Channelle Makhele started Comrades 2023 with the dream of earning a Bill Rowan medal. That dream was shattered before the 5-kilometre mark. Channelle’s aspirations and eight months of hard training were smashed before dawn over the nightmare on Epworth Street. She was looking to break her best Comrades time but all she broke was her leg.
Channelle has two previous Comrades under her belt, beginning her career with an 11:43:20 Vic Clapham finish in 2019 and then upgrading to an impressive post-Covid 9:55:24 Robert Mtshali medal in 2022. Keen to keep the momentum going, she began her serious Comrades 2023 training directly after the Cape Town Marathon in October 2022 and ran an impressive 1500km in preparation for June 11.
Channelle runs with the vibrant Fat Cats Athletics Club and joined the “Skhindi gang”, a group of athletes from different clubs that have put together special medal programs to help achieve targets. She did everything right in training and, after a 3h47 qualifier at the Kosmos Marathon, lined up in D batch on 11 June confident of achieving her goal of a Bill Rowan medal with a sub-9-hour finish.
She reflected, “I trained harder than I ever had in my life. I started focusing on Comrades in November. We made a lot of sacrifices – I spent a lot of blood, sweat, tears and money to get to the start.”
Knowing that the start is always congested, she began cautiously and factored this into her race plan. Approaching the highway just after 3km she was surprised when the runners were directed to take a sharp right into a dark, narrow side street, instead of staying on the wide access roads leading to the highway that were used during the 2022 event.
It was down this dark, narrow alleyway that Channelle Makhele’s Comrades dream died.
“Everyone was running fast on the slight downhill. Some people were flying down the pavement because of the congestion. Then suddenly we came to a dead stop and all we saw was people crashing into each other and shoving themselves to try and keep balance.”
In the chaos, Channelle was clipped from behind by another runner. “My first thought was that if I fall, the people behind will not have time to stop and they will trample me.” To her relief, she somehow managed to stop herself from falling over but her right leg landed awkwardly, “I was running just inside the pavement but it was so dark you could see absolutely nothing. I still don’t know what twisted my leg on the uneven road surface.”
Ever the optimist, Channelle thought it was just a bad twist and that she could “run it off”. However, the pain got worse over the steep, pounding plummet down Polly Shortts. At the bottom of Pollies she pulled into the Netcare first aid station for treatment.
After checking that Channelle could still move her toes, the Netcare team agreed with her diagnosis of a twisted ankle. They strapped the ankle up and sent her on her way. However, the stoppage had cooled down her muscles and drained the adrenaline from her bloodstream meaning that Channelle could no longer run on the leg.
In an incredible feat of sheer bloody-mindedness, Channelle refused to throw in the towel and decided to try and walk to Durban, initially setting her sights on making it to the Fat Cats seconding crew at Umlaas Road (24km into the race). However, with every step it became clearer and clearer that her race was over. The highest point of the Comrades route was the lowest point of Channelle’s running career. She spotted her Fat Cats pride and collapsed into a vacant chair in excruciating pain.
She mentally switched from participant to supporter but, as the day wore on, the pain increased and she could no longer put any pressure on her right leg. Her friends insisted she go to casualty and drove her to the Umhlanga Netcare Hospital. She was sent for x-rays and, once they were developed, the doctor looked on in disbelief that she had managed to cover the better part of 20km with a badly fractured fibula.
One major operation later to realign the joint and put in a plate and screws, and Channelle faced six weeks before she even gets to the start line on the long road to recovery and rehabilitation. She’s used this time to reflect and philosophise on Comrades 2023, “You can’t cry over spilt milk but they do have to do something for the future – and CMA does have to take some accountability. Anyone could have told you that route change did not make sense.”
Channelle is correct, anyone could have seen that the route change does not make sense – and several people did. Squeezing 16,000 runners though a dark, narrow passageway with four 90 degree turns before the field has spread out is a recipe for disaster.
Norrie Williamson and Anand Naicker were two of the people who immediately flagged this as an issue. In their capacity as the officially appointed Technical Delegates (TDs), they raised various safety concerns in an email to the Race Director, Rowyn James, and other Comrades officials on 10 May. However, the safety concerns were of no concern to the Race Director who failed to reply or acknowledge the email. After Williamson followed-up, the Race Director finally replied ten days later, choosing to ignore the safety concerns and rather took offense at the tone of the email, “I do not appreciate your reference to the ‘CMA office tardiness’ and would expect a more professional approach than that from you/TD’s/KZNA!”
James continued, “Lastly, I take instruction from the CMA Board who I report to and no one else – and they instructed me to address a letter to KZNA regarding the TD appointment which I have done, and until the CMA receive a satisfactory response from KZNA regarding the letter the ‘status quo’ remains unchanged.”
The TDs were appointed on 28 February. Williamson began trying to engage with the Race Director on 9 March but was continually rebuffed. The TDs should approve all route changes (like that of the detour up Epworth Road at 3.5km) and venue changes (like that of the finish moving to Kingsmead) but they found out about these changes via third-hand information. My interpretation is that James (and / or someone within the CMA) was not happy with these TDs, potentially because he knew they would do the job properly and would stand up to bullying. Therefore, the CMA tried to get the TDs changed through KwaZulu Natal Athletics (KZNA). It is disturbing that the Race Director seemed far more concerned with dodging and belittling the TDs rather than discussing or even acknowledging safety concerns. To date, the Race Director has not even enquired as to what the specific safety concerns were.
Williamson and Naicker felt that their positions were untenable and resigned on 17th of May. I have a copy of Williamson’s resignation email that details various procedural breaches and apparent violations of the Safety in Sport Act. His resignation letter concludes,
“Taken at face value the current proposals have predictable outcomes that could be disastrous and considered negligent, if not reckless. The impact of over-crowding in sport is well documented both internationally and locally, (e.g. Ellis Park). The outcomes are not to be taken lightly and are not something the sport should be party to.”
“It is emphasised that this comment is made based solely on the information at hand, given that the Race Director has failed to respond to the concerns already communicated.”
“In acknowledging the potential seriousness of these changes, together with the remaining lead time, and the lack of concern displayed by the Race Director and Board, as both a Professional Engineer, and Technical Delegate, I am unable to be further involved with the 2023 race.”
Naicker, who has vast experience as a senior athletics official and race referee, said that he and Williamson were in “complete unison” with their safety concerns and disregard for the standard protocols.
Having been involved as a technical official in various capacities over the past 20 consecutive Comrades, Naicker is in an ideal position to comment on the apparent slide in standards at the 2023 event. He reflects on the situation and interactions with the Race Director, “This astounded me and immediately I felt that Comrades is not about what it stands for – it’s now a business that has its own interests and personalities that have little or no regard for those that sacrifice with blood, sweat, tears and hard-earned money to be a part of this. I felt that this situation was so surreal. Surely safety, irrespective of their Safety Officer’s experience, was an integral part of Comrades. Having experienced and witnessed deaths in Comrades as a technical official, we cannot pay lip service to this.”
Concerned for the safety of the runners and the integrity of Comrades, Williamson continued to probe. He visited the site of the route change and took photos of the various safety hazards and World Athletics violations. He put together and shared on social media (as well as at talks at running clubs) the below video to highlight the dangers. He also appealed for runners to be careful along this section as he was concerned about 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.
The route change is so fundamentally flawed and obviously dangerous that there is no possibility of a rational safety officer denying that congestion and resultant safety issues would occur. A safety officer defending the the Epworth detour would be like a geologist trying to convince you to join the Flat Earth Society.
John Hall knows the Pietermaritzburg streets better than anyone else. Hall was race director of the Maritzburg City Marathon for 23 years and has been involved in road running since 1976. The normally reserved Hall referred to the route change as “insane”.
Hall felt that he could not in good conscience fail to raise the Epworth issue before the race was held. An extract from Hall’s full message to the Comrades Marathon Association Chairman Mqondisi Ngcobo is below,
“I’ve been watching with fear and trepidation, the progress around the insane change of route at the end of Alan Paton Avenue. Having lived in the city all my life and watched, supported and run Comrades and many other events, I cannot believe this decision.
If one cannot run on the freeway for some reason (and those two lanes are closed anyway), then Alexandra Road / Richie Road, is the logical alternative. If that is out of the question, then right at Ridge Road, angle into Oribi and left at Washington worked for years.
IT IS WITH HORROR THAT I FOUND OUT that the ‘solution is to put 4 or 6 Ambulances in the area.’ This is tantamount to an admission of the danger!!!! Think hard!!
I know the area intimately and know that ambulances can easily leave the area via Shores Road, the Agricultural Faculty or Epworth School, BUT how do you get an injured person who requires an ambulance to evacuate them out of that crowd at that bottleneck?!
Solutions are change of route or start in waves.
Right now, all I can do is pray that ABSOLUTELY NOTHING goes wrong, that 16000 (I believe) runners are patient and stand around saying ‘after you’ and don’t push and shove having lost valuable time for which they ran so hard to get a seeding.
Again, I reiterate that my prayer is that I don’t have to say, ‘I told you so.’”
What was the response of the CMA Chairman? A very polite but casual brush-off reply that, “We will take your kind contribution to heart and factor it in as we plan for the next Down Run.” To be fair to the Chairman, he only received the message from Hall a couple of days before the race and it seems unlikely that anyone or anything can change the Race Director’s mind once it’s made up.
What’s the official line from the Race Director? “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. Holding the authorities to account and putting safeguards in place to ensure that the police do what they have been paid to do would seem a far more logical and sensible approach that flagrantly endangering the lives of your runners.
When Williamson requested feedback from KwaZulu Natal Athletics (KZNA) in the final week before Comrades (as, despite James’ proclamations, it was clear that ASA Technical Delegates had 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 claims made 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.
The real question to be asked is whether we have to wait for someone to needlessly die on the route before the negligence and disregard for fundamental safety is addressed. James claims to have a voracious appetite for runner safety and welfare but either lacks the ability to take outside counsel (even that of experts) or displays complete apathy to his responsibilities.
This is all little consolation to Channelle Makhele. Her bookings for Cape Town Marathon in October are now null and void. Her plans to run a maiden Two Oceans in 2024 also seem unlikely. Hopefully Channelle’s broken leg and shattered dreams will change the apathetic, negligent attitude and decision-making process of those entrusted with the national treasure that is the Comrades Marathon.
Based on the lack of accountability across the board (or should that be Board) from Comrades House, it appears more likely that Channelle will just be another forgotten fallen Comrade on the road to Durban as standards at the Ultimate Human Race dwindle and the Spirit of Comrades evaporates.
On June 27, Channelle sent an email to Comrades detailing her experience and the repercussions of the Race Director’s reckless routing. It took the CMA over a week to reply with two sterile lines of text. The reply was impersonal and lacked empathy. Whoever wrote it did not even bother to sign the letter personally.
Let’s hope that the nameless “Comrades Marathon Association” staff member is not the same person who’ll be looking after runner safety at Comrades 2024. Sequels are nearly always worse than the original – even more so in the horror genre where the body count always rises. The last thing Comrades needs is a sequel to the Nightmare on Epworth Street. Unfortunately, this is just one of the possible movie tag lines we can expect in 2024, with ‘Start Line Stampede’ and ‘Kingsmead Krush’ also scheduled for production if the CMA does not urgently address their negligent approach to safety.Follow Running Mann: