Modern Athlete Magazine Issue 153 October 2022 | Page 32




Sad news broke this past week that 1989 Comrades Marathon winner Samuel ‘ Sam ’ Tshabalala passed away , aged 65 , and the SA running community has paid tribute to a ground-breaking champion runner who will be greatly missed . – BY SEAN FALCONER

The 1989 Comrades Marathon will always be remembered for three remarkable things : Sam Tshabalala became the first black athlete to win the coveted Comrades title when he crossed the line in 5:35:51 , Frith van der Merwe finished a remarkable 15th overall in 5:54:43 as she obliterated the women ’ s field ( and most of the men ’ s field , too ), and 80-year-old former five-time winner Wally Hayward just made it in before the final cut-off gun was fired , coming home in 10:58:03 .

While Frith and Wally ’ s achievements remain deservedly lauded , Sam ’ s victory was unfairly overshadowed by the fact that the winner of the previous eight editions of the race , Bruce Fordyce , was not running that year . He had opted to skip the Comrades that year in order to compete in a specially arranged 100km race in Stellenbosch , where he broke the World Record .
Although grossly unfair on Sam , it was perhaps understandable that some thought he only won because the ‘ Comrades King ’ was not there , which was compounded by the fact that Fordyce returned in 1990 to win the race for an unprecedented ninth time . However , Bruce himself has always been quick to dispel such thinking , and upon hearing of Sam ’ s passing , he said , “ Sam was a worthy Comrades champion and a good friend . His win changed the race , for the better , for ever .”
Perennial Top Contender
Sam ran his first Comrades in 1987 and earned a silver medal with a 6:10:40 finish , coming home 22nd . The following year , he finished 12th in 5:54:34 , and in just his third Comrades – his first Down Run , given that both the previous two had been Up Runs , he took line honours with that sparkling 5:35:51 , also earning his only Comrades gold medal .
At one stage of that 1989 race , it looked like Shaun Meiklejohn ( later the 1995 winner ) might be in line for the win as he led through Drummond and stayed out front all the way to the final ‘ Big Five ’ hill at Cowies . That ’ s where Sam overtook him , only to see Willie Mtolo move into the lead a short while later . However , when Willie began cramping , Sam retook the lead
and went on to the win , beating Willie home by over four minutes . Some years later , Sam recalled , “ There was no ways anyone was going to catch me . The excitement of getting into the stadium and having the crowd cheer me was just something else .”
In 1990 , Sam finished 13th in 5:55:30 , but in 1991 he was badly injured in a horrific car accident , leaving him to face months of difficult recovery . Undaunted , he would return to run a 6:23:39 in 1992 , finishing 65th and adding another silver medal to his collection . From 1995 to 2002 Sam added a further eight silvers , finishing his Comrades career at age 44 with one gold and an incredible 12 silvers , and a ‘ slowest ’ Comrades time of 7:04:22 !
For his milestone achievement and massive contribution to the sport of ultra-distance running , the Comrades Marathon Association awarded Sam with its prestigious Platinum Medal Award in 1998 . Later , after the introduction of the official Comrades Winners Jacket in 2016 , the CMA presented Sam with a retrospective jacket in 2019 .
Inspirational Trailblazer
Sam ’ s historic victory would go on to inspire other black runners for decades to come , and many subsequent winners have attributed their passion for running to Sam . Both on and off the field , he was known and admired for his humility , kindness and giving nature . He motivated an entire generation of Comrades runners and spectators ; and imparted the desire to dream , to win and achieve amongst many of today ’ s Comrades Champions .
Upon hearing of his passing , many friends and rivals have paid tribute to Sam . The runner-up in that 1989 Comrades , Willie Mtolo , says , “ Sam was at Comrades in 2019 and it was really good to catch up with him after many years . He was a very good person . We ran a great race in 1989 and remained very good friends since then . We had a lot to talk about every time that we met . I know that he was involved in assisting youngsters in his village with their running . That was Sam for you – helpful , encouraging , motivating , and a true inspiration .”
Former CMA Chairperson , Mervyn Williams , says , “ It was my privilege , as Chairman of the CMA , to welcome Sam over the finish line on that memorable day in 1989 . He was indeed a gracious winner , and fully deserved all the accolades as the first ‘ black man ’ to win the Comrades Marathon . May he rest in peace and my sincere condolences to his family .”
CMA Chairperson , Mqondisi Ngcobo said , “ What Sam did for ultra-running and our generation of athletes is part and parcel of our road-running history and great South African heritage . Sam showed us how to be courageous and great , and at the same time humble and real . Sam was a trailblazer and pioneer . He was someone who lived out the noble attributes of The Ultimate Human Race by his determined nature , will to succeed and continuously giving of his best .”
Sam Tshabalala greets the cheering crowds after his historic Comrades win in 1989 .
Thanks to the Comrades Marathon Association for elements of this article .
Images : Courtesy Comrades Marathon Association
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