At last Michael Gordon saw the finish line. For more than six hours, pain had dogged his every step. This was his first Comrades Marathon, his dream, and he was determined to finish it.

But soon after he entered the Kingsmead Stadium in Durban on Sunday, 34-year-old Gordon, a Johannesburg father-of-two, collapsed.

With the cut-off time of 4.30pm looming, other athletes picked him up and carried him 100m and over the line, just three minutes before the deadline.

He had won his bronze medal.

He may already have been dead, only the sixth athlete in the 81-year history of the Comrades to die.

A second athlete, 48-year-old Willem Malapi, from Worcester in the Western Cape, died about 10pm that night. This would have been Malapi's 14th Comrades medal.

Gordon's wife Lisa, who was in the stands, waited anxiously for him to come out of the marquee.

She had worried since 10am on Sunday when she saw him at Darrenwood and he had complained of pains.

"He said he had been in pain since 21km," she said on Monday.

"His feet had blisters. I had to put plasters on his feet and then he continued running. I didn't know it was the last time I would see him alive."

As she waited anxiously by the marquee for her husband to come, somebody phoned to tell her that Michael had passed out.

"I went to the medical tent but they would not let me in. They said I must go to information. Then someone told me to calm down, as he must have had cramps," Lisa recalled.

About 5.30pm she got a call from a doctor: Michael was dead.

"I was so angry because it took so long to get information," Lisa said.

"He was in the ambulance. I went to the ambulance because I wanted to see with my own eyes that he was dead, but I know it wasn't a good move," she said.

"I just don't know if he knows he finished the race," she mused, gently touching his bronze medal hanging around her neck.

Dramatic television images showed three runners carrying the limp Gordon less than 100m from the end.

The shouts of encouragement, however, turned to groans of concern as medics realised the unconscious man wasn't breathing.

Officials quickly dragged blankets around the scene, shielding it from public view.

Doctors and paramedics worked on Gordon for about 20 minutes before he was declared dead in the medical tent.

One of the men who carried Gordon across the finish line, Carsten Frischmuth, said: "He was looking very unsteady on his feet and suddenly collapsed in front of us. I suppose we tried to help him in the spirit of the Comrades."

Lisa said her husband had trained very hard for the race, stopping a week before. He had been looking forward to finishing it, she said.

Gordon, who worked as a financial manager for Vodacom, was also a cyclist and swimmer.

The couple had been together for 14 years before they got married four years ago.

"He was my only boyfriend. I invited him to my matric dance when I was 18 years old. We have so many memories that I will always cherish," his widow said.

They have two children, aged three years and 10 months.

Lisa said friends had sent SMSes congratulating Gordon on finishing the race.

"The messages read 'well done'. They had seen him on screen being carried, so they thought he had finished. They didn't know he was dead."

Gordon was among 45 Vodacom Yebo Striders who were participating in the race.

"Judging by the situation the doctor found him in, it would appear that he died of a heart attack," Dr Jeremy Boulter, chief medical officer for the Comrades Marathon Association, said.

Gordon was buried at Westpark cemetery on Monday afternoon.

Malapi died at St Augustine's Hospital on Sunday night.

Boulter said Malapi had been resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest as he entered the medical tent, looking for help.

"Doctors say Malapi died after going into cardiac arrest which was caused by an electrolyte imbalance, due to his potassium level being abnormal," Boulter said.

"The underlying cause of this is uncertain. But no postmortem will be carried out."

They were not sure how Gordon had died "but are pretty certain it was of cardiac origin", Boulter added.

In Durban on Monday, Malapi's clubmates identified him and began preparations for returning his body to his family. "It's a terrible shock," said Paul de Wet, chairperson of the Worcester Athletics Club.

Malapi had been one of 25 club runners tackling the Comrades this year.

Malapi worked in the dispatch department at Hex Tex textile company in Worcester.

The company's chief executive, Geoff von Klemperer, said yesterday: "It's a tragedy... He had worked for the company for 22 years. He was a reliable, decent guy."

Faizel Cariem, the club's vice-chairperson, said Malapi's family were "very devastated, but they have a very good support structure of family and friends to help them at this time".

In the 82-year history of the Comrades, only seven people have died. The last death before this was in 2001, Boulter said.

He said the race had been one of the quietest in many years as they had treated "only 151 patients" in the medical tent, "which is significantly fewer than the amount we assumed we would treat".

Meanwhile, amid all the drama, popular KwaZulu-Natal runner Willie Mtolo's chances of a gold medal Top-10 finish were dashed when his car was stolen at Alverstone, with all his seconding team's equipment inside.

"When I did not find them at the next spot for my refreshments I wondered what had happened," Mtolo said.

He said the worry had affected his concentration.

"I was on course for a gold medal, but with my mind on my seconding team, I lost concentration on the race.

"My brother Michael returned at a later stage of the race to inform me that my bakkie had been stolen at Alverstone, hence they could not keep up with me on the route."

He eventually finished 88th.

Russian athletes dominated the race, with Leonid Shvetsov shattering the men's down-run record, finishing in a time of 5:20,49.

Olesya Nurgalieva won the women's event with a time of 6:10,10. - Additional reporting by Iqbal Khan and Heinz de Boer