Durban - When the late Isavel Roche-Kelly, headed off to run the Comrades Marathon with her UCT running club, her brother knew she would finish.
David certainly didn’t expect her to come back a household name for being the first woman to win a silver medal, breaking the seven-and-a-half hour barrier with a time of seven hours and 18 minutes.
Thirty-eight years later, her achievement is being recognised by the Comrades Marathon Association which announced the Isavel Roche-Kelly Medal for women “finishing in position 11 to sub-seven hours, 30 minutes - outside the gold medals, but under seven-and-a-half hours”.
David, a Johannesburg academic who was a UCT student in the early 1980s, said he was always aware of Isavel’s running prowess because he played for a hockey club that shared a pavilion with her running club where she became affectionately known as “Comrade Kelly”.
Sometimes he would accompany her coach to second her. “As the races progressed I would see her showing only slight signs of discomfort while a lot of others were looking very uncomfortable,” he recalled.
“She would say: ‘Oh, I am just going for a training run’ and go 42km around Table Mountain.”
The 1980 Comrades Marathon was 20-year-old Isavel’s first ultra-marathon. Earlier that year, she became only the third woman in Africa to finish a marathon under three hours.
Back in her schooldays in Welkom - the family having immigrated there from Ireland for their father to work as a mine doctor - Isavel regularly won the 100m and 200m sprints as well as the high jump competitions at athletic events, David said.
“Her main sporting interest during her school years was horse riding where she took part in show-jumping, dressage, gymkhanas and the like. She was quite a daredevil on horseback and watching some of the scrapes she got into would leave me dry-mouthed with anxiety.
“One of the stables where we rode had a donga about 2m deep with paths coming out. She once took this little horse out of the donga on a canter, then tickled him behind the saddle and he would perform the most spectacular buck with his head to the ground and his hind legs in the air.
“My heart stopped as I watched but she managed to stay on and moments later there was her squeal of delight.”
David said Isavel also loved music. “In succession, she played the recorder, clarinet, piano and for a short while, a suitably Irish instrument, the harp.
“At (Welkom High) school she was a diligent scholar and remained at the top of her class. Being an avid reader she particularly shone in English. At UCT she studied a BA in languages.”
After her second Comrades and second win in a time of 6:44:35, Isavel had to cut short her running career because of a chronic back injury.
“However, she soon found another endurance sport to focus her energies on - cycling. In about a year, she took part in her first Cape Argus tour, winning the women’s race.”
In 1984, Isavel moved with their parents to Dublin, Ireland, where she intended to study for a medical degree. Soon after starting her studies, she was killed in a road accident while cycling.
“Isavel may have had some serious character flaws,” mused her only sibling. “But right now, I can’t remember what these might have been. So instead, let me tell of a lighter side of her shortcomings. She could be scatterbrained and disorganised, thus one of her nicknames became ‘Batty’.
“Also being naïve, some of her sharp-witted friends would enjoy scoring sneaky jokes at her expense.
“Despite achieving considerable fame for her long-distance running achievements, she remained the warm, affectionate and supportive sister she had always been since childhood.
“As a teen I was surprised and shocked when a friend or acquaintance expressed intense dislike and animosity towards their siblings, and especially sisters.”
He said he was delighted to hear the Comrades Marathon Association had decided to name a medal in Isavel’s honour. “I feel considerable admiration for people who run the Comrades Marathon and am impressed by their enthusiasm, dedication and strong sense of community.
“The marathon and its extended community of runners, organisers and supporters has become a remarkable and commendable South African institution. May their spirit continue to endure and prosper long, long into the future.”