official results. For them, it didn’t happen. And yet, of course, it did.
But they will be back the next year and the next and the next. It is a tribute to man perhaps, a tribute to the absolutely indomitable will which will carry you on long past the time when it should be over. Because that’s what we do, we keep trying forever. It makes us what we are.

And you know what happened then? A gentleman by the name of Nelson Mandela arrived – yes, truly. Three legends in one day; it was an unforgettable 24 hours.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

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