Modern Athlete Magazine Issue 159 June 2023 | Page 22

Frances Hayward turned many heads and made history when she finished the 1923 Comrades Marathon

100 Years of Women at Comrades

In 1975 , women were official allowed to enter and run the Comrades Marathon for the first time , which is just 48 years ago , but 24 May 2023 actually marks the centenary of women ’ s participation in The Ultimate Human Race . That ’ s because Frances Hayward was the first woman to have completed the Comrades Marathon way back in 1923 , albeit unofficially , because at that time the race was only open to white men .

Frances Elizabeth Hayward was born on 14 August 1891 in Wiltshire , England . Her father was part of a fairly affluent woollen mill-owning family , and she grew up in a large English home and received a good education . From a young age , Frances showed a strong character and desire for independence .
At the age of 20 , she worked as an embroideress at the County Home in Stafford . While this was a respectable job for a young lady during the early 1900 ’ s , working at the County Home would have been considered scandalous for her station , as it was a home designed to reform women who had served time in prison , and had no family support or work experience .
In Search of Adventure
In a bold move , in January 1914 , she departed from Southampton for Cape Town , South Africa , on The Galician , a Union Castle mail steamship . During this period , it was highly unusual for women to travel alone , yet Francis was undeterred , and the excitement of the colonies drew her to South Africa .
Still , she found herself feeling restless in Cape Town , and wanted to travel and see more of South Africa , so in September 1921 , she boarded a steamer headed for Durban , once again travelling alone . Now qualified as a clerk , she secured a position as a typist , and enjoyed living a single , independent life , free of the usual restrictions her class would have held her to in England .
At the age of 30 , the intrigue of the Comrades Marathon caught her attention , so she sent a letter to race organiser Vic Clapham and applied to run in the 1923 race . Her entry left Clapham and the Athletics Association in a state of confusion , as they had never had a woman applying to enter any male athletics events before . After considerable debate , they declined to accept her entry . Undaunted , Frances sent an immediate response to the association and Vic that she would therefore run unofficially .
Destination Durban
So , in just the third edition of the race in 1923 , she lined up outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall alongside the 68 men who were competing that year . Dressed in a dark green gym suit and leather soled plimsoles , she started her journey along the road to Durban . Despite the general consensus that the distance would be too great for a woman , she was well supported by her fellow competitors and spectators alike .
The Natal Witness reported “ Miss Hayward made a steady pace , dropping to a walk on the hills , and , at Thornybush , was last but one , a good mile behind the others . She looked cheerful and fit , having previously announced her intention of making Drummond by 11am . Miss Hayward got to Drummond at 11:14 , not far astern of her intended schedule . The only concession was that she was allowed to leave the race for a few minutes at Drummond and go into the hotel .”
It may be only 48 years since women were allowed to officially run the Comrades Marathon , but female trailblazers have been part and parcel of the world ’ s greatest footrace for a century , dating back to the early years of the race in the 1920s . – BY DELAINE COOLS ( with SEAN FALCONER )
According to world-renowned athletics statistician , Andy Milroy , the 5:12 she clocked for the approximate marathon distance was probably the fastest mark ever recorded by a woman , as Frenchwoman Marie Louisa Ledru ’ s 5:40 in 1918 was probably the best recorded time prior to that .
The newspaper report continues , saying that she reached Pinetown at 3pm , “ pale and tired looking , but game and going strong . When she reached Toll Gate , thousands of people were waiting to greet the heroine of the day , so many indeed she could not get through the crowd , and the municipal mounted police had to escort her , surrounded by their big handsome charges . Her thick leather shoes were covered with dirt from the rough , dirt roads .”
Mission Accomplished
Frances went on to cross the finish line in 11 hours and 35 minutes , in what would have been 28th position in a field of 30 finishers . After the race , she stated , “ I should have been content if I had beaten just one man !” She actually beat two , who finished the race within the 12-hour cut-off , and another 38 who dropped out of the race , and she had achieved what she set out to do – to be the first woman to attempt the race , and “ to shock everybody .” The Witness article ended by saying her achievement was “ another signal of women ’ s emancipation from the thraldom of good-natured disdain in which mere man has held her .” And the evening after the race , she still went to the theatre !
Unfortunately , her run was not officially recognised , due to the rejection of her entry , and she received no silver medal . ( All finishers were awarded silver during the 1920s .) However , the citizens of Durban were so impressed by her performance that they started a shilling collection to buy her a prize , and raised £ 100 , which was used to buy her a silver tea set and silver rose bowl .
Images : Courtesy Comrades Marathon Association
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