WHILE the men steal the limelight on Comrades day, there is as much competition and prestige in the women’s race.
When the Comrades was born in 1921, no thought was given as to whether the fairer sex would fit into the greater scheme of things. After all, it took “real” men to pluck up the courage and conquer the then dusty road from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.
And so it remained, despite the fact that in 1923 a Miss Frances Hayward unofficially joined the men on the start line for the down run. She pulled through, finishing in 11:35 and immediately declared she thought the challenge, especially the last 10 miles (about 16 km), “was too much for a woman”.
It was only in 1975 that women were officially recognised in the race and that year three started. Mavis Hutchison pulled out shortly after halfway and Lettie van Zyl was recognised as the first official woman finisher. She clocked an astounding 8:50 but in another twist for the women, the decision became null and void when it was discovered she had not met the qualifying standards. The honour of being the first official woman finisher went to Elizabeth Cavanagh in 10:08.
The floodgates had been opened and women are now part and parcel of the race. Van Zyl returned for a hat-trick of wins from 1976 to 1978, paving the way for Isavel Roche-Kelly (1980/81) and Lindsay Weight (1983/84) to stamp their authority on proceedings.
New Zealander Helen Lucre, who still commentates on the race, was the next woman to score a hat-trick, winning from 1985 to 1987.
Then came the diminutive teacher from Benoni, Frith van der Merwe, who crept into the heart of a nation after she produced what is still the best ever run by a female competitor when she backed up her 1988 win with a phenomenal performance the following year.
She finished 15th overall in the 1989 down run, stopping the clock in 5:54,43, still the best ever women’s time in the race.
She won again in 1991 just before the onset of the foreign invasion as women runners from Russia and beyond took up the baton.
American Ann Trason bagged a double in 1996/97 and Germany’s Maria Bak has three wins to her name, 1995/00/02.
From 2003 to 2013 the women’s field was blitzed by the Nurgalieva twins, Elena and Olesya, with Elena bagging eight wins and Olesya two.
Tatyana Zhirkova, a consistent women’s gold medallist, triumphed in 2005, managing to beat the twins and last year British-born Canadian runner Eleanor Greenwood took advantage of a bad day for the Nurgalieva twins to blast to victory.
She showed her class and pedigree by clocking the fastest time on the day, including among the men, for the final seven kilometers of the race — a phenomenal achievement.
Greenwood made a strong statement and, like a dog with a bone, will not relinquish her title easily this year. She looks a safe bet to tame the up run and join a select band of double women champions