Time has dulled my memory of the statistics of those days, but I think the qualification standard was a sub-4:30 marathon. At 80 years old, Wally was exceptionally strong, but age had blunted his speed, and the great man found the pace he had to run to qualify was very close to his genetic edge.
Wally would have enjoyed the current five-hour qualification time, but he did what was necessary in his day in order to qualify.
Qualifying for the great race is uppermost in most aspiring Comrades runners’ thoughts at the moment. We have come a long way since those days back in the mid-80s when the Comrades’ numbers began to multiply, and there was absolutely no seeding.
In those days, the front few rows at the start belonged to those who arrived first. Those of us who thought we had a chance of earning a gold medal had to scrum, worm and burrow our way to the front rows of runners. As a defending champion, I never found that too much of a problem.Some runners would even stand aside and escort me to the front. Poor Hosea Tjale, however, had an epic struggle every year.
Now our qualifying time determines our starting batch. We no longer have to burrow our way to the starting line. The start is far more dignified. There are those runners like Wally Hayward who are content with qualifying in five hours. They are happy to start in the “G” or “H” batch and they are prepared for a slow start and a bit of a walk, shuffle, walk before they start running.
Then there are the speedier runners who are trying to qualify in as fast a time as possible so that they can set off quickly on race morning and earn their coveted Bill Rowan, silver, or possibly gold medals.
Up here on the Highveld, the flattest, fastest marathons are well known and eager qualifiers flock to them. The really keen, however, travel to the fastest races at sea level where they can enjoy a significant low altitude, oxygen rich advantage (13% apparently). Be warned that the best intentions can be ruined by bad weather conditions.
I recall chatting to legendary Sonja Laxton on the Naval sports fields in Simon’s Town in 1987 after a slightly disappointing day at the Peninsula Marathon. The dreaded Cape South Easter had cost us precious time as we were forced to run hunched over, burrowing our way into the wind. To add insult to injury the local Simon’s Town and Cape runners looked at us with puzzled expressions.
“What wind”, they protested as the sea in False Bay became a flurry of rough white seahorses and the guy ropes on all the sponsors tents could be heard snapping in the wind.
Why go to all that trouble when it is now possible to buy a place in the speedy “C” batch by making a donation to charity? And this year it’s an “up” run, which offers Durban’s wider streets. The ‘’down’’ run start is a far more difficult prospect as thousands of excited runners try to manoeuvre along narrow streets booby-trapped with traffic islands and black bin liners.
Things move more smoothly and quicker at the start of the ‘’up’’ run. Within minutes of starting, runners find themselves on the wide motorway running up the Berea. There is plenty of room to run freely and to overtake. There is therefore no need to stress too much about starting in a faster batch. Besides, it is potentially dangerous to start in a batch packed with faster runners.
Setting off too quickly for the 87 mountainous kilometres of the ‘’up’’ run can be a catastrophic mistake. In addition, there is nothing worse than being passed throughout the day by those whose race number are preceded by a letter from further down the alphabet.
A few years ago his celebrity status allowed my good friend David Vlok to start in the “A” batch alongside all those Russians and skinny, anaemic, elite runners. However, a series of disasters led to David running many hours slower than he had hoped. He has hidden his finishing photographs from that particular year because they clearly show a very grumpy David brandishing an ‘’A’’ on his chest surrounded by “G” and “H’ batch runners.
The point is that the Comrades Marathon is not the Olympic 400m final. There is plenty of time on race morning to ease into the correct pace. Qualifying is compulsory, but qualifying with a fast time is not that important.