The Empire Strikes Back (but not very hard)


On Friday the 30th June, an article appeared on the South African Runner’s World page written by long-time editor Mike Finch entitled “Comrades Cut-Off Drama: Organisers Respond”. According to various credible sources, Finch is a paid contractor to the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) – which is undisclosed in the article. It appears that Finch has become a stool pigeon for the CMA.

The response to the article on Facebook has been overwhelmingly negative towards Runner’s World. Runners are not stupid and can see through the façade.

Based on recent events, and because Comrades was originally run on Empire Day, I have decided to use what is arguably the best of the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back, as a simile to respond to the Runner’s World puff piece (and of course try to bring some balance back to the force).

The famous prologue from the film is below.

To make the prologue fit for purpose to the Comrades 2023 context, I have the made the below adjustments…

“It is a dark time for the Comrades runner. Although the near-Death Start has been survived, Imperial troops have cutoff the Rebel joggers from the racecourse after taking their money and dignity.

Evading the dreaded Imperial Bailer-bus fleet, a group of jubilant joggers has established an open discussion forum on the remote chance of the Comrades Marathon Association taking accountability and apologizing.

The obnoxious overlord Jogga the James, obsessed with finding excuses, has dispatched journalists on his payroll into the far reaches of the internet.”


Here’s the response article (all text from the original article is in purple font).

Note to the reader: As this is a response piece, it does cover the cutoffs (a topic which has been saturated although there has still been no accountability or assurance that it will not happen again from the CMA). The article does move onto other issues like safety which is where I will be focussing in subsequent articles. Just skip to the “Pinetown Cut-Off” section if you want to cutout anything cutoff related.

Comrades Cut-Off Drama: Organisers Respond

Cut-Offs designed to ensure safety and welfare of the runners

BY MIKE FINCH | 30 Jun 2023

With 1 minute and 4 seconds still to go until the final 12-hour cut-off at this year’s Comrades Marathon, the finish line was empty. The expectant surge of runners, traditionally seen as the final gun is raised, was nowhere to be seen.

So what happened?

“Quite simply, everyone that made it through the cut-off point at Sherwood with 6.4km to go, made it to the finishing line on time,” said Race Director Rowyn James.

All good lies begin with a light sprinkling of truth. This statement is largely correct. 1016 runners went through the Sherwood cutoff in the last 10 minutes before the gun was fired (6 seconds too early I might add). Of those 1016, 1010 athletes earned a medal – an astonishing success rate of 99.4%.

Despite the spin from James, this is a damning statistic. A 100% pass mark is the opposite of what you’d want over the final split at Comrades. It shows that hundreds of runners who had a highly probable and realistic chance of getting a medal were removed from the road too early. As a comparison, in 2014 and 2016 when the race last finished at Kingsmead (and runners were given an extra 10 minutes to get to Sherwood), 294 and 334 runners crossed Sherwood between 11h00 and 11h10 and earned a medal.

Comrades 2023: Everybody who gets to Sherwood gets a medal (6.39km in 60 minutes at 9:23/km) [Credit: Mark Dowdeswell]
Comrades 2022: A fair fight from Sherwood means that some but not all runners get a medal (9km in 50 minutes at 5:33/km) [Credit: Mark Dowdeswell]

The cut-off at Sherwood happened at 4.30pm giving runners one hour to complete the 6.4km to the finish in ideal conditions, on a course of 87.7km (2.2km shorter than in 2022).

Exactly. A distance that is 2.2km shorter equates to about 18 minutes for an 11:59:59 finisher (based on average pace). It therefore makes no logical sense to take away 10 minutes, it would make sense to add on at least 10 minutes. If you managed to survive what runners are now calling “The Sprint to Sherwood”, you could basically walk to the finish.

The 2023 splits required running 6:16/km from Winston Park to Pinetown (2min/km faster than required pace) and meant that if you made it to Sherwood you could basically walk to the finish.

It is also worth noting that in 2012, a year before James took office, the Sherwood cutoff time was at 16h50 (running time 11:20) which is 20 minutes longer than in 2023. The N3 Road closure / opening times have not changed since 2012 which invalidates the “we need to open the roads” argument.

Comrades 2012 allowed runners 20 minutes longer than in 2023 to reach the Sherwood cutoff point. The N3 was opened at the same time (18h00) in both 2012 and 2023.
A comparison of cutoff times and road closures / opening times. There have been no changes to N3 East Bound opening times since at least 2012. In 2012 runners had until 16h50 (running time 11:20) to get to Sherwood. In 2012 and 2016, all roads were open by 18h30.
Graphic showing the various access routes available to residents and trucks in highlighting that there is no logistical impact with Comrades road closures in Durban. [credit: Norrie Williamson]

Note: There is no mention of the Pinetown cutoff in this article (which required running 6:16/km from Winston Park) which is where many believe most of the damage was done.

So, with over 98% of the field that started finishing the race, was the cut-off at Sherwood not too strict in letting enough runners through with the possibility of finishing?

The figure of 98% is incorrect. The correct figure is 92.4%, which was originally stated as the most successful finish rate in the history of Comrades in official press releases. In fact, it is only the 7th most successful finish rate.

Comrades 2023 was the 7th highest finisher percentage.

The cutoffs negatively impacted the finish rate. With another 525 finishers, 2023 would have been the most successful ever – and if the Pinetown and Sherwood cutoffs were sensible there is a good chance that we’d have seen another record broken.

As for the Sherwood cutoff being too strict, there is no way that any reasonable person can argue against the data that the Sherwood cutoff time was illogical at best and idiotic at worst.

READ MORE: Where did all the runners go? The Comrades cutoff debacle.

“It’s about striking a balance between ensuring the safety and welfare of the runners and giving everyone a fair chance to reach the finish,” James explained. “If we push too many runners into the red zone in the final 7km we risk endangering their welfare and overwhelming the medical facilities. 

This is a bald-faced lie, plain and simple. The cutoffs did not give the athletes a fair chance to reach the finish. It may be that Rowyn James hits the red zone well before his Comrades runners do. Most of the athletes cutoff at Pinetown and Sherwood (especially those narrowly cutoff) were still in the green zone.

Rowyn James may hit the red zone well before his Comrades runners do (no judgement on the time / full credit for going the distance – I genuinely think it’s great for anyone to participate and take on a challenge regardless of the time achieved).

Citation needed on the medical rationale. The medical card seems to be the one that’s played most often to explain questionable decisions. However, this hospital pass is easily intercepted – I have never seen the claims backed up by any analysis or data. James has a history of being led by his ego, ignoring outside counsel and trusting his opinion above that of experts. He previously invited me to, “pull the stats and the vast majority of runners (or is that joggers?) at this stage are struggling to maintain 8 mins per km and are actually getting slower and slower the further they go.” I did and the stats easily refuted his baseless claims.

On the unsubstantiated medical rational, I would argue that the opposite is true. Forcing participants to run harder and faster than needed in the earlier stages of the race (to make illogical cutoff times) is more likely to result in medical issues than if runners are allowed to follow a more sensible, scientific and even-paced strategy.

“We also don’t want to create false hope since realistically it is very hard to pick up the pace at the back of the field in the final 10km.”

This statement is not true. When James asked me to “pull the stats”, they showed that the vast majority of Vic Clapham runners are able to run faster than the average pace required over the final split. In addition, those under time pressure run significantly faster and there are many Vic Clapham medallists who run their fastest split of the day from Sherwood to the finish.

Vic Clapham medallists under time pressure are able to run significantly faster in order to make the final Comrades cutoff. The average pace of this cohort was 7:35/km which is well below the average pace required to finish Comrades.

It’s also worth pointing out that in 2023, the final split was 6.39km (not 10km) as James suggests. In 2022 we had a sensible equation allowing runners a minimum of 50 minutes to run 9km – this meant that someone scraping through the cutoff would have to run the final split at an unlikely pace of 5:33/km. However, two Vic Clapham medallists were able to achieve this. One of these was Gideon Smuts who just made the Sherwood cutoff and then sped to the finish at an average pace of 5:39 for an 11:59:15 finish.

James works with a technical committee in the lead-up to the event which includes the medical team, to finalise important matters like the cut-off points.

I would love to see the minutes* from the meetings as I expect the discussion and rationale (or lack thereof) would make for interesting reading. However, I do not expect that these minutes exist. According to former CMA Chairperson Cheryl Winn, the cutoff times are not set by a technical committee but by the Race Advisory Committee. Winn explains, “I’m on it [the Race Advisory Committee]. The committee only met once and the cutoff times were not placed before it.” Once again James’ assertions crumble once scrutinised.

* I have sent in my application form and R50 to join the CMA as this gives one the option to get minutes and financial statements. I have heard nothing back from the CMA on my application yet although I have followed up twice.

Expert opinions, like those of the official pacing bus management and that of internationally renowned experts like Norrie Williamson and Anand Naicker, have been totally disregarded and ignored. There has also been a reluctance (or outright refusal) to consider or adopt the protocols and innovations from other international, big-field marathon events.

To finish the distance runners would need to average around 8:02 mins/km to complete the course in 12 hours so the final section at just over 9 mins/km made it feasible for backmarkers to make the cut-off.

This is complete bullshit.

Runners would need to run an average of 8:13 min/km to complete the 2023 Comrades distance, not 8:02. This is simple math. Runners crossing the Sherwood mat with a second to spare had 9:23 mins/km to make it into Kingsmead. This can be done at a doddle.

In 2022, with a significantly longer final split (9km vs 6.4km), 2263 athletes (well over half of the 4080 Vic Clapham medallists) were able to maintain a pace of 8:13/km or better over the final split. Furthermore, a massive 3875 (95%) of all Vic Clapham Medallists completed the final split below the 9:23/km pace James decreed in 2023.

As previously mentioned, analysis also showed that those finishing in last 10 minutes and those who narrowly made the Sherwood split (i.e. were under time pressure) ran significantly faster than the average pace required.

Well over half of the 4080 Comrades 2022 Vic Clapham medallists were able to run faster than 8:13/km (the average required pace for 2023) over the last split (which was 2.6km longer than in 2023). 3875 (95%) ran faster than the 9:23/km allowed in 2023.

I have provided heaps of statistical analysis to James but it seems he wants to ignore the facts and blindly trust his blatantly incorrect opinions about the athletic abilities of his back-of-the-pack customers.

The Race Director likes to double down on his Comrades routes – and he looks happy to double down on his reckless opinions, despite facing overwhelming statistical evidence to the contrary. This does not bode well for the future of Comrades. I am happy to call the Raise Director’s bluffs and raise him fact after fact until we actually see some accountability and change.

James did concede that they are constantly reviewing the cut-off points along the route and are always open to comment.

“We spend a lot of time reviewing everything on the day because, for us, the runner and their experience is our number one priority. Perhaps next time we can add 5 minutes on to that cut-off having reviewed what happened this year.”

Cue the buzzer and… “ERRRR! Wrong answer Rowyn.” You lose another 10 points.

Nope, 5 minutes would still unfairly cutoff hundreds of runners. Do the math, use the data. Your opinion just ain’t going to cut it as sole decision-making criterion at a world class event. Doing a DLS ‘win predictability’ (like they do in cricket) is beyond my mathematical abilities but I bet there are Comrades-running mathematicians out there who would love the opportunity to write a solid, data-based equation that determines the probable success rate that could be applied to determine optimal cutoff times.

READ MORE: Using the 438 Cricket Game to Explain the Comrades Cutoff Controversy

As a result of the decision, James said that over 40 beds in the medical were not even used on race day and that medical facilities were not put under pressure.

Statistics 101 is that correlation does not equal causation.

Would allowing an additional 10 minutes at Pinetown and Sherwood have resulted in the medical facilities being overrun? I doubt it.

To my knowledge, no one has ever done proper statistical analysis of the medical data regarding cutoffs or qualification times. If provided the data, I’d be happy to do this analysis. I also know that Mark Dowdeswell (a real, bona fide statistician and Comrades Green Number holder) would do the analysis for free.

“But we must also keep in mind that the course was shorter and the weather conditions were excellent,” he said.

According to the afore mentioned Wits Statistician, Mark Dowdeswell, the shorter route had a surprisingly big impact on the finish rate. Weather is the biggest factor in determining finish rate (with the hot and windy conditions in 2013, almost half of the starters, 45%, failed to finish). A third factor explaining the high 2023 finish rate is that we had the shortest period between Comrades ever (just over 9 months rather than a full year).

The 2023 finish race was the highest this millennium and 7th highest of all time. Factors contributing positively to the finish rate are good weather, shorter race distance and shortest ever time between Comrades.

Pinetown Cut-Off
James also refuted claims that the cut-off point in Pinetown had been in the wrong place.

“The cut-off point is always in the subway and this year it was at 68.86km, and 18.84km to go. Unfortunately, not all the watches that runners use on race day are accurate so there will be occasions where that will not be what is shown on a runners’s GPS watch,” said James. “But we measure the routes professionally to ensure perfect accuracy.”

This is the one completely true statement in the article. Having investigated this thoroughly, I am confident that the route was measured correctly and that the Pinetown split was in the correct place.

However, in previous years there were massive ‘unmissable’ Bonitas distance markers along the route. With Bonitas no longer a sponsor, the marker boards were much smaller and harder to see (and some may have been missing or placed at the incorrect spot) which contributed to the confusion around cutoff points.

The long and the short of it – even the giant frame of my mate Adolph Gaza couldn’t block out the old marker boards.

Pietermaritzburg Congestion
James also responded to accusations that the congestion experienced on the course early on in the race in Pietermaritzburg may have been dangerous.

“Last year we had a situation where police had not barricaded traffic on the N3 correctly so we decidedly to change the route to ensure runner safety. Yes, it was narrower, and there was some congestion, but we had discussed this change with the technical delegates from Athletics South Africa (ASA) and two safety officers who were satisfied that the route did not pose a danger.”

Comrades pays the relevant traffic authorities about R1million per race. Surely if the “police had not barricaded traffic on the N3 correctly” then that is the problem to address? It’s really not that difficult. Hold the authorities to account and put safeguards into place to ensure that the police do what they have been paid to do.

To date, I have mainly focussed on the cutoff controversy but plan to switch attention to safety issues and what appears to be flagrant negligence with regards runner safety. This is a far bigger issue and it appears fortunate that there were no deaths as a result of safety negligence in 2023.

The above statement from James is a complete misrepresentation of the truth. Based on the emails I have in my inbox, he is on very shaky ground trying to justify anything on “runner safety.”

The facts in this case are that Norrie Williamson and Anand Naicker were appointed as Technical Delegates. This is an unpaid role (only their expenses are covered), so they have no financial conflict of interest. Both are highly experienced and well-regarded officials who operate on the international stage for World Athletics (Naicker has also recently had his responsibilities extended after being appointed by World Rugby). After trying to raise safety concerns (primarily* about the route change at the 3.5km mark because of the risk of someone falling and being trampled to death and / or that no ambulance or medical help would be able to get access to an injured runner because of the congestion) and being completely ignored, they both resigned as they were not prepared to sign off that the route was safe.

* There are other safety concerns raised that I plan to cover in a future article.

The problem with the safety officers at Comrades is that this is a paid position so there could be a financial conflict of interest. Disagree with the Race Director and there’s a risk that your contract is not renewed.

When Williamson requested feedback from KwaZulu Natal Athletics (KZNA) in the final week before Comrades (as it was clear that ASA Technical Delegates had also raised concerns), he was informed that an independent safety officer, from a local construction site, had been asked to do an independent assessment. However, it is unclear whether this construction site safety officer had any significant road race experience.

Furthermore, Williamson disputes the claim by the Race Director that the ASA Technical Delegate was “satisfied that the route did not pose a danger” and has a statement in writing that the ASA delegate’s concerns were not accepted, that the route was not to be changed and the race would be run as planned. With a gun held to their head the Thursday before the event, the ASA Technical Delegates had little if any options. Either they acquiesced to the Race Director or they would have had to pull the plug on the entire event.

Whilst James has hidden behind safety issues as the rationale for the reduced 2023 cutoff times that led to hundreds of runners missing out on a medal, the flagrant disregard for fundamental safety concerns and elemental runner welfare standards suggests that safety is in fact a minor concern to this Race Director.

There is more to this story (I have been in contact with a runner who broke her fibula in this section as a result of the unsafe route and will be writing as article on this) but I will leave it there for now.

Broken bones and shattered dreams: Channelle Makhele broke her fibula in the dark, narrow side roads of Pietermaritzburg. It could have been a lot worse.

James was adamant that both he and organisers were always open to comment, both positive and negative, but their underlying mandate was to ensure the welfare of the runners.

“Comrades is part of the South African tapestry and we will always do what is best for the race but in a safe and secure manner,” he said.

Actions speak louder than words. This is an easy statement to make. Recent events, and the experience of thousands of runners who’ve had their constructive criticisms and polite emails completely ignored, point to this being another vapid self-proclamation.

Personally, I was unfollowed by the Comrades Communications Manager (in her private capacity) and by the official Comrades accounts after publishing an article addressing the topic of refunds with Covid cancellations (I should point out that the article was largely supportive of the CMA’s position). Recently I found out that the official Comrades twitter account had blocked me* despite never tagging them or commenting directly on any of their posts.

* This was quickly rectified by Comrades Chairman Mqondisi Ngcobo and I am no longer blocked.

READ MORE: Money or the Goody Bag? The Great Comrades Refund Debate

My personal experience has been mirrored with that of others who have shared ideas and viewpoints contrary to those of Comrades House. Last year two journalists were removed from the Comrades media list after publishing views that differed from the official Comrades’ line. After mentioning this to the Comrades Board, they were reinstated and subsequently removed again.

It is alleged, and third-party statements suggest, that Norrie Williamson’s fortnightly column in The Natal Witness was stopped in December 2022 after the Comrades communication department applied pressure to the newspaper because his views and suggestions were considered critical of the race.

Just this week, Cheryl Winn (the 1982 race winner and CMA chairperson from 2018-21), posted a comment expressing her disappointment with the lack of responsibility shown by the Race Director during a Carte Blanche expose. Winn’s access to her CMA account was revoked almost immediately thereafter.

READ MORE: Winn blocked by CMA losers

This is quite simply childish, petty bullying from an institution that should be above reproach and whose constitution requires all members and employees act by ‘Democratic Principles’.

Diversity Deafness

As for the track record on James’ claims of being “open to comment” and ensuring “the welfare of the runners”, the majority of his participants would disagree. The CMA has a reputation for turning a blind eye to problems and a deaf ear to criticisms and suggestions.

Perhaps the lack of customer-centricity and disregard for runners’ needs can best be highlighted by one of the Comrades 2023 runners. After her experiences on previous Comrades runs, Faheemah Limbada emailed the CMA twice about the lack of female facilities and sanitation available for female runners along the route (especially for those who are menstruating). Both emails were completely ignored.

What were the conditions like this year? Here’s a report from another runner who engaged on one of my social media posts, “As a runner, I had to break the golden rule of ‘nothing new on race day’ when I (most unexpectedly) had to make a plan for race day and go buy special (absorbent) underwear because I didn’t know what the loo situation would be like (if I’m allowed to say it like it is, I had my period). I stopped at a portable loo at about halfway and it was disgusting. I wouldn’t have been able to do the necessary in that thing and so had to just give it a skip. I wonder if this is even a ‘thing’ for consideration when planning this race?”

Here’s a challenge for the CMA for Comrades 2024 – sort out the problem with facilities for female runners along the route.

What about the other issues?

The Runner’s World article only covers the cutoff and 3.5km congestion issues. There were many other problems experienced by Comrades 2023 runners including:

  • Safety at the start where it appears that a combination of reprehensible behaviour by some runners together with insufficient staff and poor access led to stampeding and near crushing incidents as well as runners being knocked over. This is probably the most serious issue and if not addressed is likely to lead to critical injuries or death at a future event.
  • The poor quality of the sound system at the start.
  • Incorrect T-shirt sizes at the expo and the route distance being incorrect on the shirt.
  • Bailer buses on the runners’ route from Cato Ridge through to the finish getting in the way of and interfering with runners.
  • Facilities for female runners along the route.
  • Cutoff guns being fired too early at Pinetown and Sherwood.
  • The heavy-handed approach of officials at the cutoff points.
  • That senior CMA staff and officials seem totally unaware as to what is happening on the route during the event and how the race is being experienced by 90% of their runners.
  • A lack of sufficient Wally Hayward, Isavel Roche-Kelly, Silver and Back-to-Back medals at the finish.
  • Safety concerns at the finish (the previously stated reason for moving from Kingsmead to Moses Mabhida was that Comrades would exceed maximum health and safety numbers at the smaller Kingsmead venue).
  • Cleaning up litter, verges and fixing open manholes and potholes along the route before race day.
  • The continual half truths and outright lies in official press releases and statements in the media from CMA personnel.

A New Hope?

Right now I am pessimistic. We’ve had a few words but have seen little action or accountability from the CMA. Runners’ concerns have been “acknowledged” but not yet validated by the CMA. There have been zero actions or steps taken to address any of the problems in 2024. The CMA has a track record of waiting for the dust to settle and then sweeping it under the carpet.

What can you do?

Use your running club and provincial structures to officially communicate with the CMA to express your displeasure and ask for evidence of concrete actions that are being taken to ensure there are no repeats of the above issues in 2024 and beyond. Hold the CMA accountable to their actions and promises. If you are able, join the Comrades Marathon Association for R50 a year which gives you access to minutes, financials and voting rights. Hold the elected officials entrusted with the future of our great race accountable for staying true to the spirit of Comrades and the original vision of Vic Clapham.

Afterword: Anakin or Vader?

In the Star Wars canon, Anakin Skywalker is corrupted by the dark side of the force and becomes a Sith Lord. Anakin is a powerful Jedi Knight who does great deeds, Vader is even more powerful but destroys those who disagree with his orders. The devastation of Darth Vader destroyed the legacy of Anakin Skywalker.

Our current Race Director may have a great legacy of many years of salaried service to Two Oceans and Comrades. He may have been Anakin in the past but, from what I can see, read, hear and the evidence I have in my inbox, it looks like all Vader in 2023.

I am doing my best not to play the man (or the cyborg in the case of Vader) but rather the job function of Race Director. However, the two are intricately linked. Some have suggested that there is an Emperor Palpatine pulling the strings – I have yet to find any evidence that that is the case (although the silence from the elected Comrades Board on the plethora of issues, lies and attempted cover-ups is very troubling). The cutoff issue appears to be 100% linked to the Race Director. If there are other forces at play in any of the other issues, I am happy to investigate credible leads.

Some of the recent actions (like blocking previous Chairperson Cheryl Winn from her account) are just absolutely bonkers and self-destructive. It looks like some has given the go ahead for Order 66 in Pietermaritzburg.

Darth Vader does eventually find redemption in Return of the Jedi when he saves Luke from the Emperor’s clutches. The script is still being written for Comrades episode 97 – let’s hope it’s a happy ending.

Mike Finch and Rowyn James were both approached for comment but neither responded to questions from the author.

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2 Replies to “The Empire Strikes Back (but not very hard)”

  1. Thank you for standing up for us joggers, Mr Mann. I just don’t understand the attitude adopted by those who are supposed to advance the interests of the Comrades Marathon – especially if they are being paid salaries. It is truly very sad, very, very sad and concerning.

  2. Great and incisive piece of journalism Running Mann.
    It would be interesting to see some stats of those who required beds in the medical tent after completing marathons.
    It does occasionally happen that a runner suffers a fall near the start of Comrades. The late Chet Sainsbury founder and former race director of Two Oceans once fell and fractured a bone in his arm. Fortunately he was able to continue and finish the race. However, there was no indication that this was due to overcrowded conditions.
    On a final note, if James is a paid employee of the CMA, someone must have hired him, and counter signed his contract. If it is proven that amongst other things he has lied and misled the CMA and the entrants, is this not a sackable offence or grounds for a non renewal of his contract?
    I wonder what prof Tim Noakes would have to say on this subject. He is an extremely knowledgeable man, and his opinions are always worth listening to.

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