In 1923, Frances Hayward was the first female participant of the Comrades marathon. Her request for an official entry was declined so she ran unofficially, finishing in 11h35 (well within the 12 hour cutoff that was changed to 11 hours in 1928). As an unofficial entrant she was denied the silver medal handed out to all finishers in those days. Therefore, the Frances Hayward Medal seems fitting to recognise, “those that should have received a medal but didn’t.”
Unfortunately, along with the highs of the new men’s and women’s best Down Run times and Johannes Mosehla (81) becoming the oldest ever Comrades finisher, 2023 also saw a long string of organisational blunders from the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) that have left a bad taste in mouth of the running community. One of these blunders was the ill-thought out and illogical cutoff times that needlessly culled hundreds of should-be Comrades medallists from the field and left them medal-less.
There are also at least three runners who, according to video evidence and the official timing records, made the cutoff times but were thwarted by overeager referees who fired the cutoff guns several seconds too early at both the Pinetown and Sherwood cutoff points.
Whilst it’s highly likely that the vast majority of those needlessly removed from the Comrades route at the contentious Pinetown and Sherwood cutoffs would have made the 12-hour Kingsmead deadline for a Vic Clapham medal, you cannot just hand out Comrades finishes. The Frances Hayward Medal seems like a good way of giving these Comrades runners some restitution*.
* I would also suggest that, at a minimum, our fallen Comrades are given free entry to the 2024 event and a personal apology from the Race Director, Rowyn James (the architect of the self-proclaimed ‘meticulously calculated’ cutoff times).
Whilst you can’t hand out finishes, you can hand out medals – and there is a precedent that goes all the way back to the inaugural race in 1921 for doing so. Up until 1931 all finishers received a silver medal. Race founder, Vic Clapham, started Comrades to honour soldiers killed in the First World War and showed similar empathy to the participants of his impossible race. After all the official finishers had received their silver medals, the badly blistered feet of Lew Pearson stumbled over the line 20 minutes after the 12-hour cutoff. Whilst not an official finisher, Clapham thought Pearson deserved some recognition and he was presented with a special bronze medal.
Comrades seems to have lost its way from the original vision and humble runner-centric decision making of Vic Clapham. The Frances Hayward Medal would help to bring back the days when the spirit of Comrades triumphed over the bureaucracy and arrogance that currently permeates Comrades House.
A female role model we all can look up to
To the best of my knowledge there are no longer any running events in South Africa named after female athletes (there are plenty named after men) and there are no medals* or trophies named after women than can be won by men. Maybe it’s time for the Pietermaritzburg patriarchy to address some of these imbalances? The Frances Hayward Medal seems the ideal opportunity to do so.
* The Isavel Roche-Kelly medal, named after the late two-time winner and first lady under both 7h30 and 7h00 at Comrades, can only be earned by female athletes. Most elite female athletes I’ve spoken to feel that the medal should be earned for sub-7h female finishers (rather than sub 7h30 which removes the ability for women to win a silver medal).
Female participation at Comrades has languished at 20% or less for many years. Prominently acknowledging strong female role models from Comrades’ rich history is one simple method to address this imbalance.
Solve the ‘great achievement but should they get a medal’ problem
The Frances Hayward Medal would provide the opportunity to acknowledge incredible feats of perseverance and self-sacrifice as well as those who’ve managed to overcome disabilities to complete the Comrades distance, without compromising the integrity of an ‘official’ finish. Examples of Comrades who could be retroactively (and in some cases posthumously) awarded a Frances Hayward Medal would be:
- Xolani Luvono, the one-legged former convict and drug addict who completed the 2018 Comrades in under 17 hours using crutches (one of the finest athletics achievement in the history of the race in my opinion)
- Robert Mtshali, the first black runner to complete the Comrades unofficially in 1935 and after whom the sub-10 hour medal, introduced in 2019, is named.
- Other non-white runners and women who completed Comrades before the rules were changed in 1975 to allow them to participate officially.
- Athletes like Rupin Mehta who sacrificed his medal on the finish straight to help another athlete in need (you can read his interesting story here).
- Farai Chinomwe, the Rastafarian beekeeper who often runs the entire route backwards (i.e. he runs facing the opposite direction to traditional athletes) to raise awareness for the plight of bees and sometimes misses finishing under 12 hours.
- Athletes who have overcome adversity to get to the start line but don’t quite make the finish (for example there are runners who’ve returned to Comrades after suffering horrendous injuries after being hit by a car on a training run and were shot and stabbed in a hijacking).
Introducing the Frances Hayward Medal is just the right thing to do. In recent years, like the proverbial bull in the China shop, CMA’s bulging-bellied blazer brigade have clumsily clobbered over and trampled on decades of hard-earned Comrades spirit. Awarding Frances Hayward Medals to the athletes impacted by the cutoff debacle provides the opportunity to stop the slide, repair some of the damage and take the first steps towards returning to a runner-centric event where every participant matters.
Can the CMA still shock us?
When Frances Hayward lined up alongside 68 men on the 24th of May 1923, she had one simple objective, “to shock everybody.” The Comrades Marathon Association has the opportunity to “shock everybody” by doing something sensible and runner-centric.
Frances Hayward may not have received an official medal after her groundbreaking feat where she ended up crossing the line in 28th position, beating two men to the finish line and an additional 38 men that were not able to complete the distance. However, the residents of Durban thought her feat worthy of special recognition.
A collection was organised and Hayward was presented with a silver tea set and silver rose bowl. Despite never being recognised as an official finisher in the Comrades record books, I’m sure that Frances saw her new silverware as a silver lining. And if there is one silver lining to the dark cloud that currently lingers after the dismal organisational failures that plagued Comrades 2023, it would be the addition of the Frances Hayward Medal.Follow Running Mann: