Wally Hayward, one of the all-time greats of the Comrades Marathon, will be a notable absentee at the start and finish of this year's race on June 17.

The 93-year-old Hayward, who stunned the running fraternity when as a 21-year-old he won the Comrades from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in 1930, is too frail and is in a care centre in Johannesburg.

Hayward entered 1930 Comrades and did not take part in the race again until the 1950s. But when he returned he snapped up the title each time he entered in 1950, 1951, 1953 and 1954 - thus becoming the unbeaten champion of the biggest ultra-marathon in the world at that time.

He had left an indelible mark of the race and when he ran his final Comrades just before turning 80, it was one of the most emotional runs ever by a long distance athlete. Hayward completed his seventh Comrades in 1988 in 9 hours 44 minutes.

He has ever since that day been noticeable at every Comrades - handing out the prizes and the green numbers to those who had won the race three or more times or those who had run the event 10 times.

But this week his family informed the Comrades Marathon Association that Hayward, who enjoyed being at the race each year, was in no condition to be at the start in Durban and the finish in Pietermaritzburg.

Cheryl Winn, media officer for the CMA, said: "It's a sad day for us as Wally was part of the Comrades family and we will miss him dearly. He was outstanding as an ambassador for the race.

"I remember last year he refused to come and just be part of the dignitaries - he wanted to do his job as the person handing out the green numbers to those who had achieved it. At his age he would never stop encouraging the runners - at the MTN Comrades Experience he would be the centre of attraction because of his outstanding feats in the race."

With Hayward bowing out at 93, the CMA will give Jackie Mekler, who won the race in 1960, 1963, 1964 and 1968, the honour of doing what the grand old man of South African road running had done.

During his successes, Mekler held the up and down run records - in 1960 he set up the up run record of 5 hours 56 minutes while in 1963 he ran a time of 5 hours 51 minutes to set up a new down run record.

Helping Mekler will be Manie Kuhn, who was involved in one of the most dramatic finishes of the race when he beat Tommy Malone on the line outside the RDLI - the finishing point in the early days, and Bruce Fordyce, who has an amazing nine wins in the race.

Winn said: "We have some of the greatest Comrades runners in our midst and we honour them on the day by asking them to present the prizes and give away the green numbers."