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1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 8_Nostalgia sport

Harrismith Mountain Race

Mountain-Race site - Copy
Way back in 1922 a Pom army major sat in the gentleman’s club in Harrismith and spoke condescendingly about our mountain, Platberg, as “that little hill”. What was ‘e on about? It rises 7800 ft above sea level and he was from a tiny chilly island whose ‘ighest point is a mere 3209 ft above sea level! Being a Pom he was no doubt gin-fuelled at the time. Anyway, this ended up in a challenge to see if he could reach the top in under an hour, which led to me having to run up it years later. Because it’s there, see.

I had often run the short cross-country course and twice the longer course, which followed the mountain race route except for the actual, y’know, ‘mountain’ part. I had also often climbed the mountain, but strolling and packing lunch. When I finally decided I really needed to cross the actual mountain race proper off my list of “should do’s” I was larger, slower and should have been wiser.

mountain race harrismith_crop
At this point I wished I had done some training!

Here’s some 8mm cine camera footage taken by Dad Pieter Swanepoel of Platberg Bottle Store of the start and finish in front of the Post Office – 1960’s I guess:

The race used to be from town to the top of the mountain, along the top for a mile or so and back down. Sensible. That’s how I ran it in 1979. The medal then had a handy bottle opener attached!

HS Mtn Race badges, medal
Mountain Race badges and medals – these are the legitimate four – where I actually finished in the allotted time!

Then some fools decided that wasn’t long enough! Apparently a cross-country route needed to be 15km to be “official”, so they added three kilometres of perfectly senseless meanderings around the streets of our dorp causing fatigue before I even started the climb.

Leaving town
Start of One Man's Pass Mountain Race 9

It gets steeper, then at times its hands and knees

The

Top of One Man’s Pass looking back down on the City of Sin and Laughter

Top of ZigZag Pass

The best part: On top, heading for Zig-Zag pass

The finish at the Groen Pawiljoen grounds

Run to A then to B and back (who added three km of tar road!?)

Oh by the way, Major Belcher did get to the top in under an hour, winning the bet.

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Some history from friend Etienne Joubert, who has also trotted the course:

The Harrismith Mountain Race held annually since 1922, was described as the ‘toughest in the world’ by Wally Hayward, who won five Comrades marathons, the London to Brighton Marathon and the Bath to London 100-miler! (More about a wonderful day with Wally).

It originated when, in 1922, a British soldier, Maj A E Belcher, returned to Harrismith where he had been stationed near 42nd Hill during the war. He was referring to Platberg as ‘that small hill of yours’, one Friday evening [lots of silly things are done on Friday evenings] and one of the locals (a certain Van Reenen – or maybe the chemist Scruby) immediately bet him that he could not reach the top (591 metres – just under 2000ft – above the town) in less than an hour.

The major accepted the challenge and set off from the corner of Stuart & Bester streets outside the old Harrismith Club near where the Athertons ran The Harrismith Chronicle the very next day. He reached the summit with eight minutes to spare.

During a later visit to the town, Major Belcher (now a schoolteacher in Dundee, Natal) found out that his record still stood so he took it upon himself to donate a trophy to the Harrismith Club to be awarded to the first club member to break his record to the top.  In 1929 the Club management, as the organizers of the race, decided to open the race up to the residents of Harrismith and a Mr Swanepoel won the race to the top of the mountain in 32 minutes. (The last record time I have is 22 minutes and 9 seconds).

The race route has changed over time – starting in Piet Retief Street outside the post office and police station for some years. Nowadays it starts at the town’s sports grounds, passing the jail, then through the terrain where the concentration camp (second site) once stood, up the steep slopes of Platberg to the top via One Man’s Pass, close to where a fort was built during the Anglo-Boer War. After traversing a short distance along the top, the descent is made via Zig-Zag Pass, and the race is completed back at the ‘Groen Pawiljoen’ sports grounds.

Our friends Steph and JP de Witt’s Mom, Alet de Witt became the first lady to complete the race. She ran in the year her husband, Koos de Witt died tragically suddenly in January 1967. She then donated a trophy for the winner of the newly allowed (!) women’s category, which was awarded for the first time only in 1986.

Later the apartheid ‘whites-only’ ruling was dropped and as soon as McDermott* stopped winning, the race was won by black athletes, including Harrismith locals; starting with Michael Miya who holds the record for the newer, longer 15km course at 1hr 03mins 08secs.

*McDermott won sixteen times consecutively from 1982 to 1997 and in 1985 established the “short course 12.3km” record at 50mins 30secs.

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Categories
1_Harrismith 8_Nostalgia 9_KwaZuluNatal sport

Just Call Me Wally

It was 1981 and we were new in Durban. We decided to watch the Comrades Marathon, an 89km exercise in insanity being run “up” from the coast at Durban to the heights of Sleepy Hollow that year. Those days it was easy to follow the race: You just got in the way, parked wherever and got out whenever you felt like shouting encouragement to the possessed. Early in the morning we stood near 45th cutting and soon the runners arrived. Near to us was a short old bald whispy-haired fella shouting enthusiastic encouragement and giving two-thumbs-up to virtually every runner, some of whom – quite a number – seemed to recognise him.

Once the last stragglers had passed we started to head off to Dave’s green VW Beetle, but noticed the old bullet seemed lost. Can we help you? we asked. Do you know the way to the finish? he asked. Sure, and we’re going there, we said, wanna come along? I’d love that, he said gratefully, and that’s how two complete Comrades ignoramuses ended up driving Wally Hayward in the back of a Beetle to the finish of the 1981 Comrades – a race he had run five times AND WON FIVE TIMES!

Well, you couldn’t spend a morning with Wally without hearing a whole bunch of tales and we milked him for more and fell under the spell of this warm and unassuming bundle of energy. At the finish we sat on the grass and heard an announcement that some old bullet who won the race decades ago was there and was going to do a lap of honour. The wonderful brave soul – I think Phil Masterson-Smith, the 1931 winner – shuffled slowly around the track to tremendous applause, none louder than that coming from Wally who watched intently, quivering like a bird-dog with a huge grin and a wistful look in his eyes. I winked at Dave and snuck off to the announcer’s tower and told them we had the 1930 winner Wally Hayward with us, and could they make a fuss of him, too?

They could indeed! And so, 51yrs after first winning the race Wally hit the track, totally surprised – but also totally chuffed – and ran that 400m with a smile like a truck radiator and his knees flying past his ears looking for all the world like an escaped ostrich! I bet his 400m time would have been way up there among the quickest ever for a 73yr-old!

Yes, Wally had won in 1930, then again in 1950, ’51, ’53 and 1954! He had run this crazy ultra-marathon only five times in all and won it every time he entered, the last time at the age of 45, a record which still stood in 1981. It was only broken much later – in 2004.

It took us a while to find him after his lap of honour, celebrity that he now was, but yes, he still wanted a lift back to Durban please.

I s’pose he didn’t know the way!

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Six years after we enjoyed this magic day, Wally ran Comrades again, thirty three years after his last run and shortly before his 80th birthday. He ran a magnificent race, beating half the field and beating the winner Bruce Fordyce on an age-handicapped calculation. Bruce himself mentioned and emphasised this after the race.

Wally’s memoirs were published in time for the 1999 Comrades by a wonderful friend of mine, fellow Comrades runner and Dusi paddler Bill Jamieson. He titled the book: “JUST CALL ME WALLY”.

Wally Hayward 88

89km in 9hrs 44mins just before his 80th birthday.

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Dave Simpson wrote to me on seeing this post:
Hi Pete,
Well this does bring back memories – 33 years ago at that! Actually, we originally only planned to go as far as Fields Hill.
When Bruce Fordyce past us outside the Westridge Park Tennis Stadium, with his bunch of early race ‘klingons’ and yelled out ‘Walleeeee’ as he strode past the great man – we knew we were dealing with someone special. The rest you’ve said.
Great story.
Hood

Me: I’d forgotten that! It was Fordyce’s first win that year. The first of nine.
In the back of my mind I thought we did know there was something special about him, but we weren’t sure who he was.
When he asked for a lift, did we already know who he was?

Dave again: No, we did not know who he was. When he asked for a lift, he told us that he was there with his mate, who wanted to follow his son who was a plodder at the back of the field. Dear Wally just assumed that we, like him wanted to watch the front runners.
As it turned out, Wally was wrong – we just wanted to be with Wally!

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Among many other running achievements, Wally had also won the Harrismith Mountain Race. After the race, in typical generous Wally style, he called ‘The toughest race in the world!’ – just what we Harrismithians wanted to hear!

The Wally Hayward medal

Wally Hayward died in May 2006 at the age of 97. In November, the Comrades Marathon Association announced that a new medal, the Wally Hayward medal, would be presented to runners for the first time in 2007. These special medals are awarded to those runners who fail to earn Comrades gold medals – awarded to the first 10 men and women finishers – but still come in under the six-hour barrier first broken by Hayward in 1953.

Wally Hayward was one of the greatest ever Comrades runners, with five wins in five starts over twenty four years, then two more finishes, up to fifty eight years after his first run. Comrades Association chairman Dave Dixon said in announcing the new medal, ‘He had a remarkable Comrades career, and is still the oldest person ever to finish the race.’

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thanks to brandsouthafrica for some of the info here – read how Wally was branded a professional and barred from winning more Comrades; thanks also to Bill Jamieson’s book ‘Just Call Me Wally.’ Bill was a great character, Comrades runner and fellow Kingfisher Canoe Club member. In his later years we would meet and he’d regale me with his stories and his worries. A lovely man.

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Years later, Dave Simpson met another SA sporting icon:

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