Remembering the ultimate Comrades Marathon champion, Sam Tshabalala

FILE. Though 30 years had passed, Sam Tshabalala remembered it all like it was yesterday - when he made history by becoming the first black man to win the Comrades Marathon. Picture: Dimpho Maja/Independent Media

FILE. Though 30 years had passed, Sam Tshabalala remembered it all like it was yesterday - when he made history by becoming the first black man to win the Comrades Marathon. Picture: Dimpho Maja/Independent Media

Published May 31, 2024


Back in the day, the Comrades Marathon used to always take place on May 31, South Africa’s Republic Day.

One of the most memorable victories on that day happened in the 1989 race, the 64th running of the Ultimate Human Race.

Back then Sam Tshabalala became the first black man to win the Comrades Marathon. It was a momentous victory, one that got many black runners to begin believing they too could win the famous ultra marathon. Tshabalala was a trailblazer, his victory since being emulated by no less than 12 other black men – all but one of them South African.

Today marks 35 years since Tshabalala’s victory. The man himself has since joined the dearly departed, dying as he did two years ago following a short illness.

Brilliant sense of humour

I’d met him on numerous occasions before he passed on and found him to be an amiable old man with a brilliant sense of humour.

On this anniversary day, here’s an article I wrote back in 2019 following an interview I had with him at his home in Zamdela.

Sam Tshabalala remembers it all like it was yesterday. Well, it actually was yesterday – 30 years ago to the day – when he made history by becoming the first black man to win the Comrades Marathon.

“I will never forget the day,” Tshabalala says from the comfort of his home lounge in Zamdela – a township in the Free State province “May 31, 1989. It was the day I made history.”

The face may have become wrinkled a bit, the hair greyed a lot and the waistline a few pants’ sizes bigger. But the smile remains as it was 30 years ago when he crossed that finish line in the impressive time of 5:35:51, the mayor’s message scroll clutched in his right hand.

Tshabalala’s victory ended Bruce Fordyce’s eight-year long reign as Comrades champion, opening the way for black runners to start believing that they too could win the Ultimate Human Race. And since his victory, there have been 10 black South African Comrades Marathon winners.

Granted, Fordyce sat that race out having competed in a 100km race in Stellenbosch a month earlier and many would probably argue that Tshabalala would not have won had the ‘Comrades King’ been present.

Tshabalala vehemently disagrees: “The year before I had beaten Bruce in a race called the Milo Korkie from Pretoria to Germiston. After that he said to me, ‘you won’t beat me at Comrades’ but I had studied him and knew exactly what I had to do to win there. He did not come, but I can tell you I would have beaten him.”

Focussing on the hills

Tshabalala says he had picked up that Fordyce was actually not a fast runner but rather was strong mentally. And he was strong on the hills. Fast himself, Tshabalala then focused his training on hills - the fact the 1989 race was a Down Run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban notwithstanding.

It was only his third race and he had never got a top 10. But he had learnt enough in the first two - both of which were, interestingly, Up Runs (from Durban to Pietermaritzburg) - to know what it would take to win.

“From the first two races I had figured that Comrades is very long so I had to be patient and not rush. I was not the favourite (having finished 66th in 1987 and 12th in 1988) and most people backed Shaun Meiklejohn who had just returned from overseas. But Willie Mtolo was in the lead at 60km and I was in fourth place. As I closed in on the leaders I watched Mtolo and picked up that he was very good going downhill. I was scared of him because he had won the same Milo race but in a faster time than mine.”

Conversely, Mtolo respected Tshabalala because he strived to keep his adversary at a distance by upping the pace whenever Tshabalala seemed to be closing in.

“He also had the advantage of running at home and the people were cheering him on more than they did me. It was a tough race and he still had the lead when we got to Botha’s Hill. But I eventually caught him and incredibly he told me to go for it. I tried to encourage him to come with me but he was finished.”

Victory now within his grasp, Tshabalala says the sight of Kingsmead Stadium infused him with new energy.

“I swear by the cross, when I saw that stadium it was as though I was only starting the race. And it got worse when I got the mayor’s message because I ran like something scary was chasing me. There was no ways anyone was going to catch me. The excitement of getting into the stadium and have the crowd cheer me was just something else. Nothing I’d ever experienced before,” he now smiles, his eyes distant as he clearly relives the moment.

When he returns from his day-dreaming, Tshabalala explains precisely why Comrades will always be dear to his heart.

“I’ve got this house we are in now, thanks to that race. So how can I forget Comrades? If I did not have this house, maybe I would have forgotten. But now I have a proper home, thanks to Comrades. And because of it, my children and grandchildren will always know that I once won Comrades - even after I am gone.”

Incredibly, a house was not part of the prize at Comrades. Tshabalala should have gone home in a new set of wheels and a lot of money.

“They were giving me about R30000 and a car - a kombi - as a prize for winning. But I told them I do not want a car. In any case I did not even have a licence. I said to them I do not care what you do with the car. All I want is a house.”

The house is still standing and Tshabalala continues to have vivid and fond memories of his historical win from three decades ago.