New Comrades Marathon documentary seeks to discover why people put themselves through running from sunrise to sunset

Start of the Comrades Marathon. File image.

Start of the Comrades Marathon. File image.

Published Jun 17, 2023


Johannesburg – The Comrades Marathon, which has for 100 years been part of South Africa’s fabric and has attracted runners from all over the world, is being celebrated in a brand-new documentary.

“Down, A Comrade Story” is available to stream on Showmax.

And the brains behind the documentary film, Jack Davis and Gareth Whitaker, who are also Comrades runners, explained to The Saturday Star this week following the latest edition of the world’s greatest ultra-marathon which took place last weekend, that they were thrilled to be part of the project.

“All of us on the team have this deep love and respect for the Comrades Marathon and the impact it has on South Africa,” the pair said.

“We felt it was high time someone put together all the history, traditions, and spirit of the race in a way that people could hold onto and we're firm believers that stories can change the world, and the Comrades story is no different.”

They added that the race has shaped so much of South Africa’s culture and has earned its stripes as the top ultra-marathon in the world.

“The Comrades Marathon is more than just a race; it’s a deeply rooted part of our national fabric that resonates with the people and it remains one of the most daunting yet exhilarating tests of human endurance and spirit,” they said.

“One of the reasons it continues to draw such a diverse crowd is its accessibility – it’s an endurance event that hasn’t outpriced the everyday South African.”

“Down, A Comrades Story” seeks to discover why people put themselves through such extremes, running 90km from sunrise to sunset.

For the documentary, Davis and Whitaker, who is a Safta nominee and has previously co-directed the acclaimed rugby documentary “Chasing the Sun”, travelled with over 13 000 runners as they made their way from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Along the way, they discover uplifting stories, folklore, history and tradition – both famous and personal, a sample of the grand, inter-connected human story that is the Comrades, going all the way back to the 1920s.

SOUTH AFRICA - ANAPIX - Durban -11 JUNE 2023 - More than 20 000 athletes competing in the 2023 Comrades Marathon down run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Bongani Mbatha: African News Agency/ANA

The film revisits many of the remarkable dramas and memorable moments that helped shape Comrades as a race for the ages.

This includes stories like Bruce Fordyce’s sweeping dominance and visible protest of apartheid during his streak of wins in the 80s, which was broken only in 1989, the year Sam Tshabalala became the first Black winner of the race, and Frith Van Der Merwe smashed the record in the women’s race – both 14 years after the Comrades first allowed Black runners and women to compete for the first time.

“We're really hoping that this documentary serves as a powerful storytelling tool, one that ignites a spark within the next generation of runners and those who have had the Comrades experience will undoubtedly resonate with the film,” they said.

But the filmmaking duo are also aiming beyond the established running community.

“If we manage to captivate and inspire viewers who don't typically lace up for marathons, drawing them into this world of endurance, willpower, and self-discovery, then we'll consider our job done.”

They added that in essence, they aspired to make "Down, A Comrades Story" a universal human story, not just a tale about running.

“What really blew us away with this project was the immense love and passion for the Comrades Marathon that you find everywhere around the world because this race isn't just on the bucket list of seasoned runners, but also those who have just started out.”

South Africa - Durban - 11 June 2023 - The Comrades marathon where thousands make their way from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Seen here passing Harrison Flats, with 55Km still to go. Netcare 911 give the runners physio support.Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

“It's like a rite of passage and even the best of the best in the running world view winning Comrades as the ultimate achievement in distance running and that was a pretty cool thing to discover.”

Davis and Whitaker added that the narrative of the Comrades Marathon is that it is transformative.

“It changes the lives of ordinary South Africans, and that fact alone endowed us with a profound sense of responsibility,” they said.

“We felt the weight of it, and every member of our team took it seriously. Moreover, having personally participated in the race gave us an added layer of insight and connection to the material.

“The blend of personal experience and the responsibility to share these inspiring stories made "Down, A Comrades Story" a project unlike any other we've encountered.”

The Saturday Star