There is no human alive who loves the Comrades Marathon more than Dave Jack. He’s had had a six-decade long love affair with the race – and his unbridled passion shows no sign of abating anytime soon. Dave’s run it 14 times, done live reports on the event for Radio 702 for 18 years driving alongside the race leaders, stadium announcing and prize-giving MCing for over a decade. He’s served on the Comrade Organising Committee (the forerunner to the Comrades Marathon Association) and is one of the very few people to have earned a ‘running’ Green Number (for 10 finishes) and well as a ‘serving’ Green Name (for 10 years or more in service of the race).
Dave told me, “I’ve done everything there is to do at Comrades except win the race!” Well, actually that’s not quite true – and that is why I am writing this article. But the story of how Dave Jack won the 2018 ladies race takes some explaining and requires a detailed backstory – so here goes…
Dave Jack is a big, brazen, unabashed Comrades groupie. He has a blog, https://themarathon.co/, which is crammed full of articles celebrating the winners, heralding the characters and capturing the history of (you guessed it) – Comrades. He has a head crammed full of Comrades facts, figures and anecdotes – and is always on the lookout for more Comrades stories and artefacts.
He was once in the Harding Town Clerk’s office when he noticed a familiar looking clock sitting on the shelf, half hidden behind a stack of papers. Comrades great, Arthur Newton, was a Harding farmer and closer inspection confirmed that this was the clock awarded to Newton when he won the 1923 Comrades Marathon (the second of Newton’s five victories). Although Dave was there in his official capacity (representing SA Eagle who insured the Harding Town Board), he successfully brokered a ‘loan deal’ for the clock and proudly returned to Pietermaritzburg with a new piece of treasure for the Comrades museum.
On another occasion, Dave was admiring the display of Comrades trophies at the Royal Show in Pietermaritzburg when he pricked up his ears on overhearing an elderly lady telling her husband, “There is the trophy your name should be on dear”. The silverware in question was the Anderson Trophy for the second placed male and the name engraved thereon was Noel Burree (who finished two seconds behind Phil Masterson-Smith in 1931*). Dave quickly alerted the press (a media friend just happened to walk by), Comrades Organising Committee (who were not aware Noel was still around) and set up his own interview. Dave is the only person to have interviewed the two closest second place finishers (Tommy Malone who famously finish in second place by one second was the other).
* Noel’s lift never arrived so he ran to the start, started slightly late and ran the entire race without drinking any fluids!
Dave Jack’s Comrades infatuation started on the 31st of May 1956 over a cool winter’s morning in Pinetown. A sleepy young boy of nine was woken by his father at dawn who said, “I’m going to watch ‘The Marathon*’” and invited his son to join him. Young David stood on Old Main Road, Pinetown in absolute awe – completely captivated by the 55 hardy warriors who were making their way up to Pietermaritzburg.
* Comrades was colloquially known as ‘The Marathon’ (in capitals) in those days and is the simple explanation behind Dave’s blog name: https://themarathon.co/
Dave told his dad “When I’m big I’m going to run this race.” For the next 12 years Ian and David Jack were a regular feature on the side of the road along the Comrades route – and desperate Dave longed to be old enough to join in the fun.
At the age of 21, a newly emancipated Dave entered his first Comrades. He checked the mailbox every day and was pleased when an envelope arrived bearing number 482 (since 4 was his lucky number – and 4 doubled is 8 and halved is 2). Comrades gives you the same number every year but will reallocate a number if it is not used for a number of years – unless of course you claim ten finishes in which case your number becomes permanent, green and can never be used by anyone else. Dave wasn’t going to let anyone else claim his rightful lucky number and duly ran ten Comrades in a row.
Dave ran a further four Comrades and was training for number 15 when he started experiencing mysterious pains. He eventually wound up at a neurosurgeon who told him, “Your back is wrecked.” Dave had fallen out of a tree as a kid, chipping a vertebra and this moment of childhood clumsiness ended any further Comrades aspirations*.
* There was however a silver lining to this cloud. Dave’s wife, Diane, was with him when a subsequent neurosurgeon (you want to get second and third opinions if any quack tells you to stop running) confirmed the prognosis and told him, “Spend as little time on your feet as possible.” before turning to Diane and explicitly forbidding that Dave be “Dragged around any shopping malls.” If you are interested in getting ‘the no shopping mall prescription’, Dave is happy to share the name of his neurosurgeon for a small fee.
Dave now focussed his energies on every non-running role he could possibly get involved with at Comrades as well as the promotion of the race itself. His love for road running led to a side hustle on Radio 702 as the “Sports Guy” working with people like John Robbie and John Berks. He founded Randburg Harriers to fill the gap for a social, family orientated running club in northern Johannesburg. On Comrades race day he could be found in the Radio 702 truck doing live news reports and sports updates for radio listeners – and in many years he stepped out of the media vehicle and climbed the stadium tower to do finish line announcing.
Over the years, Dave was a productive young man which resulted in him fathering four daughters and one son. However, only one daughter, Debbie, showed any interest in running. As Debbie’s interest in running grew and she progressed up to half marathons, Dave realised that the Comrades number 483 had not been allocated to anyone. Dave was an integral part of the Comrades machine, knew how the system worked and he hatched a plan in 1993.
Dave orchestrated a visit to the Comrades office in Pietermaritzburg where he chatted to Linda Barron, the long-term race secretary. This was still in the days before computers and all the numbers and records were contained in a little black book. Dave asked Linda to check the entry for #483. Having confirmed it was unallocated, Dave called in a favour for all those years of Comrades servitude and Linda happily obliged, writing “Reserved for Dave Jack’s daughter” in row 483.
Unfortunately, Debbie would never run Comrades. As she increased her mileage, a knee injury surfaced and, after an unsuccessful operation, her dreams of running Comrades and emulating her dad were destroyed. Number 483 lay dusty, dormant and forgotten for many years.
The afternoon before Comrades 2017, Dave and Diane were having lunch at the Makaranga restaurant in Kloof when he spotted Ann Ashworth dining with some family and friends on the other side of the restaurant. After chatting to the various coaches and pundits during the expo and media briefings, Ann was his favourite to win the ladies’ race. Dave has a great collection of Comrades champion interviews and when a mutual acquaintance offered an introduction he gladly accepted.
Unfortunately the 2017 race was a disaster for Ann, she tore a glute in the first kilometre so Dave never got his Comrades champion interview from her that year. However, he stayed in contact over WhatsApp and also had a natural bond with his namesake, Ann’s husband David, over Harley Davidson* motorcycles. Ann reflects that, “Dave kinda adopted me after Comrades 2017.”
* Dave’s Twitter handle is @BlingKingSA after his penchant for spending large sums of money on chrome accessories for his Harleys.
When Ann launched Team Massmart later in 2017, Dave was at the launch and wrote an article about her ambitious and impressive vision to develop women’s ultra running in South Africa. Dave realised that Ann was more than just an athlete – she was taking on the mantle of driving the upliftment and development of the next generation of South African ultra marathon champions.
One day Dave had a premonition: If Ann Ashworth ran in number 483 she would win Comrades. He orchestrated another trip down to Pietermaritzburg and pulled into Comrades House for a meeting with race director Rowyn James.
The conversation went something like this:
Dave: Rowyn, I’ve got something that I want to ask you.
Rowyn: Go ahead Dave, what is it?
Dave: There is no logic or rationality to my request. It’s pure emotion.
Rowyn: (raises eyebrows and looks dubious) Ok…
Dave: (after explaining how he got #483 reserved back in 1993) Would you be prepared to release it to me?
Rowyn: For whom?
Dave: I don’t want that number to go to just anybody. It’s for the women’s winner of this year’s race.
Rowyn: And who do you think that is?
Dave: I don’t think it’s anyone, I know it’s Ann Ashworth.
Rowyn: (looking at Dave rather sceptically) If the number’s available she can have it – but I can’t see her winning the race.
On 10 June 2018, there were 17,000 runners on the start line but not one of them thought that Ann Ashworth would win. Ann herself was under no illusions, “I thought I had a shot at gold, best case scenario top five. Never ever did I think I would win.”
The Comrades Marathon has an audience of millions but just two people watching knew that Ann would win. One was her coach John Hamlett*. The other of course was Dave Jack.
* How could John Hamlett be so confident? When Ann approached John for coaching he said that he no longer trained female athletes because they couldn’t cope with the rigour and toughness of his training methods. Ann was the first female athlete John Hamlett couldn’t crack, ipso facto she was going to win Comrades.
The rest, of course, is history. Ann Ashworth ran the race of her life (to date) winning in 6:10:04 – the 10th fastest down run ever (and 5th fastest average pace over the third longest course in history). When Ann was overtaken by Alexandra Morozova with 23km to go she fought back and dispatched the Russian with a ruthless efficiency that Cold War James Bond would have been proud of*. With #483 pinned to her vest, Ann ran the third fastest time in the whole field over the last 21km from Pinetown to record a famous victory.
* I’ve asked around and no one can remember a Comrades athlete, male or female, losing the lead that late in the race and recovering to win the race.
So there you have it. At the age of 71, after 62 years of Comrades devotion and having done everything there is to be done at Comrades, Dave Jack finally has a victory to his credit – not necessarily against his name but most definitely against his number!
There is no doubt that that Ann Ashworth will turn number 483 Green – the only question is whether she’ll do it with ten finishes or take the short cut with two more victories.
I’m just sad that Dave’s son, Brendan, never showed an interest in running Comrades. Dave told me his son was just two-weeks old when he got to watch his first Comrades. This was at the bitterly cold and wet 1982 edition and Dave believes this probably “Cured him of ever wanting to run. He can’t understand anyone wanting to run that distance – in fact, he has a major problem even driving it.”
I’ve become quite friendly with Dave over the last year and, if he had bothered to reserve #484 for his son, I would definitely make a strong case to run in #484 at this year’s Up run. With #484 pinned to my vest, I’d fancy my chances of pulling off a major surprise and being the first runner from D batch to record a famous victory!Follow Running Mann: