Modern Athlete Magazine Issue 165 February 2024 | Page 31


In the quiet hours before dawn , a special breed of athlete comes alive . When the world hovers between sleep and consciousness , ultramarathon runners find their stride . They do not just run ; they accept a quest that stretches well beyond the 42 kilometres of a standard marathon , into territory that tests the limits of human endurance .

In recent years , Barry has been accompanied by clubmate Warwick ‘ Wozza ’ Taylor in all his Comrades runs
Dr Zbigniew Waśkiewicz , an authority in the study of these athletes , found that success in ultrarunning comes from a specific lifestyle based on total commitment . These exceptional runners do not just fit running into their lives ; they build their lives around the discipline , meticulously managing nutrition , prioritising restorative sleep , and rigorously focusing on recovery to mitigate injuries . They commit to running many miles , year after year .
Among the elite of South African ultra-marathon running stands a figure whose tale transcends the ordinary : Barry Holland , moulded by the Comrades Marathon . In 2023 , headlines resounded with the news of this living legend : “ Barry Holland completes the Comrades Marathon more times than any other individual had ever aspired to .” To truly comprehend the magnitude of Barry ’ s achievement , with a staggering 49 consecutive Comrades finishes , and his pursuit of a 50th finish in 2024 , at the age of 72 , one must first appreciate the challenge the Comrades Marathon represents .
The Spirit of Comrades
The Comrades was founded in 1921 by Pietermaritzburg-based former soldier Vic Clapham , as a tribute to the South Africans who lost their lives during the First World War ( then still known as the Great War ). The race was organised under the mantle of the League of Comrades of the Great War , hence the name chosen for the race , and the first winner was Bill Rowan , who covered the 54 miles from Maritzburg to Durban in 8 hours 59 minutes .
Today , the Comrades Marathon is one of the oldest and most respected ultra-marathons globally . Simply known to many as “ the Comrades ,” it alternates annually between the “ Up run ” from Durban to Pietermaritzburg ( around 87km ), and the “ Down run ” ( around 89km ) in the opposite direction . Completing the Comrades is seen by some as a rite of passage for serious runners : It is said that if you really want
A TV screengrab of Barry being interviewed during his 49th Comrades in 2023
to call yourself a “ runner ,” you have to complete the Comrades at least once .
The event is not just a race , but a cultural phenomenon , capturing a century ’ s worth of stories and symbolising resilience and unity . For example , the 1967 event is etched in history , where 1966 winner Tommy Malone and Manie Kuhn competed for victory . The anticipation was palpable as Malone seemed set to win a second time , but with just a few metres to go , he collapsed , got up and lunged for the finish line , still holding the Mayor ’ s Scroll given to all winners as they entered the stadium . But it was too late . Kuhn burst past him and was crowned the 1967 Comrades Marathon winner . It was the closest finish in the history of the Comrades , decided by a single second , and is still spoken about nearly 60 years later .
Witness to this historic moment was 15-year-old Barry Holland , and it ignited a spark that would become a lifelong passion for the young man . “ In that moment , I knew I had to do something , be someone , and

A Chat with Barry

become part of something bigger than myself – a moment that changed my life forever ,” he relates in his biographical book , The Barry Holland Story . “ I think it is in the DNA of Durban people ,” he continues . “ Your reason for running the Comrades is the same as the reason you ascend mountains – simply because they exist , or because it presents an incredible challenge .”
Outrunning the Ordinary
I was privileged to be able to speak to Barry recently , and during the conversation , I wanted to know , “ What does it take to become extraordinary ?” Barry believes that the rigorous training for the Comrades , more than the race day itself , elevates participants from ordinary to extraordinary , embodying the spirit of what many call “ the world ’ s ultimate race .”
“ The Comrades is an extraordinary phenomenon ,” Barry reflects . “ It ’ s not just about running – it ’ s a spiritual journey shared with the countless onlookers along its path , each brief encounter contributing to a collective experience . You pass all these tens
In the Modern Athlete Live – Learn How to Run Well series of vids we produced in 2023 , Ed Sean Falconer chatted to living legend Barry Holland , the man with 49 Comrades Marathon medals and half a century of running experience totalling some 170,000km ! In 2024 , he will not only be aiming to become the first runner to earn a 50th Comrades medal , but also filling the role of Race Director of the new Balwin Sport Marathon Series , which links four iconic marathons around the country for the first time .
We asked him about his approach to running , finding the motivation to come back year after year , his best advice for beginners ( even if they ’ re not planning to run the Comrades ), how the sport has changed over the years , and his role in the newly created national marathon series . Click on the screen to watch the full interview .
Images : Sean Falconer & courtesy Barry Holland , Louis Massyn
Barry with long-time friend Louis Massyn – now just one medal behind him at Comrades , on 48