Presenting the Comrades Marathon

03 Jul 2014 12:00
Jean-Loup Fenaux
Focus on a race

Niandi Carmont who has done several interviews for ahotu Marathon went back to South Africa last month to run Comrades Marathon for the 14th time. As she went with her friend Leslie who ran for the first time, we thought it would be interesting to confront their take on the race in a series of articles.
The first article briefly presents the race. In the second article, Niandi interviews Leslie about her first barefoot run at Comrades. And in the third, it’s Leslie’s turn to interview Niandi about the race .


What is the Comrades marathon?

The Comrades Marathon is an ultra-marathon of approximately 89 km (approx. 56 miles) which is run annually in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It is the world’s largest and oldest ultra-marathon race. The direction of the race alternates each year between the up run (87 km) starting from Durban and the down run (89 km) starting from Pietermaritzburg.

The Comrades route is best described by the Big Five Hills. The order of these hills is Polly Shorts, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Fields Hill, Cowies Hill.

The start is usually a festive occasion with loud music and up to 18, 000 runners impatiently waiting in their seeding batches for the start. It’s always the same ritual – Chariots of Fire across the loud-speakers as the crowd falls silent, the Max Trimborn cockrow, a cannon shot, a big cheer and the runners surge forward into the night to cover the mythical distance separating Pietermaritzburg and Durban on the coast.

The down run contains a lot of uphill running too.


Runners over the age of 20 qualify when they are able to complete an officially recognized marathon in under five hours. During the event an athlete must also reach five cut-off points in specified times to complete the race.


Athletes currently have 12 hours to complete the course. There are a number of cut-off points along the routes which runners must reach by a prescribed time or be forced to retire from the race. A runner who has successfully completed nine marathons wears a yellow number, while those who have completed ten races wear a green number, permanently allocated to the runner for all future races.

Medals are awarded to all runners completing the course in under 12 hours. Medals are currently awarded as follows:

  • Gold medals: The first 10 men and women.
  • Wally Hayward medals (silver-centred circled by gold ring): 11th position to sub 6hrs 00min
  • Silver medals: 6hrs 00min 01sec to sub 7hrs 30min.
  • Bill Rowan medals (bronze-centred circled by silver ring): 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min.
  • Bronze medals: 9hrs 00min to sub 11hrs 00min.
  • Vic Clapham medals (copper): 11hrs 00min to sub 12hrs 00min.


The Comrades was run for the first time on 24 May 1921, and with the exception of a break during World War II, has been run every year since.

The race was the idea of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the war. Clapham, who had endured a 2,700-kilometre route march through German East Africa, wanted the memorial to be a unique test of the physical endurance of the entrants.


  • After completing 10 Comrades Marathons the runner is awarded a Green Number in perpetuity
  • A Green Number is awarded for 3 wins or 5 gold medals.
  • The Mayor of Durban or Peitermaritzburg fires a gun to start the race.
  • The last man or woman to cross the finish line gets a prize!
  • The Wall of Honour near the half-way mark was created to commemorate the achievement of Comrades finishers.
  • Arthur’s Seat is a niche cut into the bank of the cutting at the site of the Wall of Honor and is the resting spot of Arthur Newton, 5 times winner. Legend has it that runners who place flowers here will have a strong second half or negative split!

This article is part of a series about Comrades Marathon

  1. Presenting Comrades Marathon
  2. Running Comrades for the first time
  3. Running Comrades for the 14th time